The Prison of Moral Judgements

The majority of people live immersed in a world of moral judgments. They like talking about other people expressing an explicit or implicit judgment of them. “This man is good.” “That man I don’t trust.” “She is really hiding something.” “It is good – or bad – to be a cynic.” “She acted unprofessionally.”

These people find their judgments of others so fascinating that they are very feebly interested in the non-human world. The geological ages, the enormous distances of astronomy, the microscopic world of the physical particles, the wonderful varieties of organisms have a very weak and timid attraction to them. They may reluctantly and wearily be driven to acknowledge that these things are really very interesting when you come to think of them. Unfortunately everyday demands and responsibilities don’t allow any time to find out about them. The curious and telling thing is that these demands are no obstacle to their single-minded interest in judging their acquaintances. Why don’t they spend the time dedicated to smug gossip learning about our evolutionary ancestors, about the formation of mountains and coral islands or about the ways to measure time?

Instead of tirelessly conjecturing about the cunning behavior of their colleagues they might try to find how the distance to the moon was calculated, how many earths fit in Jupiter and how many Jupiters fit in the sun. What are sunspots, quasars, neutrinos and a myriad of other things where our stamp of “good” or “bad” is utterly ridiculous.

Most people realize that an unduly egocentric person is a poor spectacle indeed. We find that there is something missing in the man or woman who is incapable of any interest beyond themselves. Similarly the person who is incapable of developing sufficient interest in things beyond the human race exhibits the same defect at a somewhat higher level. After all the universe existed for billions of years before there was any human being on the earth and it will continue existing long after the death of humanity.

There is another consideration that advises against any narrow view. In Spanish there is the saying: “El que sólo medicina sabe, ni medicina sabe.” He who only knows medicine does not even know medicine. A doctor without some notions of psychology and chemistry is not very good. In the same way the conception of human life that those who are innocent of evolution and astronomy may have is bound to be myopic and distorted. Even their judgment of others will suffer. However I am afraid that for many the accuracy of their judgment is of little moment. If accuracy and truth are pursued with any vigor we may find out that we, who judge others, will fare quite badly under slight scrutiny.

The strongest reason to find out about the non-human world is the emotional freedom it affords. We are not asked to judge things according to our moral likes and dislikes. Who can think without laughing of a man who approves or disapproves of the electron or who cannot stand the gravitational force? Those who have not experienced the emotional peace afforded by a dispassionate study cannot have any idea of the bondage that moral judgments really are.

The study of nature for its own sake is a relatively new development in men’s psyche. Primitive people cannot imagine that a volcanic eruption is not intended to punish them for their sins. Even in the so-called Age of Reason when there was an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 the Catholic Church burned many heretics at the stake. They were thought to have provoked the wrath of God.

Interest in the natural world without reference to human hopes and fears started with Thales of Miletus in the 6th century BC. He tried to explain natural phenomena without bringing in gods or miracles. The Alexandrian School was also important with Eratosthenes and others, but full-fledged science only began some three hundred years ago with Galileo and Newton.

Scientific curiosity does not come naturally to people. It has to be cultivated. This necessity for cultivation, which is essential also in the appreciation of Art and Literature, sufficiently accounts for the fact that few people enjoy the infinite variety of nature and the best productions of mankind.

Those who are not willing to learn what science and Art and Literature have to offer will go through life surrounded by a cloud so thick that they will only see, in fuzzy contours, what is in front of their noses. When things become depressing or hopelessly boring in the small circle of their interests, they don’t have a way out into the beauty, fascination, intricacies and wonder of the universe at large. Their perception of them is too nebulous and patchy. They will experience mental strain. These men are confined to tread the path of life cursed to maintain their self-esteem by comparing themselves with others; for at the root of much gossip is the desire to persuade oneself that one is better than others. Even when, wholeheartedly or reluctantly, we proclaim the qualities of someone it is difficult to avoid the implication that we are both discriminating and frank.

The cure for this lies in a clear understanding that the best way to achieve a moderate measure of worth is to find out our place in the universe and to use the wonderful tool that, in the form of intelligence and reason, we have inherited from our animal ancestry.


The Prison of Moral Judgements — 2 Comments

  1. Luis,
    Your musings on the nature of our fellow women and men are interesting and important.
    How are we to have the best of civilization and democracy if the majority of people are un-serious and anti-intellectual? How can humanity have a progressively better standard of living and quality of life if we are always undercutting the ideas and actions that lead in that direction? Un-serious people, un-serious media, un-serious politicians, that loop will not take us where we need and want to go.
    How do we stop that downward cycle?

  2. It is sadly true. Although, to me, it would be enough if people just stopped being frivolous. Frivolous wasting of time, ignoring learning and knowledge in favor of bad entertainment of all kinds and, of course, the frivolous value judgments that Luis covered so well in this essay. We need to respect time and how we use it.

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