the moral sense

There are authors who can make you laugh. There are authors who can make you think. Then there are authors that can make you do both. I think Mark Twain is in the last class.

In Mysterious Stranger, he does this so well. The character Satan, ably represented by Philip Traum, cautions against misuse of the word brutal. He insists, and you would agree, that the things treated under this heading no brute has been found guilty. He suggests we respect the higher animals.

The things were classify inhuman too are wrongly classified. Only humans are capable of them. Think rape, slavery, torture, war, exploitation all very human. It is our nature to do these things. We find them abhorrent, that I admit, but it is in our nature to do them. No lion kills another out of malice or kills a zebra because it can. And he says we are capable of these abuse because of the moral sense – the judge of good and bad.

He writes

No brute ever does a cruel thing, that is the monopoly of those with the Moral sense. When a brute inflicts pain he does it innocently; it is not wrong; for him there is no such thing as wrong. And he does not inflict pain for the pleasure of inflicting it, only man does that. Inspired by that mongrel Moral Sense of his! A sense whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong, with liberty to choose which of them he will do. Now what advantage can he get out of that? He is always choosing and in nine cases out of ten, he prefers the wrong.

I think, here

There shouldn’t be any wrong; and without the Moral Sense there couldn’t be any. And yet he is such an unreasoning creature that he is not able to perceive that the Moral Sense degrades him to the bottom layer of the animated beings and is a shameful possession

he took a lot of liberty with facts. Would we be better off without the moral sense? Would we find slavery abhorrent or it would be as natural as marrying off a nine-year old?

Is Mark Twain right [ the Moral Sense again] in defending the brutes? Should we find a word to replace brutal in our description of cruelty to one another. No other animal, I think, treat their fellows as we do. And whatever we describe inhumane, acts very human, can we find a more proper word for them?

This brings to mind the issue of whether human persons are naturally good or bad or whether these traits are learned. Jean Jacques Rousseau, I think, argued that we are naturally good. Another philosopher, I can’t recall claimed we are not good and are in need of salvation but the one I agree with is we are not any of the above. It is our actions that should be judged. If I dispatch the president and his cabinet, do I become a bad person or a person guilty of murder?

And while talking about murder, if in a revolution, we kill the president, his family and cohorts, no one gets arrested, why should I be, if I do it on my own for the public weal?

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

68 thoughts on “the moral sense

  1. Perhaps we could replace the word brutal with the word typical. “Sam’s behavior was totally typical as he helped raid a village, rape women, and kill kids, all in the name of his god. Very typical, indeed, for a human.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. john zande says:

    Didn’t Rousseau argue we were naturally pretty bad? In observing the human condition, he acknowledged that all the arts and sciences, even eloquence, he noted, are not born of some core goodness, a wellhead from which only virtue, beauty and grace flow, but are instead the products of our ambition, hatred, falsehood, pride, superstition, and flattery.


  3. john zande says:

    We shall no-longer refer to he as “Cruz,” but his true name, Lucifer 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Swarn Gill says:

    Of course chimpanzee’s do murder, they do commit genocide, rape, and fight among other groups of chimpanzees. So I think we ought to be careful exactly what we say is uniquely human. And if there is no free will, as many neuroscientists and people like Sam Harris suggest, perhaps we are simply more animal than we’d like to believe. Perhaps our moral sense of right and wrong is only in the after math. A way to justify our behavior. Michael Shermer in the Believing Brain makes a very convincing argument that we rationalize to support our beliefs and justify our actions. That being said, maybe our moral sense is actually the only thing that allows us to improve and to find better ways of achieving our ends without having to resort to violence. It is, in the end self-defeating and our biggest evolutionary advantage is our ability to cooperate. And you get more lasting cooperation through empathy and good will over force and coercion. I am not sure I’ve settled any particular answers, I’m just not convinced that we are so unique in our behavior that we aren’t in the end just wild animals. A primate with a slightly higher level of consciousness and intelligence, but a primate just the same. Sam Harris believes that consciousness gives us the illusion of choice and that we are not consciously choosing between right and wrong in the way we think we are.

    I guess I feel there is a certain level of conceit, when we start listing even our worst qualities as something that is expressly unique to humans. I think we’d do a lot better to accepting that we are only slightly more evolved chimps and that we can’t get our hopes too high. The fact that we can improve at all is a reason to have hope above all else. Maybe that’s the only truly uniquely human trait. Blind optimism. 🙂


    • makagutu says:

      Hi Swarn.
      I am glad you raise the case of the chimps.
      Now, all Mark Twain is arguing, and I agree, that the chimp is not cruel. I have not seen or read of chimps gang raping another and stabbing it in the stomach, nor forcing mother to watch the rape of daughter and then forcing father to rape daughter or lose his life. This, my friend, is uniquely human. And I can cite several examples.
      We would like to tell ourselves there is hope, but I think this is a case of burying heads in the sand. Consider this; almost all countries are increasing their military stockpiles. Bigger armies. Are these geared towards a peaceful future or is it preparation for conflict?
      I think I agree with the neuroscientists on freewill or lack of it.
      We are animals, maybe, when you really think about it, crude than our nearest relation.
      We pride ourselves with various feats and think ourselves great, but I think it is all a chasing after the wind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • basenjibrian says:

        What about cats playing with their prey? Or is that just blind instinctual behavior.


        • makagutu says:

          That’s just cats being cats. There is nothing in it not catlike. 😀
          I think it is a difficult question. Do they ever let the prey go after playing with them? Or end their misery quickly?


      • Swarn Gill says:

        Sorry for the late response, I am sure you are past this response. I just want to say that you should look at some of the things that chimpanzees are capable of. We look at such behavior as humans and we say oh that’s still just animal behavior, there is no malice. Why should we assume ourselves any different?

        I’m not saying we can’t be a bit more creative about how we go about things, but there is no reason to believe that the atrocities we commit, at least within the mind of the people that commit them that they are not acting with any less purpose and conviction that what they are doing isn’t the thing they must do. That it’s necessary and perhaps even righteous. So regardless of how horrible it is, at it’s root, the purpose is no different than the reason why a chimp would commit horrible acts on another chimp.

        Another article states: “The battle of the sexes is supercharged in the chimpanzee world. Males charge at females, rip out their hair and kick, slap or beat them. Males often kill the babies of rivals to increase the availability of females to mate again.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • makagutu says:

          It’s never late here my friend.
          You know I agree with you that chimps do all these.
          My contention is if it is animal behaviour and we are animals, why call those done by humans inhuman or brutal? Maybe they are just typically human as our good friend, inspired, put it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Swarn Gill says:

            I guess I misinterpreted your assertions. My apologies. I agree with you. I am big into evolutionary psychology and I know that field can sometimes get a bad rap but I do think there is value in looking at behavior and thinking through that evolutionary lens for one very important reason: the recognition that the brain is an organ that evolved with the rest of us and is not some separate entity. Once one admits that the brain is an evolved physical organ I think we can understand behavior better. It doesn’t mean that all behavior is permissible but it does mean we have a hope of understanding where our motivations come from. I think separating the mind and body leads to concepts of good and evil, free will, and a conceit that places humanity on too high a pedestal to which we most certainly cannot live up to.


  5. >>> “It is our actions that should be judged. If I dispatch the president and his cabinet, do I become a bad person or a person guilty of murder?”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Noel. We humans are obsessed with the concept of “good” and “evil” (exacerbated by religion, I assert), and this makes it difficult for us to focus on individual behaviors (which range from very constructive to very destructive).

    Rousseau, and the contrasting philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, got caught up in this false good-versus-bad dichotomy. However, both surprisingly reached a similar conclusion in the end – albeit from opposite philosophical directions. From:

    “All in all, it is worth examining Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s views about natural state of man because it provides an insight into the legitimacy and basis of social contract as well as the formation of political societies. The first difference between their views is that while Hobbes considers man’s natural state as miserable, Rousseau sees it as a good and delightful condition. Secondly, whereas Hobbes regards the formation of political societies as a need for stability, peace and order by getting rid of natural state, Rousseau considers it a need arising out of growing population and changing life conditions. Finally, for Hobbes, social contract is a great necessity for society, because it is a guarantee for peace, order and self-protection,whereas for Rousseau it meant to be inequality in society. As a result of these, one can conclude that natural state of man needs to be analyzed for the sake of understanding the essence of political societies and the meaning of social contract.”


  6. Ron says:

    “And while talking about murder, if in a revolution, we kill the president, his family and cohorts, no one gets arrested, why should I be, if I do it on my own for the public weal?”

    Probably because it’s hard to make arrests when you’re outnumbered.

    “Civilization: a thin veneer over barbarianism.” ~John M. Shanahan


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