Can we do morality without morality?

How to renew ethics?

Almost all ethical discussions start from an established morality. That is, every new moral rule is born in a circular way from laws set in stone. This conservatism protects our essential ideals. But the new rules seem exposed to the risk of inbreeding. Do they really adapt best to the frenetic evolution that society is experiencing today? Does conservatism confer advantageous stability in chaos, or does it prevent rapid jumping from one metastable morality to another, to prevent chaos from escalating?

It seems wise to let criteria of all kinds enter into our ethical renovations. Political, economic, educational, criminological, psychiatric interests. But isn’t morality in danger of losing its soul? And should the quality of this soul, the existing morality be the only one to judge it or does it need a higher judge, and what can it be?

Absolutists and relativists

In other words, can we do morality without morality? Philosophers did not hesitate to try. There are almost as many morals as philosophies: hedonism, stoicism, altruism, utilitarianism, consequentialism, Kantian rigorism, eudemonism, epicureanism, individualism, deontologism, etc. Fortunately, they can be grouped into two broad categories, absolutist and relativist. Absolutists enact universal moral laws, natural or divine; they refer to ideals independent of humans. On the contrary, relativists consider morality to be entirely human in essence.

How to bring such opposing strongholds to agreement? In fact, isn’t conservatism the legacy of the tumultuous conflicts that have agitated morality? Touch nothing to prevent the war from starting again? Morality seems to suffer from the absence of a metaphysics that organizes the different views on it. I am not talking here about the Kantian metaphysics of morals, which deals with the coherence of moral rules, but about the metaphysics of the great ethical paradigms mentioned above. A metaphilosophy of morality is lacking.

Genealogy of morals

Metaphilosophy is not an arbitrary notation of each morality but the exploration of their ontology. Go back to their root concepts, look where they diverge, find the common core. Let us look for a genealogy of morals that manages to free itself from the biographies of their authors. For moral absolutists have no access to true universal ideals, any more than scientists have access to universal physical laws. To have this impression is to ignore the origin of one’s own way of thinking, of this mental family tree buried in the unconscious that presents us with an already idealized world.

Thinking without manner is the difficulty of constructing a metaphilosophy. But it doesn’t take long. Only to go back before the manners. Our tree is an inverted hierarchy. The philosophies of morality are its most complex productions, its roots are simple. We need to reconstitute the hierarchy, not to judge the productions. The strength of humanity is to test them all, often to its detriment. How many disastrous morals have been employed? We have not finished counting them.

Unholy yaw

I trace the disaster back to a moral marketing error. Moses was given a horizontal table of divine laws. All laws engraved on the same plane. Would they all be of comparable importance? Aren’t some deductible from another? God should have engraved a pile of tablets, the largest for the most fundamental law. But He must have been taken by class when He saw Moses: not strong enough to carry all this. And then he had to come down the mountain without stumbling. The slightest fall and the pile burst, the hierarchy of laws was lost. And here we are, in the end, heirs of a horizontal morality rather than stacked according to a divine hierarchy. First failure of the precautionary principle…

Morality connected to information theory

We must build a morality without morality but not without principle. Which one can be metaphilosophical in this field? The interests of each individual must be protected without encroaching on those of others. Can we really draw this delicate line? Not without taking into account each particular context. Here is a fundamental point: the metaphysical principle of morality is the same as that of information theory: there is no objective moral fact, independent of context, just as there is no objective information, independent of an observer.

Our method is taking shape. Moral judgment concerns the relationship of an individual and her fellows, present or not, united in a social whole. The relationship takes place in a particular context. Judgment, in mathematical terms, is the derivative of the individual-Wholel relationship in context. This function is called justice. It uses established rules to judge each personal case.

But we need other functions to establish the rules themselves, to make them evolve with the local society, but also to confront them with other cultures, with planetary ambitions. A hierarchy is emerging. It must be implanted before the existing ideals in our unconscious, which we believe to be extra-human but which are human indeed. To free morality from our hidden postulates, to make them truly universal, to integrate ourselves into the complexity of the world, is to look at how the world created us.

Choices are above all the limitations of consciousness

This complex hierarchy is evident in any ethical choice. But most of its reproduction in our mind is done in the unconscious. Consciousness is content to sort out the proposals already elaborated by the unconscious and tries to harmonize them. Consciousness completes the mental task. The top of the representative loop between data and action.

Unconscious/conscious independence has advantages and disadvantages. Advantages: unconscious stability is protected from incessant conscious incursions; habits save a lot of time; no need to re-examine the entire processing hierarchy at each event. Disadvantages: consciousness does not have access to the decision-making criteria of the unconscious, except by a difficult reconstruction of their complexity. Reconstruction very costly in terms of mental resources, if not impossible: how could one part of the networks simulate the complexity of another part much larger than itself? To save time and resources, consciousness spontaneously generates a flattened reconstruction. How does it translate into practice?

Recognize the flattening method

In a flattened reconstruction the criteria are all assigned to the same complex plane and provided with a specific weight, depending on their influence on the moral problem. Weight attribution is empirical. Since the relational complexity of the criteria is declared inaccessible, the weights aim to obtain the best possible approximation. Flattened thinking is both pragmatism and resignation. For it is of course possible to bring together subsets of closely related criteria and then assemble these partial results, to reboot the real complexity of the case. But it is a Sherlock Holmes-style investigation, which requires much greater material and intellectual resources. Collection of facts to be refined. Objectivity to be improved through group work. A method reserved for ample, rich and influential minds.

In fact, flattened thinking is becoming more and more popular because it is the only one that can be popularized. It is even progressing among scientists, because of the huge masses of data they have to process in their personal as well as professional world. Flattened thinking is the only way to keep control of this huge flow of information. Impossible to venture into its complexity. By dint of being used, platist thinking seems to become fundamental. Drift that I brocade in my articles on ‘platism’.

Justice also flattened

In the field of morality, this drift culminates of course in the contemporary judicial functioning. Cases are reduced to the maximum of criteria that can be identified by a piece of legislation. A weight is quickly assigned to this small number of variables and a quasi-mathematical judgment is rendered. Often disconnected from reality, because thus flattened, it loses all its contextual dimension.

The problem of making morality without morality is thus, in the first place, to restore its true dimension to morality itself. Stop flattening it under our hurried steps. Giving it back volume —a properly human living space, not just a volume of the Legal Code.

Let’s find the volume of our humanity by taking it out of itself

Once our daily moral rules have regained their full scope, it becomes possible to extend them further. Out of the field of morality. In their anthropological, biological, even molecular foundations. Not to base morality in genes, as the reductionists wanted to do. But to revisit the succession of layers of complexity that leads to our human rules, and verify that this sequence has the best coherence.

It is by fighting against biological reductionism that we take a useful interest in biology. It is by fighting against reductionism at every level of the construction of moral rules that we can benefit from the best ethical choices, human beings fully integrated into the world, having built their morals without morals.


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