When I was 25, I moved to London to study human rights. It was a very millennial decision. There was a recession going on, I was living on and off with my parents, and I couldn’t find a job in journalism because nearly every paper in the country was cutting staff or shutting down, so the only alternative to continuing to live with my parents was to go to grad school.
Human rights seemed like the most decent thing I could dedicate my life to fighting for (if not the most profitable) so I went into debt and moved to a different country.
The only honest approach to any academic field of study is to first take what you think you know and tear it down. This is one thing when you’re studying economics or chemistry. Most topics of study are abstracted enough from our daily lives that if a professor were to kick open the door to the classroom on the first day and say, “SIT BACK, MOTHERFUCKERS, AND FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT ROBOTICS!” most of us would be like, “Okay, sure, done.” It would not ruin our day.
It’s an entirely different thing when what you’re studying is your very moral bedrock, the thing that has influenced all of your decisions in life, including the very expensive one that brought you into this classroom in the first place.
The problem with human rights is this: they are intended to be universal laws that protect human dignity. But in any real metaphysical sense, there are no such laws. They exist only as a social construct. You might not agree with me. If you, for example, believe that there’s a God who told us what is right and wrong centuries ago, or if you believe that morality can be determined through the use of logic, then you could reasonably reject what I just said.
But you can’t reject this: even if there are universal moral laws, we can’t agree on what they are. They may be “self-evident” to you, but to many other selves they are not evident. When confronted with what, to you, is the clearest, most common sense moral dictum, many people just say, “naaaaahhhh.”
The Golden Rule
Let’s take the least controversial moral law out there. The one that is subscribed to by Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, and atheists alike.
Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t that sound perfect and simple? This is a rule that has arisen independently in many cultures and many religions, both theistic and atheistic, and it is an excellent rule to live by. But it is not universal.
There is a 21st century phenomenon that derails the logic of the Golden Rule. This phenomenon is the sending of unsolicited penis photos to women in dating apps, or, as they are colloquially known, dick pics.
Dick pics, nearly everyone agrees, are repellent, but they follow the logic of the golden rule.
The dick pic sender is basically saying, “Hello, kind stranger, I would like to see naked pictures of you. Here, as a sign of good faith, is such a picture of me.”
Should you protest at the sudden “OH GOD, THAT’S A COCK” of it all, the dick pic sender could reasonably respond that they were simply treating you the way they’d like to be treated.
The loophole in the golden rule is a pretty glaring one, and it’s obvious enough when you take a second to look at it: not everyone wants to be treated in the same way. So while the Golden Rule is an excellent method for encouraging empathy and the ethical treatment of others, it is not a rule that can be applied in every situation. In certain situations (especially those of the sudden penis variety), the ethical thing to do with the Golden Rule is to abandon it.
Nothing is universal
You can find exceptions to pretty much all of our moral laws, and the task of studying human rights is essentially a job of demarcating the boundaries between good moral laws (i.e. free speech that allows marginalized people to find a voice without government interference) and bad ones (i.e. free speech that allows troglodytes to make anonymous online rape threats against feminists).
Human experience is so varied, so wildly diverse, that to expect one rule to be applicable to everyone in every situation is absurd. Such a law would have to be so vague as to be meaningless. Even something seemingly harmless, like “Honor thy father and mother,” breaks down, for instance, when you’re Eric Trump.
Most people, likewise, can find instances where murder is excusable — because you’re protecting your family, because you’re preventing someone else from getting killed, because you’re hungry and he’s not pulling his weight on the life raft, etc.
This view is usually called “moral relativism” by its detractors, but the opposing philosophy, moral absolutism, has done more damage by far. The absolutists count among their numbers Hitler and Stalin and Dick Cheney. To them, the world is divided into right and wrong and they always happen to be on the right side. This provides a pretty clean excuse for dropping bombs on and torturing your opponents. How many Americans blink twice at the knowledge that the bombs we’ve dropped in the “War on Terror” have regularly, even routinely, killed innocent children? Bring up the Atomic Bomb and Hiroshima, and see how many Americans reflexively say, “Well, it saved millions of American lives." They never just say lives. They say American lives.
A moral relativist is going to have a harder time being quite so sure that the mushroom cloud is justified, and might think twice about doing it. God, can you imagine if we dropped a single bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and our justifications weren’t sound?
This approach also allows what you consider to be moral to change over time and according to context. Circa 1791, it made sense to enshrine the right to bear arms in your country’s founding document because you just won a revolution and are afraid of backsliding into tyranny. 228 years later, when guns can fire bullets ten times faster, when those bullets are frequently piercing the bodies of children, the morality of this stance makes less sense. To everything there is a season.
This idea, that there is no such thing as top-down morality, is terrifying to a lot of people. But there is a better way of thinking about it.
A different type of morality
The primatologist and humanist Frans de Waal argues, in his excellent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, that if we look to our genetic cousins the chimps and bonobos, we will see that moral behavior exists in the natural world without reference to reason or rationality or towards any religious belief.
Which is not to say primates are not capable of reason and rationality, because they very much are. It’s just to say that their moral behavior comes from elsewhere. So any attempt to base human morality on “reason” is misguided.
de Waal writes:
“The confusion seems to stem from the illusion that all we need for a good society is more knowledge. Once we have figured out the central algorithm of morality, so the thinking goes, we can safely hand things over to science. Science will guarantee the best choices. This is a bit like thinking that a celebrated art critic must be a great painter or a food critic a great chef…
The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover ultimately comes from religion. It doesn’t really matter whether it is God, human reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that humans don’t know how to behave and someone must tell them. But what if morality is created in day-to-day social interaction, not at some abstract mental level? What if it is grounded in the emotions, which most of the time escape the neat categorizations that science is fond of?…
My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.”
If we accept this — and I think that we obviously should — we have to accept that we can’t just piece together morality sitting alone in our rooms and thinking about it, or analyzing a book that The Lord sent us, but that we have to get out into the streets and talk to other people about what we want to be as a community, as a people.
This requires of us both the openness to be able to hear each other’s stories in good faith, and the vulnerability to be able to tell our own. It requires that we be honest with each other about who we are, and be brave enough to stand up against what we think is wrong. None of that is easy, but no one ever said it was. And when you start talking to people, when you get to their experiences and away from their political talking points or inherited ideology, you’ll usually find that they are less stupid, less stubborn, and less ignorant than you think.
When we talk to each other, we learn: Our morality is not up there in the ether. It is down here, in the spaces between us.
Moral curiosity in the face of a cold, unfeeling universe
When I finished my course in human rights, I felt winded. There seemed to be no moral footing for me anymore, nothing to keep me from sliding towards a terrified state of nihilism and despair. Over the next few years, I sunk into a pretty deep depression that I didn’t begin to escape until I was in my 30’s. The world was just so fucking complicated. How, I wondered, can one live when nothing is certain?
The answer ended up being that you do not need certainty to live, and that the alternative to certainty is not nihilism, it's curiosity. Curiosity is the only worthwhile way of confronting the universe, because seriously, in the words of comedian Pete Holmes, life doesn’t make any fucking sense. So we might as well have some fun with it. We might as well explore.
This is the solution, by the way, to all of your totally unproductive political arguments. You think you can beat ignorance with knowledge? Hell no. Ignorance doesn’t give a fuck about knowledge. Because ignorance isn’t an absence of knowledge, it’s a protective shell constructed against scary knowledge.
Think, for a moment, what your conservative elderly parents or grandparents would have to do to accept a) that climate change was coming, b) it could very well lead to the collapse of civilization in their children’s lifetimes, possibly resulting in their starvation or murder by Mad Max-style War Boys, and c) that everything they ever did or believed in contributed to this oncoming catastrophe.
What do you think their response to, “Well, if you look at the climate science and the weather patterns in recent years…” is going to be? Might it be “FAKE NEWS!”? Might it be “LIBERAL CONSPIRACY!”? Do you think it might be, “I’m just going to deny this until I die, because to accept it would actually kill me."
I am telling you right now, I have a 1-year-old, and when I stop and think about what climate change could do to her sweet little face, I want to put rocks in my pockets and walk into the sea. Your parents denial of your liberal or left-wing political views is not just ignorance, it is a deathly fear that if you are right, they have destroyed your life. You! The thing they love most in this world!
You’re not going to beat that with facts. You couldn’t beat that with A Clockwork Orange, Ludovico-technique-style brainwashing.
You might beat it with curiosity. People can get to base-level curiosity pretty quickly, and from there, it’s possible to change minds. Curiosity is a backdoor to open-mindedness.
You’re going to die, you might as well accept that. Life, if you choose to look at it that way, is a goddamn meat-grinder. So while we’re here, we may as well be kind to one another, we may as well be curious. And that means asking questions, listening to other people, and believing each other. On that basis alone, life isn’t so bad, even if it doesn’t make any fucking sense.