That’s right; there is only one true morality. And like all important discussions, this one starts with a reference to Highlander. There can be only one! Which begs the question of what morality is, and that’s fine because it’s the simplest thing in the world: Morality is that which supports and defends life. Immorality is anything that harms or destroys life. That’s it. There are no exceptions and there is no need for religious support for philosophical argument. It’s self-evident, like the gravity of life.
You probably have questions.
Most of them likely start with, “What about…?”
And you might have assumptions.
Most of them probably start with, “You’re saying all life is equal” or “I’m not immoral just because I…” or “There is no morality without god.”
But let’s take a step back before we get into all that. The world is a messy place and resists simple solutions. We like our complexity because it creates gaps and exceptions where our ego and vanity can squeeze in, the same way corporations like tax loopholes. We’re drawn to moral relativity because it allows us to treat them differently than us. And we adore religious morality because it allows us to hate the damned for not being so gloriously like ourselves. What I’m proposing is that all of this is the worst kind of nonsense: systems of conceit built on foundations of self-interest that are not so much moral frameworks as conditional ethics based on power dynamics.
I reject them all, and so should you.
So let’s start with a few simple thought exercises and see where it gets us.
The Easy Stuff: Morality for the Masses
1 / It’s wrong to murder another person. This is true in most religions and cultures. Killing people is bad. We don’t really think about why; we accept the taking of human life as self-evidently wrong. Because it is. We don’t need god to tell us it’s the wrong thing to do; we know it is.
But what if they have it coming? We’ll get to this. There might be something such as justifiable homicide, but that doesn’t make it moral; it just makes it conditionally justified. And that’s where things will get complicated.
2 / It’s not wrong to break a rock. It might be aesthetically displeasing or irritating if we’re fond of rocks, but it’s not a moral issue. In the absence of life, there is no morality. A black hole can eat a sun, a sun can go supernova and take out an entire solar system and the entire universe could slowly fade and die. And not one moment of all those billions of years of destruction has the slightest moral meaning unless it harms or benefits life.
But what if it’s a unique and beautiful formation? That’s still not a moral issue. Aesthetic, yes. But unless life is harmed in some way, it’s of no moral consequence that a sand dune was violated. That that doesn’t make it right or good (which are positive affirmations weak people often seek for destructive acts); it’s just not immoral.
3 / It’s more wrong to kill multiple people than one. We all know this. Moral harm is not a single value, one or zero, but exists on an infinite spectrum from the slightest malfeasance to global genocide and beyond. Every sane person understands that Hitler was worse than Jack the Ripper. Thus there’s no point in making arguments like “X is right because Y is worse.” They are both wrong if they are both wrong, even if one is more wrong. Anything else is rationalization that likely benefits the person screaming loudest.
But what if they’re really terrible people? Says who? Moving on.
Slightly Harder Stuff: The Morality of Lesser Acts
4 / It’s wrong to physically or mentally assault anyone. This is obvious to most people. Raping a woman is wrong, punching a man is wrong, torturing a child is wrong and, yes, poisoning your boss is wrong (even if they had it coming). Morality isn’t just about death; it’s about every degree of physical or mental harm from wholesale genocide to verbal bullying.
5 / It’s wrong to impose our sloth and destructiveness on others. This might seem a bit random, but this is (again) not some final ordered list. It’s just an introduction to the idea of ‘one true morality’ to encourage feedback and thought. What I mean here is that it is not only overt acts of violence or hate that harm others and are thus immoral; it’s also all the little petty things we do every day. It’s tossing a cigarette out the window, which incurs cost on society (financial harm), damages the environment and threatens to burn forests down (harm to others). It’s peeing all over the bathroom and making someone else clean up after you. It’s taking up all the space in the overhead compartment so someone else has to check their bags. It’s making your partner clean up after you, being snide to the barista, stealing from a small business, and all the other things we take for granted as part of society.
I could give many more examples here, but this is just an introduction to the thought process underling one true morality. More details will come.
Even Harder Stuff: The Morality of Harming Lesser Things
6 / It’s wrong to harm all life, not just human beings. Most of us know it’s wrong to put a gun to a pet’s head and blow its brains out for fun. We generally cringe when someone tortures horses. But we tend to apply this allegedly moral framework conditionally, protecting big adorable animals (charismatic mega-fauna, as it were) while thinking nothing of killing rodents or snakes and smaller things for fun or convenience. One of the hardest things to accept about morality is that it is always wrong to harm any life for any reason, and yes that includes mosquitoes and grass. This doesn’t mean it’s not justifiable, rational or even unavoidable. The very act of existing means we harm tiny lesser things every day. Sometimes we need to eat animals to survive or flourish. That doesn’t mean killing a murder hornet is the same moral act as burning people in concentration camps. That would be absurd. These are not equivalent moral acts, but they are all still wrong.
Truly Hard Stuff: Absolute Morality
7 / Morality is not a vector. This is a mathematical term referring to something that has both value and direction, like an arrow or velocity. This is opposed to scalars, such as temperature, which have a value but no direction. Physics aside, the meaning here is very simple: a thing is wrong if it is wrong, not conditionally based on who did it and when or why. If sexism is wrong, it is always wrong, regardless of who’s doing it. If violence is wrong, it is always wrong, regardless of who justifies it. If lying is wrong because it deceives others, it is wrong, no matter how vital and necessary it seems at the time. And being less wrong doesn’t make you right.
But what if you’re correcting for past wrongs? It’s still wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s never justified; it means you don’t have a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. It was wrong to kill thousands of Japanese with atomic bombs. Morally, absolutely, wrong. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t justifiable by saving American lives or staving off nuclear war (where you’re balancing conflicting moral impacts–and I’m not saying it was or was not justified). Moral clarity doesn’t make all decisions binary and simple. It means you need to own the wrong that you do. People were burned alive and slaughtered. That’s always wrong.
The Hardest Stuff: The Impossibility of Purity
8 / It’s impossible to lead an entirely moral life. Life is constantly in conflict with other life. Some need to kill to survive. Some need to eat animals to live. We might need to slaughter entire species of mosquitoes to save millions of human lives. How these decisions are made and balanced is left until later, but understanding morality is not about seeking a perfect life or sainthood. It’s about understanding the truth and doing your best to live by it, even if you can never do it perfectly. Morality is simple but sloppy, easy to explain but hard to perfect.
What makes this even harder is that people don’t want to live with the weight of their failures. We want absolution for our sins. We want to think killing that home invader was not merely justified but good, but it wasn’t good. It was possibly legal and maybe necessary, but you still murdered someone. On balance, perhaps you saved your family’s lives or shelter, and thus made a valid decision when balancing two conflicting moral conditions. But that is about justice, the balancing of moral complexity, not morality itself. You killed someone. You need to own that. And that’s true at every level. You fire people to save other jobs, you’re still doing harm to the ones you fired. You force a person into quarantine to save others, you’re still doing harm to the one who’s temporarily imprisoned.
And this is perhaps the most important part of morality, because it defines how society structures itself and how we all live with each other. What immorality we justify in the name of some greater good. Which means the most moral society, and even a society striving to be moral, must constantly address the harm it does in the name of good, every day, with every policy, law, decision and act–forever, without pause or rest. We have to consider the jobs of coal miner when advocating clean energy. We must think about immigrant lives when we implement labor policies. We have no moral choice but to consider the harm to wildlife when building homeless shelters. And that’s staggeringly hard. To pretend otherwise is naive.
Justice: The Balance of Conflicting Moral Factors
9 / Justice is seeking the most moral outcome possible. In general, this means seeking not perfection, but balance. Justice is blind because she’s nominally objective, with no finger on the scale, but it’s still incredibly hard to balance that scale. Was a woman justified in shooting a man to save her child? Is a policy more beneficial than harmful, and how do you compensate those on the losing side of that policy?
None of this is new, but it does illustrate how complex the idea of a simple, clear morality can become in the face of social reality. Which is also what makes it essential. If you complicate morality with exceptions for your group or tribe, tweak it to benefit your religion, create loopholes for those in power, and so on, you complicate the search for justice to the point it becomes unattainable. Only by starting with simple, clear moral guidelines can justice ever be attained. In some ways, unnecessary complexity is itself an evil, like a contrived theoretical bureaucracy meant to paralyze people in their daily lives.
There Is No Justice without Truth
10 / Truth itself is required to make just and moral decisions. This means both objective truth (the actual facts, unbiased on opinion or power) and experiential truth (how people and other forms of life experience the world). You can’t tell which policies or acts are moral unless you understand first what is true, and true for all involved. Which is why society should have no tolerance of deceit, or at least very little. Businesses and governments should never be allowed to lie, except I suppose as needed for national security. If you have to lie or omit facts to defend your position or desires, you’re probably seeking an unjust or immoral outcome.
One True Morality: Well, So What?
This is just a first effort to document some thoughts I’ve had for years between other projects. They are not fully formed. I’ve always tried to live my life according to these guidelines (and usually failed), but what I find most distressing is how we as a society and culture have rejected these most basic values in search of power for ourselves. Republicans lie. Democrats, Libertarians and Greens do harm. Businesses and Nonprofits act in grossly immoral ways. We all do harm to each other every day, in countless major and infinite sad little forms. And until we decide we want a different society based on something moral or at least compassionate, it’s not going to get any better.
So I’d suggest re-calibrating to a few basic principles might be a good place to restart. And these are so simple, you don’t have to wait for the rest of society to get started:
1: Morality Means It’s Wrong to Harm Life and Good to Help Life
2: Justice is Found in Balancing Conflicting Moral Goods and Harms
3: Truth is Required to Obtain Moral or At Least Just Outcomes
That’s pretty much it. There is endless complexity underlying these statements, and I won’t pretend otherwise, but if we genuinely tried to live by these guidelines, society could hardly be any worse.
Those are my thoughts for now. What questions / challenges / triggers do these ideas bring up for you? What would you add or subtract? I’d love to hear from you as I develop next steps for this moral framework. If nothing else, it’ll give me things to think about over the holidays…when I really should be writing my next novel. Thank you.