Morality does not come from within

Greg Egan’s short story “Silver Fire” is about people falling back from secular values. It’s the near future, and organized religion is fading away but “the saccharine poison of spirituaity” is taking its place. The main character is a medical researcher, and most of the plot deals with spirituality in conflict with reliable science. In the background, the reseacher worries about her daughter, who thinks science is boring and much prefers alchemy.

I won’t go into the plot further. Here’s the important bit, where Egan goes wrong:

We thought we were passing on everything that mattered to our children: science, history, literature, art. Vast libraries of information lay at their fingertips. But we hadn’t fought hard enough to pass on the hardest-won truth of all: Morality comes only from within. Meaning comes only from within. Outside our own skulls, the universe is indifferent.

No, morality does not come from within. We choose it to some extent, but that choice is shaped by the world. Morality is evolved, an iteratively tested system for making human interactions go well. The idea that morality “comes from within” disconnects it from the world, and morality disconnected from the world is a weird, barren thing.

So of course people would run away from such a notion. It is not just that “morality from within” sounds lonely and isolated, it violates basic common sense. And it violates that common sense not because common sense is wrong, but because morality comes from the world, from all of us together, interacting through time. Partly from within, mostly from without. And it is only because it comes from the world that morality is a thing which can be reasoned about, understood, improved over time.

I’m not sure if Egan intends “morality comes from within” to be a true statement outside the context of the story, or merely a thought by a fictional character. I doubt he would disagree that morality is shaped by the world, so upon reflection he might agree that the statement is wrong. But my guess is that he wrote it thinking it was true, that it was a reasonable way of describing the world.

Towards the end, the narrator expresses her worries about her daughter this way:

I missed them both already, more than I’d anticipated–but I wasn’t sure how I’d manage when I finally made it home, to a daughter who was turning away from reason, and a husband who took it for granted that any bright adolescent would recapitulate five thousand years of intellectual progress in six months.

That recapituation will be a lot easier if we choose secular slogans that are true, rather than actively misleading.

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