It’s interesting to notice how hard it is to think without thinking morally. I suppose it can be done, but one would have to be ruthlessly, dedicatedly, vigilantly selfish and solipsistic. Psychopaths can do that, by definition, but it must be very difficult for everyone else. (Autistic people are another exception but autism is a disability, so that’s a separate issue.) We think with our emotions, as Antonio Damasio has helped to make even clearer than it was before; most of our emotions are related to attraction or aversion; once we become aware, at about age 4, that other people have minds just as we do, we understand that other people have likes and dislikes just as we do. This means that we start to learn very early in life that which we need to know in order to think morally. It is possible to avoid or delay or enfeeble this learning process – but it’s not easy. If our parents and siblings don’t teach us, then other people do, sooner or later. We have to be very dense not to understand that if we hurt people, they don’t like it, and we have to be very callous not to eventually get to the thought that we ought not to do things to people that they don’t like.

Of course, after that there is the challenging and stimulating process of rationalizing our desires to hurt or damage or hinder people. It’s hard to be entirely solipsistic, but it’s easy to come up with reasons to explain why certain people must be subordinated or exploited or enslaved or raped or tortured or killed or all those. One quick and easy method is just to invoke a deity – ‘God says so.’ Custom, tradition, our people, the tribe, the nation can serve the same purpose. Secular liberals who oppose subordination and slavery and torture don’t have it so easy – we have to come up with something better than a one or two word label for our moral reasons. This takes awhile, and a number of words; this fact often leads observers to think that secular liberals have a weaker case than theists and traditionalists do. That’s wrong. Theists and traditionalists are the ones who have the weaker case; ‘God says so’ and ‘we have always done it this way’ are worthless reasons for doing anything. But fortunately we are not cats or wolves; we can decide to eat lentils instead of animals and we can spend time and words explaining why cruelty is bad.

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