During high school, I loved to talk with my mother about whether C.S. Lewis had successfully proven that morality is valid the way axioms of mathematics are. I think we both thought not (as I recall, we were looking primarily at Mere Christianity and possibly The Abolition of Man) I was open to the possibility and strongly wanted morality to be objectively existent; she, despite being one of the most moral people I know, didn’t understand why anyone would even imagine that morality was real, although (just as Lewis predicts!) under many circumstances, she acts as if it is.

I remained totally on the fence about “objective” morality until a class on moral reasoning where I came to the (instinctive, but it was an instinct formed by the coursework) conclusion that—probably—there was no such thing. This was an exciting and apparently purely intellectual realization. A year or two later, sitting in a university computer lab, it hit me emotionally—specifically, with terror. I came to the conclusion that I must, must, must not let myself internalize the realization fully, or I might become unthinkably horrible, and you could argue that I’ve lived in less dramatic and emotionally charged versions of that state ever since.

Yes, this is totally circular and stupid and possibly also on its own terms totally false, if one defines unthinkably horrible in the way that most of the people around me instinctively define unthinkably horrible; since when, though, did emotions and core motivations ever make sense?

Here’s another personal fear: that all of my morality exists because I want to be liked, and not just liked—liked accurately. I want the people I respect, like, and care about to know exactly who I am and (ideally) love or (more practically) not hold me in contempt for it. On this theory, I know that if I really internalize the fact that the word should is a) meaningless or b) shorthand for “will if I want to reach goal X,” I really might become someone other people don’t like.

Still, while being liked matters to me, I don’t think it does explain my morality or my terror of losing it—because I don’t care nearly as much about people’s opinions of me when those opinions strike me as wrong. If someone is upset at me about things I’m fairly sure are morally okay, I don’t feel awful. Sometimes I feel nothing but gleeful condemnation (…another reaction that strikes me as morally wrong, but eh).

But I can tell you what else doesn’t explain my morality: empathy and (at least in any intuitive sense) love. When the philosopher Hume says that “benevolence” is the root of morality, I’m like, dude, you can’t get from an is to an ought, and your is has nothing to do with my psyche or when I’m told (as I was once) that not only is everything we do selfish but that serving others is the highest fulfillment of self, I’m like, but it’s not for me.

I think morality is, psychologically, at least, very much its own entity. It is a belief and (possibly) a delusion embedded deep in most human beings.


I read parts of a book (Brain Rules for Baby) claiming that children learn morality by emotionally associating the pain of punishment/discipline with the explanations their parents give for why the things they do are wrong. I hope this isn’t true, in the same way I hope morality is, but even in this worldview, morality eventually gets encoded to the point that it’s no longer self-serving and many people would really, truly, legitimately rather die or be beat up or live on the streets and almost starve or be hated by everyone than be morally unacceptable. Punishment and reward still hang around narratives of morality, but they usually do so with the proviso that one gets the reward only if one isn’t being good only for its sake—I may write about this later; I call it the Princess Paradox, after the fairy tale in which the roses and diamonds fall from the good princess’s mouth because she behaved well from pure motives, while the evil step-sister who acts “correctly” only for the sake of the reward is punished with speech that brings toads and worms (or whatever).


However. Even if there is no objective morality (I am still agnostic, but more skeptical about morality than I am about God), the idea of morality (as opposed to just preference, which I suspect is what we really have) is almost as difficult to excise from our thoughts as the idea of truth (which is so ^*&&*$&#* near impossible to get rid of that I am never, ever going to try, because I can’t even imagine where that would get me). Our decisions and opinions about the world are often based in what we imagine (at least on some level) to be universally valid values. One can let go of believing some values to be universal, in one’s own life, but this usually involves at least implicitly embracing other values, like “philosophical consistency” or “tolerance” or “honesty.”  Living without values is, as far as I can tell, impossible. An honest and philosophically consistent relativist, which I kind of want to be (but then, I also kind of want to take a nap and not really care about any of this), does not believe that others, due to some quality of the universe, need to be relativists, that they need to accept one another, or anything else. (Of course, such moral relativists are under no obligation to be honest and consistent, IMHO, because the idea of obligation is absurd.)

Our relativists can, continuing to be honest and consistent, probably say “I value community and communication and I’m not going to deal with you if you don’t” or “I value community and communication and think that you would get more of the things you value if you valued community and communication too” or even “I’m going to try to make you be the kind of person I want you to be because I value the idea of living in a world full of people like that, but this is all just my exerting power for the sake of something that I value that I want other people to value.” The relativist could, if she chose, become dishonest or inconsistent and say or imply “You’re a horrible person!” and sneer and condescend and bring up moral arguments, even though there is no such thing as a horrible person.

This makes me think about psychopaths. Psychopathy is a complex and probably mostly biological condition that I haven’t researched that much for a long time, but the basic idea is that psychopaths have no empathy, no sense of guilt, and no conscience. If we’re going to be consistent relativists like I kind of want to be, we can’t believe there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, psychopaths are (in that way—in their understanding of the consequences of their actions, maybe not so much?) more instinctively and deeply in touch with reality than people with consciences are. I (valuing honesty) would much rather psychiatry say to psychopaths, without rage and contempt, “I value my own life and safety and the life and safety of my friends enough that I am going to do everything I can to stop you from hurting them, but otherwise, you do you” than “gasp you poor disgusting stunted creature how can we fix your brain!”

I tend to value the truth. But I’m also into likely-falsehoods embraced provisionally that make us feel better and accomplish our goals more successfully (example a: I can accomplish anything I set out to do creatively with sufficient effort; example b: accepting people and treating them honestly and kindly matters in some real sense.)

What do I think would happen if we were, for real, to manage to squeeze ourselves out of the social and biological pressures that make us believe in morality?

It would not result in a world of nothing but the totally selfish, psychopaths made and not born, though I suspect it would produce a fair number more of them than we have now. But if one is under no obligation to value anything, one is under no obligation even to value oneself, one’s life, or pleasure. One may freely choose to value certain other people more highly or people in general or Grand Ideas or being liked or the color purple—or none of those things. The universe is no help. We’re on our own, and though we have plenty of conditioning and input from those around us and our biology, and some of that input may be more powerful than we are, none of that input is true or valid in any meaningful sense. We will probably find life easier and more productive if we go with its flow at least to some extent, but we still can’t get from that is to an ought….

I don’t know whether I want to live in this world of relativists or not. And maybe, just maybe, my moral sense is a perception of something real.

Still, assuming it’s not—that the word should really is either absurd or shorthand for will if I choose to pursue goal X—why am I not a psychopath?

  1. As above, I want people to like me—the real me and not just an act I put on.
  2. Conditioning—culture and family teach me to hate and fear “immoral” traits
  3. I have a strong, quite possibly biological inner sense of morality that protects itself with that stupid little ouroboros of terror that assaulted me in the computer lab that day
  4. I happen to care in some senses about other people, even if I don’t as much as #2 and #3 seem to think I should.