Wait a minute? So, where’d we land on the moral question — on matters of right and wrong? Is there anywhere for us to stand to make such judgments?
I admit that, because our behaviors are conjectured, there appears to be no place from which we can stand to judge the actions of others. But artificiality by no means renders the concept of right and wrong meaningless.
Remember that all behaviors are intended to solve a problem, or achieve a specific aim. That’s what distinguishes life from rocks. And if a behavior is meant to solve a specific problem or achieve a specific aim, then the standard of objectivity is the problem or aim.
With a specific problem or aim in hand, we can determine whether a behavior is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other behaviors that are meant to solve the same problem or achieve the same aim.
The narrow genre of hip-hop known as rap or emceeing, for example, is highly artificial — it’s not even a half-century old. But that doesn’t mean one rap song is just as good as any other. If the goal of the rap game is to build a complex rhyming scheme and serve it over a beat in a way that tells a compelling story, then we can certainly say that Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Nas, Rakim, and James Todd Smith do this better than most. Not convinced? Jump in the ring with Em and see what happens. (See A History of Rap or click here.)
But, what about our aims? Aren’t they themselves conjectured? Yes, although our aims stem from the problem of survival and replication, they too are now of our own making. We alone decide how to play the rap game. But, again, artificiality by no means implies moral relativism here. There’s still the world to consider — an objective world of which we, our aims, and our experience are indeed a part.
And I see at least three ways in which this objectivity comes into play. First, there’s the multiplicity of our own aims to consider. And, as you’re well aware, these aims don’t always align — we often want our cake and to eat it too. But the world doesn’t work that way. You can’t eat all the carbs you want and have that rockin’ summer bod’.
Second, there’s other people’s aims to consider. Like it or not, you live in this world with other people, who each have aims of their own. So, sure, it can be your aim to murder everyone in your neighborhood. But, if you think you can do this with no consequences, well, then you got a few surprises headed your way.
Finally, there’s the objectivity of experience to consider. And experience is one way, not another. Yes, of course you can change what you experience—by dropping acid, say, or by physically rewiring some computational process in your brain or, perhaps, even by creating a new one. But you can’t pick how experience actually is. In other words, sure, you can discover new forms of experience. But you don’t get to decide how the nature or quality of the experience actually is. It just is.
Experience, then, acts as an objective feedback mechanism — it may tell you that one of your conjectured aims was misplaced. Maybe you wanted to be a middle school teacher, but experience let you know that those little shits actually make your experience a living hell. So, you reconsider your aim and become a botanist, which turns out to be an objectively better experience for you.
The biggest failure of contemporary philosophy, in my opinion, is its failure to consider the objectivity of our morals. Our morals do indeed exist objectively. One way of life may certainly be incompatible with another way of life in the same sense in which a scientific theory is logically incompatible with another.
Do these incompatibilities, these clashes, not exist objectively? Certainly they do. For how else would Protagoras have been able to distinguish social norms from natural laws?
The most important role philosophy can play in our lives, then, is to discover where our aims clash, and then discuss them openly, honestly, and critically.
Socrates (c. 470–399 bc) perhaps knew this better than anyone. In masterful displays of irony, to highlight clashes in people’s own beliefs and assumptions, he spent his days questioning people about things like justice, goodness, and beauty. And in the end, he even gave his life to defend the right to do so.
Looking for a scapegoat to blame for Athens’ misfortune in the Peloponnesian War, a jury of his peers sentenced Socrates to death for corrupting the youth and undermining the state religion. Had he apologized, he probably would’ve been exiled. But Socrates refused to abandon reason. ‘To put it bluntly,’ he tells the jury, ‘I’ve been assigned to this city as if to a lazy horse who is in need of a great stinging fly. All day long I will rouse and criticize every last one of you.’ Not flattered, the jury poured Socrates the hemlock.
Socrates wasn’t stupid. He understood the consequences of his provocation. But, to him, the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reason, he believed, is what makes us human — it’s the divine spark; the spirit of progress; the path to truth, beauty, and goodness. So, he courageously gave his life to defend it.
Nor was Socrates an enemy of democracy, as some believed. Rather, he criticized Athens as any responsible democrat should — to find holes in the state’s laws and institutions in order to clear the way for a better life. He understood that a democracy is the only system of government that allows people to reform their institutions with reason rather than bloodshed.
And he also understood that democracy itself can’t provide reason. Only individuals can. It wasn’t the Athenian democracy that turned its back on reason and sentenced him to death. It was the people. Governments and institutions are merely fictions that live in the minds of individuals. They have no existence or power apart from us. The responsibility to engage in reason, then, will always lie with the individual. The heavy lifting is on you to build a better life.
Democritus (c. 460 — c. 370 bc), one of the last philosophers to be considered a presocratic, but who lived during the same time as Socrates, was also an individualist. He believed that each of us carries the burden to create a better life for ourselves. He believed that every person is a little world of her own. Only the individual can suffer. Only the individual can feel love, joy, and happiness. It is up to the individual, then, to put social laws and institutions into place. It’s up to each of us to judge and improve them. And, if necessary, it’s up to each of us to defend them.
Pericles (c. 495–429 bc), the general of Athens at its peak, took this burden seriously. Before him, Athens was essentially an oligarchy in all but name, since the aristocrats still held all the wealth. But, to even out this imbalance, Pericles created the first civil project in history — a state-sponsored economic incentive to inspire all of Greece.
‘We will build all kinds of enterprises,’ he declared, ‘to provide inspiration for every art and to find employment for every hand.’ True to his word, the project was a success. It created many jobs for the middle and lower classes and produced art that is still admired today. He also introduced state salaries for jurors and soldiers. And even used the state treasury to pay for the occasional public festival.
Pericles believed that the whole of Athens was an education. It doesn’t compete with other nations. It sets an example. And, so it did. Under the influence of the great thinkers of Pericles’ generation, Pericles and his fellow Athenians not only created a world empire. They implemented the world’s first open society — a society whose values are sketched out beautifully in a speech he gave at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War:
“The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a citizen distinguishes himself, then he will be called to serve the state, in preference to others, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit; poverty is not a bar. The freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and do not nag our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way…But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect the magistrate and the laws, and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is right…And although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting wisely…We believe that happiness is the fruit of freedom and freedom that of valor….”
Pericles’ words symbolize the commitment of a new generation — a commitment, not to the gods or to the state or to a specific group, but to the individual. It is a commitment to freedom — the freedom to express one’s self; the freedom to distinguish between right and wrong for one’s self; the freedom to vote for one’s political leaders; the freedom against institutional prejudices and biases; the freedom against unwanted physical force; and the freedom to go your own way if you so choose.
Freedom does not come free. As the great thinkers of Pericles’ generation stressed, only you can build these freedoms into our institutions. Only you can criticize and improve them. And, if necessary, only you can defend them. Nature, god, and society cannot do this for you. The future depends on you. The burden is on you to build a better future, to build a better life, to build a better world.