Friday, September 25, 2009

The Source of Morality: Part II

Here is the second part to our continuing discussion of the origins of human morality.

Tim’s Reply:

Well Bill, it’s true that the source of morality is a sticky (but interesting) situation to discuss. As you wrote, it has to do with the concepts of right and wrong. Sometimes this is a very broad, very ambiguous concept, and sometimes it is very specific and absolute. Or at least, it is used so for the sake of argument or persuasion.

I ask a simple (not so simple) question: who defines what is right and what is wrong? Is it wrong to kill? Some would say yes without any clarification to the statement. Let me then ask again: Is it wrong to kill a wolf so that an Inuit woman can have a fur to keep her baby warm? It’s a different question now, isn’t it? Who determined that it was right for ancient humans to kill animals so that they could skin them and thereby ensure their own survival? The definition is not so easy to come by. I would say that right and wrong AS IT APPLIES TO HUMANS* is something that has evolved with us as we have learned what is best for our own survival as a species. You mentioned above that “Some people believe that all of the laws and codes of conduct are a mere product of thousands of years of social evolution and it is passed down by education for the benefit of all. They believe that it’s just a human invention.”

I think that this is close to the mark, but not so much that it’s an invention. As humans were evolving and learned to live in groups, extended families, tribes, etc. Everyone learned that they had their own part to play. Every person was important to the survival of the whole after a while, because everyone started to develop their own skills. They learned how to skin animals, how to treat leather, how to treat wounds, make weapons, make bread, fire, store food, communicate, cultivate crops, build homes, etc. Eventually even make things out of metal. But not everyone knew how to do everything else.

At this point, there was really no reason for one tribesman to kill another within the tribe, and I think this was understood because if one of them were killed, say the guy who knew how to thatch the huts, that’s something that could threaten the survival of all of them. Now I’m sure there were neighboring tribes who knew this too, and would try to kill the more important members of the tribe or whatever.

The point is, in a small community, when one person is removed, it affects everyone, and I don’t think that’s something that ever really went away from us. I think it predates any religion, because I think it predates any form of language. It’s a simple matter of survival. We cannot survive alone. Yes there were squabbles, yes this guy wanted that girl, etc, and this is also where the biologics came in; where the alpha males established the pecking order and the stronger genes flourished. Don’t think I was going to argue this sociologically only. It’s just that since morality is more of an esoteric topic, it lends itself to more of a behavioral rather than genetic discussion for the most part. I’m not saying that there isn’t a genetic motivator; I’m just not going to discuss it right now. End of disclaimer.

I think there is something to the herd behavior that would be relevant to mention at this point also when it came to the moral upbringing of the tribe. When everyone was doing their part; when everyone was contributing, when there was a healthy growth of the population, children learned by following the examples of their elders and the other villagers. Furthermore, since they were ostensibly raised by the village, there were not the egregious mistakes and prejudices that are passed down from generation to generation like we see today.

(* I say as it applies to humans because we have a double standard when it comes to morals and ethics. We always have, we always will, it’s just an accepted part of the Human condition. We’re more important than anything else on the planet. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example: It’s OK for us to go fishing, catch a shark and kill it. If a shark attacks a swimmer at a beach though, we will hunt it down and kill it. Fact.)

With civilization came a breakdown of morality from the “natural” morality that existed previously. I have to disagree with you that older civilizations had the same moralities that we share today. The Roman rulers believed that they had the gods on their sides. Hell, many believed that they were gods, and did not, at least overtly, feel any guilt at doing whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Some cared about their country and people, it’s true, but they were the divine and the noble, and through the luck of birthright, were privileged not poor. The poor have been lesser creatures since the advent of civilization. Now to your point earlier about selfishness, I’ll agree that there were some in these societies, (read here as the poor and a very, very small number of politicians) who were selfless in nature and cared more for others than for themselves. The rest believed that the world was made to serve and entertain them, be conquered, and by being conquered, serve and entertain their needs. Who would throw someone in an arena with lions today? We have boxing, not Gladiators.

I think it was probably little different in Egypt where the Jews were kept as slaves and worked building temples to other gods, don’t you think? I know you remember all of those stories about Moses. This does not demonstrate to me an abiding moral fiber, even in the deeply religious society that Egypt was.

For the remainder of my reply, I’m going to stick with what I consider the main ‘heavy hitting’ moral issues. I noticed you mentioned fairness, cutting in line, etc, and I don’t want to you to think that I’m ignoring that. I’m not really going to talk about these because I don’t believe that consideration and morality are on the same level. Assholes are assholes. They are as ubiquitous as biting insects and often just as hard to ignore, but being considerate or inconsiderate can wax or wane with a person’s mood. Whereas I don’t believe that a moral person will suddenly become amoral or vice versa. Ebenezer Scrooge being the exception, of course.

I’m going to shift my topic a bit because one of the most important arguments I’ve heard for morality is that it comes from the bible. Now Bill, I’m not saying that this is your argument, it’s just the one that I’ve heard the most. Many Christians who believe that morality comes from the bible, believe roughly that if they are not good people, if they do not follow the ways of the Lord, go to church on Sunday, confess, tithe, go on missions, or do whatever their particular sect of Christianity is supposed to do, that they will go to Hell and burn there for all eternity with Satan and his demons poking them with pitchforks.

Now these same people approach me, an atheist, and absolutely refuse to believe that I can be a good person without the fear of Hell hanging over me. They believe that there is nothing to keep me from flat out raping, pillaging, murder, and lawlessness because I have no fear of Hell. My first aghast response is: Are you fucking serious? My second is: The only thing that keeps YOU a good person is living in fear of eternal retribution? And finally, I answer: I am a good person because it’s the right thing to do. Sure I could walk up and shoot someone in the face; anyone could. Why don’t I? Well, because it’s wrong. Am I afraid of Hellfire and damnation? No. But it’s wrong. It was wrong before the bible said so.

I have a really hard time with people who use the bible as the gold standard for morality. Most Christians, most religious people in general, really, use their gospels selectively to make it say whatever they want it to say to achieve their ends. I’m sure I needn’t remind you of the atrocities carried out in the name of God over the ages, but even those that were not vicious, hateful warmongers might not have been the most moral people by today’s standards.

What would you say about our founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson and the rest of their ilk? Granted, not all of them were religious, but many of them were. Good staunch Christians. Now most Christians would agree that slavery is wrong. Why? Because Humans are not property, they are people. But slavery is very much accepted in the bible. OK, it was a long time ago, we’ve realized that it’s wrong now, we don’t do that anymore. Of course, it’s only 150 years gone from this country. That’s not very long.

Wait, did I just say the bible is…wrong? Well, of course it is. It’s wrong about a lot of things, which is part of the reason it is read so selectively. It’s a good historical tale that has an incredible amount of wisdom for those who choose to listen and read it for what it is.

But there’s an interesting paradox in the biblical commandments isn’t there? The commandments are absolute, but people are very liberal with their interpretation.
Is it wrong to steal? The bible says it is. We steal honey from bees don’t we? What, you think they make that stuff for us out of the goodness of their stingers? No. The commandment is very clear on this, isn’t it? Thou Shalt Not Steal. Let’s not even talk about Kill.

So back to the question, where did moral law originate? Why are we more inclined to treat people better than worse? Well, I believe self-preservation is at the heart of every person. It drives us to eat, it drives us to procreate; drives us to seek shelter in a storm; drives us to run from a large beast; fight to protect what we need. These are very powerful instincts that are deep inside any animal, and we are animals, regardless of the promises of Heaven and Hell.

But what makes the moral drive so strong is the deep and primal knowledge that we cannot survive alone. We cannot procreate without mixing out genetic material with others; we cannot thrive without a large enough population to have genetic diversity, and part of us knows this. This is part of what makes other people attractive or unattractive to us. We are social creatures that NEED other people. Yes, there are those among us that are deviants, yes there are those among us that have killed, stolen, been megalomaniacal, evil, twisted, everything you can think of. But every population has its exceptions.

The bottom line is, we should be good to each other because it’s the right thing to do not because we are told to be or scared of consequences if we are not. Can science prove it? Maybe, with the proper experiment, I don’t know. Did it come from God? Well, I don’t know since I’ve never seen God. I guess it’s just something we’ll just have to decide for ourselves. Peacefully.
Another brilliant essay, TJ.

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