Theory on framework issues

Monday, April 9, 2012

14.3. Unraveling the mystery of morality: The unity of comprehension and belief explains moralism and faith

Supposedly objective moral judgments—as opposed to adopting personal standards on which to base a principled integrity—issue always in falsehood; consequently, moral discourse is irrational. Knowing the rational purpose that principles of integrity serve might help people reject moralism—conveying this knowledge the point of 14.0, 14.1, and 14.2—but doesn’t fully explain objective morality’s wide acceptance, since objective moralism irrationally rigidifies the principles moralists adopt. This essay unravels the mystery of morality.

To understand moralism’s near-universal grip, I rely on social psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert’s findings on the relationship between comprehension and belief, what I call the unity of comprehension and belief. Gilbert’s essential findings are:
  1. Merely to comprehend a message, you must suspend disbelief and accept the message as true.
  2. To disbelieve a message, once understood (hence believed), you must later decide to reject it.
The mechanism of moralism
Comprehension requires suspending disbelief, a radical, counter-intuitive finding. The reason objective morality is a viral meme can now be fathomed: hearing and understanding a moralistic viewpoint in childhood—before absorbing or constructing concepts that could inoculate against the virus—implants an uncontestable moral conviction, protected by an unconditional reluctance to grasp conflicting ideas, including morality’s logical deconstruction, because purportedly objective moralities dictate not only what people ought do but also what they ought believe: a moral person “knows the difference between right and wrong.” Just as properly prudential persons avoid drifting into irrational beliefs, so properly moral persons avoid drifting into immoral beliefs. But the consequences differ. To avoid irrational belief, you update the information it’s based on and change the belief accordingly, but to remain moral, believers in objective morality must abjure changes to their foundational beliefs. The unity of comprehension and belief implies that if persons believe they ought continue their moral course they will unconsciously avoid understanding messages refuting their beliefs about morality’s demands and its nature.

The unity of comprehension and belief leaves no room to entertain views that narrow the application of moralistic principles but leaves some latitude to entertain positions that broaden it, since adding moral claims doesn’t necessarily contradict implanted beliefs. This implication conflicts with the observation that moralism’s scope—driven by free will’s death agony—is declining in the Western world. But what is waning isn’t moralism’s scope but its intensity, which the free-will myth fuels. While rejecting free will violates objective moralities, which incorporate moral blame, the declining influence of free will isn’t due to the doctrine’s widespread rejection. Free will’s influence declines with increased understanding of the specific circumstances influencing outcomes. If we had a complete determinist theory, people might believe in free will yet see no room for its exercise. Without rejecting the doctrine itself, people consider actual conduct variably responsive to free will—variably accountable to morality.
Faith and fanaticism
Religious faith works in exactly the manner of morality. Moralists can’t understand a refutation of moral realism because to reject morality—even momentarily—is to be immoral. For the faithful, arguments that would undermine their faith—even momentarily—are self-censored, since religious faith shares with secular morality the conviction that one ought to believe.

When believers relinquish religion, it’s often because they’ve been indoctrinated concurrently with a conflicting moralism; perhaps personal tragedy makes the contradiction vivid by raising questions about God’s justness and benevolence. In mainly such manner—that of superseding fideistic convictions with moralistic convictions—is a dying theism replaced by a secular moralism.

Some political ideologies carry the same intransigence as do moralism and faith. When the obligatoriness of politics focuses on states of personal consciousness—whether raising it on the left or purifying it on the right—beliefs that would lower or pollute consciousness must not just be eventually rejected but must remain uncomprehendingly unreceived, since the preventive to avoid ever holding the belief is refusing to understand its challenge. The only hope for the fanatical, the faithful, and the moralistic is surprise’s shock when they reach unexpected conclusions from unrelated concepts.


  1. 1. Merely to comprehend a message, you must suspend disbelief and accept the message as true.
    2. To disbelieve a message, once understood (hence believed), you must later decide to reject it.

    This reminds me of Wittengenstein..let's see if this. comment works....

  2. Hi Joseph,

    Spinoza is the philosopher Daniel Gilbert credits.

  3. Hi, finally figured out how to get through!
    Baruch Spinoza is on the "to read" list, Wittgenstein (minus the extra 'en') is not.

    This was the quote I was thinking of:

    "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"


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SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.