Inspired by a comment I left at Slate Star Codex, I’d like to present two rules that a robust moral system must satisfy. Let me begin by stating that I am under no illusion that these rules are original to me. The philosophical literature has already dealt with both of these rules in depth. Unfortunately, basic moral philosophy appears to be a set of narratives that human beings need to reinvent and re-state again and again across each generation. This probably serves a good purpose, namely that “no one ought to deprive you of your right to life” sounds a lot better to modern ears than “thou shalt not kill,” even though they articulate the same basic moral theory. Humanity thrives on the stories we tell ourselves, especially the moral stories we tell ourselves, and so it is our destiny to repeat our moral tenets over and over again, in evolving contemporary language, throughout time unto infinity.
But back to what I was saying. Every robust moral system must satisfy two rules: (1) Be a better person, and (2) Don’t be an evil person.
It’s easy to see how these two rules differ from each other. While (1) is primarily about elevating your moral standards and holding yourself to a higher sense of purpose, (2) is primarily above avoiding acts and behaviors that are almost universally understood to be terrible. Thus, a good example of (1) might be “spend more time with your kids,” while a good example of (2) might be “don’t ever physically hurt your children, neither intentionally nor through neglect.” We can see how spending more time with your kids would help us avoid hurting them through neglect, but neither statement on its own is enough to get us to a moral relationship with our children. By contrast, living both statements to the greatest extent possible gets us a lot closer to having a moral parent-child relationship.
I could provide additional examples, but I won’t.
Some moralists are very off-putting people. They scorn everyone who fails to live up to their moral preferences. I believe that people like this have a tendency to turn every moral guideline into some version of rule (2). Instead of advising caution and modesty in romantic relationships, they decry fornication. Rather than advocating for a reduced carbon footprint, they criticize anyone who drives an SUV. For such people, no one is moral unless they avoid the major prohibitions. It’s not about being honest, it’s about not lying; it’s not about being generous, it’s about not being greedy. Wherever such people go, shame and damnation follows them. No wonder we find such people off-putting.
But there are some people who have the opposite problem: they never apply rule (2) to their moral system, and thus everything becomes some version of rule (1). For them “I did the best that I could” shall be the whole of the law. These are the folks who are always rationalizing their clearly moral behavior. If they cut someone off in traffic, they figure that they either had no choice, or that everyone else was doing it, too. If they tell a lie, it’s always because they had a very good reason to do it. If they fail to save a drowning baby, it’s because they didn’t want to put themselves at risk since they have children of their own to worry about. Without any definite moral wrongs to avoid, they are free to engage in any behavior and, as long as someone out there is doing worse, they can reason that they never went too far.
A robust moral system – one that consistently guides you toward doing the right thing – will have a good blend of recommendations for being a better person, and recommendations for not being an evil person. A robust moral system will command you not to engage in that which is clearly harmful, and you will obey; but it will also inspire you to make small moral improvements every day throughout your life. In this way, it sets out the limits of moral behavior, and then asks us to improve our average behavior.
Living by a system that incorporates both rules will make you a moral person indeed.