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A couple of years ago, during a lackadaisical time in my life when I was only running two businesses and wasn't on tour to support a book I'd just coauthored, I sat down with my sweetie Zaiah and we watched all the episodes of the Joss Whedon television show Dollhouse over the course of a week or so.

The premise of the show, which isn't really important to what I want to write about, concerns a technology that allows personalities, identities, and skills to be constructed in a computer (much as one might write a computer program) and then implanted in a person's brain, such that that person takes on that identity and personality and has those skills. The television show followed a company that rented out custom-designed people, constructed in a bespoke fashion for clients' jobs and then erased once those jobs were over. Need a master assassin, a perfect lover, a simulation of your dead wife, a jewel thief? No problem! Rent that exact person by the hour!

Anyway, in Episode 10 of the short-lived series, one of the characters objects to the idea of using personality transplants as a kind of immortality, telling another character, "morality doesn't exist without the fear of death." I cringed when I heard it.

And that's the bit I want to talk about.

The New York Times has an article about research which purports to show that when reminded of their own mortality, people tend to cling to their ethical and moral values tightly. The article hypothesizes,

Researchers see in these findings implications that go far beyond the psychology of moralistic judgments. They propose a sweeping theory that gives the fear of death a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life. The theory holds, for instance, that a culture's very concept of reality, its model of "the good life," and its moral codes are all intended to protect people from the terror of death.

This seems plausible to me. Religious value systems--indeed, religions in general--provide a powerful defense against the fear of death. I remember when I first came nose to nose with the idea of my own mortality back when I was 12 or 13, how the knowledge that one day I would die filled me with stark terror, and how comforting religion was in protecting me from it. Now that I no longer have religious belief, the knowledge of the Void is a regular part of my psychological landscape. There is literally not a day that goes by I am not aware of my own mortality.

But the idea that fear of death reminds people of their values, and causes them to cling more tightly to them, doesn't show that there are no values without the fear of death.

As near as I can understand it, the statement "morality doesn't exist without the fear of death" appears to be saying that without fear of punishment, we can't be moral. (I'm inferring here that the fear of death is actually the fear of some kind of divine judgment post-death, which seems plausible given the full context of the statement: "That's the beginning of the end. Life everlasting. It's...it's the ultimate quest. Christianity, most religion, morality....doesn't exist, without the fear of death.") This is a popular idea among some theists, but does it hold water?

The notion that there is no morality without the fear of death seems to me to rest on two foundational premises:

1. Morality is extrinsic, not intrinsic. It is given to us by an outside authority; without that outside authority, no human-derived idea about morality, no human-conceived set of values is any better than any other.

2. We behave in accordance with moral strictures because we fear being punished if we do not.

Premise 1 is a very common one. "There is no morality without God" is a notion those of us who aren't religious never cease to be tired of hearing. There are a number of significant problems with this idea (whose God? Which set of moral values? What if those moral values--"thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," say, or "if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death," or "whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you"--cause you to behave reprehensibly to other people? What is the purpose of morality, if not to tell us how to be more excellent to one another rather than less?), but its chief difficulty lies in what it says about the nature of humankind.

It says that we are not capable of moral action, or even of recognizing moral values, on our own; we must be given morals from an outside authority, which becomes the definition of morality. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say that without religion, nothing would prevent them from committing rape and murder at will; it is only the strictures of their religion that prevent them from doing so. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say if they believed the Bible commanded them to murder children or shoot people from a clock tower, they would do it. (There is, unsurprisingly, considerable overlap between these two sets of self-identified Christian.) If it takes the edict of an outside force to tell you why it's wrong to steal or rape or kill, I am unlikely to trust you with my silverware, much less my life. Folks who say either of these things seldom get invited back to my house.

The notion that the fear of death is a necessary component of moral behavior because without punishment, we will not be moral is, if anything, even more problematic. If the only thing making you behave morally is fear of punishment, I submit you're not actually a moral person at all, no matter which rules of moral behavior you follow.

Morality properly flows from empathy, from compassion, from the recognition that other people are just as real as you are and just as worthy of dignity and respect. Reducing morality to a list of edicts we'll be punished if we disobey means there is no need for empathy, compassion, charity, or respect--we aren't moral people by exercising these traits, we're moral by following the list of rules. If the list of rules tells us to stone gays, then by God, that's what we'll do.

An argument I hear all the time (and in these kinds of conversations, I do mean all the time) is "well, if there's no God and no fear of Hell, who's to say the Nazis were wrong in what they did?" It boggles me every single time I hear it. I cannot rightly apprehend the thought process that would lead to such a statement, in no small part because it seems to betray a boggling inability to allow empathy and compassion be one's moral signposts.

What it all comes down to, when you get to brass tacks, is internal moral values vs. external moral values. When we can empathize with other human beings, even those who are different from us, and allow ourselves to fully appreciate their essential humanness, treating them ethically becomes easy. When we do not--and often, religious prescriptions on behavior explicitly tell us not to--it becomes impossible. An intrinsic set of moral values is predicated on that foundation of reciprocal recognition of one another's humanness, worth, and dignity.

Those who say without God or without fear of punishment there can be no morality seem blind to that reciprocal recognition of one another's humanness, worth, and dignity. And those folks scare me.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 13th, 2014 10:48 pm (UTC)
I am not religious in the slightest (I have some spiritual practices that are my own, but I don't have any kind of external-dogma religion), and I'm completely with you on this.

Why do I try to be a good person? Because I'd like to be able to respect the person I look at in the mirror every day. Because it's worth doing. Because I like helping other people and making them happy. Because it's personally rewarding to do something concrete to improve the world.

Because, while I might have somewhat more flexible ideas about personal property if there were no external (legal) moral authorities, I certainly wouldn't go around hurting people. Who the hell WOULD do that? (Apparently, people who require a big angry God to tell them not to.)

And here's the thing -- I don't fear death.

I fear the process of dying, I fear having a painful and drawn-out death (I am a huge believer in death with dignity, and I want to be the person who gets to choose what kind of quality of life standards are required for me to want to stay alive) . . . but I'm in no hurry to die (I have way too much living to do!), and I'm not suicidal in any way. I just don't want to have a prolonged and intervention-heavy death -- if I'm terminal, I want palliative care, and that's it.

But, no, I don't believe in a reward or punishment after death -- I think that a person's indivuality ceases to be, and that's it.

I hate the thought of my loved ones hurting, I know how badly the loss of my father affected me -- so, I fear the fact that it will hurt my loved ones when I am no longer in the world. But, again, that doesn't affect my feelings about *death* -- I just want to live and create happy memories with them while I can.

In other words -- totally with you on this one. The people who say that without religion, or without law enforcement, everyone would be looting and raping and murdering -- those people scare me, because they're likely the type who WOULD go ahead and do those things if they thought they could get away with it.

-- A <3
Sep. 14th, 2014 02:23 am (UTC)
With you on this one; didn't fear it even *before* I tried it on for size. Didn't like the fit; will have to wear it *eventually* but do plan on putting that off for as long as feasible, for the same reason you cite: I've got more to do than I'm going to have time to do it as it is.

I'm still not entirely sure what religion *is*; not sure whether this is a good place to get into that one, either.


Joel. Who seems not to have had y'all over for dinner yet. Why?
Sep. 14th, 2014 02:29 am (UTC)
You really must see the movie Flight From Death. In it, they showed some research that concerned the thought expressed in the article to which you linked: "They want to feel that when they depart there will be something staying on that is eternal, a sort of immortality."

In the movie (a search for a clip from the same was a failure, alas), researchers took two groups and gave them a simple task. Using the items in the room, they were to either hang a picture on a wall or separate as much sand from a bowl of ink and sand. The catch: the items included (for the picture hanging task) a crucifix and (for the sand filtering) an American flag.

The catch: both the control and the subject groups were given a questionair before-hand. The subject groups' questions simply mentioned that we are all going to die.

A statistically significant portion of the subject group refused to use the crucifix as a hammer or the flag as a filter. The movie shows video of the two groups going to somewhat hilarious extremes to avoid using the only tools available.

Instead of looking to the "moralistic and judgmental" aspects of religion as the researchers in the article noted, the long-lasting aspects and tribal affiliations involved with both religious and nationalistic identities are enough to quell those pangs of fright raised with thoughts of one's own demise. Interesting that the "moralistic and judgmental" carries over along with the tribal identities.
Sep. 14th, 2014 06:13 pm (UTC)
Wow. That's fascinating! What an interesting study. I do need to see that movie.
Sep. 14th, 2014 06:32 am (UTC)
Sep. 14th, 2014 11:34 pm (UTC)
I agree with what you're saying, but I'm not sure that fear of death necessarily equates to fear of punishment. I can imagine people fearing death because it's unknown, might hurt, don't want to leave their families, and because the majority of living creatures have a survival instinct that says "Stay alive! Don't die!"

I agree that even that isn't really a cause of morality, although there's probably an evolutionary argument related to effective social structures as a means of survival in there somewhere.
Sep. 15th, 2014 08:06 pm (UTC)
I had similar objections to that concept of morality even in childhood - it's utterly selfish. If you're being a "good person" simply because you'll be rewarded for being so and punished for being otherwise, that says nothing about whether you *are* one, only whether you are good at acting like one.
Sep. 18th, 2014 04:16 pm (UTC)
Yes, this, exactly. If you're 'in detention'; not throwing spit-wads at the teacher doesn't make you moral. Just afraid of getting another detention.

Jul. 28th, 2015 01:02 am (UTC)
It's not the fear of death, it's the fear of what comes after.
If you believe in karma and reincarnation, being an ass in this life doesn't bode well in the next.
If you believe in God, Heaven and Hell, what you do in this life affects where you spend eternity.
If you're an atheist, you don't believe in anything bigger or more powerful than yourself, you don't believe in Heaven or Hell, what, other than a tentative sense of being a nice person, is to keep you from being an asshole who does what he wants, when he wants, to whomever he wants, with little or no repercussions? Sure, the law in this world may catch up to you and punish you, but then maybe not.
If there is something beyond this life that will hold you accountable for what you do in this life, and you believe it to be absolutely true, you have more of a sense of the cost of being immoral. If you believe this is it, there is nothing beyond, you're just a random accident of biologic material with no rhyme or reason, and when you cease to exist, there's nothing waiting for you, what reason do you have (other than being nice for the sake of being nice) do you have to behave?
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )