The Death of Morality

Written by Benjamin D. Wiker
July 8, 2004

It is difficult to gain attention in an era that uses superlatives to describe dishwashing liquid and mayonnaise. Perhaps speaking simply and directly might prove such an oddity that words may again have their proper power. And so, here it is: The greatest moral crisis is now upon us.

I don’t mean the continual, factory slaughter of thousands of babies a day; or the endless parade of carnal innovations mincing across the public square, howling for recognition; or even the redefinition of marriage to include the indefinite union of anything. These are effects, more or less, of the real moral crisis.

The real moral crisis is this: that we, among all human beings who have ever lived, face the end of morality as such. Abortion and infanticide have existed before. So have homosexuality and pedophilia. Exclusive, lifelong heterosexual monogamy was, largely, a Christian mandate, and therefore variations on the definition of marriage are not difficult to come by historically. If these ills were all that plagued us, we would only be facing an especially ugly relapse into the darkness of paganism. But underneath these ills lies a darkness against which even the darkness of paganism is light—the rejection of human nature itself, and hence the rejection of all morality.

The Real Darkness

It is difficult, when our eyes continually have to adjust to each new wave of moral darkness, to be asked to focus on the very heart of darkness. There is at least some form and feature still visible on the current moral landscape, and our eyes are naturally drawn to distinguish things by what light remains. For example, we judge homosexual marriage to be a distortion of heterosexual marriage. Yet if we are to have any hope at all of a new dawn, we must recognize that darkness “without form and void,” into which, like a voracious black hole, the light is so quickly receding. Difficult as it may be, then, we must focus on what it means to reject human nature, that is, to treat human beings as if, ultimately, they were a thing “without form and void.”

How to get at it? How to focus on what amounts to a negation? Perhaps by way of an illustration. Recently, scientists led by Tomohiro Kono, a biologist at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, have created baby mice without the introduction of sperm. They have done so by using two female eggs and genetically “tricking” one of them to function as if its genes came from sperm. It took 457 “reconstructed” eggs, 371 of which survived to be implanted in females, and ten of which made it through gestation. Only one, named Kayuga, made it to adulthood—and, oddly enough, after successfully mating with a male, she had a litter the old-fashioned way. The most common headline for the Kayuga story? “The End of Males.”

Think it’s a long way from mice to men? Then you don’t know the very short history of in vitro fertilization techniques, begun with mice and now commonplace among us. Indeed, in vitro fertilization makes a nice additional illustration of the same point. When I was a teenager, not so very long ago, we used to have a joke based on the propensity of social scientists to announce the obvious as if it were a statistical revelation. “Fifty percent of married people are women,” we’d proclaim with mock scientific grandeur. That was before men wanted to marry men or, even more important, before two women could avoid the matrimonial necessity of a male through in vitro fertilization.

The negation of maleness spells the end of all moral distinctions based on sexuality. For all of human history, the distinction between male and female has been the most natural and primal, and it’s the one on which any moral distinctions in regard to sexuality and marriage are grounded (however badly such distinctions have been drawn and upheld). If male and female are uprooted as natural and necessary distinctions, then all moral distinctions flowing from them shall likewise be destroyed. A ban on gay marriage won’t be necessary; marriage itself will soon disappear, gone the way of parchment, horse-drawn carriages, phonographs, and dial phones.

What we face, then, is the ever more speedy replacement of moral questions with technical questions, so that the moral question “Ought we to do this?” is giving way to the merely technical “Can we do this?” As the “cans” become ever more technically effective, the “oughts” will sputter out their respective swan songs, fade, and then dissipate.

The Beginning of the End

It would be tempting to blame the notorious philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for ushering in the destruction of morality. It was he, after all, who famously declared that all moral distinctions were arbitrary, arising not from nature but from the will to power of a particular person or people. Hence his famous work, Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

Tempting as that may be, because of the power of his philosophical prose and its effect both on his fellow Germans and on liberal intellectuals, the blame would be misplaced. Nietzsche was not a philosophical prophet but an astute reader of the times, picking up and lionizing an already existing Promethean tendency in the West.

We would do better to travel to England, not Germany, and examine the arguments of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and then Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Bacon is rightly considered to be one of the great founders of modern science. It would be more accurate, since he himself had no laboratory and made no discoveries, to call him the founder of the Promethean aspect of the modern scientific spirit.

Bacon asserted that both philosophy and science had hitherto proved entirely ineffective and sterile because human beings had foolishly taken nature as it presents itself to be the standard of both thinking and acting. Against this, Bacon argued that “a new way must be opened for the human understanding entirely different from any hitherto known.” The new approach to nature? Replace passive acceptance of the natural order with active testing and remolding of nature wherein “by art and the hands of man she [nature personified] is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded.” Truth, then, does not arise from acceptance and contemplation of nature; rather, truth is what we make. Nature becomes the clay; the scientist, as a kind of semi-deity, becomes the potter, remolding nature according to his will.

Sweeping aside all previous philosophical and theological controversies, Bacon assured his disciples, “I am laboring to lay the foundation, not of any sect or doctrine, but of human utility and power.” Utility and power, as Nietzsche realized several centuries later, doesn’t ask, “What is good and evil?” but rather, “What do I want?” This focus on the will goes beyond good and evil and creates through technical power the ever-greater mastery over nature. The question becomes not what ought to be done but what can be done. While Bacon didn’t apply his arguments directly to the remolding of human nature—except insofar as he made some rather vague promises about the possibility that medicine might grant a real, this-worldly immortality—it takes little imagination to make that obvious step. If the rest of nature is clay, then why not human nature?

Darwin has nearly the status of a saint for modern secularism, and the cultural reverence paid to him has tended to scare off Christians—especially Catholics—from criticizing him. That might change if we understood the true import of his theory. While Bacon aroused the spirit of limitless technical manipulation of nature in general by a new army of Promethean potters, it was Darwin who focused on the ultimate formlessness of human nature in particular. He provided the argument that underneath the apparent permanence of human nature, we ultimately find formless clay, cast and recast a thousand times by the vagaries of natural selection.

Darwin himself realized the alarming nature of his theory and judiciously avoided any mention of human nature in his first and greatest work, The Origin of Species (1859). His silence ended with his Descent of Man, published twelve years after the first edition of the Origin. In his Descent, Darwin made it quite clear that all we think of as specifically human can be explained as the result of natural selection—reason, morality, conscience, religion, music, art, and even the distinction between male and female itself all came about by the same random processes that molded the variety of finch beaks on the Galapagos Islands.

But what nature molds by accident, man may mold to suit his ends. After all, Darwin reminded the reader, such remolding of the clay of nature already occurs among animal breeders through artificial selection. If we take such “scrupulous care” of our “horses, cattle, and dogs,” should we not apply the science of artificial selection to human beings as well? For the good of the race, Darwin maintained, we must take our evolution into our own hands. Thus, Darwin quite clearly advocated eugenics, although it was his cousin Francis Galton, enamored by the Origin, who coined the term. (Those who still doubt that Darwin’s arguments were essentially and consciously eugenic should read not only Darwin’s Descent, but my Moral Darwinism and Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.)

If we unite Bacon with Darwin, we have the essential spirit of the contemporary attempt to re-create human nature according to an image as yet to be announced. If sexual dimorphism—male and female—is merely the result of the random shuffling and mutations on a string of DNA among our very distant biological ancestors, then there’s little reason to resist the technical urge to redraw sexual boundaries or simply erase them altogether.

So it is, in our society now, that a great division arises between those who recoil in horror at the latest macabre manipulation of human nature as unnatural and those who rejoice at the very same manipulations as signs of humanity’s liberation from nature, between those who happily submit to biology as destiny and those who believe that our destiny is to have complete mastery over biology. This is, to say the least, no small battle; indeed, it is difficult to see what battle would be greater.

Science Fiction?

Sound like science fiction? A mere literary scare tactic? Well, try this literary exercise. Read Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic Brave New World, the prophetic science-fiction satire written in 1932. Huxley attempted to paint a nightmarish world in which sexual pleasure has been utterly divorced from love through the use of the test-tube creation of human beings and contraception. The novel was set 600 years in the future, but alas, by the end of the 20th century, so much of the prophecy had become fact that it has almost no effect on readers, and what was meant to frighten now seems merely quaint. I know this as a college professor who has tried to use Brave New World in class. Huxley imagined that the loveless factory production of human beings would turn sex into a mere commonplace recreational activity—but his imagined sexual free-for-all is entirely heterosexual! As for the technical aspect of things, ever try to frighten a class of undergrads with the specter of babies being made in test tubes, only to find out that an increasing number of the students themselves are, in one way or another, test-tube babies?

In regard to the destruction of moral boundaries, then, science fact is outpacing science fiction. For this reason, all that is needed for the triumph of evil, and the subsequent negation of the distinction between good and evil itself, is a smug complacency, an “Oh, they’ll never do that!” Soon enough, even that, whatever that may happen to be, will be so well-established as to seem old-fashioned in comparison with what’s on the horizon. Once we eliminate the notion that human nature is a given and hence that our very nature sets a limit to what we can and should do, then the distinction between science fiction and science fact is merely temporal. Such should be clear, given the speed with which science fictions have become science facts in the last half-century.

That makes it rather easy to be a prophet. Allow me to assume a momentary mantle. The history professor in my fictional exercise above? Expect that within ten years, advanced surgical techniques and tissue cloning will result in “designer gender,” where consumers will choose not only what sexual parts they desire but how many and where to put them. Mark my words on your calendars.
The End of the End

I do not want to give readers the false impression that the only moral distinctions now being erased are between male and female. To take another, even more startling example, the lines are now being technically redrawn between human beings and animals. According to the Baconian-Darwinian project, human beings are just one more transient form that the clay of matter has taken. Thus, as Darwin made quite clear in his Descent, the species distinction “human being” has an ephemeral, not eternal, foundation. But this very distinction is the foundation of the command “Thou shalt not kill.” The prohibition against the murder of innocent human beings presupposes that (1) killing a gnat, a cow, and a human being are very different acts and (2) there is a real difference between living and nonliving beings. Absent these distinctions, the prohibition against killing human beings is merely a parochial and groundless taboo.

Obviously, the presence of abortion has helped immensely to establish the treatment of human beings as mere matter, mere stuff to be disposed of according to our convenience. But an offshoot of abortion is the entire industry bent on the use of such ill-gained “tissue” for medical purposes. As we slide back further into the void, into grayer and grayer realms, medical purposes will soon include health and beauty, so that such techno-cannibalism will spread to products throughout the local drugstore. As demand grows, especially for more advanced flesh, not only will women be paid to grow “fetal tissue” but pharmaceutical laboratories will include embryonic farms.

Killing and not killing, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, light and dark—all such distinctions that emerge in the Genesis account will recede back into the void, a void beyond all good and evil. “Should we do this?” will then mean only “Is this economically feasible?”

The Last Battle

Such is the real moral crisis, the greatest one possible, since upon its outcome hinges the existence of morality itself. The good news is, oddly, that it is still a crisis; that is, human nature hasn’t been destroyed yet. It is still possible that human nature may be salvaged from the ruins of the project to reconstruct it according to our will.

We can expect, then, a great battle between those who regard human nature as the sacrosanct origin of all moral distinctions and those who regard human nature as clay under construction. It will be, for all of humanity, the last battle, for it is a battle over the existence of humanity itself.