From the soul to morality: Why does anyone try to do something differently from what they had been doing?

Why does anyone try to do something differently from what they had been doing, to formulate and choose alternative paths, to identify a problem and design a response?  This line of questioning seems to have a connection to deep conceptual assumptions about agents inside agents.  Let me explain.

When a religious person claims that life begins at conception, they may say this is a scientific fact, not a religious doctrine.  Yet this is not science; the egg and the sperm are already living, even if conception marks a qualitative shift in the pace and quality of their development.  The statement of fact is a cover for what the religious person has faith in, namely, that the soul enters the fertilized egg at that point—or at a very early stage of embryological development, such as implantation.  This soul is given by God to complete something that the parents—the sperm, egg, womb, placenta providers—cannot provide.

Let us put aside the issue of whether religious faith should dictate laws and policies.  What can be seen here is a deep conceptual assumption of an agent within any agent.  The living being does not develop without being directed by something else.  A famous example is Richard Dawkins’s theory of selfish genes (

“Now [the replicators] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.

They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

That Dawkins is an outspoken atheist invites us to ponder what is shared by opposing intellectual armies (borrowing here from Raymond Williams in his 1980 essay “Ideas of Nature”).  In this spirit, we can note that proponents of women’s reproductive rights point to personhood as something the law grants only at birth.  We can, however, ask why not later, or why at all?  The fetus depends on the mother to be able to keep living, but the newborn also is also utterly dependent on others.  Indeed, much law grants parental control over minors; they are not deemed ready to make many decisions for themselves.

Suppose it were held that lives are dependent at all times.  From that perspective, the urge to decide on a point at which a life is responsible for directing its own development might then seem to be a holdover from the deep conceptual assumption that something not observable, something distinct from ourselves, has to be directing our development and lives.

Another item of religious faith is the existence of a Consciousness that transcends any particular human life.  If there is no such Consciousness, what, it is often said, is the point of living?  What is to hold off the chaos resulting from all of us simply pursuing our own selfish satisfactions?  Again let us put aside the issue of whether laws and policies should be dictated by the standards and norms that any given religious group claims to be mandated by such a Consciousness.  What we can see in this line of thinking is a deep conceptual assumption that there must be some standard external to us in order for us to know what we should do.  The directing agent within any apparent agent is mirrored by the directions that we as agents follow.  It is an assumption shared by the intellectual armies that oppose the religious foundations to ethics, as is evident when philosophers and other scholars propose a systematic view of what is right and wrong to do.

Suppose it were held that, even if agents tried to stay focused on following some principle of morality or rationality, or sought to optimize some metric, such as their profit, they could not calculate how to do that given the interdependency of their development with that of many others.  From that perspective, attempting to define the standard from which all action ought to be derived might then seem to be a distraction from the challenge of engaging contingently and flexibly within what might be conceptualized as heterogeneous intersecting living processes (Taylor 2005).

Return now to the original question: “Why does anyone try to do something differently from what they had been doing, to formulate and choose alternative paths, to identify a problem and design a response?”  The very framing of this question and the hold that the deep conceptual assumptions have on us seem to call for answers of the form “we do that to satisfy our most basic human needs or to gain more pleasure or to feel a greater sense of our own creativity or generativity.”  If not something like that, what is the source of the necessity of changing, of not continuing along previous lines?  The challenge then, if we want to escape from the assumptions of agents within agents and externally given directions, is to reframe the question and develop a different kind of answer.  I could add, tongue in cheek, “that is, if you want to try to do something different.”  Except it remains to be seen whether the reframing rests on such a first step…


Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Williams, R. (1980). Ideas of Nature. Problems in materialism and culture. London, Verso: 67-85.


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