Review: The Geography of Morals by Owen Flanagan

Picture of me blowing smoke

The reviews published here in the blog are but a few of those I write for Amazon. I republish here because these books leave dangling philosophical implications, interesting to me, that isn’t appropriate to note in a book review. But few books reviewed and commented upon here give me as much dangling bait as this one. As always, the full Amazon review and link to the book are included below.

Flanagan says there are two moral roots, biology (evolution) and culture. He is missing the third root, human mind’s contact with spirit, a concept I promise to flesh out below. Here I will say that this contact has nothing to do with the pronouncements, moral or otherwise, of existing religious institutions, but with a property unique to human mind. 

Consider this: humans murder other humans. We say this is wrong (the inverse of right) and perhaps evil, the inverse of good. Every human society on earth avers this moral principle with few exceptions permitted. War is one exception nearly, but not entirely, universal. “Honor killings” among some peoples who do not deserve the appellation “civilized” (I am not even as much a moral relativist as Flanagan) is another if rarer exception. Chimpanzees, it is well documented, also sometimes murder other chimpanzees. Yet, we, that is humans, do not think of this as wrong. We say that chimpanzees are amoral. Being mere animals (though we share 98% of our DNA with them) they are not, we say, able to tell right from wrong. 

Why, having emerged (biologically) from the animals, do humans possess a conviction (which animals do not) that there exists a right and a wrong, a good and an evil? I refer here not to any conviction about specific wrongs, even murder. Apart from murder, there are numerous (as Flanagan so well shows us) culturally varying ideas of rights and wrongs. Why are humans in particular convinced that such things as rights and wrongs, or moral better and worse, in the abstract exist? I am not referring here to phenomenal experiences whether pleasurable or painful. As organisms we are biologically directed towards pleasure and away from pain. This is true of animals in some ways even more than humans. But only humans come to attach a moral facet to the experience, a conviction not only that I like pleasure more than pain, but that there is an abstract moral quality to pleasure lacking, or inverted, in pain.

The conviction cannot come from biology. We are animals. Could the 2% difference between our DNA and chimpanzees alone explain it? That 2% has a lot to do. We do not, after all, look much like Chimpanzees. Surely, the ubiquitous (at least widespread) belief in rightness and wrongness, a moral direction, lends itself to the fitness of larger, more complex societies. Yet Darwinian selection pressure comes (as we know) from outside the organism, even the community of organisms. If the conviction that a moral direction exists, exerts selection pressure, the conviction cannot be an illusion. If we merely “make it up” (the conviction is illusion), yet more of those humans who have it pass on their genes, we have a case, contra Darwin, in which fantasy, having no mind-independent counterpart, is biologically adaptive!  

What about culture? Of course, our specific notions of right and wrong are cultural. But the cultural evolution of moral specificities presupposes the belief in a moral direction, a better and worse.. Chimpanzees have been around on earth much longer than humans. They live in complex (for animals) societies. Yet, they have not evolved any socially-determined moral specificities other than the default “rule of the strongest male”. 

The moral particulars Flanagan so eloquently describes evolve from both biology and society. But the conviction that there ought to be moral particulars (and vaguely the direction particulars take over historical time) comes from the human mind’s sensitivity to, apperception of, values: truth, beauty, and goodness. Like morality abstractly as compared to specifics, the values are not the truth of particular propositions, or the beauty-content of particular configurations of the material world, or what particular acts, people, or concepts (like justice) are good. They are, rather, pointers in the direction of such things. They constitute our only phenomenal access to spirit, which from the human viewpoint, comes out to sensitivity to the moral quality of God’s character. 

Take justice (civil, economic, or criminal) for example. All cultures revere justice, and while what constitutes justice varies greatly between cultures, most strive for something resembling fairness which, in its turn, is also expressed in various ways. The vast majority of the world community would say that summary execution, the “justice” of Islamic terrorists, is not really justice at all, and they would be right.

Justice is not the value “goodness”. Rather, justice has goodness if a particular expression of it has something of the flavor of that value. Perhaps (in a criminal context), life imprisonment for a capital crime is more just (has more goodness) than execution. But execution after a fair and honest trial based on indubitable evidence is more just than summary execution! It isn’t the particular, nor even the concept “justice” that is supplied by our phenomenal experience of values, rather the conviction that there is something called goodness, and justice has [at least] some of it. From the human viewpoint, goodness is absolute only in the limited sense that it is mind-independently real. Our sensitivity to spirit has but the barest inkling of value-flavors as these would seem from God’s viewpoint, while the goodness content of anything (abstract or otherwise), as perceived by us, is a judgement of individual mind and subject to the relativity of individual (and socio-cultural) perspective.

I have written extensively on this. For a deeper discussion of the relation between values and mind see “From what comes Mind”, and “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” among other articles. Here I sketch the briefest summary of it all. There is a field in spacetime that, in conjunction with brains, is the source of mind, that is phenomenal consciousness, the “what is it like to be..” experience. The richness of consciousness is proportional to the capacity of the underlying brain. Mammals, richer than reptiles, dogs, cats, and some birds, richer than mice, and chimpanzees richer than all the rest, except the human. The richness of the human experience includes sensitivity to the values, to spirit, something transparent to animal minds, and it is this sensitivity that constitutes the conviction that there is a “moral direction”, that some specific moralities are (or can be) theoretically better (meaning more true, beautiful, and good) than others. 

The conviction that there is a moral direction does not automatically (or even often after much thought) produce correct judgments concerning the value-content of particulars. There are, even between cultures, often broad agreements over the truth, goodness, or beauty of particulars. Just as often there are disagreements over which morality has “more goodness”, which artform or natural phenomenon “more beautiful”, of what human notions of the universe are “more true”. In our day to day, culturally embedded experience, we agree (mostly) on only two things: the particulars are relative (even within a culture), and yet values have an absolute quality to them. 

Think of an old fashioned magnetic compass. The pointer never locks-on to “the north” (leaving aside “magnetic north”)  but floats vaguely in its direction.  Looking at a compass, we never know exactly in what direction lies north, but it does give us an approximate direction, and by implication (the needle is not completely random), a philosophical reason to believe that  “the north” exists.

Truth, beauty, and goodness are properties of the universe (not merely the physical universe which would make beauty the only value) whose reality we apperceive.  We do not merely make them up, individually or collectively. We do “make up” the particulars, individually for ourselves, and collectively for society. The particulars are relative, to each other, and to the direction of the value pointer. Some particulars are “better than” others because they better reflect what we sense of the reality of truth, beauty, and goodness.  

What moral thinkers down through the ages have noticed is that particulars chosen because they are more aligned with [what we perceive to be] the value compass tend to have better and longer-lasting social outcomes. It is also true that the conviction of truth, beauty, and goodness’s reality, their objectivity, does not impart objectivity to our evaluation of their instantiation in particulars. The reality of a value direction is, like the material world, independent of human mind, though it is sensed, on earth, only in human mind. Moral particulars emerge (socially and individually) when social situations arise that appear to involve sensed values, particularly, in the case of morals, goodness. 

Theism, grounding value apperception, is the tool Flanagan needs to complete his project. 

  1. It explains why humans can be moral, immoral, and amoral, while even the most advanced animals only have the last. 
  2. It explains the direction (however slowly things change) of moral evolution in human communities. It gives him his “ought from is”, not in detail (particular moralities) but as concerns their general direction towards more truth, beauty, and goodness. 
  3. It provides the reason for individual moral striving by answering the “why should I” question. In the long run, we are not dead. This life is but a phase of a much larger project in which we personally continue to participate. 

I have not here discussed personal survival of material death (an implication of my theism, see “Prolegomena for a Future Theology” and “What is the Soul?”), but I note that Flanagan’s favorite alternate cultural example, Buddhism, answers this same question with reincarnation. According to the Karma doctrine, we are all living in something like John Rawls’ (“A Theory of Justice” 1971) “original position”. None of us know into what social status we are reborn (analogous to “Pascal’s wager”). Wise in this life to follow a moral course that maximizes our chance for a good (in the sense of less onerous)  “next incarnation”.  

The Geography of Morals by Owen Flanagan (2019 reprint)

Some might see this book as an apology for moral relativism. It is not that, exactly, but does struggle with that notion because Dr. Flanagan cannot quite get what he wants here. What he wants is an appreciation for the utility and value (to human-well-being) of various moral particulars as found in cultures around the world. In addition, he wants to select out of this collection those particulars that are good for humanity as a whole, where “goodness” is not measured solely from the viewpoint of any particular culture nor by utility alone.   

He cannot get what he wants, because the cultures chosen to illustrate his points are themselves selected from a certain range of what is, to us steeped in Western European culture, already acceptable. The Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” and its moral implications is acceptable, as is ancient Roman Stoicism. By contrast, leaving unwanted babies exposed to the elements to die (also ancient Roman practice), or Wahabbist beheading of infidels, is not.  

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, the author explores what he takes to be the two-roots-of-morality: biological evolution to human status with all its attendant adaptations for survival for the first nine-hundred-and-ninety-thousand years of human existence, and the cultural (social) accretions of the last ten-thousand years. This allows him to identify what he calls the moral or ethical “possibility space”. Yet (as he admits throughout the book) from these two alone he cannot identify an unambiguous “ought from is” (a well-known conundrum introduced by David Hume in the 18th Century) without the selection bias introduced by his chosen examples.

In the book’s middle third Flanagan chooses one emotion, anger (with manifest roots in biology), and explores its moral possibilities across his cultural examples. Anger, however, is one of the negative emotions that all cultures understand is better limited (at least) under normal circumstances. The issue in focus here is whether anger, its expression, is ever morally justified, a virtue. It is easy enough to construct examples in which some action, taken “in anger”, results in a genuinely just outcome. Yet Flanagan understands that every culture seeks either to extirpate anger or at least to limit its expression, and that such expression as might be permitted makes sense only, if at all, because of some prior circumstance that warrants anger in the first place! The moral complications engendered by negative emotions like anger are good perhaps for cross-cultural comparisons, but not very good at helping to understand the more limited variation in positive moral virtues like compassion which seem universally to be welcome. 

In the final third the author returns to the theme of finding some universal “oughts” from the combination of biological (which the world shares) and cultural roots. He shows us that, broadly speaking, almost every culture agrees that it is better for all if each individual is kind, honest, just, compassionate, and so on rather than envious, hateful, insincere, and selfish. He also uses this section to explore the implications of concepts of the self to moral motivation, But he can never answer the question of why, exactly, I should choose this “better course” if, in my personal opinion, I am better off (economically, politically, sexually, whatever) doing bad? He puts his finger right on the heart of the problem:  there can be no ultimate answer if, as J. M. Keynes noted, “in the long run, we are all dead”. 

Flanagan does what he can with the tools he has. Although he does address religion in the context of cultural and social forces, like Keynes, he believes that in the end, we are all dead, and this belief, shared by the vast majority of his peers, leaves him with little more than some interesting cultural comparisons, a description of, as he calls it, the “moral possibility space”. I will address the tool he lacks, and its implications for biology, culture, and morality in my blog.

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