Overview:

Just as inventions like metal forging and glass-making improve our physical capabilities, morality is a technology that gives us the ability to achieve what no one individual could do alone.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Imagine you woke up one day and found that you’d been thrown back in time to the Stone Age.

You inhabit a hostile wilderness, with no electricity, no internet, no modern conveniences, nothing but the clothes on your back and whatever you have in your pockets. How would you fare? Would you survive?

I’ve contemplated this in idle moments, which is why I enjoy video channels like Primitive Technology. You can never be too prepared in case of unexpected time travel or if the apocalypse comes along.

Tools that make tools

I’m fascinated by how humans make stuff. We started out in that hostile wilderness, just one species struggling for survival among many, at the mercy of predators and weather. We had no natural advantages like warm fur or sharp claws or venomous fangs—nothing but soft hands and squishy brains. Yet the collective power of our intellect has allowed us to harness nature to serve our purposes: first for survival, and later abundance and comfort, to the point where we now dominate the planet.

One of my favorite books is The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell, which aims to be an instruction manual for how to reboot civilization if the world ends. Reading Dartnell’s descriptions, you can see how humanity has climbed the ladder of progress, bootstrapping the resources of nature into more complex and useful products.

Here’s one example: Calcium carbonate (limestone, a.k.a. chalk) is a common mineral. You can quarry it with hammers and pickaxes, bake it in a kiln to turn it into calcium oxide (quicklime), and react that with water to make calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), which makes excellent mortar when mixed with sand.

If you pour wood ash into water, strain out the indissoluble sediment, and boil it until only the soluble minerals are left, you get potash (potassium carbonate), an indispensable fertilizer. If you react slaked lime and potash, you get potassium hydroxide (caustic potash or lye), a powerful alkali which cleans, cures food, and if added to fat or oil, makes soap. Potash and quicklime, if melted in a kiln with ordinary sand, produce glass, which is a versatile and useful material: transparent, nonreactive, and easy to shape. It can be used for windows and bottles, but it’s also essential for scientific instruments, from thermometers to test tubes to lenses for microscopes.

From limestone, wood, fire and water, you get fertilizer for crops, mortar for bricks, soap for cleaning, and glass for science. Not a bad start for a Stone Age Robinson Crusoe!

Civilization is built on technology chains like this. As I’ve written before, the practical knowledge came before the theoretical understanding. We worked out how to do all of this before we knew anything about chemistry or atoms or the periodic table. But the scientific revolution enlarged and deepened our understanding, illuminating the laws of physics that undergird these transformations.

Civilization is a collection of technologies

It’s not just material technologies that make our lives better. Civilization is also a collection of moral technologies. These are the implicit rules and principles that most of us have internalized: how to live together peacefully, how to treat strangers, how to trade and exchange, how to share and cooperate, how to resolve disputes. Like material technologies, we depend on them every day, yet they’re so common that we take them for granted.

It may sound strange to speak of morality as a technology, but it is. In the same way that a telescope improves your vision or a lever enhances your strength, morality is a cognitive prosthesis that expands the capabilities of the human mind. It’s how we overcome the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem of trusting others who might not reciprocate.

Just as concrete and steel allow you to build more than you can with stone and wood, societies with higher levels of trust and cooperation can accomplish more than societies with less.

Moral reasoning increases trust and cooperation, which allows people to work together even if they’ve never met, and large-scale cooperation is at the root of our greatest accomplishments. Just as concrete and steel allow you to build more than you can with stone and wood, societies with higher levels of trust and cooperation can accomplish more than societies with less.

Both moral and material technologies depend on accumulated knowledge that has to be learned and practiced. We’re not born knowing how to live together in a society, just as we’re not born knowing how to make bricks or glass. More importantly, as our material technology builds on itself and improves over time, so too does our moral technology. The scientific method is the means by which our material technology improves, and there are parallel methods by which our moral technology can improve: ways of thinking that strengthen the better angels of our nature.

How to improve your moral technology

The first of these is imagining better worlds. Defenders of tribalism, divine-right monarchy, colonialism, theocracy, slavery, feudalism, communism, neoliberal free-market capitalism, and many others have made the argument that their ideology is the immutable order of things, the end of history, impossible to improve upon. The fact that so many incompatible ideologies say the same thing is sufficient reason to distrust all of them.

We should never assume that the way society is currently organized is the only way or the best way. We should always question if the rules could be changed or if resources could be distributed differently to make society fairer, more just, or better at motivating people to use the talents they have. It’s a cognitive exercise that keeps us from getting trapped in hollow dogmatism.

Another way to improve our moral technology is to practice empathy—and it does need to be practiced. Any able-bodied person can run, but it takes training to complete a marathon. Just the same way, the capacity to see the world through someone else’s eyes is a human built-in, but it has to be cultivated to reach its highest potential. We’re frighteningly good at shutting off empathy for a disfavored group when society teaches that they’re less than fully human.

To practice empathy, we need to make a deliberate effort to seek out and study perspectives that differ from our own. This is especially important for privileged people who’ve never had to empathize with others as the price of participating in society. It’s not necessary to agree with those perspectives, but it is necessary to understand the reasons why people hold them, rather than seeking the quickest excuse to dismiss them.

When it attains its fullest flowering, empathy gives rise to an expanding circle of fair treatment. Each time we correct a previously overlooked injustice, it sets a precedent which makes it that much easier to recognize and abolish the next one. (A shocking historical example is the way that anti-child-abuse laws took inspiration from anti-animal-cruelty laws.) By strengthening our empathy muscles, we also safeguard ourselves from falling under the sway of future demagogues or hate groups.

Literacy is the essential imagination-stretcher, transporting readers to different worlds and bringing them inside other people’s heads. 

Last but not least, a shortcut to moral progress is reading books—as many and as often as possible. Literacy is the essential imagination-stretcher, transporting readers to different worlds and bringing them inside other people’s heads. It’s the best way to expose yourself to a diversity of perspectives and ideas you might never have considered. There’s good reason for the famous saying, “Beware the person of one book.”

Nor is it a surprise that the religious right has grown more and more aggressive about censoring and even burning books. Their worldview is based on narrow-mindedness, and they’re fiercely opposed to anything that might let a ray of light shine in on those dusty assumptions.

These moral exercises, much like the scientific method, are tools that make tools. They make our minds more flexible, more able to adapt, better able to draw the correct conclusions in new circumstances. In so doing, they increase our power to shape the world as we wish.

It’s possible to get by without them, just as it’s possible for science deniers to use technology while rejecting the methods that gave rise to it. But in the long run, people and societies who build up their moral technology will grow and prosper at the expense of those that don’t.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...