By Robert DePaolo
This article discusses the history and essential aspects of human morality, the declining adherence to classical religious doctrines and the need for a future set of moral principles to provide guidance and restraints on human behavior.
A Moral Framework…
Describing just what is meant by morality can be a difficult task; not just due to the variations among cultures both now and over the course of time, but also because morals are, despite being oft-expressed in concrete written formats, i.e. commandments, constitutions and statutes, are inherently fluid. The fluidity is largely due to the human tendency toward proportional thinking. Just as the neuronal configurations in the human brain can differentiate between “bigger”, “smaller” and between the formula for a radius vs. diameter of a circle, so is it prone to moral calculations.. A man who uses foul language is given a lighter penance than one who commits adultery. A man who kills with deliberation is punished more severely than one who kills on impulse. Indeed one who kills in self defense will typically receive no punishment at all. That of course makes the circumstances of the act as relevant morally as the act itself and that in turn makes morality as much a function of cognitive deliberation and examination as one of hard and fast rules.
There is nothing unusual about that. The human mind is disposed to think, perceive and emote in contextual ways, which is why Thomas Aquinas approached faith and morality in logical and philosophical as well as religious terms. (Torrell 2005). In founding the philo-religious school of thought known as Thomism Aquinas integrated Aristotelian logic with traditional Christian principles.
There are of course a variety of moral theories, most with workable premises that have guided us through history, succeeding (more or less) at keeping the worst of human behavior under wraps. One was espoused by our second third president.
A Second Declaration…
In his letters to Doctor Benjamin Rush in 1803 Thomas Jefferson sought to flush the most essential aspects of morality by discussing it in non-religious terms. (He was a great admirer of Jesus’s teachings, less so of the accounts of miracles and the virgin birth). To him basic morality entailed, not strict adherence to rules but a capacity to feel the plight of the one being harmed or victimized. Jefferson felt anyone who could extend his thought process into the vicarious far reaches of mind could be described as moral – even if an atheist by conviction. In simpler terms he felt that the core requirement of morality is empathy (Sanford 1987)
Jefferson’s moral concept is certainly feasible. Most researchers and clinicians in the field of psychiatry and psychology equate morality with a capacity to feel for the other person and the assumption in this line of thinking is that having a capacity to extend beyond the self – both intellectually and emotionally, would lead to an adequate degree of self-restraint and a prosocial outlook. However Jefferson’s view on morality was not original.
Sidartha Gautama was also an advocate of “empathy theory.” He actually broadened the empathic criteria and parameters of moral reciprocity to include all of nature. Jesus of Nazareth was another significant advocate of the empathic model of morality, to a point where his tenets (which were arguably intended to re-invigorate classical Judaic ideas purveyed by Isaiah and the earlier prophets rather than establish a new religion) offered inclusive contrast to the chauvinistic, cold pragmatism of Roman influence. Many of his sermons address the plight of the other person; for example in ( )his decision to forgive and redirect rather than condemn the prostitute and his capacity to feel for the Roman soldier by healing his slave.
Empathy theory remains on solid footing in modern times. It has been demonstrated that antisocial behavior patterns are more likely to occur in individuals who lack this particular capacity (deWied, Gaudena et. al 2005), Decety, Skelly et. al. (2013), (Baron-Cohen 2011). However it seems less than a complete explanation in describing essential morality. For example, one can have moral behavior patterns instilled in them by ritual, by social pressures and by the threat of punishment, despite a lack of empathy. In such instances morality can be viewed not as an altruistic response but as an operant behavior designed to avoid punishment and maintain ritualistic dependency. Thus while empathy is part of the moral picture, there might be more involved.
Another moral theory has its roots in human evolution; specifically the tendency derived from our primate ancestry toward adhering to social hierarchies and seek dominance (Boehm, 1982). The fact that many human endeavors have a competitive tinge (sports, politics, the quest for social rank etc.) would seem to suggest humans do indeed tend to act in accord with a kind of alpha politics. Moreover aspirations for dominance can be said to run parallel to immoral behavior in that dominance equates with aggression and leads to diminution in the value of victims. That makes them seem less human, thus easier to humiliate, control, abuse or even murder. Adolf Hitler’s attitude and actions toward, on one hand, the ostensible superiority of the Arian race and on the other the inferiority of Jews most certainly provided grist for the mill in his heinous, dominance-fueled rampage through history.
Thus far the elements of empathy, social rank and proportion have been discussed. While they seem to be separate components, they can be melded together as a unified concept. That is because, much of what we call proportionate thinking involves a cognitive process whereby one assumes the position of the actor and/or his victim…e.g. “if it were me.” Yet even that synthesis leaves room for added factors.
As any student of ethics can attest a number of moral theories have been proffered over time. Philosopher Immanuel Kant conjured up the idea of a categorical imperative. This concept featured a “golden rule” topography by assuming morality involve a sense of duty, use of reasoning to discern good from evil and reliance on the consensus to determine moral parameters. Kant believed morality must be universally accepted to be deemed “moral” (Ellington 1993). While some have called this into question, it does have merit; for example most societies have formed consensual prohibitions against murder, theft and adultery.
The moral relativists would tend to disagree with Kant, however, in espousing that morals can only be defined by the times. So too might advocates of Utilitarian theory, which holds that ostensibly immoral acts can be deemed moral if they ultimately serve a higher purpose – a concept quite similar to Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience and interestingly enough to Machiavelli’s end-means paradigm. Meanwhile the ancient Greeks, most notably Aristotle, conjured up a virtue-based model of morality, which revolved around the idea that true moral behavior was actually pleasurable, i.e. dually reinforcing. The idea was that being virtuous would lead to a state of contentment. This was an interesting combination of hedonism and values that waned in the wake of sterner Judeo-Christian principles arising in the Middle Ages but it too has a degree of merit. It does feel good to behave virtuously; for example emotional gratification often results from helping others.
Still another moral theory takes the form of ethical egoism. This bears similarities to the moral-hedonic paradigm of the Greeks, since it holds that true morality consists of a combination of self and other gratification, i.e. “I do for you and you do for me.” It is a doctrine of reciprocity which is reminiscent of Locke’s idea of a social contract and with the underpinnings of democratic government.
Of course, there is also the Divine Command theory of morality which as the name suggests, emanates from the words and laws bestowed on man from God. In its purest form this system deems humility the highest virtue and pride the primary vice. It is obedience-based, as seen in the ordering of the ten commandments, which begins with the mandate of worshipping one and only one god. This system has sustained human morality for millennia and despite critics, has led to more benevolent cultural and moral outcomes by far than to negative ones. The problem with this system is that society evolves and God is not readily available to address those changes in terms of his original commands. For example, the idea of going forth to multiply was necessary in helping the chosen people build a formidable society, army and culture. During the Genesis epoch overpopulation (which could intensify competition and deplete resource allotments) wasn’t a problem. Thus absent deistic intervention, it is difficult to apply certain ancient principles to modern times except by the reasoning of man. That can be fallible, despite the existence of church leaders.
A key to finding moral essentials is to look for overriding principles that encompass all these theoretical concepts. One place to start is by finding a champion of morality, albeit a somewhat unexpected one, who goes by the name of Sigmund Freud. The question becomes, how can the writings of Freud help in the development of a moral code that is consistent with (but does not rely on) religious content, that incorporates all the traits of mankind, including his primal, cognitive, social and emotional proclivities? The reason for engaging in this unified-moral-theory exercise is twofold. First, given the decline in religious affiliations (less so in the USA than in Europe) along with the competing influence of the empirical philosophy, mankind will still need a moral format in order to continue to exist regardless of the source of this model. Given the prevalence of war, enslavement, deception and inter-tribal hostility over the course of history, we simply need a regulatory process to rein in our worst instincts. While Homo sapiens has proved capable of inspiring acts of altruism as well, the amount of destruction resulting from our bad side arguably outweighs the good acts emanating from our collective acts of kindness. For example no act of kindness or altruistic endeavor has had the impact of Hitler’s, Stalin’s or Chairman Mao’s purges.
Morality Meets Human Nature…
Among so-called moral theorists, only Freud acknowledged the existence of the “id”. He did so, not as a negative component of mind but as a necessary and functional energy-enhancing mechanism that provides us with the fuel for motivation and creativity. In so doing Freud captured both the good and the bad Homo sapiens with his concept of an integrative psyche, whereby the functional juxtaposition of psychic faculties, rather than mere prohibition of immoral impulses comprises the essence of a pragmatic morality. That integrative process would enable us to convert potential immorality into a creative process. In other words bad impulses can be viewed simply as raw materials for either social destruction or social enhancement (1923).
Immorality is typically and understandably equated with an anti-social mindset. Lack of empathy, social alienation, frustration-aggression sequences, narcissism – these are all catchwords associated with immoral behavior patterns. The underlying assumption behind each is that the immoral person lacks an emotional connection to his fellow man, that alienation from society enables him to detach socially to such an extent as to objectify others and view them as simply a means of addressing his own needs. It is a reasonable assumption, except that it does not get at the root of what could be termed “moral pathology.” To find that root it might help to begin some discussion of Freud’s ultimate moral regulator – the ego.
A Moral Gestalt…
To understand moral pathology requires some understanding of ego function. While the colloquial concept of “ego” implies single-minded conceit, its actual purpose in clinical terms is the opposite of that. The ego is the psychic voice of reason. It assimilates impulses – knowing full well (if I can personify a bit) that the animal side of Homo sapiens exists and like energy itself can never be obliterated, only converted to productive pursuits. So the ego looks in on impulse, weighs its impact, looks out at the mores of society and the schemata of the individual and it decides how, when or whether to express or channel the id impulse. Similarly it takes another glance, this time at the superego –the psychic faculty that is equally impulsive, but uses its single-mindedness to inhibit behavior, sanction thoughts and feelings. The ego assimilate both to facilitate appropriate expression. In so doing it prevents “psychic implosion” (used here as an alternative term to Freud’s neurosis).
Absent an ego the human psyche would be forced to alternate between self-serving behaviors and extreme blockage. Thus madness would result in each of us if not for its modulations.
What then does the ego actually do that allows one to think of it as a regulator of morality? To answer that question it is necessary to define what is implied here about the essential nature of psychopathology.
For purposes of discussion it might help to define in it simple terms, to wit, pathology equates with compulsion. Any person who cannot see both forest and trees in any situation involving a moral issue –or perhaps any issue, will tend toward immoral behavior. Stalin was single-minded in his persecution of Soviet dissidents. Hitler was obsessively consumed with hate for Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and anyone that did not fit into his single-minded (anthropologically absurd) notion of an “Arian.” All dictators, all psychopaths are absorbed with the compulsion, and are either incapable of or indisposed to integrative thinking.
Non-integrative, obsessive thinking can therefore be viewed as a psychic virus that infects the mind of the psychopath. It might not always be manifest as mass murder or financial swindling but it must be a pervasive cognitive/emotional factor to produce immoral tendencies.
Educators like Vygotsy, refer to a similar process in discussing a learning prerequisite known as metacognition (Braten 1991). This is simply a more intellectual version of the same figure/ground mechanism where more than one element is processed at a time and a big picture emerges to create what modern educators call “contextual learning.” In a sense ego and metacognition ostensibly derive from one and the same process and both allow us to conceptualize moral and cognitive learning under one rubric (Kohlberg 1981).
This model has both social and neurological relevance. For example a high percentage of incarcerated individuals have been diagnosed with attention or learning problems and feature impulsive behavior patterns. That trend can result from neural arousal spikes (typical of ADHD individuals) that create such immediate emotional thrust as to preclude the kind of integrative cognition needed to enact the ego mechanism. In that context, the age-old question of whether hardened, ego deficient criminals can be truly rehabilitated comes into play and more neurologically, does their brain activation occur so rapidly as to preclude access to competing thoughts – making neuro-chemical and physiological remediation as important to rehabilitation as time served and job training? Unfortunately the verdict is still out on that. However that doesn’t prevent society and its teaching agents (parents, educators, clerics) from utilizing measures to prevent the development of sociopathy.
Before discussing prevention, however, there is another practical question to be addressed. One track minded people often create chaos but their drive is often instrumental in cultural progress. Thus the obsession with conquest by Alexander and the Romans led to advancements in both western and eastern cultures. The drive to dominate the oil industry by John D. Rockefeller made him appear to be crass and greedy but also produced enormous advancements in the industrialization of America. What do we make of such extreme but apparently necessary mindsets in moral terms?
One answer can be found in Freud’s notion of id-channeling. Drive in itself is not immoral. The proportion at which it inflicts either harm or benefit to others does have moral implications and that has implications on how others view the driven individual. How shall we react to the movers and shakers, those who choose to buy not one but two yachts, ignore family in pursuit of personal goals and dreams? Do we use our own ego faculties to see both the figure and ground of such personalities; accepting their vices because of the advantages their energies ultimately provide? Do we adhere to tenets that might ostensibly be held by both Freud and Jesus that in some instances tolerance and forgiveness are necessary components of morality?
A Functional Morality…
If Freud’s model of kind can be utilized as a kind of moral teaching tool, the question arises as to how it could be used. First, a bit of relief for the faithful. As a model it would not contradict religious teaching. As discussed above the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Vishnu and Yahweh were arguably integrative. Referencing them, in concert with the imparting of concrete figure/ground cognitive/emotional moral lessons would be perfectly workable. Indeed most of the other moral theories could be assimilated into this paradigm as well. The weighing of all factors, the coupling of self and other in each deliberation, the analysis of past, present and future in decision making – all aspects of inclusive deliberation could be incorporated into this paradigm. In effect, such a didactic approach could also be used to rein in the frustration, competition-fueled anti-social patterns in a free society like the USA. It would merely involve telling youth: You do not live in a free society. You live in a contractual society. You provide for government, they in turn provide for you. You help your neighbor and he will in turn help you. You are a biological individual but also conversely part of a social system, part of a gestalt. That is the foundation of the state and of the basic moral code among people. Since the word “freedom” is an abstraction in any case, and not terribly functional in proscribing moral attitudes or behaviors, it just might work. The skeptic will no doubt ask: Are you imposing the use of psychotherapy on global society or perhaps indoctrinating youth into a disputed psychoanalytic model that even many modern clinicians reject? The criticism would be valid and to be perfectly honest, while such a system (teaching ego development) might be effective, it is hard to say.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. Penguin. U.K.
Boehm, C. (1982) The Evolutionary Development of Morality as an Effect of Dominance Behaviors and Conflict Interference. Journal of Social and Biological Sciences. 5: 413-422
Braten, I. (1991) Vygotsky as Precursor to Metacognitive Theory: II Vygotsky as Metacognitivist. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. Vol. 35, No. 4 pp. 305-320
Decety, J. Skelly, L.R. Kiehl, K.A. (2013) Brain response to empathy-eliciting scenarios in incarcerated individuals with psychopathology. JAMA Psychiatry, 7 (6) 638-645
DeWied, M. Gaudena, P. Matthys, W. (2005) Empathy in Boys with Disruptive Behavior Disorders. Journal of Child Psychology, Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 46 (8) 867-880
Freud,S. (1923) The Ego and the Id.Translation Joan Riviere. Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Jefferson letter reference: (1803) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson:
Letter to Doctor Benjamin Rush Albert Ellery Bergh (Ed.
Kohlberg, L (1981) Essays on Moral Development. Vol. 1 The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA Harper & Row.
Sanford, C (1987) The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson. Charlotte, NC Press
Torrell, J-P, (2005) St. Thomas Aquinas: The Person and the Man, CUA Press