The Moral Mental Block


Imagine for a moment that you can fly. You’re able to simply lift yourself off the ground by desiring to do so. Now imagine that you’re also able to leave earth’s atmosphere and move through space like Superman, soaring over continents and oceans, and returning to the planet in Sydney, Australia. You stop in for a quick play at the opera house, grab some fried gator tail, and lift off again heading west over the ocean toward home. You punch through the sound barrier and arrive back at home just after dark, stealthily descending so as not to be seen by any neighbors and keeping your super powers a secret.

That was fairly easy to imagine, wasn’t it? Most of us aren’t troubled by the fact that we know this scenario to be completely impossible; this presents virtually no obstacle to our imaginations. This and countless other physically impossible, even intrinsically impossible, scenarios can be pictured by the human mind. Imaginations are pretty great like that. Imagine a world where you could become invisible at will, or where goblins live in your basement, or where your future self could communicate telepathically with your present self. Easy.

But now imagine a world where cowardice is praised as a virtue, and where rape is applauded and murder encouraged.

It’s pretty tough when you really try. In truth, we probably won’t imagine a world where those things were actually right or good, but rather a world where people had just gone wrong. This is the wall we run into when we try to imagine an alien or polar morality. It’s very unnatural and uncomfortable to attempt to suspend our actual morality even for a brief, imaginative assent to an alien morality.

This imaginative resistance could be because we’re afraid of the export phenomenon, where the act of imagining a new morality actually rewires our real morality. Our own moral compass is vitally important to every relationship we have, almost every decision we make, and generally the way we relate to the world. If that compass were compromised, not only would it change everything we do, it would seem to change who we are. This means that the suspension of belief that can be fun and easy for physical and narrative fictions can be dangerous for moral fictions. Our natural resistance to alien moralities could be a defense mechanism to protect that most vital of faculties: our sense of right and wrong.

Because of what’s at stake in defending our moral compass, our reactions against foreign moralities could be severe. In a simple thought experiment like the one above we may only experience that “imaginative resistance”. An alien morality embedded into a fictional narrative, however, may be met with repulsion and disgust. But if we sense an actual intent to altar our morality through propaganda or explicit indoctrination, we may react with anger and even hostility. This is why Nazism and Stalinism are so repulsive: not solely because of the atrocities they were responsible for, but because their novel moralities justified them. The most horrifying charge that can be made against a person or a group is not that they’re bad, but that they think bad is good. All sorts of ideologies, philosophies, and religions are objected to every day, and on many different grounds, but the most passionate and emotional objections are almost always made on moral grounds.

That’s why I have sympathy with anyone who objects to Christianity, for example, on moral grounds, whether by indicting the moral behavior of Christians themselves or by indicting God, the supposedly good and all-powerful deity who allows pain and suffering in his creation. Now, finding bad behavior among Christians is often easier than shooting fish in a barrel, but as an objection to Christianity it doesn’t work, a) because it commits the ad hominem fallacy, and b) because Christianity accounts for this with its doctrine that “all have sinned”. Objections to the goodness of God, however, need to be attended to.  What’s to be made of a God who orders one people group to destroy another and move into their land? Or a God who condemns anyone to hell who hasn’t ever heard of Jesus? Or a Church who refuses the institution of marriage to a loving homosexual couple? Aren’t these all contradictory to basic, widely accepted morality? Isn’t Christianity calling bad “good”, or at least good “bad”?

For anyone with that perspective, the not unnatural resistance, repulsion, or anger they may feel about these and other issues is understandable. It’s also understandable if they’re often unwilling to entertain further discussion or explanation about their objections, perhaps, for fear of their sense of right and wrong being contaminated. But to that, I can only implore that they entertain reasonable explanations from Christians that they otherwise deem to be honorable, moral people. In a lot of cases, a tragic and simple lack of education regarding very basic Christianity is to blame for those and other misunderstandings. For some of the more informed and complex objections, there are often more complex, nuanced answers (but how is that different than anything else we’ve discovered to be true in the world?).

But the question they ultimately need to ask themselves — and we all need to ask ourselves — is “where did I get my sense of right and wrong in the first place?” How do we know that our morality is correct? What is “good” and what is “bad”? If you have a moral compass that tells you right from wrong, then you’re acknowledging two important components to be at work: a moral North that actually exists, and some faculty within you that points to it. Some people try to avoid the implications of an objective morality by relativizing it, saying that everybody has their own good and bad, right and wrong. But the moment they’re wronged in some way, they’re calling for justice and appealing to an objective morality like everybody else. The same thing happens when morality is explained away as a highly evolved set of animal social behaviors, of which we see more primitive examples in a band of gorillas or a troop of baboons. Not only is the path from primate social behavior to human morality untraceable and thus unprovable, but the atheistic, materialistic presupposition from which it usually comes again leaves us with the problem of a meaningless, relativistic morality that all common human experience rejects.

Morality, then, belongs with the other transcendental phenomena also common to human experience like rationality, truth, goodness, and beauty. Without speculating as to the origin of such an objective, transcendental morality, C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, presents the most lucid argument I know of for the acceptance of this absolute value system (and the rejection of radically different value systems), noting the great common thread running throughout all the great ancient systems, Western and Eastern, from Jewish Torah to Indian Dharma to Chinese Tao. Even with some disagreements or contradictions between the systems, they nevertheless agree about the objectivity and universality of the thing they point to. Similarly, even when two people have a disagreement, they don’t merely battle it out in a Nietzschean will to power (usually); they bicker about who’s actually right, appealing, therefore, to an objective right and wrong.

And the better among us — the sages and the Saints — are more in touch with that objective reality than others. We all sense that it’s there, but we don’t all know it equally, nor do we all conform to what we do know as much as we ought. That’s why we can actually be educated in it by those who know it better than ourselves. We should constantly be challenging ourselves and our sense of right and wrong, desiring a deeper education in the truth of things. Conversely, though, that’s also why we have to watch out for false or ill-taught teachers, employing our moral mental block when we sense bad guidance. That’s not to say we should be closed-minded or timid, but only that we should be sharp, vigilant in our honest search for truth. And if we acknowledge that truth is really true, and that goodness is really good, and that right is really right, then we’re acknowledging, I think, a divine origin for these things (and thus, for all things). For true Saints, this realization has always led them beyond mere moral behavior to direct participation in the One who is very Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

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