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Don’t confuse moral systems with the abuse of them: Otherwise, we’re left with no guides for building a moral society.

One of the Democratic party’s biggest mistakes is shying away from discussing morality and religion. There’re a couple reasons for this.  One reason is that they want to seem inclusive and are afraid that if they support one religion or set of moral principles it might come across as exclusionary.

The other reason is that many people link systems of morality and religion with the abuse of those systems. When you mention religion, invariably someone brings up the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, preachers swindling their congregants, and tons of other religious problems.  Some even go so far as to say that religion is intrinsically evil.

But we shouldn’t confuse moral belief systems with the abuse of those systems because in doing so we lose the benefits of having a system of morality to guide society and decision-making.

Moral systems have a unique property that make great evils possible

All historic evils must be rooted in a greater, moral good because when evil acts are done for self-interested reasons, at some point, conscious kicks in. 

Make no mistake, I’m not claiming that humans are intrinsically good or moral beings.  Maybe we are, maybe we’re not.  What I am saying is that we’re rational, self-interested decision-makers. 

Humans are meaning maintainers who have a really hard time seeing themselves as the bad guy.

We build for ourselves an understanding of social reality, of right and wrong, of what succeeds and fails, so that we can think through different courses of action and act in rational’ish ways. 

We seek to act in ways where the benefits outweigh the costs so that over time, we come out ahead.

People are pretty good at having their cake and eating it too though. They’re fine seeing themselves on the side of good while telling the occasional white lie, “borrowing” office supplies, or fudging expense reports because there’s quite a lot of wiggle room in the ideas we use.

But at some point, though, it becomes too hard to reconcile acts of mass wrongdoing with a logically coherent world in which we are the good guy.  Eventually, the destruction to our positive self-image and understanding of the social world outweighs any potential benefits.

So, humans overall avoid great evils not because they’re intrinsically moral but because they’re rational. 

Would you steal for financial gain?  Probably not but maybe.  Would you kill?  Less likely.  Would you torture someone?  Unless you’re a sociopath, certainly not.

But the answer changes when a greater, moral good, is invoked.  Would I consider killing to defend my family?  Absolutely.  Would I consider torture to defend the country?  I personally wouldn’t but lots of people would.

Moral goods have a unique property, in that they don’t have logical limits.  Too much goodness doesn’t disrupt your understanding of the universe but instead continues to reinforce it.

Moral goods remove the guardrails that keep people from committing truly heinous acts.

It’s not only religion but ALL prevailing moral systems

The most commonly abused moral system has been religion.  But this is not because religion is particularly prone to evil but because it was the most prevalent and widely used.

As history and circumstances change, so to does the basis for abuse. When the power of nations replaced the power of the church, nationalism became the cause de jour. 

Pride in one’s country or people became the justification for mass evil for most of the early 20th century.

And when nationalism gave way to science and rationality, science became the new moral good and consequentially, the new basis for wrongdoing.  From the Nazi medical experiments to the Tuskegee study that allowed black men and their families to suffer from syphilis and many, many other wrongs. 

All were done in the name of the greater good of science.

Milgram’s shock experiment was about morality not authority

Milgram’s famous experiment, where people thought they were giving painful shocks to people, is often (and wrongly) thought of as a study about obedience to authority. But the details actually show quite the opposite.

When shocks became too high, most of the participants outright refused.  And the more researchers tried to force them and say that they had no choice but to obey, the more they dug in.  

Only when researchers convinced them of all the good that science has done for humanity did they proceed. 

The willing belief in this greater moral good removed the guardrails that stopped people committing acts they knew were wrong. Without this, they likely would stop. Just like the participants in Migram’s experiment initially did.

Seeing how the rationale for committing evil shifts based on the prevailing moral good of the day (whether its religion, science, security, patriotism, or whatever), should make it clear that you shouldn’t confuse systems of morality with the abuse of those systems because no matter what system you have, they will all be prone to abuse.

And by confusing moral systems with the abuse of those systems, we risk abandoning the guidelines that make moral actions and a moral world possible.  And a world with no basis for moral action is far worse than one where moral systems are sometimes abused.

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