Note: If you have not read “The Objective Morality of Transcendent Experience Part 1,” please click here to do so now for clarity before reading below.
If some of our inborn intuitions are as I have described in my article, “The Objective Morality of Transcendent Experience Part 1,” then they will indeed “identify in advance” principles that will lead us to transcendent experience. But why, in the first place, would our evolutionarily-constructed inborn moral intuitions tell us to adopt behaviors (such as “You ought to serve others at the cost of X degree of hardship for yourself”) that would seem to actually jeopardize our survival? Such behaviors on the part of individuals might indeed jeopardize the survival of those individuals, but natural selection might more importantly be operating here at the group level. Yaw (Mike) Amanpene has written:
Darwin’s reasoning for the existence of altruistic behaviour could be conceptualised as follows. Given two groups, one comprised of selfish individuals and the other consisting of altruists, the latter would prosper better than the former – that is, they would be favoured by natural selection operating at the group level. This view is intellectually captured by Darwin (1981, 166) as follows:
“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”
Reminder: “selected” means that tribes which accidental mutation had endowed with few if any such people were more likely to die off (if they survived, it was because they had other good genes).
F. But the question will arise why our evolutionarily-constructed inborn moral intuitions would tell us to adopt behaviors that would seem actually to jeopardize our survival. The idea of natural selection operating at the group level answers this question.
As mentioned earlier, most people who have attained transcendent experience will go on to help others attain it. But even if transcendent experience in a sufficient number of members of a group were not evolutionarily adaptive, our inborn intuitions might support moral principles that would be conducive to transcendent experience, due to an evolutionary mistake (not the same as the possible evolutionary accident I have also referred to): One might expect prima facie from basic natural-selection theory that an evolutionarily-programmed moral intuition goading one toward choices to act “for the common good” would goad one to act for the common good defined as the common survival, and the general fitness of people’s reproductive systems. But it seems clear that in terms of one’s individual survival and health, natural selection has provided us a steering mechanism designed for the attainment of those goals, and that steering mechanism is happiness. Overall it seems to be true that what tastes good will also be healthful for us (though there may be some serious pitfalls in relying on this). One eats a bunch of grapes thinking not “I must do this in order to survive,” but thinking rather “I’m sure getting a lot of fun from the taste of these grapes.” In short, the steering mechanism consists in assigning happiness as a “placeholder” for survival, a placeholder for “evolutionarily successful”.
So it seems quite likely that our innate moral intuitions goading us toward choices to act for the common good would interpret the maximum happiness, overall, of the tribe as the common good of the tribe – maybe even in situations where it did not represent the common survival good of the tribe. And “those who have experienced the deep peace of meditation usually consider transcendent experience (or some final culmination thereof) to be the highest good possible for humans,” the most positive human experience, the greatest happiness. So our innate moral intuitions would interpret the maximum transcendent experience of the tribe as the common good of the tribe.
G. Even if transcendent experience in a sufficient number of members of a group were not evolutionarily adaptive, our inborn intuitions might support moral principles that would be conducive to transcendent experience, due to happiness functioning as a “placeholder” for survival.
But are such moral intuitions necessarily philosophically-correct intuitions? Humans are certainly not endowed with correct moral intuitions only – many humans have incorrect ones. How are we to decide which are correct?
In Part 1 I wrote, “But there can be broad agreement that if a moral principle leads to the highest good overall for living beings, that moral principle is indeed an objectively-correct moral principle, and there is such a thing as objective moral truth. (Further defense of this ‘broad agreement’ idea later.)” There is and can be no scientific proof that happiness is morally better than misery Though everyone may value their own happiness, at least, over their own misery, values are not a subject of science. So on what would a philosophical claim that happiness is morally better than misery rest? What we can say is that there is no one who subscribes to a philosophical school of skepticism or nihilism who manages to really live their beliefs. A nihilist is forced by his own beliefs to say there is nothing really good about being a nihilist, but he obviously thinks that it is good. No one can prove that a society abounding in transcendent experiences is morally better than a society of unending misery, but if we have to assume anything, we can assume that. So however our intuitions came to assert that maximizing happiness is good, which may been due to the evolutionary “placeholder” mistake that I have posited, I think we should consider those intuitions correct.
Should the idea that intuitions promoting the maximization of transcendent experiences in society are correct intuitions be categorized as utilitarianism? I don’t think so. Utilitarianism may trip up because happiness of a kind, even a happiness widespread in society, can come about in very dubious ways, but transcendent experience is a kind of happiness that does not depend on any thing or event that is of the external world, and hence could not be attained by seeking anything in the external world
So if our unconsciouses, as constructed by evolution, consider happiness a good value and generate moral intuitions accordingly that support moral principles that lead to happiness and transcendent experience, I think it would be a cerebral academic exercise to debate with them. There is indeed an objective morality, and the compass as to that morality that we are all born with – our moral intuitions, a sense of right and wrong, a conscience – is correct.
H. Our early proposition “If a moral principle leads to the highest good overall for living beings, that moral principle is indeed an objectively-correct moral principle, and there is such a thing as objective moral truth,” until now supported only by the “broad agreement” idea, stands up to further philosophical examination.
But let’s get back to “How are we to decide which [moral intuitions] are correct?” Though everyone is, most fundamentally, correct to follow their intuitions to seek happiness, a kind of happiness can result for different people in very diverse ways. So though we have found there to be an objective morality, there is rampant imperfection in the actual expression of it when it comes to the many specific moral decisions we have to make, and there are dramatic disagreements among people about some principles that I would call objective. How to explain this? Let’s think about three factors.
a. We are still largely animals. Evolution hasn’t overcome the animal tendency toward selfishness. We have only begun to develop self-sacrifice.
b. To get at that compass for transcendent experience, or even just to get at our most correct intuitions for the success of the species, we may have to peel away layers of ego protection in the forms of various psychological weaknesses – tribalism, projection, neurotic emotional needs, denial – in order for our consciences to emerge. Only those who are free from such weaknesses can have the really high level of moral sensitivity inherent in a really healthy mind, that we need to apply to any situation in life that may arise. We realize, not surprisingly, that peeling away those layers and moving toward transcendent experience go hand in hand. And in fact it will be impossible to abandon those mental mechanisms, which keep our cherished egos intact, until we start to taste the transcendent experiences that are the rewards for that abandonment – so that our own physical security, worldly pleasures, and self-congratulation come to seem cheap by comparison.
But this is the tough part. It may be that transcendent experiences can be explained entirely by certain patterns of synaptic firing in the physical matter of our brains, but nonetheless, such experiences are notoriously hard to come by because they require an escape from ego, an escape most reliably brought on by “a lifetime’s death in love, ardor and selflessness and self-surrender.” Meditation is the first part of the solution, but psychotherapy is often a more direct way than meditation to correct the downstream effects of childhood traumas, which both damage us psychologically and distort our perceptions of practically everything – right and wrong being not least among those things.
The developmental framework I have used here is the framework used by depth therapy, that is, a kind of psychodynamic therapy that tries to help the person reconnect with and thus get substantially free from childhood traumas. But though I have described this issue using this framework, I will not weigh in here on whether some form of depth therapy, or some other psychodynamic strategy, or some directive strategy, might work best for most individuals.
We can summarize as follows a path to find within ourselves, and to live out, the most correct moral intuitions:
i. Correct moral principles are the principles supported by correct moral intuitions.
ii. The most correct moral intuitions are the moral intuitions of the most morally-developed people. Only a moral person can deeply understand morality.
iii. Anyone can develop morally through a determination to do so and a willingness to change, and constant thinking and discussion about morality, and a selfless lifestyle, and meditation, and psychotherapy.
iv. Morally-developed people will tend to recognize each other, and their moral intuitions will increasingly converge as they develop.
v. Morally-developed people will not be reliably able to convince others through any rational process. The only way to the surest kind of knowledge of moral truth is as in 3 above.
My proposal has some strong similarities with virtue ethics, but also some dissimilarities. I won’t elaborate on this here.
c. Evolution hasn’t always brought about heavy-handed moral intuitions, therefore much depends on upbringing. According to moral psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, we are all born in innate agreement with six moral judgments which he calls, because of their lack of specificity, “moral foundations.” Two examples are, in my words, “Care is good and harm is bad,” and “Fairness is good and cheating is bad.” (Note that those two principles may sometimes work against each other.) So at bottom, the foundations, as I understand them, are a source of agreement of opinion among people, rather than a source of disagreement. But then what happens, Haidt says (as at 7:51 of this TED talk of Haidt’s), is that the first, inborn – and unifying, not dividing – “draft” of any child’s moral foundations gets “revised” by parental and community influences that differ from other parental and community influences into a new “draft” that will differ from those of other people – resulting in disagreement, division, and discord.
I. Having looked at the fact “there are dramatic disagreements among people about some principles that I would call objective” and shown that it does not undermine our argument, we can take stock as follows –
Questions 1-3 have now been answered (how to identify the intuitions, how do they originate, and how to explain their efficacy), and we are ready to get back to our original conditional proposition (paragraph 3) and conclude that there are indeed moral principles that lead to the highest good overall for living beings, and that therefore those moral principles are objectively-correct moral principle, and that there is such a thing as objective moral truth:
If I am correct that we have inborn moral intuitions identifying and supporting altruistic (self-sacrificing) moral principles that promote group survival, based on natural selection operating at the group level; and correct that the unconscious sources of those intuitions produce intuitions that support group happiness as a “placeholder” for survival (or correct about a few other possible avenues from “survival” to “happiness”); and correct that adherence to self-sacrificing moral principles that we do have leads one to a newfound peace of mind that in turn prompts one to further ego loss, and transcendent experience – which meditation can undeniably achieve, possibly because of an evolutionary accident; and correct that those who attain transcendent experience will likely lead others to it (resulting in overall happiness for the group); and correct about how to find within ourselves the most correct moral intuitions; then a moral principle such as “You ought to serve others at the cost of X degree of hardship for yourself” is indeed an objectively-correct moral principle, and is moreover a moral principle whose correctness is maximally established, and there is such a thing as objective moral truth, and that moral principle and moral truth can be identified by the moral intuitions of a morally-developed person.
A thought that is related but not necessary in order to arrive at the above conclusion:
“One model that would be plausible for the atheist or agnostic would be the idea that meditation is made possible by an accident in the shaping of the brain by evolution.” The idea would be that evolution favored the survival and success of humans who had a strong sense of self. Such a sense, though the self is illusory in terms of any actual brain function, would have an obvious survival value; and yet mystics have long understood that that sense of self is simultaneously the source of all our suffering. The theory would be that evolution accidentally left a door through which a human being, by directing his attention in a certain way, can escape from that sense of self for more or less prolonged periods – or maybe natural selection favored those in whom that door had been left open? It is undeniable that we can point our attention in ways that cause us to lose our identification with our mental objects, especially our sense of self.
4. What do right and wrong actually consist of – what are they metaphysically or ontologically?
I wrote in Part 1, “by following the principles we learn about the further peace that comes from forgetting to worry about ourselves.” I think it’s an empirical fact that selfishness is both the root of all wrong, and the root of all mental confinement and impoverishment – two aspects of the same thing.
I would argue that all human actions fall within a binary framework: some actions help us escape from the sense of self, some increase the sense of self. We all continually long for happiness. We all have a sense that there is a perfect and enduring and fulfilling happiness that is just out of reach, that just eludes our grasp. When our inborn moral intuitions or some other factor cause us to experiment with self-sacrificing actions (as discussed under 3 above), we learn that such actions nudge us toward the attainment of that happiness. This creates in us a desire to escape from the sense of self, while at the same time most of the instincts from our animal pasts tell us to look out for number one, thus increasing the sense of self. I think that binary is a fundamental dynamic of our minds. So there is in us this constant tension or tug-of-war. And within that binary, our moral intuitions, our moral compass, as discussed in 3 above, tell us that selfless actions are also morally right actions. Escaping from the self correlates with good, moral actions. Falling within a tighter grip of the self correlates with selfish actions. Selfish actions are at best morally neutral actions that strengthen the ego and sustain our suffering, and at worst, when they are harmful to others or confining or degenerating to ourselves, are bad, immoral actions. Thus actions which help us escape from our egos are right actions, and those actions which strengthen our egos AND also harm others (or confine/degenerate oneself) are wrong actions.
The instincts that tell us to look out for number one, and the motivations for self-sacrificing actions, are both forms of qualia proceeding from our unconsciouses and presumably underlain by certain neural mechanisms, certain patterns of synaptic firing. Those neural mechanisms have not yet been identified, but they are in principle identifiable and measurable.
So right, I think, is a multiplicity of natural phenomena – all those phenomena that consist of mental objects, objects that 1) are forms of qualia underlain by certain neural mechanisms that are in principle identifiable and measurable; 2) are caused by the force of selflessness, also underlain by certain neural mechanisms, operating within human minds; 3) can be characterized as psychically liberating and enriching, and 4) can be recognized by one’s own conscience, also underlain by certain neural mechanisms, or by the consciences of others (to some extent) – or (as an abstract noun) the concept of all that.
The instincts that tell us to look out for number one, and the motivations for self-sacrificing actions, are both forms of qualia proceeding from our unconsciouses and presumably underlain by certain neural mechanisms. Those neural mechanisms have not yet been identified, but they are in principle identifiable and measurable.
The idea that there is such a thing as objective moral truth is a view of moral realism, and the idea that right and wrong are natural phenomena is a view of moral naturalism.
And wrong, I think, is a multiplicity of natural phenomena – all those phenomena that consist of mental objects, objects that 1) are forms of qualia underlain by certain neural mechanisms that are in principle identifiable and measurable; 2) are caused by the force of selfishness, also underlain by certain neural mechanisms, operating within human minds; 3) can be characterized as psychically confining and impoverishing, and 4) can be recognized by one’s own conscience, also underlain by certain neural mechanisms or by the consciences of others (to some extent) – or (as an abstract noun) the concept of all that.
 Yaw (Mike) Amanpene, “Is Developmental Systems Theory a Better Way of Seeing Evolution Than the Selfish Gene View?”, https://www.academia.edu/40858025/Is_Developmental_Systems_Theory_a_better_way_of_seeing_evolution_than_the_selfish_gene_view/
Photo by Josh Willink at Pexels.