Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 May 2013

Whence Morality?

[For a recent post on the physics and economics of solar panels, click here.]
    This above all: to thine own self be true.” William Shakespeare
Where does our human morality come from?

Isn’t that the key question? Does it come from God? from the Bible? from something within us? or from understanding who we are and where we’ve been? You can’t mine the gold until you find the vein.

Recently an online commenter accused me of favoring frauds and thieves like Bernie Madoff. Why? Because I didn’t agree with his take on Christ’s probable view of gay marriage. That nonsequitur was quite a leap. But it got me thinking.

That commenter is hardly alone. Many people “reason” like him. Abandon the Bible and God, or refuse to accept Christ as the Son of God, they think, and we would all be morally at sea. We would be weathervanes in a tornado, pointing in any and every direction—maybe even whirling around in a self-destructive spiral. We would have no guidance or guideposts.

But is that so? I respect the Bible, but as a work of early literary genius, not the Word of God. I believe that Jesus Christ was the greatest political genius in human history. But I don’t see him as the son of God.

Yet still I know that killing, stealing and fraud are wrong. I know this without resort to God, the Bible or Jesus. I think I know and even feel the wrongness as strongly as any man.

Why is that? There are many reasons, including (of course) my upbringing. An important reason is how I view our human world. I see our human life as a precarious balance between our animal instincts and our delicate civilization.

When someone cuts me off in traffic, I feel the same rage as the next guy. The cutoff affronts my personal pride. Sometimes is also startles me or even endangers my physical safety. So my rage has a valid evolutionary basis: personal safety and survival.

But then I think. We couldn’t even have traffic, let alone automobiles, without the intense cooperation, complex rules and complex culture that distinguish us from all other creatures on this planet. So I control my road rage and back off, knowing I am just one driver in the ceaseless flow of freeway traffic that today sadly defines our civilization. (Here the humility that comes with age helps a bit.)

Our entire civilization, including the traffic in which I flow, depends on our ability to suppress our unhelpfully primitive individual instincts. That truth holds especially strong in sexual relations and mate selection. So if we want to have all the delights of modern civilization—or any civilization—we have to observe the forms of civilization and the rules of roadway etiquette, even in the face of provocation.

Did I dream up this worldview myself? No, I was taught.

Over sixty years ago, I was a kid on a playground. I had quite a temper. At one point, I was apparently sitting on top of another kid banging his head into the pavement. (I don’t remember that, just being told about it later.)

After the other kids and the teachers dragged me off, I found myself being instructed by a female teacher, who towered above me. Now cooled down, I knew I had done wrong and feared some sort of punishment, maybe even corporal punishment.

But my teacher did me one better. She patiently explained to me how our human society—our civilization—depends on suppressing the rage that caused me to pound that kid’s head into the ground.

Then she explained that what I had done might have caused serious injury. (Fortunately, it didn’t.) She asked me if I intended that. Of course I didn’t, and I felt a little regret. The emotion of empathy—also a strong part of our civilization!—made me embarrassed at my rage.

Although my parents weren’t religious, they introduced me to the Bible at a young age: the Golden Book version, I think. Later, as I was growing up, I read the real thing, in a course on world literature. But what stuck with me most after all those years was my teacher’s simple explanation.

Everything we have we owe to our precarious, delicate balance between individual animal drives and civilization. Only by cooperating can we produce all that makes our lives easy and a joy—from modern medicine, through the cars, highways and air traffic that let us go anywhere we like, to the huge movie theaters where we can see Life of Pi in 3D. It takes tens of thousands of people, all working together, to build an airplane or run an airline. We owe it all—all our species’ extraordinary collective prowess—to the perennial tension between our biological and social evolution. (Much more on that tension later.)

Through social and biological evolution, we even have “civilizing” emotions. When we transgress the bounds of civilization and harm our fellow humans, we feel guilt, shame or embarrassment. These emotions, which rise unbidden at the proper times, reflect internalization of our civilized norms.

In today’s lax and dissipated capitalist culture, we don’t feel these emotions very often. But we should. For they are part of the yin and yang that keep us in balance. They are woven deeply into our very nature. At the level of individual consciousness, they define the delicate balance between that consciousness and collective cooperation.

To understand this point, you should watch a recent episode of PBS’ marvelous series “Secrets of the Dead.” It tells an extraordinary true story, which has been kept secret for well over half a century.

The Brits fought World War II most effectively with their brains. I have already described how they used a top-secret roomful of mathematicians to break the Nazis’ “Enigma” code, generated by an early mechanical digital computer. But what they did in this instance was equally extraordinary. They kept some German prisoners of war in a comfortable country estate, in relative luxury. Then, through electronic bugs everywhere, even in trees, they listened to and recorded every conversation. They even had an MI19 intelligence agent simulate a British lord, with supposed ties to royalty, to make their German prisoners feel privileged, respected and comfortable enough to talk.

And talk they did. This superb exercise in non-violent espionage produced tens of thousands of pages of transcripts in German, translated into English, revealing deep secrets of the Nazis’ culture, organization, and contradictions.

These transcripts are an invaluable cultural-historical treasure. Apparently they have only recently been declassified. Historians, social scientists and even psychologists will find in them a priceless vein of moral gold to mine.

For our purposes now, the most important vein is the “civilizing” emotions, guilt, shame and embarrassment. The Nazi prisoners of war felt them, just like everyone else. The one who felt them most was a general descended from German nobility. He had never joined the Nazi Party, and he hated Hitler, although serving under his totalitarian rule. But as the war dragged on, Nazi atrocities became impossible to deny, and it became clear that Germany was losing. Then all the high-level prisoners felt these emotions. Even the Prussian general who had been the most avid Nazi partisan did.

We will have lots more digging to do in this rich vein of moral gold. But for now, suffice it to pose a single question. If the Nazis who felt these civilizing emotions, but only weakly and late, had felt them more strongly and earlier, would the Holocaust never have happened?

To understand the emotion that drove the Nazis’ rise to power and aggression, you needn’t even speak German. All you need do is listen to the tone of one of Hitler’s pre-war tirades to German youth. Despite several references to “peace,” the rage is so clear and strong that no language barrier can conceal it. It brings chills to the spine even today.

So there we have it. My own childish rage on the playground, from some long-forgotten insult, caused me to bash another kid’s head into the ground. Just so, the Nazis’ collective rage over collective punishment after World War I, which resulted in the Weimar Inflation (the worst in history), motivated Germans to start the most horrible war in history and later the Holocaust. In both cases, guilt, shame and embarrassment came too little and too late.

As Jew myself, I write this not to excuse the Nazis’ aggression and their unspeakable crimes, but to explain them. Consequences—cause and effect—have not traditionally been a part of moral philosophy. But they should be. After the end of the second senseless, monstrous war in just a few decades, we Yanks acted quite differently from the European victors in World War I. The consequences of our more rational and less instinctive acts were infinitely better.

Today, in our own country, every single justice of our Supreme Court is either a Catholic or a Jew. Why is that? Is it just an interesting coincidence, or does it tell us something about ourselves?

Catholicism and Judaism stand out among the world’s great religions and cultures. They both have strong foundations in guilt and shame. There is virtually no emphasis on these emotions in Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and little in Islam. Yet they are such defining characteristics of Catholicism and Judaism that they have become grist for popular humor.

Law is the written expression of civilization. It is the rules that make our civilization run. Today it is the product of centuries of intense abstract thought. Our law borrows elements from every great past civilization, from the Greeks and Romans, through medieval England (the Magna Carta), to the so-called Mongol Hordes (in diplomatic immunity).

So why does every one of our current “high priests” of this entirely rational endeavor come from the two American cultures that most rely on—and most value—guilt, shame and embarrassment? I submit it is no coincidence. Rather, it is cause and effect. Law is the public, written and rational expression of civilization. Guilt, shame and embarrassment are the internal, emotional ones. They are civilization’s internal engines.

All our strong emotions have obvious evolutionary purposes. Fear and rage help us survive individually. Love and its cruder cousin, lust, help us propagate our species and insure our collective survival. Guilt, shame and embarrassment help us preserve and propagate our civilization, without which we would be just like every other animal. When properly socialized growing up, we feel these emotions nearly as strongly as fear, rage and love. We neglect or ignore them at our species’ peril.

So today we no longer need gods or scripture to tell us what is right, as long as we understand ourselves. Through science and accurate history, have detailed knowledge of our own selves as individuals and as a species. More important, we have an understanding of consequences, cause and effect. Most important of all, we are beginning to understand the evolutionary basis of our emotions: how they support our civilization and mediate between our individual drives for individual survival and our species’ collective needs.

So maybe now we no longer need to tell ourselves so many clever fictional stories. Instead, real self-knowledge provides grist for moral reflection. Maybe all we really need to do now is to follow the ancient Greeks’ (and Shakespeare’s!) sage advice: know thyself.

As individuals, we are hard-wired so that rage begets rage, violence violence, murder more murder, and war more war. Rage and revenge are in our nature (but, fortunately, only part of it). If we want to save ourselves and our complex and delicate civilization from our own worst instincts, we must suppress that rage, and we must do so without yet more violence.

Our self-reinforcing rage almost extinguished our species in October 1962. Then we came within hours, if not minutes, of nuclear Armageddon.

Had that happened, the consequent nuclear winter might have extinguished all higher life on Earth, including us. We might have produced our very own evolutionary cataclysm, like the huge meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We might, in short, have done ourselves in—all of us. At very least, we would have bombed our fragile species back into the Stone Age, with the added agony of ubiquitous radioactivity.

We avoided that fate by the slimmest of margins, and by the grace of three men’s cool judgment under unimaginable pressure. Our avoiding immediate self-extinction was undoubtedly the single most important moment in our species’ history so far (which is why I keep harping on it in this blog). Every schoolchild should study that fortunate near-miss in detail and in depth, for as long as we have schools.

Yet like most stories, that story is not all bad. It reveals another side of our human nature—the side that makes our civilization possible and maintains all its delights. That side, of which guilt and shame are only a part, is the subject of the next essay in this series.

Footnote 1: The transcripts also revealed the depths of (and widespread responsibility for) the horrors and atrocities that we now know as the Holocaust. They would have provided superb evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. But British intelligence declined to use them as such, preferring to keep this extraordinary espionage technique secret, for possible use against the Soviets.

Footnote 2: Genghis Khan invented the “custom” of diplomatic immunity. He did so by utterly annihilating cities and towns whose inhabitants killed his emissaries. He slaughtered every man, woman and child in them. He often destroyed the walls and buildings, too. Whether the resulting custom arose from knowledge of this practice, from simple consequential reasoning (“If we do it to them, they’ll do it to us”), or from natural selection, history does not record.

Footnote 3: For today’s child immersed in video, the best sources for learning about this near-cataclysm are two one-hour video features on PBS. They are: "Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War,” which will rebroadcast on June 4, 2013, and “The Man Who Saved the World,” a story about a Soviet submarine flotilla commander whose restraint and coolness under fire avoided nuclear Armageddon. The Three men whose cool judgment saved our species were that Soviet flotilla commander, Vasiliy Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, and the then leaders of our nation and the Soviets, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevitch Khrushchev.

The June 4 rebroadcast would be a good thing to show every high school student before graduating. Doing that might take a small step toward a world in which self-extinction events become less likely.

Students also can enjoy a fictionalized but historically accurate version of the most critical period, by renting the year-2000 movie Thirteen Days.



  • At Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 2:08:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay, this post greatly reinforces my believe in my son Ben's very strong passion for natural "justice" in grade 4. He completely and of no fault of his own on a recent standardized test realized his mistook a division symbol for a square root symbol that lead him to incorrectly miss three math type of problems. That same day he told his teacher of his innocent mistake. His teacher offered him a chance to change those three answers! Which was somewhat also a surprise to me!!!! Regardless, Ben told her it was just "not right" and that he deserved to miss those three math problems for not detecting the correct symbol on his own.

    I, as a parent with my own adult agenda, am thinking that he needs to have very high test scores to get into advanced placement classes in middle school and yet he is sacrificing that chance over three problems that "tricked" him even though he should have known better?

    Yet, at the end of the day I am very proud of him for doing the "right thing". Maybe we are both "losers" but many things in life are worth much more than money and material success. I might ramble forever on this topic but I am simply proud of such a young 10 year old.

    Best Regards, R. Haven

  • At Monday, May 6, 2013 at 12:56:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Rod,

    You should be (proud, that is).

    What you describe as your son’s passion for natural justice is a large part of what makes us human, and the subject of my next essay.

    When your son refused to let his honest mistakes be corrected, he was probably thinking about the thousands of other test takers who made similar honest errors under the usual pressure of taking exams. Why should he have his mistakes corrected, when they didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t? And how would they (or any other test taker) feel on hearing that he did?

    The ability even to ask—let alone answer—questions like that is a characteristic of our species that differentiates us from other animals, more than any other trait. It also, in my view, is responsible for our civilization.

    But I don’t want to steal the spotlight from my next essay, so I won’t write more now . . . .

    Warmest regards,



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