Fearing Morality



Fearing Morality


In the past people were taught to love God and to fear Him (making sure to capitalize the divine pronoun on pain of incurring His wrath). The fear was as important as the love. Since morality was closely tied to God, consisting of His divine Commandments, people also feared morality: doing something wrong, disobeying God’s commands, would lead to punishment, and hence should be feared. Hell was the ultimate fear object—what you had coming if you failed to fear God and his commands. Even if there was nothing to fear in this life for being immoral, the afterlife was certainly something to be feared—a possible eternity of excruciating pain. People found nothing paradoxical in this idea: the link between fear and morality was intuitively clear to them. Nowadays this link has been broken (supposedly) either by casting God as invariably beneficent or by denying the existence of God altogether. Accordingly, morality—the moral law—is no longer an object of fear. We might be afraid of flouting its requirements because of tangible repercussions, but we don’t find it fearful as such. We may not have much love for morality (it always seems to be ordering us about) but it has lost the sting it once had. It has lost its terrifying authority, its motivating punch—fear being a big motivator. Who’s afraid of the moral law? We no longer tremble before it, kneel in supplication at its feet. Morality no longer scares us.

I think this is a mistake. Morality is still scary, still capable of making us suffer, and suffer horribly. This is because of the operation of conscience: its stabbings and burnings are still things to be feared. A single bad deed can stay with you your whole life, scarcely losing its power to upbraid the conscience, while good deeds fade into distant memories providing little solace. Wittgenstein felt the need to atone for past bad deeds committed long ago and hardly qualifying as pure evil, and who among us does not regret slights and selfish acts committed in childhood? Conscience has an excellent memory and a pointy stick.[1] Let me illustrate this fearful quality of morality by reference to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is about battles of many kinds. Three of the central characters, Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, each act in morally questionable ways and each is made to suffer in consequence: not from tangible harms but from their own moral sense. Pierre is an idle libertine, a self-indulgent aristocrat with neither purpose nor fortitude; after a flirtation with the Masons and a good deal of self-hatred he edges into the war zone and is made to undergo extreme suffering. His disapproval of his own past conduct is what leads him to these sufferings. His inner pain and his outer pain mingle to produce a man who can hardly bear to live. But it is made clear that his external torments are nothing compared to his internal torments—the barbs of his own conscience. If only he had feared morality more! Natasha’s vanity, fecklessness and immaturity lead her to abandon Andrei for the odious Anatole in plain violation of her moral duty. Her consequent suffering as she realizes her folly leads her to the brink of death, as if she has contracted a mortal sickness. Andrei for his part stiffly and proudly refuses to forgive her, knowing the contrite and despairing state she is in, and he too suffers the inner consequences of his moral lapse. On his deathbed he admits to Natasha that his actions were morally repugnant, and she too admits her moral failure in the business with Anatole. We see three characters living with the spiritual results of a troubled conscience, and it is pitiful to behold. They were rash and weak and foolish. They should have realized the punitive power of conscience, or the power of morality to compel conscience. They should have been more afraid of what they were getting into when they ignored the promptings of morality (each of them is admonished to do so but fails to heed the warnings). Many other characters from literature could be cited to the same effect, from Macbeth to Humbert Humbert. Morality will exert its comeuppance and create a spiritual hell from which there is no escape, lasting the eternity of a lifetime. The image of a vengeful god is a personification of this psychological fact. Misdeeds are magnified by conscience so as to resemble a physical hell. If you choose to do battle with the moral law, it will make you pay: better to be afraid of it, to retreat from it. Those pagan ideas of a wrathful and excessive god correspond with a psychological reality. Morality can act as a punisher in its own right without any help from contingent circumstances.

It is different with the law. We are rightly afraid of the law, but this is because of the external punishments that accrue to breaking it not because of anything internal to it. We don’t suffer from remorse and regret for breaking the law (we may on occasion even rightly find the law immoral), but we do suffer thus from violating morality. We don’t have to anticipate a lifetime of self-recrimination for being a criminal, but we do have to endure self-loathing for our immoral acts. For instance, one remembered episode of bullying at school is apt to trigger decades of self-recrimination. We should be afraid of anything with the power to have this kind of effect on us. But people often fail to realize what they are getting into when they commit immoral acts: they are not fearful enough of the psychological consequences. I would advocate teaching children to have such fear. We teach them to be afraid of traffic for their own good; we should also teach them to be afraid of morality for their own good. Those moral wounds may never heal and spoil all future happiness. When it comes to morality the best advice is: be afraid, be very afraid. By all means respect the law for your own good, but don’t think that legal immorality will spare you all pain. Fear and morality go naturally together. Kant spoke of the emotion of awe in relation to morality, but fear is equally appropriate, and more urgent. Morality is not some warm and cuddly thing that will never make you feel bad (as God is not); morality can act as your enemy if you violate it. Morality (like love) hurts. That is part of normal moral psychology.

The total psychopath (if such a being exists) feels no pain as a result of his immoral actions, but he is rare; most of us are only too capable of such pain. But many of us employ various devices and stratagems for avoiding the pangs of conscience: self-deception, bluster, avoiding the subject, alcohol, and rationalization. Interestingly, none of these works, not really. They may give temporary relief but they don’t make the pain go away; it is always ready to spring back into action when you least expect it—shooting through your soul like an arrow from hell (or at least a mild cramping in the gut). There is really no cure for it once the deed is done (see Macbeth): no amount of therapy or money or booze will stop it in its tracks. So it’s best not to go there to begin with; and children should be warned, teenagers admonished, adults counseled. Fear of morality should be part of everyone’s preparation for life. By all means love doing the right thing, but also be afraid of doing the wrong thing. That may cause far more self-harm than you bargained for.[2]



[1] How does conscience exercise its punitive power? Freud would say that conscience (the superego) is the internalized parent imposing strictures and prohibitions, but this view is not plausible: what if you have no parents, and can’t you reject your parent’s values and demands? I don’t pretend to know how conscience operates, what confers its peculiar potency; I suspect that it has an innate basis, like morality itself, and that it is triggered by a mismatch between moral conviction and other psychological forces—a form of cognitive dissonance. We feel compelled to reduce the dissonance, which eats away at us, but why it has such sharp teeth I don’t know.

[2] It might be suggested that respect is the emotion proper to the moral law; I would not disagree, though respect is rather anemic to capture all that is in play (one respects a government official). Something more visceral is involved, which is why love and fear have attached themselves to morality (or at least grudging affection if not love). We (justifiably) fear the consequences of acting immorally as well as feel respect for its requirements. We fear what acting immorally will do to us: it can cause unhappiness like nothing else. In War and Peace Helene is not a happy woman, not deep down. Kutuzov, despite his ailments, is a happy man because he cleaves close to morality, even when it makes him unpopular—perhaps the most virtuous man in the novel. He knows when to do battle and when not to.


3 responses to “Fearing Morality”

  1. Joseph K. says:

    Conscience may have an excellent memory, but its perception is only as good as that of its owner. The conscience of a person weak in insight, or strong in self-deception, may produce a faithful verdict as to right and wrong in the obvious cases, but in the more subtle ones fail so much as to see that the question of right and wrong arises – cases whose accurate interpretation requires knowledge, intelligence, imagination, honesty, not to mention the desire to be good–for its own sake, not with a view to possible social repercussions of immorality–which is necessary to motivate the exertion of thoughtfulness. The desire to be good for its own sake, with any fastidiousness, is almost certainly lacking in most people.

  2. Joseph K. says:

    It is a rare person who has even the foggiest notion of the sufferings other people undergo. Who practices observing others with a patient and earnest sympathy, bringing a formidable power of insight to strain at forming a faithful concept of their inner mental worlds, with their joys and sufferings, frustrations and hopes? Tolstoy is doubtless one example.

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