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Where does morality come from? - part 1

By John Draper ~

There’s a great episode on The Simpsons that opens on the scene when Moses descends to the foot of Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Homer the Thief is chatting in a friendly, nonjudgmental manner with Hezron the Carver of Graven Images and Zohar the Adulterer, when Moses emerges from around a rock.

“The Lord has handed down to us Ten Commandments by which to live,” Moses announces. “I will now read them in no particular order: Thou shalt not make any graven images!”

Hezron the Carver of Graven Images throws down his chisel angrily. “Oh my God!” he says.

Moses continues: Thou shalt not commit adultery!

Zohar the Adulterer looks down sadly. “Ah well,” he says, “looks like the party’s over.”

And Homer the Thief is loving all this, reveling in his friends’ misfortune. “Hey, Moses,” he chuckles, “keep ’em coming!”

To which Moses announces: Thou shalt not steal!

And we all know what Homer the Thief says next: “D’oh!”

Like all effective satire, the scene from The Simpsons works because it pokes fun at humanity’s solemn absurdities. Do we really think the ancient Israelites didn’t know the difference between right and wrong before the Ten Commandments showed up? Conservative Christians would have us believe so. It takes that lovable oaf Homer Simpson to show us just how silly that notion is.
The truth is much more nuanced, as is the case with reality, God love it. That is, we’re learning to distinguish right from wrong. It’s a process. Everything in the universe is a process.

I’m not saying that morality is something we invent—as if Do Not Murder could just as easily have been Do Not Macramé.

Nor am I saying that morality is just what’s evolutionarily advantageous. I’ll admit that much of what we consider moral is good for the perpetuation of the species. However, there’s a lot that’s triumphantly moral that evolution can’t explain—for example, jumping into a freezing river to save a stranger.

What I’m saying is that we discover morality over time—reveal it to ourselves bit by bit—the way we uncover the laws of physics, for example. Like physics, morality is hardwired into the universe/reality. Murder is wrong simply because it’s wrong. An object at rest tends to stay at rest. You’ve no choice but to play by the rules.

In other words, we don’t need God in order to be moral.

Just as God doesn’t meddle in our intellectual grasp of the universe—say, stuffing the secrets of General Relativity into Albert Einstein’s fortune cookie—He also doesn’t tip His hand when it comes to the superstructure of morality. He just waits for us to figure it all out—morality, mathematics, medicine, macramé. The whole Magilla. Consequently, mistakes get made. The ancient Israelites stone their children for disobedience. Ridiculously elaborate flying machines careen hopefully into barns. Blood gets let. Countless innocents get burned at the stake. And schoolchild after schoolchild in preindustrial America hands in wildly inaccurate dioramas of the known solar system.

No argument. It’s a messy way to go about managing reality.

In other words, we don’t need God in order to be moral.
Not that God’s unconcerned, though it can look like that from our perspective. He’s not unconcerned. Just uninvolved—maddeningly, mind-bogglingly patient. All is process—and the processes God uses (to the extent He actually uses them) are . . . inexact. The other day on Facebook, I watched a computer simulation of how in 5 billion years, the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are going to collide into one another, shredding each other to dazzling, vast parabolas of gas and dust and bright lights. The result will be a new galaxy of raw possibilities. Milkdromeda! It’s going to be rough, though, on any earthlings who are around when that happens—if the expanding sun hasn’t already swallowed us whole.

You can’t blame the fundamentalists, I suppose, for insisting on a literal six days of orderly creation. It’s so much more comforting. New species materializing out of thin air rather than enduring eons of suffering and malformations. The ground beneath our feet fixed and firm, not prone to cataclysmic thrusts of tectonic plates. A veritable storybook scene. Like I said, you can’t blame the fundamentalists.

Likewise, the idea that we have to hammer out on our lonesome how to lead moral lives makes us very uncomfortable. The reality is that we must wrestle with moral dilemmas in order to achieve new moral insights. That’s hard work. We want morality fixed—from the mouth of God—as soon as possible. Probably comes from our moms lecturing us about our disordered bedrooms. (“It looks like a bomb went off in here!”) So we look around and we see our dirty underwear and comic books all over the floor, and we panic. We rush to codify our moral discoveries, sometimes before they’re fully formed. So what we insist is the truth is sometimes the truth only partially, or the truth misapprehended.

Sometimes we get it right from the get-go—for example, Love Thy Enemy. Other times we prop up systemic injustice. For example, the ancient Israelites said homosexuality turned God’s stomach simply because that was The Way Things Have Always Been. Truth is, they found homosexuality distasteful, so they arrived at God’s opinion for Him. (Imagine the alternative: They had been casually engaging in man-on-man love until shown the error of their ways by the Voice of God a la Homer the Thief.) Rather than set a moral agenda, the Law of Moses codified the status quo, in large part. Sometimes that was fine. Other times not so much. Messes got made.

We needn’t panic. We’ll uncover the truth of morality by and by, as Andromeda and the Milky Way inch toward each other like a bashful twosome at a school dance. It will be a struggle. Whether or not we admit it, we all know that’s the case. In fact, if someone says they know God’s will too specifically, we think they’re crazy or trying to con us. Even the most uptight fundamentalist will have to admit that God is inscrutable. To insist on easy answers, as the fundamentalists do, is to abdicate our responsibility. Our duty. From God. Our duty to grow as moral beings. Once again, it’s damn hard work, fumbling about in the near dark as we are. We’re liable to knock our shins against the furniture.

Look at the bright side: We’re progressing, becoming more moral. And it’s going to get easier and easier to progress. That is, as we become more moral, we become less pig-headed, one would hope. And as we become less pig-headed, we’re more likely to see the error of our ways sooner—admit we’re wrong—and repent of our immoral behaviors. No way to avoid the messiness. But we can at least keep the mess to a minimum.