Morality has been hijacked. But how and by whom has it been hijacked? To understand this, we first need to understand what morality is about.
What Morality is About
Chapman Cohen tells us,
morality is fundamentally the expression of those conditions under which associated life is found possible and profitable, and that so far as any quality is declared to be moral its justification and meaning must be found in that direction.1
Here is what he is telling us. People benefit from living together as social beings. Instead of living like wild animals, we can benefit from the labor and society of other people. We live in better shelters than other animals, and we can walk outside without being hunted by predators. Instead of hunting or gathering our own food, we can buy what we need at a store. Unlike the wild animals, we do not have to focus all our efforts on survival. Thanks to living in society, we benefit from the protection of others, from the use of technology, and from the availability of food, shelter, clothing, and other goods we need to survive.
Besides all these material benefits, living in society allows us to be fully human. With human society, we have leisure and culture. We may use these to pursue friendships, to study and learn about things that interest us, to play games and sports, to create or appreciate art, to read or write books, to program or use software, etc. We may even contemplate ideas and make our own contributions to culture. These activities help us rise above being mere animals. Thanks to our various cultural pursuits, we live higher, more ennobled lives than animals do.
But these benefits are not merely a product of being human. We enjoy them, because we follow common behavioral norms that allow society to function smoothly. These include norms that allow us to trust each other, to cooperate together, and for our lives and property to be kept safe from one another. Wild animals live in a state of anarchy, taking what they need without concern for others. We live better lives, because we have given up on being wild. We cooperate together to sustain a civilization that supports our needs better than we ever could on our own. Since we benefit so much from living in human society, we should do out part to maintain it. For Cohen, this is what morality is about. People are social animals, and morality consists in the norms people must abide by to maintain society.
There is much to what Cohen has to say about morality, but he also maintains that if you are alone on a deserted island, there is no occasion for morality. For him, morality is all about human relations. But what about your relationship with yourself?
Aristotle took the position that virtue is about maintaining character traits that best enable you to live the good life. The idea here is that happiness is not simply about what you have or your external circumstances but also about how you regulate your thoughts and emotions. If you’re alone on a deserted island, cultivating the right character traits can still make a world of difference in how well you thrive. If you give in to sloth, worry, or loneliness, you will not do very well. But if you discipline yourself to regularly do the things that need doing, and if you can find some occupation for your mind besides missing people, you will do better. So, while I agree with Cohen that maintaining the stability and harmony of society is a large part of morality, I also agree with Aristotle on the importance of virtue.
Putting these together, I would say that both the individual and society are important to morality. A related idea is that morality is about promoting human well-being. Sam Harris argues for this in The Moral Landscape.2 As I have argued in other posts, individual human lives are inherently valuable.3 Since one function of morality is to protect what is valuable, it follows that morality should be concerned with individual happiness. But because humans are social animals, and society, which is composed of many individuals, plays such a critical role in promoting human well-being, both materially and psychologically, protecting society is also a going concern of morality.
How Morality is Hijacked
Now that we know what morality is about, we can examine how it can be hijacked.
Step 1: Divorcing Morality from Real-World Consequences
The first step to hijacking morality is to divorce it from human life and society. This is commonly done by claiming that what really matters, morally speaking, is what will happen on Judgment Day or in the afterlife. One common idea is that this life will be followed by eternal reward in heaven or eternal punishment in hell. With these tremendous consequences looming over people, the real-life consequences of their actions become insignificant. After all, no earthly pleasure is worth eternal torment in hell, but any amount of earthly suffering is worth it if it will secure you eternal bliss in heaven. This makes the foreseeable consequences of your actions inconsequential while associating your actions with hidden consequences of supreme importance.
The important thing here is not the use of heaven and hell. Morality can be hijacked without bringing these in. The important thing is to connect actions with supernatural rewards or punishments that are considered to be of greater consequence than natural consequences. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the existence of hell, and apart from a select 144,000 anointed, they maintain that believers will be resurrected into an earthly paradise after the apocalypse. For them, it’s mainly about the reward. The important detail is that this reward is only for the obedient, not for everyone.
Step 2: Turning Over Morality to a Gatekeeper
The next step is to introduce the idea of a gatekeeper who will decide your reward or punishment. By having this control, the gatekeeper (or his spokesmen) gets to tell you what you must do to go to heaven and stay out of hell. This associates your actions with a new set of consequences. Unlike the real-world consequences of maintaining society, personal happiness, and human well-being, these cannot be known firsthand. These new consequences have to be learned about from the gatekeeper’s spokesmen. This completes the hijacking of morality. This involves unplugging you from natural morality, which is grounded in natural, predictable consequences, and plugging you into a fabricated morality, grounded in the arbitrary commands of a gatekeeper who is said to have the ultimate power to reward obedience and punish disobedience.
Examples of Hijacked Morality
When morality is hijacked in this way, it loses its connection with human life and society, leaving the spokesmen for the gatekeeper free to make up arbitrary or self-serving rules. You may find rules against innocent, harmless things like getting a tattoo. You may find rules favoring one group of people over another, such as allowing the subjugation of women by men or the enslavement of unbelievers by believers. Or you may find edicts favoring the spokesmen in particular.
For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, said that God wanted him to have more wives. When Muhammad, the founder of Islam, wanted the wife of his adopted son, he said that Allah said he should have her and that adoption was wrong.4 From the perspective of maintaining human happiness and keeping society intact, this kind of behavior is immoral. But when morality has been hijacked, the hijackers can pull crap like this and have people regard them as saints.
Even worse, a hijacked morality can lead people to do great harm in the name of morality. During the dark ages, the Catholic church often tortured and murdered people for the alleged crime of heresy. This is the so-called crime of disagreeing with a moral hijacker who is backed by political power. It is not immoral at all, but torturing and killing people for it is.
In the present-day, Muslim terrorists are frequently killing people for nothing more than disagreeing with their brand of Islam. I say "their brand of Islam," since the victims are sometimes Muslims themselves. With Muslim terrorists, many of these killings are suicide bombings, since they have been taught that Allah will reward them for this by delivering them to heaven right away. When someone is willing to kill himself and others for the sake of a reward in the afterlife, his moral sense has been completely hijacked. And when Muslim terrorists hijacked planes on 9/11, they did so, because Muhammad left behind teachings that were used to hijack their morality.
Effects of Hijacked Morality
Since hijacked morality is disconnected from present suffering and happiness, imposing it on people can have the effect of making them less likely to oppose oppression. For example, Jesus claimed that the fortunes of rich and poor would be reversed in the afterlife. This provides consolation for the poor and oppressed while making them less likely to rebel. It’s no coincidence that white Christian slavers were willing to share their religion with African slaves. It saddled them with a hijacked morality that could be used to keep them more docile.
Another effect of its disconnect with present suffering and happiness is that it is more onerous for people to follow than natural morality, making them more likely to resist and rebel against it. Insofar as they are resisting or rebelling against something that is wrong, this is good. But it normally comes with a dose of guilt, because it gets framed as resistance to or rebellion against morality itself. In this way, a hijacked morality casts its opponents as evil, and it makes people feel immoral for opposing it. But in its natural form, morality is good for people.
Limitations on Hijacked Morality
The good news is that natural selection keeps hijacked moralities from becoming completely immoral. The hijacked moralities I’ve mentioned belong to groups of people, not to lone individuals, and for these groups to survive, they have had to adopt rules of conduct between themselves that protect them from each other. So, there are generally rules against things like murder, theft, and adultery even in hijacked moralities.
Furthermore, some hijacked moralities have been losing ground to real morality. For example, the Bible allows slavery, insists on the subjugation of women by men, and advocates the execution of unruly children, non-virginal brides, homosexuals, and unbelievers. Nowadays, though, Christian morality is much more in line with secular morality, generally recognizing that people have equal rights, regardless of race, sex, religion, or sexual preference.
One reason for this progress is that groups of people living together have grown larger than religious communities. As people from different religious communities have come together into a larger secular community, they have had to put aside rules that would put them into conflict with each other. One very important place where this happened was in the American colonies. People from various religious communities had settled in North America, and unlike in Europe, there wasn’t a single religious community with much more power than the rest. So, instead of fighting it out, they made peace and formed a nation that guaranteed its citizens freedom of religion.
Casting Off Hijacked Morality
While it is good that the arbitrary commands of hijacked morality have been losing ground, it is still important to cast off hijacked morality completely. Some apologists claim that without belief in God, there is no basis for morality. This claim reveals a morality that is so hijacked, the real roots of morality have been forgotten. Let’s get in touch with the real basis for morality and take morality back from the hijackers.
Let’s understand that there is no sin in resisting a hijacked morality, and let’s recognize the crimes people have committed in the name of hijacked moralities. Ultimately, morality is about the conditions required for human happiness and well-being, which includes the stability and smooth functioning of human society. This is something that it is in everyone’s interest to care about, but for people to truly care about real morality, they have to recognize and give up the hijacked moralities they have been chained with.
- Theism or Atheism, Kindle loc. 2089, Page 156
- See my post The Moral Landscape’s Definition of Good for further details.
- Adoption in Islam and History of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Marriage to Zainab Bint Jahsh