What is Slave Morality?


wiseGEEK Writing Contest

There is a very deep practical philosophy divide between different groups regarding the role they see for moral education. Some people attempt to instill moral behavior by changing the preferences of children while they are young and malleable, or rather, by encouraging the growth of those moral inclinations which arise naturally in a child while discouraging those immoral inclinations which arise naturally. Others attempt to create the belief within children prior to their development of skeptical faculties, that their actions are always being monitored and that immoral acts will be punished at some time in the future by an unseen judge, exploiting the consistent elements in a child's innate preference system, such as the desire to avoid pain and to receive physical rewards. This strategy has been said by it's opponents to install 'slave morality'.

Adherents of what is sometimes called slave morality are generally of the belief that the former strategy, that of encouraging the development of desired preferences and squelching undesirable preferences either doesn't work or is unreliable. This claim is inconsistent with the most basic findings of psychology, namely the efficacy of operant conditioning, whereby actions which are associated with concurrent or immediately subsequent rewards themselves become rewarding, while those associated with immediate punishments become aversive. Notably, this finding only applies to immediate rewards, except in the case of food poisoning, which makes the most recent meal aversive rather than the most recent action even if the most recent meal was hours ago.

If a person behaves morally when they know that no one is watching them, new information doesn't threaten their moral foundations, as their morality is grounded in their preferences. If they believe that they are always being watched then their moral behavior will be grounded in supposed facts about the world. In this case, evidence that undermines their belief in those facts undermines their morality, leading in the direction of Nietzsche's "total eclipse of all values" as the inevitable consequence of the "twilight of the idols".

There are also important practical consequences to following orders as opposed to acting from one's own initiative. Psychologically, the former will create resentment and dissatisfaction while the latter will not. The latter will favor initiative, and active pursuit of the best satisfaction of one's (hopefully ethical) desires, while the former will focus only on satisfying some perceived standard of acceptability, which implies, among other things, not seeking out better third alternatives when presented with a false dilemma and evidence that one flawed alternative is considered to be permissible.

Actions "above the call of duty" depend entirely upon self-driven internalized ethics. Since no actions that are impossible for most people can as a practical matter be treated as duties, society is dependent upon internally motivated people for such actions. This category of action includes essentially everything that is generally considered to be "creative", as well as any ethically motivated behavior that is not in accordance with already prevailing norms within one's society. Without such actions, technical, ethical, and most other forms of progress are severely impeded.