By John Corvino
Recently I received the following question from a reader:
“I have read and thought over some of your comments concerning morality and homosexuality and would like to ask you a question: Where does morality ultimately come from?”
I was tempted to answer “Pittsburgh, of course,” since I found the question a bit funny. Morality is about how we treat each other: it is, fundamentally, an activity. Asking “Where does it come from?” makes it sound like a concrete object, like a houseplant.
I also thought to myself, “How come I don’t get easy questions, like ‘Dear Jody?'” Question: “Dear Jody: I am an extremely bright, highly successful, totally hot stud who is so much better than all the bar trash out there, and yet no one seems to appreciate me. Why?” Answer: “Hmmm, I dunno. Maybe because you’re an arrogant prick?”
But no: instead, I get “Where does morality come from?” So bear with me as I wade into semi-deep waters.
It makes perfect sense to ask “Where do our moral beliefs come from?” – though I don’t think that’s the question the reader had in mind. The answer to that question is “It depends.” Sometimes they come from our parents, sometimes our neighbors, sometimes our church; ideally they come from our own struggle to integrate various sources, retaining what’s true and apt and discarding what’s not. This is a question for sociologists and psychologists, not philosophers.
What the reader was really asking was how we justify our moral beliefs, or, as he put it in a later e-mail, “Who decides what’s right and wrong?” But this too is a misleading question. “Decides” is ambiguous. It can mean “make it happen,” as in “I decided to wear a blue shirt today.” Or it can mean “figure out” or “uncover,” as in “I decided that he was telling the truth.” The difference is subtle but important: when you “decide” in the first sense, you aim to make the world fit your mind; when you decide in the second sense, you aim to make your mind fit the world.
“Determines” has a similar ambiguity. In asking, “Who determines right and wrong?” we might be asking, “Who makes it so?” (that is, “who invents it?”), or we might be asking, “Who figures it out (after it already exists)?”
Now suppose we ask, “Who decides what’s right and wrong?” If we’re asking “Who figures it out?” the answer is easy–we do. We’re the ones who have to make moral decisions; we’re the ones faced with the task of uncovering the correct moral principles. Even if we think we can let others do this for us–the church, the Bible, Dear Jody–we’re still ultimately responsible for the decision procedure we choose.
But people who ask “Who decides?” usually mean something different. What they mean is, “Who creates/invents/is the source of right and wrong?” And the answer to that, in my professional opinion, is “No one.” Morality is not like that.
To see why, contrast morality with something that is like that: positive law. Who decides that the speed limit is 65? The legislature does. If they decided to make it 75, it would be 75; if they decided to make it 55, it would be 55. Positive law is, to that extent, arbitrary.
Moral law is not similarly arbitrary. No one could “decide” to make it the case that rape, or slavery, or murder is morally right. Correct moral decisions are a function of what promotes human well-being, and that’s not a matter of arbitrary decision.
But what about God? If God exists, then presumably God commands us to do what’s right and forbids us to do what’s wrong. But God would do that from perfect knowledge of what’s good for us, not from arbitrary whim. For if God’s commands were arbitrary, why would they merit praise? How could we call them just if the opposite commands would be equally just?
Whether or not God’s commands are arbitrary, human beings still need to decide (“figure out”) what those commands are. After all, none of us is God, and smart, decent people disagree on the details of what God requires. Again, we’re responsible for the decision procedure we choose.
Often, “Who decides?” is a prelude to insisting that morality cannot exist without God–as if, without God, there would be nothing worth valuing; no better and worse ways of living. But surely that’s false. Whether or not God exists, we can (and do) endeavor to figure out what actions and traits will ultimately promote well-being, for ourselves and others.
Perhaps it would be best to say that this shared human task is where morality “comes from.”