A Stranger among Us


There are many moral codes, and all of them assume some standard of right and wrong. But this claim is often unexplained; no reason is given for it. This, of course, leaves a few questions. Do these standards exist on their own, or only as something societies invent? In they are not a human invention, where do they come from?

The first question to address seems to be their origin, as the other one is moot if they are something invented. It seems that every culture had or has a moral code of some sort, and aside from a few areas in current Western culture, they are fundamentally quite similar. For example, it is pretty safe to say that murder is condemned and unselfishness is praised. There may be variations, such as when killing is justified or what greater thing – family, countrymen, nation, etc – one ought to put above oneself, but the essence is the same. As well, people often regard one moral code as superior to another, even if neither of them is the their own. For example, absolute pacifism is considered to be far superior to the code used by the Nazis, even by people who disagree with both. In order to make such a judgment, however, these people must be accepting standards beyond what is they have been taught. Otherwise they would just condemn both. Even those who claim to reject any moral standards acknowledge their existence. Someone who betrays others a matter of course still objects to being betrayed in turn. Although these arguments do not amount to proof that morality is not simply a human invention, they are good evidence.

Given the existence of an external standard of right and wrong, two classes of explanations can be raised. The first explanation is that it is simply random chance, like humans having five fingers instead of four. In contrast to this “materialistic” explanation, there is the “religious” explanation. It simply claims that this moral law that at least the vast majority of humanity instinctively knows is the result of some intelligence with preferences about people’s behavior and the ability to give people desires to behave in a certain way. Science cannot teach which is correct, because it only deals with how something behaves, not why it exists at all. That question belongs to metaphysics and, depending on the answer, theology.

However, this does not mean that the question must be abandoned; it is still possible to reach a conclusion from the phenomenon itself. Morality plays a critical role in holding together society. If the underlying ideas of morality were different or gone entirely, society would collapse. A world where never telling the truth to friends was a moral duty seems almost as unbelievable as one where 1 + 2 ? 2 + 1. So morality has to be very similar, if not identical, to what it is in order to fulfill its function. This correlation, combined with morality’s equally inexplicable existence, would be an absolutely amazing coincidence.

On the other hand, an intelligent agency appears to be a more plausible answer. If an outside force was acting on the universe, the only way it could be detected would be by the effects it had. To observe it directly, it would have to be inside the universe, and therefore, unable to change the laws that give it existence. The only case where something beyond the walls of nature, which simply describe what happens, not why, can be observed is in the observers, humanity. And here, in the one place where the reasons behind something can be analyzed, something inexplicable seems to be acting from outside. From this, it seems reasonably safe to infer that humanity inherent sense of right and wrong is due to the influence of an outside intelligence that, for some reason, cares how people act.

Here, unfortunately, a problem develops. Nobody keeps the moral law. Most people keep it some of the time, and some people keep it most of the time, but nobody alive keeps it all the time. The intelligence that gives this code must be powerful, because it can influence the desires of people, and must care how people act, because it does give them the desires. Depending on whether people choose to obey morality or not, this intelligence could be either a friend or an enemy. And we have all responded the wrong way.

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