The world needs to agree on universal moral standards. But how?

The moral philosopher and author Robert Wright recently wrote a brilliant essay in the Atlantic on the difficulty of establishing universal standards of morality. It’s a review of Joshua Greene’s new book, Moral Tribes (which I haven’t read). But more generally, it’s a discussion about how we as human beings can best agree on a universal code of morality towards resolving conflict and improving our collective lives.

As Wright summarizes, Greene argues for a utilitarian approach to a global morality based on rationality and reason. But Wright argues that this is easier said than done; evolution has designed our brains to act ethically and cooperatively within our tribes, but not necessarily outside of those tribes. This means that we all may use rational thinking to arrive at very disparate conclusions about what is right and what is wrong, based on our own identities and tribal allegiances.

What struck me about Wright’s essay in particular is what he prescribes for us to transcend our provincial, tribalistic tendencies when defining morality: meditation. He notes that meditation is proven to help human beings efface their selfish natures and feel empathy for others.  In that sense, it makes sense as a way for human beings to collectively agree on what is right and wrong, without selfishly bending our own rational thought processes in favor of our own groups.

I like Wright a lot, in part because one of the core themes of his writing echoes a basic Baha’i way of seeing the world, specifically that inherent in human evolution is a mysterious tendency towards unity and cooperation. For Wright this is empirical reality. For Baha’u’llah it is a sublime spiritual truth, enshrined in His words: “Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.”

But Wright’s point that meditation is needed to establish a universal sense of morality also echoes throughout the Baha’i Writings. Wright acknowledges, in fact, that all religions encourage prayer and meditation as a means towards peace and the control of one’s primal urges. It’s only reasonable to link the power of those spiritual exercises to the immense task of building a common sense of respect and affinity across the entire human race.

On exactly this topic, Baha’u’llah writes:

The Tongue of Grandeur hath, however, in the day of His manifestation proclaimed: “It is not his to boast who loveth his country, but it is his who loveth the world.” Through the power released by these exalted words He hath lent a fresh impulse, and set a new direction, to the birds of men’s hearts, and hath obliterated every trace of restriction and limitation from God’s holy Book.

The question that remains, of course, is whether or not we actually need religion. Can’t we just meditate, cool our egos, and establish a universal understanding of morality together? There is no question, at least in my mind: a world without organized religion but where everyone regularly prayed and meditated on their own terms would be a more peaceful one than the world we know today.

There are two potential problems, though. The first is that I’m not sure you can get the entire human race to pray, meditate, and subjugate their egos without some form of religion. I’m not saying this is impossible; there are many people around the world who practice meditation without belonging to an organized religion. But can this be scaled into the billions without some motivational force as strong as religious belief?

The second issue is that in a world in which everyone meditates, violent conflict might be eliminated, but others of society’s big moral issues might remain unresolved. (I wonder how the human race would decide on how to regard human embryos, or whether or not to permit euthanasia, for instance.) Would unified moral standards also eventually fall into place for everything else?

The most extraordinary historical example of this — that is, religion’s power to inculcate specific moral principles across society — might be Islam’s forbidding of female infanticide. In one utterance, Muhammad extinguished a barbaric but widespread cultural practice. Would the Arabs of the 7th century have stopped burying their baby girls on their own, without the motivating power of Islamic law and the fear of God? If so, how long would it have taken for he whole Arabian Peninsula to be cleansed of this cultural practice?

It’s hard to imagine what the moral equivalent of something so obviously backward might be in our century. It’s almost distasteful even to speculate. But here’s one thing I personally find morally wrong (though nowhere near the same stratosphere as the example above) that is exceedingly common today: surrounding oneself with friends entirely of the same race. It’s reasonable to assume that a human race made up of enlightened meditators would eschew the most blatant forms of racism. But would people feel obligated to more actively contribute to racial unity, even to the degree that it might influence whom they chose as friends and marriage partners? Would they eschew this common cultural practice, even if it was inconvenient and uncomfortable? I really don’t know. What I do know is that this is one of the teachings of the Baha’i Faith; like I’ve written here before, the Baha’i Writings tell us that establishing God’s promised Kingdom here on earth will take not only spiritual purity but also plenty of teamwork and effort. One practical element of that is to actively seek to cultivate love in a hearts for different kinds of people, and to reflect that reality in our everyday actions.

The basic question is, Can enlightened utilitarian morality move people to take big moral steps like these, even as the Arabs more than a thousand years ago took the step of ending infanticide? Baha’u’llah’s take on this is a clear:

Perplexing and difficult as this may appear, the still greater task of converting satanic strength into heavenly power is one that We have been empowered to accomplish. The Force capable of such a transformation transcendeth the potency of the Elixir itself. The Word of God, alone, can claim the distinction of being endowed with the capacity required for so great and far-reaching a change.

This remains controversial, I realize. Amid all the atrocities committed through the centuries in the name of religion, should it be trusted as a source of universal morality? Luckily, we don’t really have to decide quite yet; humanity is still a ways off even from trying the mix of meditation and rationality that Wright talks about. But eventually, I think the question of who exactly makes the moral rules is one we’ll have to address, together.


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