The idea that if God is dead, then anything is permitted was really only briefly popular back in modernism’s heyday. Science’s inability to discern value in any objective or universal sense lead more honest materialistic philosophers to conclude that there is no moral value in the way most people think of it–only personal preferences. Thankfully, that idea never caught on among the masses, but many so-called intellectuals were proud of being able to scale the lofty heights of reason where they could see that there’s not really anything wrong with murder; it’s just that most people don’t particularly want to be murdered. If the masses couldn’t quite catch on, well… that’s why they’re the masses. Many elites, on the other hand, were quite eager to be set free from outdated notions of their behavior being judged to be good or bad.
But that was modernism.
Many postmodernists, on the other hand, still maintain the absence of any objective moral value, but nonetheless seem quite eager to judge and be judged. At least they are eager to be judged morally good–being judged morally deficient still seems to rankle them. This is why, in many discussions involving morality and religion or belief in the divine, such individuals are quick to point out that people have done horrible things in the name of their beliefs in objective value. The examples of holy wars, terrorist attacks, witch hunts, and discrimination are familiar enough. If these people weren’t so darn certain about what was good, then they would never have been motivated to do such great harm. If nothing has any worth, then nothing is worth killing for.
And so, you find many people espousing the virtue of moral uncertainty–that uncertainty leads to better behavior than moral convictions do. In short, these meek and modest folk have nothing of moral importance to preserve, and so they will never go to harmful lengths to preserve it.
Now philosophically, this is garbage. The observant reader will be quick to notice some very obvious assumptions about moral atrocities that precede any talk of uncertainty. Any such conversation will quickly reveal that these uncertain folk seem quite certain indeed that crusades and witch hunts are actually bad. In fact, the entire case rests on all participants in the conversation agreeing that some kinds of behavior are better and worse than others. The reason so few people do notice these underlying moral certainties is that they are so certain of them that questioning them would never even show up on their radar. One could simply make a case that witch-hunts were fantastic in order to see how quickly their professed moral uncertainty evaporates.
While it’s helpful to recognize the incoherence and hypocrisy underlying this talk of moral uncertainty, it’s also worth investigating its other key deficiency: the myopic focus on grand atrocities. While they make for memorable stories, most of the day-to-day harm we encounter really has nothing to do with moral certainties. For example, I was recently told about a hospital visit at which a partially paralyzed man needed someone to move him from his bed to a wheelchair so that he could leave. When the time came, the attendant nurses seemed to keep finding reasons to be temporarily elsewhere. When they could not help being present, they began to insist that the driver of the medivan that would take him home would do the transfer (when their policy has always been not to perform transfers). In the end, his wife was forced to transfer him all by herself, while the trained nurses gave faux cheers for “showing them how to do it properly.” Were these nurses all members of some new cult whose deity forbids diligence in doing their jobs? Probably not. More likely, they just wanted to avoid doing an unpleasant task.
And it is there that we find the cause of most evil deeds: somebody wanted what the evil deed would provide them. Moral certainties, after all, are not the only motivating factors in the human psyche. People are murdered because somebody wants them dead. People are raped because somebody wants them raped. People are deprived of their property because somebody else wants that property. These are not the work of supposedly archaic certainties; they are simply the work of everyday desires. Moral certainties, on the other hand, actually hedge these very desires in order to prevent evil.
It is here that the confidently uncertain will crow that they’re not the kind of people who wants to do terrible things in the first place. Shortly thereafter, the accusations typically begin: “And just what kind of person are you that you need rules to keep you from doing evil? Do you want to rape? To murder? Is it only your belief in God that’s holding you back from your depraved longings?” And so the confidently uncertain once again slip up and reveal their underlying certainty that some things are simply wrong. After all, they seem quite smug at not being the kind of person who wants to do wrong things.
Of course, people who believe that are either being deeply dishonest with themselves or have led very sheltered lives. Don’t get me wrong; if you ask anyone whether they want to commit murder, they will say no. Of course they don’t! They don’t have to spend time calculating whether or not they would be better off if they commit murder; they simply know that murder is evil and don’t want to be evil! Nevertheless, the fact that murders continue is proof enough that the desire to murder also continues. The reason for this is that we have conflicting desires. We can simultaneously want to treasure and protect our significant other and want to smack him/her upside their head when they’re wronging us. We can want to be diligent workers and simultaneously want to spend an hour using Facebook at the office. Honest self-evaluation will corroborate this. When you’ve lived life a little bit, you learn that desires aren’t black & white, but are merely shades of gray.
It is precisely here that moral certainty helps to cut through the chaos. If we consistently resist the urge to harm another, it is because we are certain that it is wrong to do so. If our desire to harm another is perpetually weak, then it is because we have trained it to be weak. If, on the other hand, we have a hard time choosing whether or not to harm our neighbor, it is because we have nothing apart from desire itself to decide which contradictory desire we will follow.
But what about those grand atrocities committed in the name of lofty ideals? What can hedge against them? The answer is clearly not uncertainty. Even if people were capable of being morally uncertain, unleashing a flood of everyday mayhem is hardly preferable to occasional grand atrocities. Furthermore, such mayhem seems fertile ground in which the grand atrocities will mature. The answer, instead, is to be certain about the right things. The fact that even the uncertain don’t seriously argue about whether rape and murder are really wrong suggests that we already have a common framework with which to evaluate moral principles. Rather than dishonestly pretending to be uncertain to feed our egos, perhaps we should put that framework to use and learn what is right.