Most people are harmless but amoral: they don’t go out of their way to violate anyone’s rights, but their innocence isn’t particularly praiseworthy. This is because the masses are also unenlightened, meaning that they don’t think about morality or even realize that a real choice is possible between right and wrong. They lack the power needed to carry out that choice because they lack a higher self. Their behaviour is governed more by their emotions, hormones, and trained reflexes than by rational self-control or by an existential or religious leap of faith, the latter being the means of controlling our more animalistic side. The masses passively adopt their culture’s mores and so they’re domesticated, or “civilized,” to use the euphemism. They’re punished for their misbehavior and so they’re constrained mainly by fear. Had they an opportunity to benefit themselves at someone else’s expense, without fear of reprisal, they’d just as soon act out of greed or lust or even contempt for their victim’s weakness, as they would out of worry under normal circumstances.
Strictly speaking, the masses are thus more animalistic than personal. Personhood (or “spirituality,” if you prefer a clichéd term) is quite rare—even among so-called human beings. The essence of personhood is self-control and that requires self-knowledge which in turn is the product of introversion, of a process of rigorous self-exploration ending in the philosophical realization that we’re ultimately just artists creating ourselves and our environments merely for the sake of doing so, with no sane hope for a deeper purpose. We create because we’re natural beings and nature is the undead god, the mindless, inhumane maker of all things. If we’re reflective, we create ourselves: we add a personal level to our primitive impulses and beta training. We thus gain the dreadful power of existential choice: we must choose what to be and what to create; we must take a neo-Kierkegaardian leap of faith in some artistic vision, in some aesthetic ideal to guide our productive efforts. With autonomy comes angst, because the freest self is alone in the wilderness of undead forces, a speck of a tragically heroic mind amidst the wasteland and the zombie horde.
The human person gains some limited means of self-control precisely by acquiring self-knowledge: she familiarizes herself with her temperaments and forms a conceptual system of classifying them which allows her to manage the more robotic aspects of her inner world. Of course, she lacks metaphysical freedom, which is the performance of the miracle of opposing a natural chain of causes and effects, but her intensive self-awareness nevertheless makes her relatively autonomous. She can screen her impulses because she’s scrutinized them and she knows where to find them. But that freedom is more of a curse than a blessing. Her self-knowledge hurls her out of the world and into the cauldron of existential awareness: her higher self is alienated from everything else because self-control requires personal detachment. We can control our lower selves only if we’ve thought hard enough to create a higher, independent mind that can sometimes act on its own—especially when it confronts our existential predicament and makes a heroic choice to creatively overcome it. Even when a person, properly speaking, fails to control herself, by applying her authentic ideals in her conduct, she can honestly feel guilty on that account, whereas the guilt of most so-called people is programmed and groundless since they have little if any capacity for self-control in the first place.
If fear explains why the masses actually simulate morally right behaviour, why should we be moral? Should we act in some ways rather than others or is morality just a delusion? Those who have liberated themselves from natural and social powers face a foundational choice of what to do, but is one way of being human truly better than another? Is the difference between right and wrong real? Let’s look at some conventional answers to these questions.
God and Morality
The oldest answer is that God commands some ways of living and prohibits others. This theistic basis of morality must be divided into the polytheistic and monotheistic varieties. True polytheism, which excludes Hinduism, treats the gods as just very powerful persons who in turn are identified with what we now know are just natural processes. Thus, ancient Roman morality, for example, reduced to the fallacies of appealing to authority or to popularity. The idea was that we should behave as commanded by our favourite god, because we’ve devoted ourselves to that deity. But what justifies devotion to that god rather than to some other, or to one culture rather than a foreign one? And how do we know our one god is wise, especially if the gods’ abilities are supposed to surpass our understanding? Typically, the ancients followed their local, traditional gods because they were awed by their power, which was just the power of impersonal natural processes. But attributing those powers to divine goodness rather than to evil would have been arbitrary. Perhaps the wisest course for a superhuman being would have been to play with the lower creatures, namely with us, in which case polytheism provides little support for morality: following the commandment or the example of a despicable being would be likewise wrong. Polytheists thus face an acute form of what skeptical philosophers call the problem of the multiplicity of religions.