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Moral Authority


Today evolutionary biologists argue that altruism has adaptive advantage.

Generous behaviour is selected because it increases the species’ chances of survival. 

Richard Dawkins argues that you needn’t focus on the survival of the fittest species. Altruistic behaviour is already rewarded at the level of the gene pool.  

But he conceded that biological self-interest cannot account for the kinds of sacrifice we hold central to moral experience. 

At such points, many secular thinkers retreat to the view that the basis of morality is political. A system of law constructed to maintain civil order.



MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (March 25, 2010) - Afghan National Civil Order Police/Afghan Gendarmerie Force Training Center graduates parade in formation honoring Mohammad Atta Noor, Governor of the Province of Balkh where 193 trainees graduated in the center's first enlisted graduation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeff Nevison)

All such arguments depend on the view that if religion doesn’t tell us to be moral, something else has to do so. Self-interest and order look like the sort of hard-nosed bases to which unsentimental souls can appeal. And it is true that much – perhaps most – moral behaviour is to our own and our communities’ advantage.

Honesty is often the best policy. Kindness is often reciprocated. Even observing traffic rules creates a measure of order and safety that benefits us all. Hence a great many rules that are both ethical and useful have been shared, and internalised, throughout different times and cultures.

We are socialized – perhaps hardwired to do the right thing with astonishing frequency.

Yet sometimes morality and self-interest part company, and when they do, such arguments leave us helpless. For though they seem sober and scientific, they rely on a notion of harmony that is both ancient and suspicious.

What a marvellous system that keeps our needs and the world so finely calibrated that self-interest and morality run on parallel tracks! 



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Bishop Joseph Butler, the eighteenth-century founder of Natural Theology in England, didn’t know gene pools. But he did consider it self-evident that it is in our constitution to condemn falsehood, violence, and injustice. In his day it they called it providence. The assumption that virtue and happiness are balanced by an invisible guiding hand. 

If neither the claims of religion nor the claims of self-interest can tell us how to be moral can something else?

Must we believe there’s an otherworldly standard of goodness, fixed and eternal in another world?



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Plato seemed to think so. His ideas provided centuries of fuel for those who imagined a fairy tale world where ideas were ghostly objects in the heavens beaming down in the shadows. Still, he did believe that things are good, or true, or beautiful because they participate in ideas from above and beyond them.

What all these views have in common is the thought that morality must be commanded. If not by God then by nature. If not by nature then by a supernatural metaphysics with the features of both. This will pose problems for anyone who rejects a particular source of commandment. 

Perhaps even more important: what about those who believe that being moral is not a matter of following orders, whether natural or supernatural, but about the dignity of choosing to do right?



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This isn’t the time to revive Plato’s ideas, or Socrates’ bravado. But it is time to recognise that we have forgotten their basic moral advances. Socrates was the first to contend that to seek something better and truer we ought to climb beyond whatever specific mire happens to hold us.

He was thereby the first to propose moral concepts backed by no authority but our own ability to reason.

This is why his enemies put him on trial for undermining religion.

If religion demands absolute obedience on no other basis that the revelation of a divinity we can call it fundamentalist.  

It is undermining fundamentalist religion that Socrates was guilty of.

His brand of piety meant putting ethics before religion, not the other way around.

By insisting on this distinction, Socrates insisted that moral authority is different from religious as well as political authority.




We want a worldview that doesn’t blink when confronted with reality, that doesn’t wish away what it does not wish to see. This is not just pragmatics but pride: Grown-up men and women look the world in its face.

At the same time, we want a view that allows us not to resign ourselves to the reality that’s shaping us, but to play a role in shaping it. And most of us want to do so neither with weapons nor with raw power, but with the power ideas. Our ideas of what is right. 


This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.


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