Morality had been a concern of mine for a while if I remember correctly; a practical concern rather than a theoretical one. I applied myself to the problem of playground bullying. Standing by while somebody else was being bullied was unacceptable; so was even the mildest form of unkindness to those who seemed outcast. This latter principle had me patiently listening to the class geek quite regularly, although I confess I mostly tuned out his Star Wars trivia and then tried to pretend I'd been listening (he grew up to be quite hot, actually, but he was a year ahead of me so we never spoke much in high school and I doubt he remembered the girl who used to say 'Mm-hm' to him in primary school).
The fact that I considered myself required to intervene when anyone else was in trouble was actually less problematic than you might think. I know that in movies, the way it goes is that the cute little girl stands up for the little boy, who then defiantly rejects her in an attempt to regain his manly pride from the ignominy of having needed defence. However, I stood up for other people so regularly that, at least as far as I can remember, it seemed to be a generally accepted occurrence. I also never waited for thanks. I wasn't in it for thanks, I was in it for the joy of the argument -- which, regretfully, never lasted long. I used to plant my feet slightly wider than my shoulders (second position in ballet, if you must know), glare at my offending classmate and shout "How dare you? What reason did you have to do that? Go on, argue! What's your reason?" Usually by the time I got that far, they'd have given up. Satisfying though it was to hear 'Don't argue with [Lynet]' as a generally accepted maxim, I often used to wish they'd put up more of a fight.
When I was eleven, I read Sophie's World. Thus, over a year or so, as things sank in and I re-read the technical parts I had skipped the first time around, I became acquainted with a rough outline of the ideas of history's great philosophers. I knew what utilitarianism was and had a go at understanding Immanuel Kant. I knew of Hume's dictum that 'ought' cannot follow from 'is', and his notion that morality was purely emotional. At the same time, I was dealing with some major snags in my anti-bullying crusade, to wit:
(a) As kids get older, they're less likely to be intimidated by mere shouting.
(b) As kids get older, their bullying gets more subtle, and their relationships with each other start to change. My peers were entering the "groups" phase (I skipped that one at the time because it seemed ludicrous to me to blindly follow the crowd, and had to go back and learn the necessary lessons when I was older). All of a sudden, I had to deal with the fact that most of the people I might have defended were more interested in becoming accepted as part of the group than in avoiding being bullied -- in fact, they'd take all kinds of crap as long as they were still even slightly "in".
There was no way for me to properly defend people. I wasn't really needed any more.
I was also really, really lonely. Rejecting the idea of the group can do that to you.
Somewhere towards the end of the year I was twelve, I had two quiet crises. One involved me realising that I was going to have to compromise my ideals, my reason, my personality in order to get the basic human interaction I needed in order to stop me from going insane. Here, however, I'd like to talk about the other change.
My standpoint on morality had been shifting slowly, the more I learned, and it was with sincere regret that I came to the conclusion that reason alone was not enough. Indeed, at twelve years old, with too much time alone to reflect, I didn't really have a definite position on morality at all. It was at around this time that I realised that I might have to allow some of my principles to be inconsistent with each other, taking my worldview as a work in progress rather than something that had to have finished perfection at all times. That was an important step. I also decided I rather liked the idea of a sort of dialogue between logic and moral intuition, starting with intuitions, then attempting to generalise in a consistent fashion, then going back to moral intuition as a way of seeing how the generalisation might need to be modified (I forget which philosopher I got that from -- it was ten years ago, after all -- but I know I didn't come up with it myself). Still, on some inner level, I had to concede that I was sidestepping the point. Why trust moral intuition at all? Is there any 'real' morality?
I confess freely that the idea that morality wasn't built into the universe really frightened me. Indeed, when I finally allowed myself to reason and let my thoughts go as they would, I came up with this:
Well, okay, so maybe there's no morality. But if there's no morality, then it isn't morally wrong for me to pretend there is morality. So I'm just going to act like there is morality anyway. Can I stop thinking about this now?
I was aware at the time of the parallels between such thinking and religious faith as held by many people. As an illustration, consider this comment:
To me, it either is all true and He is God and totally in control [. . .] or He isn't - and if He isn't, none of this really would matter, would it?
Obviously there's a slight flaw in the assumption that nothing would matter without God, and yes, we could construct an argument that favours a secular humanist view over a theist one with exactly that flaw in mind, contending that it does matter, and that in view of the things that matter (truth, human happiness and so forth), atheism is the better position. Oh, but I have given the end of the story away! Now, where was I?
Oh, yes. If I was disturbed by the notion that there might be no absolute morality, I was almost equally disturbed to find myself engaging in such faith-type reasoning. Was I as bad as Christians after all? In the end, I found my starting point by answering no to the question 'Can I stop thinking about this now?' No, you cannot stop thinking. If your reasoning is shaky, you must face the fact. By the moral principles which you defiantly continue to use, the truth matters, so stick as close to it as possible.
If the swamp where there were no rules lay just beneath my feet, and the platform above it on which I had stood was breaking apart, then I determined to myself to build no more than a raft. Dangerous as it might be, I determined to build no edifices of dubious foundation, no vast opaque temples to block out the sight of the unsteady ground. No catechism, no false authority of tradition, no pretense that there might be epistemological safety in numbers. Only a raft.
In the Sophie's World digested version of Sartre, I found the notion that human beings, having faced the terror of meaninglessness, are free to give their own meaning to their existence. I liked it and absorbed it, but it was many a year before I learned that the ideas I was groping towards had a name and a history already in their own right, and came to realise that I was quite simply and precisely a humanist. Indeed, meaning isn't hard to find in this universe; there is meaning as long as somebody means it. Morality is harder. I wanted it to be fundamental to the universe as a whole; I had to accept that it was confined perhaps to a single species on this tiny Earth. Good and evil only exist in our minds. But I care about them anyway.