Morality and Bad Faith

Morality includes two big lies. One is that the interests of the collective are the interests of the individual. The other is that the interests of the collective are the interests of the cosmos. The reality is that individuals have their own interests, collectives have their own interests, and the cosmos has no interests. Collective interests can be understood as solutions to problems of cooperation, such as the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons.

Life is competitive, and so each individual has an incentive to harm others and take resources from others. However, individuals can also benefit from cooperation. Within a collective, it could be that most people would benefit from a general prohibition on certain types of competition, such as murder, rape and theft. While the individual might benefit from committing such acts, he would also be harmed by others committing those acts against him. Thus, the individual is willing to trade his freedom to murder, rape and steal for protection from those acts. That is how collective values emerge.

Collective solutions to problems of cooperation become collective values. The members of the collective agree that murder, rape and theft are bad, and then they develop a power structure that can impose that value on its members.

You can use the prisoner’s dilemma as a way to think about the difference between individual and collective incentives. In the prisoner’s dilemma, each individual has an incentive to defect, but together the prisoners have an incentive to cooperate.

In essence, a society is a power structure that turns collective incentives into individual incentives, and thereby solves problems of cooperation like the prisoner’s dilemma. Collective values — usually but not always viewed as “moral” values — are the collective recognition of collective interests.

Many readers will immediately reject the claim that they have a natural incentive to rape, kill or steal. You might believe that you are intrinsically motivated to avoid hurting others, and to help them, and so you would never commit such acts, regardless of the social power structure. If so, you are deceived. That belief is part of the grand deception of morality.

Collective values become morality through deception. Members of the collective pretend that collective values (such as “rape is bad”) are cosmic. They pretend (and believe) that these values come from some external source, rather than from the collective. Often this external source is a god. Members of the collective also pretend that collective values are not imposed on them, but are intrinsic to them. In other words, they pretend to be “good”, and most of them believe that they are “good”.

This double pretense is the grand deception of morality. It projects collective values onto the cosmos, and also into the individual. It pretends that moral values are both cosmic and personal.

In reality, individuals are intrinsically “evil”. They do not have collective values built into them. Like all life forms, the human form was generated by evolution, and evolution selects for reproductive selfishness.

The cosmos is also “evil”. The universe is hostile to life. Nature is intrinsically competitive. Physics and biology do not impose cooperation on individuals or collectives.

It is society that creates cooperation. Individuals can organize into a society, for their mutual benefit. Within that society, they can define collective values and impose them on individuals. Collective values are not cosmic, and they are not imposed by God or nature.

The ordinary person does not understand the relation between the cosmos, society and the individual. He believes that there is a moral dimension to the universe, and that he is internally aligned with it. He believes that good and evil are objective, that he is good, that society is created by the goodness of individuals, and that his society is (or should be) good.

This is all delusion/deception.

The big lies of morality require many little lies to be sustained. The pretense of individual goodness requires a layer of pretense, rationalization and self-deception to cover up the true motivations of individuals.

The belief that collective values are cosmic creates the “problem of evil”, which is the need to explain why the world does not appear to operate by collective values, or in other words, why the world is evil.

The problem of evil is dodged in two ways. One is explaining evil as due to evil forces that somehow exist in spite of the universe being essentially good. The other is ignoring or denying the deviation of reality from moral values.

Morality creates a social environment of bad faith. It requires a vast web of deception, in which every member of society participates. Morality necessitates hypocrisy on a grand scale.

Individuals naturally pursue their own interests within society, and those interests are somewhat at odds with collective interests. Individuals will profess their moral goodness, while breaking or bending collective values to their benefit whenever possible. They will also lie in various ways to justify these transgressions against the collective.

Morality creates a competition in which each individual tries to increase his moral rights and decrease his moral obligations. Ironically, although collective values exist to solve problems of cooperation, they create a new layer of competition with its own problems of cooperation.

Societies also pursue their interests in the world, and those interests often conflict with the interests of other societies and other living beings.

For example, a society must extract resources from nature, and so it must kill animals and plants, and destroy ecosystems to survive and grow. It must, in other words, kill and seize resources from nature, while prohibiting such behavior internally. A society will also be in competition with other societies, and so it will fight wars that involve killing, raping and seizing property from other people. In war, a society will behave in ways that violate its internal norms of behavior. Also, a society must impose order on its members by force and without consent, while prohibiting such behavior by its members. Again, it must act in ways that violate its internal norms.

A society cannot live by its own internal rules, because it exists in a larger context (nature) that does not play by those rules. This wouldn’t be hypocritical if we understood and accepted that collective values reflect collective interests, not a cosmic moral dimension. However, because morality involves the lie that collective values are cosmic, every society requires an additional layer of deception that justifies and/or hides a moral double standard.

In particular, morality requires a distinction between insider and outsider. The insider is worthy of care and protection. The outsider can or should be harmed.

There are different types of moral outsiders, such as food animals, slaves, external enemies and internal enemies. Those that compete with the collective are labeled “evil”, and harming them is viewed as good. Those that the collective uses or consumes, such as slaves or farm animals, are not viewed as evil, but as less worthy of concern than members of the collective, so their use or consumption is morally justified.

The moral status of the outsider is based on the interests of the collective, but morality pretends that it is based on the intrinsic, objective nature of the outsider. That is another big lie.

The insider | outsider distinction justifies a society pursuing its own interests in relations with individuals, other societies, and nature.

Even though rape, murder and theft are supposed to be objectively bad, this only applies to objectively “good” people. By this epicycle, rape, murder and theft can be made “good”, when they are committed against “evil” people, such as criminals or members of an enemy society. Social power is morally justified as necessary to fight against evil. Enslaving people and killing animals is justified by viewing them as lesser beings.

Every society claims to be aligned with the cosmic good, and claims the moral right to impose order on its members, take resources from nature, and destroy its enemies.

Social power has a pragmatic justification, as does the insider | outsider distinction. But if we pretend that collective values are cosmic and built into human nature, then a complex web of deception is necessary to hide the true relationship between nature, society and the individual.

Morality does not make us “good”. Nothing could make us “good” in the sense of being altruistic or aligned with some cosmic moral dimension, because (a) we are naturally selfish, and (b) there is no cosmic moral dimension. Social power creates the incentives that align individual interests with collective interests. Morality is a grand deception that justifies social power, and it is useful in that regard, but it has huge costs.

Morality makes us into liars and hypocrites, as individuals and collectives. It generates a complex web of pretense, deception and delusion. This bad faith permeates all social discourse and belief. It prevents us from understanding and speaking the truth about nature, society, human nature and our own motivations.