Advances in morality

by bjmuirhead

What follows is not a carefully thought out piece of writing. It is, in fact, notes from my notebooks which I find interesting, and hope will be interesting to others. All I have done is transcribe from the handwritten to word processor.

In respect of this transcription, I see that things have changed again. Sometimes when cutting and pasting, the correct formatting is maintained by WordPress. Other times, it is not. In this instance, the footnote numbers have disappeared, and I apologise for the simple fact that I cannot be bothered going to the effort of working out why and how to change it. I am going to have to go back to in line references, and avoid footnotes altogether, I suppose, just to avoid this problem.

The idea that there can be advances in morality disturbs me immensely, but these claims are often made by the general public and professionals alike. These claims often are made by default, and somewhat disguised, e. g., “We know better now”, and similar claims which imply a contemporary (Western) moral superiority based on knowledge. It is especially disturbing when these claims are linked to the predominantly moral “science” that is psychology, which tells us only about the people who have been investigated, and which, therefore, tells us more about the culture in which we live than about human nature and moral rights or wrongs.

One of the difficulties I see is that much contemporary Western morality and psychology takes us further and further from the realities of human existence by promulgating an idealistic vision of what human nature is or should be. It doesn’t matter that we may believe that some of these ideals are worthy and should be brought into common life—no ideal can be achieved that is not firmly grounded in acceptance of the realities of human nature, even if these are what we are attempting to avoid or change.

What I mean in particular is that our moralities and ideals must accept that, at base, we are animals and that, as animals, our physical needs and pleasures exist prior to any particular morality, where all morality needs to be understood as an expression of the ideals of its containing culture. It appears self-evident to me that this also is the case with psychology, which necessarily investigates our cultural behaviour and responses, and which can do no other. (As much as we may try, we cannot step outside of our culture, nor can we step away from our physical selves. Not even the Buddha could do that.) The existence of different cultures, their differing moralities and psychologies, should be adequate proof of this.

Equally self-evident is that the psychological similarities across cultures arise from our physical needs and pleasure: at the bottom of it all the needs and pleasures are the same, and so there are psychological similarities, but the full expression of these needs and pleasures differs from culture to culture, especially in terms of what is acceptable and unacceptable. This is to say that behaviours in respect of physical needs and pleasures, hence the psychology and the morality, differ across cultures and throughout history, even though the basic acts and behaviours in question are common to all humanity. (This seems contradictory, but is not. We all eat, e. g., but we all apply different criteria as to acceptable eating behaviour.) That this is so raises the question of what psychology is, and the simplest answer to this is that psychology is our common understanding of the nature of people, of why they behave the way they do, of what motivates and satisfies and of how these things fit into a particular culture. The official subject “psychology” which people study at university is merely the codification, conceptualisation and investigation of our cultural psychology, with the added complications of professional jargon, statistical analyses of opinion and reactions, and the presumption that what is discovered is universally true of all humans everywhere and at all times. (It also often is a genuine attempt to discover and explain human nature, with varying degrees of success.)

What this means, clearly, is that there are no advances in morality, there only are changes. Moreover, the academic field of study known as psychology cannot provide support for any particular moral view, it can analyse the detail of a particular moral view, and explain a lot about our “cultural psychology”, but it cannot tell us (or even provide adequate evidence for the proclamation) that a particular moral belief is correct.

This is a difficult idea to take on board because, if I am correct, the majority of psychological research does little more than tell us about our culture; it certainly does not tell us about other cultures and the psychology of the people in them. This doesn’t entail, however, that harm doesn’t occur in accord with our psychological studies. But, this is not because they tell us about human nature across all cultures, rather it is because those are the beliefs we live by.


What is at issue here is an old problem in philosophy, viz.,the problem of deriving an ought from an is—just because something is the case, doesn’t tell us what we ought to do.

To use Brian Earp’s example: It is a fact that rape occurs among chimpanzees, but this doesn’t tell us whether it is acceptable to rape people. For the latter, we need critical moral thought about what we, in our time and place, find acceptable, rather than any “fact” we find in t he wide world around us.

It also is a fact that in some “primitive” tribal cultures, rape within the tribe was forbidden, but accepted and approved when the person being raped was a member of another tribe, especially if there was war between the two tribes. What is relevant, in other words, are the beliefs each culture holds to be true, and the support given to these beliefs, i. e., those beliefs which form the cultural background and support for our moral reasoning; those beliefs which we do not, and cannot abandon because when we do so, the problem disappears.

In Western cultures, these background beliefs were broadly religious (Christian), but in the increasingly secular culture, this role, by and large, has been taken over by medicine and psychology, both of which all too often lay claim to certain knowledge about what harms people and what we ought to do in order to prevent or avoid this harm.

I am not arguing one way or the other about moral right or wrong, nor about harm and what can cause harm to a person, partially because I am not confident that we can step outside of our own culture’s beliefs with ease or clarity. Nor am I going to say that psychology as we know it in the contemporary West is useless and lacking insight. Such claims would clearly be untrue. I am going to say that psychology often is (poor) moral reasoning disguised as science, and that it needs to be seen and critiqued as such, especially when psychologists argue against evidence provided by their own discipline. I am thinking here of Susan Clancy’s research which showed that the vast majority of adult-child sexual contact (“sexual abuse”) did not involve trauma or violence and did little harm to the children involved. Moreover, Clancy maintains that

Professionals rarely discuss or highlight explicitly the type of non-traumatic abuse most victims experience—one in which victims are confused and trusting, do not resist, and care for and love the perpetrators. As a consequence, most people in the general population do not know this sort of abuse exists.

Her explanation for the harm of these, often consensual, non-traumatic sexual encounters, which did not involve violence o force, is that the “victim” re-conceptualises the events and so comes to understand them as “wrong”. This is a well known concept in psychology, and applies to virtually any act or event which a person thinks about and reconsiders in terms of its implications and meaning. Clancy’s insight was to apply the idea of re-conceptualisation to non-traumatic events and to show how cultural and moral beliefs caused the child involved to experience “psychological harm” as they aged and re-conceptualised (understood) the sexual events which had occurred in their childhood.


One may ask just exactly what Clancy’s work has to do with advances in morality and, indeed, one may ask just exactly what her work achieved apart from a clarification of the cause of harm in adult-child sex.

The answer, clearly, is that Clancy has shown in great detail how to derive an is from an ought. Simplistically:

  • One ought not have sexual contact with children. It is morally wrong.

  • If one does have sexual contact with children, it results in moral harms such as guilt and confusion.

  • Sexual contact with children is rape because it is wrong, and because children cannot consent.

  • Rape is traumatic, and therefore all sexual contact with children is traumatic. QED

As Clancy discusses, feminism had a lot to do with this advance in our moral understanding of adult-child relationships, and psychologists played their part by leaping on the moral (and financial) bandwagon and uncritically adopting a viewpoint which was known not to reflect the realities of the majority of these sexual contacts.

Has this moral advance been worthwhile? Or has it merely produced psychological harm in a vast number of people who otherwise would most likely have taken no real notice of what happened in their childhood?

Do we really know better morally than those societies where children are free to experience sexuality with whomever they wish?


The point about advances in morality is that they are a change in viewpoint, an ongoing analysis and elaboration of the cultural conditions within which we live. The difficulty is that the more extensively we perform this type of analysis of morality, the more our beliefs become harmful in themselves because they lose contact with the absolute basics of human existence. They become free floating theories without any real foundation.

Capitalism, if you will excuse the pun, is a capital example of this. Taken to its cultural and theoretic extreme, the culture and morals of capitalism have now condemned future humanity and the world as we know it to disaster and almost certain extinction. This is, in great part, because the goals of capitalism, and the morality which supports these goals, have lost contact with the realities of existence and favour the symbolic over the real—the ought over the is—wealth over the need to maintain a liveable environment.

This, it seems to me, is the case with much of Western culture—it is weighed down with excessive analysis of what is “right” and “wrong”, analyses which are culturally specific and which, over a long period of cultural change, have lost contact with some very basic aspects of life and existence.


In fairness to other researchers, I should point out that much of what Clancy says has been said before, by other researchers. David Finkelhor, e.g., said

much sexual abuse does not occur under conditions of danger, threat, and violence. Many abusers, misusing their authority or manipulating moral standards, act with the child’s trust. Sometimes the fact of having been abused is recognized only in retrospect as children learn more about appropriate conduct. The trauma of sexual abuse can result from the meaning of the act (“I am being exploited”) as much as from the physical danger.

This was in 1990, in “Early and Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse: An Update”, (Professional Psychology. Research and Practice, Vol. 21, No. 5,325-330). In this article, Finklehor also created an is from an ought, purely on the basis of his moral belief that all adult-child sexual contact is morally wrong and necessarily must, therefore, produce psychological problems. (Of course, there are other moral considerations which lead to this, but those can wait until later to discuss.)

What Clancy did was to reveal this process clearly.

    1. Notes

Brian D Earp, ‘Science cannot determins human values’, Think, 15 June (2016):43 URL: , p. 18

Nor, for that matter, does it tell us if rape is acceptable among chimpanzees, even if a particular group of chimps appears to accept the behaviour with equanimity.

Unfortunately, this is yet another reference I have lost, which leaves you free to disregard the idea if you wish, or to treat it as a mere example.

Susan A Clancy, The Trauma Myth: The truth about the sexual abuse of children—and its aftermath, (Basic Books, New York, 2009)

ibid., p. 83

ibid., p. 154

ibid., pp. 111–147

ibid., pp. 77–109

    1. References

Clancy, Susan A, The Trauma Myth: The truth about the sexual abuse of children—and its aftermath, (Basic Books, New York, 2009).

Earp, Brian D, ‘Science cannot determins human values’, Think, 15 June (2016):43, pp. 17–23 URL: , Published online: 29 March 2016.