Why Humans Persist in Believing in Universal Morality: Moral Opinion Presented As Fact (Part 3)

Click here to read Part 1. Click here to read Part 2. We saw in Parts 1 and 2 that it is not only those who openly believe in God who rely upon the supernatural in order to facilitate their desire to believe that morality...

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Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2.

We saw in Parts 1 and 2 that it is not only those who openly believe in God who rely upon the supernatural in order to facilitate their desire to believe that morality is universal. Every agnostic or atheist who also believes that morality is fixed and universal, and not simply the product of the human mind, without being aware of it implicitly infers a supernatural agency responsible for this universality; for what but a supernatural agency could originate and apply for all time a single moral code across all of humanity? This group probably includes a high proportion of all non-believers. This is presumably because they haven’t ever cared to think about where a universal moral code might originate, why it might do so, or by what mechanism it would enter the human domain.

As so many supposedly non-religious humans rely no less upon the supernatural than do religious individuals, in order to believe that morality is universal, even if this is implicitly and without their being consciously aware of it, does this mean that all, or virtually all, humans are significantly religious; and if so, what does this tell us about human nature?

Much of the most sceptical portion of humanity deliberately deceives itself intellectually, in order, for emotional reasons, to be able to believe that morality is universal and transcendental, so implicitly suggesting that life has more significance and meaning than appears empirically to be the case, and the less sceptical portion believes in the supernatural quite explicitly. Clearly, then, the general human need to believe in the transcendental is not merely an incidental need, but an enormously powerful and influential one. It would appear that humankind in general, including most of those who are avowedly sceptical, is indeed significantly religious, when this means implicit as well as explicit belief in the transcendental nature of human existence.

It is this transcendental emotional need, as we saw in Part 2, that is responsible for the existence of all political as well as religious ideologies, and for our inclination generally to embrace ideological doctrine willingly, no matter how irrational or absurd. Given that every society on Earth is, and appears always to have been, organised upon transcendental ideological principles, it would hardly be an exaggeration to state that humankind’s transcendental emotional need (crudely, its ‘religious gene’) to believe that human life is meaningful, is the single strongest determinant operating in respect of human social behaviour, other than morality itself.

It is through the process of gratifying this need, and particularly through their supposed link with the transcendental, that all ideologies derive their moral authority. This brings us to the critical role played by the presentation of mere human moral opinion as moral fact by ideologies, in facilitating their ideological capture of people’s minds.

As touched upon in Part 2, the whole point of any ideology, religious or political, in asserting the existence, either explicitly or implicitly, of a transcendental and supernatural existence or intelligence, (which, by definition, must be superior to humankind) is in order to be in a position to claim for itself four things; firstly, and most importantly, that the morality the ideology represents and speaks on behalf of, is the true, transcendental and universal morality, and its moral judgements therefore true facts; secondly, any potential adherent may be assured that there is indeed far more significance to life than empirically apparent, and that the ideology will grant access to this, provided that the ideology’s particular doctrine is followed; thirdly, that the ideology is aiming at the highest moral good; fourthly, that the  ideology is the supernatural existence’s bona fide representative on earth.

Whenever an ideology is accepted, this enables it to proclaim to its adherents that the moral opinions that it expresses are not merely the contestable human opinions of its leaders, but are incontestable, transcendental, and universally true moral facts. Anyone contesting or denying them therefore has absolutely no moral grounds upon which to do so, as the ideology, thanks to its link to the transcendent, is morally all-knowing.

In order to establish their moral authority over the masses, it is above all on creating the common belief that the moral opinions they express are actual facts and not mere opinions that all religious and secular ideologies rely.

Thus, the assertion of national socialists in Germany in 1940 that blacks and Jews were morally inferior to Aryans was accepted widely as fact. That homosexuality, divorce, eating pork, and capitalism and the profit motive are morally wrong are similar simple moral beliefs widely held to be actionable moral facts in today’s supposedly secular world. What are perceived by believers to be transcendental moral facts are far more likely to be acted upon than what are perceived to be mere arguable human opinions. Fanaticism is the fruit of moral certainty.

It is the moral authority conferred by the intellectual sleight-of-hand which enables mere human moral opinions to be transformed miraculously into transcendental moral facts that lies at the heart of the fervent advocacy of the concept of universal morality by all ideologies.

Rationally, to be accepted as a fact, a moral opinion or belief has to be shown to accord with reality, because that is what a fact is, by definition. While the holder of a moral opinion may believe that it corresponds with reality and is, therefore, a fact, unless it can be shown indubitably to correspond with reality, it cannot rationally be claimed to be a fact, and remains mere human moral opinion.

In religious terms, God’s moral injunctions are regarded, not merely as God’s opinion, but as moral facts. For example, that God loves mankind is taken to be a fact by Christians, not simply God’s opinion. From the secular viewpoint, rationally this cannot be accepted as fact because the statement cannot be shown to correspond to reality. Its truth status, therefore, is no more than that of any contestable human opinion.

For Christians, however, God’s word is held to be fact because it accords with another reality that they claim has been revealed to them by God. As the mystical religious concept of a reality accessible only through divine revelation is meaningless in secular terms, what Christians hold to be God’s word, and therefore fact, can be regarded as nothing more than human moral opinion in terms of secular understanding.

An understanding of the manner in which mere human moral opinion comes to be accepted as moral fact by the adherents of ideologies is of critical importance in understanding how morality has been, and is still today being used to control people’s minds through their beliefs. Those who accept untested moral opinion as moral fact, unwittingly confer virtually unlimited power and moral authority over themselves on the ideologue, dictator, cleric, politician, or leader whose moral opinions they come to subscribe to.

Political ideologies are the religions of a supposedly secular age. And, like the religions of old, they determine much of what each of us believes, as well as much of the course our life takes. Secularity, like rationality, is not readily accommodated by human nature. We believe what we are taught to believe.

Get your copy of David Matthews’ book on ideology and morality, Our Captured Minds on Amazon.

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1 comment

  1. Gillian Benade Reply

    Interesting and disconcerting at the same time.

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