I am by no means an expert on morality, either philosophically or scientifically. Though perhaps we should be wary of anyone who claims to be an expert in this field, and take a close look at to how well their actions measure up with their proposed expertise. This subject is one that has long interested me. Surely, such an ubiquitous part of society must hold some clues as to who we are and where we came from. What is morality? How is it useful to us? How did we acquire it? These are some of the great philosophical questions posed by men throughout history and I shall discuss them in this article.
What Is Morality?
Morality can be thought of as a code of conduct between two or more individuals in a group. It defines acceptable behaviours and limits destructive ones. In a broader sense, it is a sort of social glue which allows large groupings of individuals to function well together. Some examples of morals include: “thou shalt not kill”; specific expected behaviours around children; and the idea of telling the truth. Running down the street naked and covered in chocolate sauce is also something of a moral faux pas these days (unfortunately?). Some morals seem to be self-evident while others may be influenced by culture or religion. So why do we have them? Where do our morals come from and what makes them important?
Do We Really Choose Our Own Morality, Or Has Evolution And Society Hoisted It Upon Us?
Moral codes are a basis for society. They allow a group to prosper through cooperation and mutual benefit and provide a common standard of behaviour upon which the structures of a functioning society can be built. Things such as criminal law, government and education all require some form of moral baseline to attach their fundamental tenants to.
If morality breaks down it may be seen that soon after, so will society. Or the opposite might be true, that if some outside force were to destroy society, morality would fall apart at the seams in the inevitable fall out. This theme is present in many modern works of fiction, particularly in the ‘Post-Apocalyptic’ genre. Zombie invasions, nuclear holocausts and other such cataclysmic events in fiction often feature the breakdown of morality as a central theme in the wake of the catastrophe.
Video Games And Morality
In the popular video game series Fallout, which centres on a fictional version of Earth wrecked by nuclear war, moral choices play a central part of the game. A player can choose to act altruistically toward his fellow survivors – gaining group favour, rewards and cooperation or a player can act without morals, murdering, stealing and generally tooling his way around the place. Interestingly if the latter is chosen the player will quickly find himself without many friends, even among those who apparently lack morals themselves. Each separate path provides a different perspective on morality and different rewards to the player.
What about in reality? Do morals have any use? The answer is an unequivocal yes. As we shall see without that social glue there really is no basis for common law or for societies to stick together.
God and Morality: The Religious Vantage Point
This question is mostly put to me by the religious, although they don’t usually realize what they’re doing at the time. Their argument centres on God being the source of morality, without which, mankind has no way of knowing what is morally correct. If God does not exist, what’s the point of having morals? Where do they come from if not from God? From the religious vantage point the question is core to their faith. In the scheme of the Universe, does it matter if I launch an invasion on my neighbor’s property, kill him and rejoice in the lamenting of his family? Not really, unless there is a moral absolute capable of making a judgement. Where then is the sense of measuring our morality if we don’t believe in God? Not much really.
An objective reading of morality reveals that unless it is divine, then all of our moral judgments essentially mean nothing. It is only when viewed as relative to a society that morality becomes more sensible. There is an expectation that a judge will not measure morality against God when passing verdict on a murderer. Morality is relative by necessity. Even if morality does turn out to be divine, using divine absolute morality is not terribly useful to humanity right now. Morality exists in the same way as “Justice” and “Mercy”; as a relative, socio-evolutionary construct beneficial to forming a society. But what kinds of morality exist and how did humanity come to be moral creatures?
Divine Morality vs. Relative Morality
Philosophers, theologians and scientists have many different versions of morality. Divine morality, which I talked about above, commonly describes morality attributed to a God or some other supernatural device, which holds the highest measurable standard to which we can be compared. Presumably this is gifted to humanity and our goals are to reach as high on this moral scale as possible in order to be close to the divine or to avoid divine punishment. Morality provides a baseline on which society can function. However it only works when we make the assumption that there is a higher form than ourselves capable of making a judgement on our actions.
Relative morality is morality as described by evolution – a necessary component for a society to function and chosen by natural selection as a binding agent for populations as a means to prosper. Relative morality takes that objectively, no one is right or wrong on the subject of morals, as not everyone’s morals will agree. Using my example of a judge sentencing a murderer, you will recall that there are many countries that have different degrees of this. Relative morality is what allows this to occur.
Divine morality would hold that murder is wrong, period. There are no circumstances which allow for example, lenient sentences (manslaughter, second degree murder) and every criminal gets the maximum sentence every time. Examples of relative morality can be found in different cultures across the world and are especially noticeable in criminal law, depending on the culture in question. For instance drinking alcohol in a public place might be acceptable in Australia, whilst being morally repugnant in another country. There are, however, certain morals which seem to be universal or self-evident.
Self-Evident Morals and Societal Morals
One of the most well known lines from the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
For a system to work, it requires a baseline on which to function. For example, a modern desktop computer requires electricity, a processor, memory and an input/output. These are the base requirements for a computer to be useful. The same is true for morality; it requires certain universals or self-evidents to provide a useful foundation. In this context I refer to self-evident morals as morals which are required, from an evolutionary standpoint, for morality to be useful to a species thus allowing it to propagate through natural selection.
Self-evident morals include prohibitions such as “do not kill,” “do not steal”, “do not enslave” etc. Without these baseline morals (which are present almost universally, leading some to see divine morality) it is harder to build a working society that will last and flourish. Looking at fictional sources such as the Mad Max movies gives us an insight into what society might be like without self-evident morals. On the other hand societal morals develop out of a culture once a society is established and may differ across a spectrum of societies.
It’s not clear to me whether these morals are necessary from an evolutionary standpoint or are ad-hoc additions based on relative necessity, but it must be argued that they can certainly improve the quality of life for people who live under them. However, they can also do the opposite, such as may be seen in examples of extreme religious moral code. Examples of societal morals include things such as dress code, etiquette and certain aspects of criminal law such as the varying degrees of punishment per culture for similar crimes. In the case of drinking in public, one might get approval from peers in one country, or beheaded in another.
The Evolution of Morality: Monkey Business
Morality has a long history, far too long for me to recount here. The earliest organised religions can be traced back to 1000 BCE and are examples of the evolution of morality. Tribes learn to bind together under religious moral codes and succeed over individuals or smaller groups with “looser” morals. Individualism made it much harder to compete for resources. S mall groups may still form but chaos reigns; larger groups break down when there is no agreed standard of behaviour. As a society forms, its morals evolve – from small tribes with internal-facing morality to the nation-states we see today.
From an evolutionary standpoint, natural selection seems to favour morals. Groups who display altruism towards each other (and outsiders) tend to prosper and this may be because groups of individuals are more able to compete for resources and more able to spread their genetic code further and wider, thus propagating whichever genes may support the growth of morality. Scientists hypothesize that certain neurons in the brain communicate morality based on genetic code. These are called Spindle Neurons and until recently had only been observed in very few animal species, including humans. This brings me to my final point.
Maybe It’s Not Just Monkey Business After All
Thus far, science has not demonstrated the same degree of morality in other animals aside from humans. Some animals display empathy – a sound starting point for morality. A Swiss experiment saw two rats placed in separate cages so that they could see each other. One rat was given food, rigged to provide an electric shock to the second rat any time the first rat ate. After observing the second rats’ reaction, the first rat stopped eating entirely, aware that its actions were causing its companion pain. This is not morality in the strictest sense as the rat was not capable of making a moral judgement as to whether its actions were right or wrong. But it may be considered as empathy, that is, understanding another’s pain and sympathizing with it.
In another experiment, rats were placed in the same cage with one restrained. The first rat actively sought to free its companion even when tempted away with treats. After the first rat had freed its companion, it typically shared the treat with it. This example provides a relatively clear picture of the benefits of empathy and how it could be a starting point for the evolution of morality.
Recently, scientists have found that certain species of whale and elephants also have Spindle Neurons. This surprising discovery indicates that they may be emotive creatures, capable of empathy and possibly even complex emotional judgments regarding other members of their species. What a beautiful example of evolution in motion! It also seems to preclude the divine morality argument as what use do animals have for God-given morals? To my mind, the simplest explanation is that morality is a socio-evolutionary construct – or to put it another way, a combination of nature and nurture – which is beneficial and even crucial to societal animals such as ourselves.
Introspection Into Our Own Morality
I am certain that the subject of morality is one that will continue to provoke fascinating discussion and thought. Whether morality is the result of evolutionary processes or gifted to us by the divine, it’s undeniable that it provides the glue by which we can form societies and by which we are able to prosper. I hope this article has piqued your interest in the subject and provided some context with which you can start your journey into the philosophy of morality, if you haven’t already embarked long ago. Or perhaps we all did upon departing the womb, for whether we are intentional students of morality or not, the manner in which we conduct ourselves and interact with others evolves throughout our lives based on our experiences.