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Dear J,

To take your objections to my last letter in order, they seem to be:

  1. What I am calling morality is just self-preservation, an instinct for survival.
  2. The so-called “Bigger Rule”, where we expect or demand certain behaviour from others is the same instinct, enlarged and modified for a group, or a herd. Our supposed primate ancestors travelled in troops, and this means we evolved instincts that protect the group, which in turn protects the individual. We “expect” behaviour from others because we evolved to expect protection from the herd.
  3. None of this proves a personal universe.

All right, let’s suppose that the morality of the Golden Rule is a kind of biological instinct. When we speak of instinct in animals, we mean an impulse in them which they always obey. Birds always migrate, they don’t need to be trained to do so. They do not freely choose their instincts; they merely follow them.

But this lack of freedom in instinct is very problematic for the theory that morality is a mere instinct. If right and wrong is really just a hard-wired, biological instinct, why do we need to be told to obey it? Why are we always exhorted to do the ‘right thing’, if, in fact, the right thing is a natural survival instinct?

Indeed, we are told we ought to obey this inner morality, which you call instinct. Being told we ought to do something is itself a value judgement. Why ought we to obey the survival instinct? It’s one thing to have the sense that drinking water is needful to stay alive. This is the instinct – you feel thirsty. But why I ought to obey that instinct, why I ought to want to listen to its promptings to keep me alive is something else. Being thirsty is one thing, wanting to keep living is another. Does blind instinct tell me it is better to live than to die? Does instinct give me the value of living?

For that matter, if the Golden Rule is really an instinct, why is it that we have to choose between instincts? If you hear a man being mugged, you have to choose between the instinct for self-protection, and the instinct to help. If you are being urged to choose between instincts, that can’t be the instinct itself. You’re judging which is better.

If you suggest that we have multiple instincts, we’d still have to explain the instinct that chooses between others, and perhaps the instinct that tells us to obey the choice of the choosing instinct. In that case, you’d end up with an infinite regress of instincts, each telling you to obey the next. This doesn’t seem plausible.

Even if many of our moral impulses are based in some kind of animal, physical instinct, there is something that comes before or outside instinct, which tells us to obey instinct. There is some Law inside us which tells us it is better to live than to die, that it is a good thing to survive, that life is worth preserving. And because of this Law, we obey the survival instinct. 

In which case, we’re back to where we were. Why do human beings have this thing inside them which tells them certain things are right, certain things are better, certain things are good, including preserving the human race and obeying the survival instinct? 

Lacking a material or natural explanation, we are left to face the truth that there is a moral reality outside of us. Whether or not it’s convenient to admit it, we all know it’s there. We excuse ourselves when we break it. We judge some moral systems to be better than others. We get angry at others when they don’t keep the Golden Rule. As surely as you and I are seeing material reality in front of us now, there is a moral reality that we humans keep coming back to, like a law of gravity. 

Morality cannot be simply part of our biology. It doesn’t deal with material reality. Morality has to do with people and relationships and fair treatment of each other. So if moral reality is all about people and their relationships, what should we conclude about where it came from? You know my answer. I’m curious to hear yours.



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