My professor of ethics, Don Browning, though he was an ordained minister, gave us a secular list of ways to frame ethical and moral decisions: by law, by principle, by precedent, by ideal example, and so on, but he left out two sources of guidance. One was “feeling” — not exactly emotional but sort of aesthetic, the sensation of something being inevitable or even beautiful. This is discredited by Enlightenment standards which have ruled out anything that is not rational, almost mathematical, until recently we’ve begun to realize that the most rational-seeming logic can be shaped by life experiences that blind us to some evidence. The idea of logic itself is challenged.
The other source of moral decision is usually represented as authoritarian, as when a ruler or chieftain dictates to the group what is right and wrong, what will be punished and what will not. This can be enlarged to the idea of a theos, an omnipotent and ultimate source of rules. We are given to understand that this is a natural metonymy or “part for the whole” way of thinking since the people who believe it know no other persuasive framework for society. In fact, it comes from the functioning family with a patriarch, so we call this omnipotent person “father”, “abba”. (We can imagine a gender switch and sometimes do.)
The threat was that if this guiding and protective (all powerful as well as all seeing/knowing) were to fail, the world would fall into immoral chaos, so we should not challenge the assumption. In spite of that, our version of the theos as a white-bearded old man looking down from the sky did not so much die of murder as simply dissolved. We didn’t give up on the idea of an authority, but we gave up on the idea of such an entity being supernatural. We came to a point where we thought we knew or could find out everything. There were no more unsuspected and unknowable aspects to the world.
Some people thought that they were privileged to know even the “mind” of the theos and spoke for him/her. If anyone argued with them, their response amounted to “shut up” and if they had enough power, they could make it stick. Even so, stubborn scientists with evidence that humans were only mammalian primates with pre-frontal cortexes that gave them special insights had to be killed to shut them up. (Science can also be arrogant and dictatorial.)
Eventually the idea of observing the facts prevailed. Because it is a mistake to believe that evolution is a matter of strength and power. What survives is what best fits the situation — not fittingness that one gets from a gym, but fittingness that means participation in the ecology present without changing it to the point of destroying the ecosystem in a way that excludes us. That means we must pay attention. The discovery of so many hominin versions of our species makes us nervous — we are the only ones left. Where did they go wrong?
Morality is what serves the preservation of whole species, the groupings and the individual, but also morality is what preserves the context in which living species obey their code, the DNA that guides their conception and persistence. Dissolving the idea of a humanoid theos means that we are not set free to do whatever we want, but that we must find some other way of thinking about the force of time/space that drives us along from one generation to the next.
Believing that we are set apart and privileged is a bad start. It’s a kind of blindness to assume we are the point and the goal. It leaves out evidence we have been realizing — that the rich can’t understand the poor because they don’t know them, and the same goes for men understanding women, or various social templates called “ethnicity” don’t grasp others developed in other contexts. We need the sort of imagination called “empathy” to keep us from assuming that “other” means “lesser.”
Survival is in part a matter of being dumb and numb, to believe that the ceiling won’t collapse on us, that we’re not being infected, that other people care about us, that the planet won’t do something abrupt that destroys us. We need confidence in order to act, to rest, and to cooperate. The challenge of our time is constant proof that there may be explosions, attacks, plagues, and limitations that we simply didn’t see coming. Losing the supernatural means losing ideas of life after death, physical persistence of individual identity beyond memory or art. Heaven also dissolves.
Yet the DNA code persists — wrapped as it is in attached derived chemical systems, new developments, contingencies and transformations — has persisted since the first one-celled creatures, not yet individuated between plants and animals. Maybe not even cells yet — just “viruses” floating in the sea. We are unconsciously part of that, protected by our participation in it, and yet we are not morally careful enough of our fellow mammals, the bugs and reptiles, the fish and birds, and the resources and fittingness that protects them as well. At this point we realize the wisdom of the autochthonous and primal people who lived close to the land. The ones that didn’t learn died out. Goodbye, hominin! At least we have traces to learn from.
Since so much of our present world was created by ourselves, on purpose or accidentally, some claiming the supernatural was helping us and others assuming we are very clever, and since we are all participants rather than remote observers, part of morality is pro-active, calling us to make changes that will increase the places and ways that make niches for life — like rain forests or coral reefs. How can we change our lives to at least minimize crime and the appearance of human monsters who destroy?
Morality and ethics approached in this way are fairly new, though there are many traditional stories that carry the same message. “Religions”, particularly those who make “forts” for some people, are likely to ignore this idea and thus the necessary knowledge for good decisions. Trying to secure food, protection, and happiness for only one group or even species will probably not lead to survival. Even the old version of the mafia — the violence and secrecy protected sub-group — will die out. They damage the world eco-system too much. Their children despise them. It has nothing to do with a bigger and more powerful Capo in the sky. That’s an ugly old idea.