Since the Enlightenment triumph of reason, we’ve lost our moral language. We freed ourselves from religious dogmatism, but we didn’t replace religious morality with anything else. Instead, we trusted that reason could handle all the dimensions of our lives.
The trouble is, when we try to think and talk about morality using the language of reason, it turns out to be hopeless, as if we were trying to write music with math — which has also been tried, with predictably soulless results.
Our moral thinking has atrophied such that we now have trouble even beginning to talk seriously about moral questions. Morality has become the domain of either fundamentalists who reject reason for revelation, or academic philosophers who treat it as an arcane, morally neutral science, or of new ageists who understandably seek deeper meaning, but are left searching through self-help books about what we vaguely call “spirituality.”
We need to restore the ability to think about how we should live — the original mission of moral philosophy — with a vocabulary that addresses what’s at stake. The choices of the Capitol rioters were not just mistaken, they were morally wrong. But we’re only able to talk with any sophistication in terms of errors of information, as in when we look at the ways the MAGA crowd has been misled by Trumpist propaganda or social media algorithms.
Meanwhile the moral dimension is reduced to instant judgments at the level of “What a bunch of assholes!” or (God forbid), “What true patriots!”
It can certainly feel satisfying to talk in such simplistic terms, but it doesn’t get us anywhere — and probably just makes things worse. At the same time, talking only in terms of information misses much of what’s most important about what we’re seeing.
The Capitol rioters didn’t just make cognitive errors, as if they failed to calculate the compound interest on a payday loan. No, faced with the opportunity to do violence, they took that opportunity. That isn’t a mistake, it’s a sin – and I know this word will make many of my fellow Enlightenment secularists uncomfortable, but please bear with me a little longer.
Here’s the difference between a mistake and a sin. You don’t need a high IQ or an advanced education to see that hurting people and destroying things is wrong. That’s why people with intellectual disabilities are no more evil than other people — because having a lower IQ has nothing to do with compassion and conscience. On the other hand, high intelligence is no guarantee of morality, as we see with such awful clarity in the smart, educated, but morally execrable Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
But the moment we introduce a non-rational concept like sin, many of us Enlightenment secularists are stymied, because we can’t talk about religion.
The trouble is, with or without religion, the need to talk about morality won’t go away.
Modern democracy was founded on Enlightenment reason, and the Founders rejected revelation as a source of authority — Jefferson, for example, edited his own version of the Bible with the miracles removed.
But the Founders also knew that democracy could not survive without what they thought of as “civic virtue,” a moral concept with roots in religions and moral philosophies going back to Ancient Greece and Rome. James Madison called conscience “the most sacred of all property.”
The Founders would be horrified at the debased state of civic virtue today. To them, it would look like America after Trump is suffering the fate of the Roman Republic after Caesar Augustus: a civilization falling because a brilliant people had become moral idiots.