On William Irwin’s “How to Live a Lie”

Distinguishing between Moral and Spirutual Instincts and Mores, and what and why human beings fictionalize.

November 2, 2015


William Irwin pens a highly interesting article about the illusionary nature of Free Will, Morality and God, and that accepting the actual existence of these is a fictionalism – either consciously or unconsciously – that we indulge in for various reasons.  Hence the title “How to Live a Lie”. (Though I’m not sure he explains the How to. Perhaps it should be called How We Live Lies).

He further argues – in the limited space he has and to an audience that need have no specialized education in Philosophy – that while Free Will fictionalism can be justified, Moral and Reality-of-God fictionalism is more problematic.

A Comparison to the Language Instinct

While the article is highly engaging, I believe that it misses a key element.  While any moral belief – like “Stealing is Wrong” – may have no objective reality, the deeper fact is that human beings have a capacity for Morality.  In other words Morality is an instinct that is hard wired in humans (and various other animals in varying degrees).

To explain further, consider Language.  There was a time that Language – specifically the Grammar behind language – was though to be something made up by humans to be able to communicate more effectively and each child just learned it from the society it was born into.

This view was stunningly upended by Noam Chomsky who proved that human beings regardless of the actual language used had an innate capacity for it.  He showed there was a Universal Grammar that every human being had (unless impaired) irrespective of the actual manifestation of this in the variety of languages we actually find.

Neuroscientists have now conclusively shown that there are areas of the brain that are responsible for various aspects for grammar, and impairment to these areas impair one’s ability to communicate and/or understand.

In other words Language is not some artifact constructed by humans but an Instinct as brilliantly explained in Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct”.

How and why this instinct evolved in human beings and how much evolved in other animals is a separate issue.

Moral Instincts Vs Moral Mores

In the same way, human beings – and possibly other animals – have evolved a capacity for Morality and Spirituality.  This is real – it is an instinct – and not an artifact constructed for human convenience.

Indeed there is conclusive evidence in the form of neurological studies that certain aspects of the brain are needed to make moral judgments and damage to these would impair the capacity to morality.

How and why the moral instinct evolved in human beings is a separate topic. (This is discussed in for example Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal”)

Now the specific moral mores of a community may vary just like language does, though there do seem to be some universal moral mores many of which are captured in various religious texts (eg the Ten Commandments). 

So when we are born we absorb many of the moral mores of the community we live in and modify it over our life by our own experience, just as we absorb that language of the community we are born into.

On top of this, even in a healthy mind, there are circuitry that temper one’s morality.  For example, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” may be a social more.  Yet clearly virtually every society makes exceptions – whether it is Self-Defense, Capital punishment or War – all of which are justified in one’s head to override the base moral more.
Indeed it’s clear that moral mores are subordinated quite often to self-preservation or group-indentity instincts.

For example,  there seems to be a universal moral more – and perhaps even an instinct – where the killing of babies is abhorrent as compared to killing of adults.  Yet depending on who within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict one empathizes/identifies  with, the moral abhorrence of the killing of a baby may either be amplified or deadened through the group-identity instinct.  Scientists in fact has located the circuitry where this type of modulation happens.

So, Are Moral Mores Fictional?

So given that the Moral Instinct – and associated neuro-circuitry that produce, say, Guilt – are very much real, Irwin’s original question can be recast to “Are Moral Mores fictional”?

We can look at this in two ways: at a social level and then an individual level (which I believe is more what Irwin is getting at).

Social Level Moral Mores Fictionalism

This is akin to asking whether a particular language is fictional: it obviously exists and has evolved on top of the Language Instinct to ensure that the human beings of any particular community can communicate and work together as a society.   Similarly, many moral mores have evolved on top of the Moral Instinct to keep a society functioning in harmony.  Mores in different societies may differ drastically.

So for example a society may find killing dogs for food morally repugnant while killing pigs for food – by many accounts as intelligent and loyal as many dogs (if not more) – a delicious meal (the WHO warnings aside).

The interesting question though is whether there are mores which are really universal instincts.  For example, moral abhorrence to killing babies seems to be fairly instinctive.   The capacity to recognize an infant – to think it cute, and get a nurturing feeling – seems to be instinctive, though as is sadly obvious, the moral repugnance against killing an infant can be easily overcome as we continue to see even in so-called advanced societies.

Individual Level Moral Mores Fictionalism

I believe this is the crux of Irwin’s question: how can we as individuals, becoming self-aware that moral mores (in many cases) are artifacts created for convenience, obey them?

In many cases, human beings – even as educated and intellectual as Irwin is – don’t have the time and energy to question every moral more of the society we are born into.

So we just follow things either out of habit or convenience.  Killing dogs for food in Western societies is morally repugnant but killing pigs is not.  Even after being aware of the potential contradiction, most bury the thought after a twinge of discomfort,  unless animal rights specifically interests you.  In other words we live the fiction because we don’t have time or energy to question the full implications of it and deal with the consequences. (Prioritizing issues itself is an instinct.  If we questioned every aspect of our life for contradictions, we couldn’t get out of bed). 

But when a particular issue DOES become important for us, we DO question them. And either change our moral position or justify them through other moral mores.  There are those who will think deeply about the dog-pig contradiction and give up pork or beef or indeed any animal foods precisely because they want moral consistency.   Conversely others might go the other way and have no problems enjoying, or at least with others enjoying, dog or cat food when they can and also being morally consistent. Or others might justify that dogs are in someway worthier than pigs using some utilitarian arguments or some such.

And if enough people question a moral more, the social moral more itself may change. “Thou shalt not have feelings for a member of your own sex” was a strong moral more in many societies and indeed is one right now even in some regions of the United States.  Society – and the Law – changed due to enough individuals questioning this moral more. (Interesting this change was driven not by saying that same-sex unions were morally valid even if they were a choice, but by proving that many same-sex unions were instinctive.)

Spiritual Instinct and Mores

Similarly, spirituality is an instinct.  A feeling that there is a higher purpose for you, a Higher Power is looking out for you, a oneness with the Universe that many human beings share. 

This instinct, has manifested itself in many societies as religion, a highly organized way to indulge in a shared spirituality driven in large part by leaders at the top, thus giving succor to the group instinct and bringing focus and order to a civilization.

Given that the notion of gods as some sort of omniscient or omnipresent beings is clearly a fiction, does not mean that the feeling of bliss behind believing that – satisfying the spiritual instinct – apart from the social bonding – satisfying the group instinct – is not real.  We go to movies in spite on knowing that they are made-up because the feelings we feel are real and if it’s a great movie, we cherish the feeling for a while.


Morality and Spirituality are very real, physical instincts which along with the social and group-identity instincts give rise to various cultural mores that evolve over much shorter timeframes than instincts do.

The awareness that such mores are artifacts or fictions for social cohesion and convenience, may or may not cause an existential crisis. In most cases, human beings can live with fictions for the social convenience of it – as Irwin’s example of a man not believing in God but partaking in the religious rituals that define his community and bringing bliss show – till such time any particular issue becomes personally significant.

If enough members within a society are persuaded that a more has to be changed, then it does.

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