S C I E N C E & S P I R I T



"The Inclined Plane of Morality"

by Gautam Sen (who is from India and
a teacher of high school economics and business in Turkey).

Links to related pages on Serendip include "Getting It Less Wrong,"
Writing Descartes and Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience.

It seems almost a truism that doing the good or the right thing is often more difficult than doing the opposite. Acting to do right or good seems to require more effort than doing wrong--the effort being spent in trying to overcome one's own inertia, or the hindering pull of consensus, or the desire for some sensual or emotional gratification. It may be that doing good also has its own payoffs, but these have to be counterbalanced again the "drag" exerted by the choices not to do good, or to actually do evil.

It is for this reason that I have often regarded our efforts to act morally as analogous to moving an object up an inclined plane. Just as objects placed on an inclined plane more "naturally" roll down the plane than up it, so do we human beings more naturally tend to be dragged down the plane of morality by our natural biological and psychological endowments.

Of course, the characterization of anger, lust, greed as "evil" and a "drag" down the inclined plane is itself a "construction" of our minds--they have no objective existence as part of the fabric of the world, except to the extent that our minds themselves are part of the universe. Nor do the concepts of good and right. So shorn of this imposed grid of moral judgment, the inclined plane is simply a recognition that we have certain tendencies to behave in certain ways (that we call wrong or evil) as a result of the evolutionary inheritance of our biological or psychological programming. To behave and act in certain other ways (that we call right or good) is also potentially available to us, but these ways require a conscious choice and effort of overcoming our natural programming.

What we have naturally is, on the one hand, a set of forces dragging us "down" towards "wrong" and "evil"--the forces of "gravitation" and "friction" if you like --that act on the object lying on the moral inclined plane. On the other hand, we also have a mind and a brain that allows us the potential to act "rightly" and to do "good."

This may seem an elaborate and pretentious way of saying something that is well recognized in certain religious traditions--that humans are naturally evil. But I am suggesting that our potential capacity for goodness is also natural. For instance, most of us, unless we are psychopathic, probably have a natural resistance to hurting or killing our own kind, and do so only under somewhat special circumstances, even if their frequency makes it seem as if we kill naturally. Similarly, we also seem to have the natural capacity to recognize the distress and happiness of others, including other beings, and we regard it as a mark of psychopathology when we fail to do so.

This natural potential for goodness, or at least the forbearance to do evil, resides in our capacity to transcend and override our biological and psychological programming. It is probably part of what is referred to in religious language as the divine spark hidden in human beings. All religious traditions that I know of may be regarded as elaborations of the ways in which this divine spark can be lit. The urge to go up the inclined plane of morality is a manifestation of this divine spark, this desire to transcend one's merely human limitations and reach out towards divinity. The effort required for this transcendence is what makes it difficult, and much religious teachings and disciplines are about the development of the potential capacity for transcendence.

What I am also suggesting is that the religious impulse in human beings--the impulse to discover the divine spark, the impulse for transcendence--may also be a feature or a consequence of our consciousness that flows from certain of our neurological features, and therefore part of our natural inheritance. This also implies that our capacity to spin out notions of good and evil, of morality, of transcendence and divinity, may--much like the spider's capacity to spin webs in different places--be a reflex of our natural inheritance. The recognition of divinity--an ontological extrapolation of our humanness to a being higher than ourselves, to paraphrase an idea from Huston Smith--may be inherent in the way in which our minds work. This may not be reflected in an explicit recognition of God: even humanists and atheists are known to strive to exceed their own human limitations, and so struggle up the inclined plane of morality.

I have speculated here about the natural origins of morality and religion, but not, I hope, in a reductive way that suggests that they are nothing but the manifestation of something more fundamental. I have for some time been increasingly impatient of attempts to reduce religion and morality to false consciousness, a desire for a father figure, a product of memetic evolution, and goodness knows what else. I find these reductions misleading and insufficiently respectful of the complexity of what the reductions seek to explain. But I nevertheless find increasingly fascinating both the attempts to search for a perennial philosophy, and finding links between it and the worlds of neuroscience and psychology.



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