Friday, September 25, 2009

The Source of Morality: Part IV

This is the final essay on the discourse about the origins of morality as originally posted on TJ's blog.

Dan's Reply:

First of all I want to say, “Thank you,” for posing the question and sharing your views. It’s not very often that you find honesty and truth on the internet. Except maybe on YouTube…it’s usually a sad, sad version of truth, but you get what you pay for. It is easy in discussions such as this to break down into personal attacks and arguments to gain emotional ground with the audience. I’m glad to see that you guys are able to keep it on a level that is educated and informative. I’m also glad to see that such foul language as “moral relativism, anti-realism, emotivism, absolutism, and divine command theory” haven’t been thrown into the mix yet. Not only is jargon like that elitist, it is boring as well. If you’ll permit, I’d like to hijack your thread momentarily. Hopefully my comments will serve to further this interesting discussion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose that I can be considered an agnostic regarding my religious point-of-view (which TJ aptly calls “Atheist Lite”). I tend to look at the issue of morality from a humanist/scientific point-of-view. So, to me, statements such as “The bible teaches…” immediately make me think, “The bible is an inanimate object and cannot teach anything. It must be read (not to mention written) and interpreted by people who (presumably) have moral values of their own.” So, in discussions about morality, I believe that although the beliefs of the people that wrote the bible have merit they must have gained those beliefs before writing the tome. It’s a bit of a cart-before-the-horse argument in my mind.

I can’t engage in a discussion about the origins of morality without first stating what I believe morality is. So, what exactly is “morality”? In my mind morality refers to the concept of human ethics, which pertains to matters of right and wrong -- also referred to as good and evil. The are miles of people lined up in front of me who have had way more time on their hands to devote to the study of morality. Marx, Nietzsche, Jung, Plato, Bill & Ted (be excellent to everyone) are just a few of those hopeless layabouts. The way I see it the ideas of what actions are good and what actions are evil are hopelessly entangled in the nature versus nurture argument.

It seems to me that we cannot separate the moral compass instilled upon us by society and the biological traits that we have accumulated over time (or the traits that were stuffed into us when we were created out of a pile of dirt, depending on your belief set). If I were a feral human that managed to survive in the wilderness from infancy without any human or pack-animal contact would I believe that tax evasion, cutting in line, or watching Jerry Springer while I’m at work was morally wrong? For that matter would I even have morals? Some people might ask if I have them now, but that’s another story entirely. Societal influence on morality is undoubtedly heavily weighted. The idea of what is right and what is wrong can only be argued from the perspective of the cultural and geographical location of any individual at any specific point in time. It’s easy to say that human sacrifice, infanticide, spousal abuse, racism, mass marketing, and women’s basketball are morally wrong from the our perspective at this point in time and this spot on the globe. However, we cannot impose our personal mores onto societies in other places and times. Is it wrong for me to slap my wife? The answer is obviously yes. Or it’s mostly yes. Well, it depends on my mood, really, but that’s getting a bit off track. Would it be wrong to deny her the right to vote, show her face in public, and walk beside me on the street? Again, it depends on my mood. Only joking of course, but you can see where I’m going with this. I look at my son, who is a toddler at the moment, as about a half-clean slate in regards to societal mores. His beliefs about what is right or wrong (although they will follow a distinct pattern of development) will be created in situ. At any rate it will be interesting to see how my son’s ideas will be influenced since the world is getting smaller and foreign traditions and values are immediately available to him through the media and worldwide connectivity. His generation will undoubtedly be screwed up, especially since they have us as parents.

Just like my son, we all follow certain stages of moral development in our lives. Kohlberg tests this with his Heinz dilemma. The Heinz dilemma is stated as follows:

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a pharmacist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the pharmacist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the pharmacist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the pharmacist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

I first heard about the Heinz dilemma from an eighth-grade girl who’s science experiment I was judging…precocious bitch. It turns out that there are six categories of moral development that answers will fall into. I don’t want to get too deep into that (unless invited), but I’m curious what you guys think of this.

Since we’re on the subject of progeny it seems like a good point to look the genetic origins of morality or the nature side of this conundrum. Simply-stated - humans are animals. We have the same zoological traits and biological drives as any other animal in the world: procreation, self-preservation, fashion, and hunger. We are top predators, and, as such, we are lethal adversaries and have the potential to cause great physical harm, even death, to ourselves and to each other. It would not do to have us (or any other top predator) going around maiming and killing one another as adults. It can be said that sometimes in nature infanticide (lions killing the young or the above-mentioned Suruwah√° Indians) occurs, but this is usually for lack of resources or preservation of a specific line of genes. Also, often, young animals kill one another in the battle for resources (birds eject their siblings from the nest). However, it is rare that adults kill one another, with the exception of humans, dolphins (of all creatures), and animals in captivity. In skirmishes over territory, mates, the TV remote or food large predators rarely kill one another, especially in socialized animals such as wolves, lions, primates, etc. It wouldn’t make sense to remove a healthy adult that can aid in protecting, hunting, gathering, tending to the young, etc., especially since so many resources have been spent on growing that individual into an adult. So a paradox occurs in dangerous animals. We have the tools to trap, kill and consume our prey, but we have a strong genetic aversion to expending the energy to kill one another. We socialized animals must necessarily have aversions to theft, deceit, and murder; since without these aversions we would not get very far, raping and murdering each other constantly and continually living in fear of being raped and murdered. Since humans are so potentially dangerous we have even extended our vulnerability by remaining nude (hairless) throughout or lives. It is an outward symbol that we need each other to survive. I guess to sum up I believe that the origins of morality along with the definition of what is right or wrong are rooted not only in our environment and upbringing, but at the same time they are bolstered by an innate genetic component.

This line of thinking is very close to the Anthropic Principle of physics. We observe the universe that way that it is because we exist. Meaning that everything in the universe has to be how it is in order for us to exist in it. A little one way or another and POOF no Judge Judy on weekdays, no Laffy Taffy, and no morality.

Although I am an agnostic let me just throw it out there that I understand that religion has formative aspects when speaking about morality. It is unavoidable for something that is as ingrained into society to as religion to have huge influence on daily life and human interaction. However, when it comes to morality I believe that religion and religious beliefs are factors in what can be termed cultural evolution and are not (or are probably not) innate. I will get back to that in a moment.

While we are on the topic of religion, I want to take a brief look at the Ten Commandments since they have come up several times in the discussion. On inspection, it seems that they essentially fall into two categories. I’ll call them religious commandments and non-religious commandments. The first four commandments are the religious commandments (no other gods, no idolatry, don’t take the lords name in vain, and rest on the Sabbath). The last six can be considered essentially non-religious (honor mom and pop, don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie or covet). It seems like the first group of laws are there to present an authority figure and compete for ground with other religions – essentially marketing and indoctrination. They basically say, “I’m the Man, and if you don’t follow My rules I’ll put a pox on your family for four generations. Oh, by the way, you get Sundays off.” It’s interesting that these are the first of the commandments. I would think that killing and stealing would top the list, but I’m not big on authority figures. The last six of the commandments are what I would consider the meat of the list. These are the behaviors that affect our lives and interactions. I believe that these items are statements of boundaries that are deeply ingrained into any social animal’s psyche. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, or covet because it will upset the delicate balance that we have worked so hard for over the last 1000 generations just as I discussed above. And honor Mom and Pop because you need them to watch the kids on date night.

Bill, you said that you have a hard time with believing that science can explain why we have this strong feeling of what we ought to do. Evolutionarily speaking human emotions (or, more generally if you like, the human brain) came about more easily than the adaptations that are required for walking upright, but they are no less necessary for human societies to function properly than having erect posture. So why do we have these feelings? My belief is that they are tied to what is called “altruism.”

Biological altruism is a bit of a strange beast. It can be seen in many animals besides humans. Prairie dogs, woodpeckers, primates, and bees as well as many, many others will call an alarm in the presence of a predator. Why would an animal put itself in harm’s way for the benefit of another, especially one that is not related? This is just one of a multitude of ways that species act to benefit a social group. It turns out that altruists who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of those with shared traits may have low selective value as individuals (check out, but a population bearing such altruistic individuals will have higher reproductive values than one without them. This is essentially what TJ is getting at with the “hut-thatcher analogy” earlier. Conversely, social parasites that increase their frequency at the expense of others in a population may have high individual selective value, but they will depress the reproductive fitness of the population as a whole. Stated another way, natural selection will increase altruistic genes if individuals that benefit from the unselfish acts are themselves also carrying those genes for altruism.

I often hear natural selection described as the survival of the fittest: however, this implies and in my mind would better be called the destruction of the weak. If nature itself progresses through the destruction of the weak, then societies and social animals progress through the protection of the weak (altruism). These emotions and feelings that we are talking about are set in us in the same way that opposeable thumbs and our circulatory system are – they help us survive.

Now, back to cultural evolution for a bit. The information humans gather from ancestors and contemporaries can be purposefully changed to provide improved utility for themselves, their offspring, and others. The speed with which these purposeful modifications take place and the consequent speed of cultural change are limited primarily by human inventiveness. A cultural or technological improvement can now be proposed in one part of the world and implemented in another part almost immediately. Genetic evolution on the other hand is slow since it must await fortuitous accidental genetic changes in DNA before it can proceed, and each change may take a considerable number of generations before it can be incorporated into the population. It seems obvious that many profound social and cultural changes, such as those involved in the transition from slavery to feudalism, or from feudalism to capitalism, or from low tech to hi tech, are far too rapid to be caused by genetic changes. This disparity in speed between cultural and biological evolution indicates that they evolve on separate methodological tracks, yet the biological equipment needed to transmit and utilize cultural information (memory, perception, language, etc.) still connects them both.

It is clear that, since they can be consciously selected, social goals can be directed towards almost any objective that humans choose for themselves, such as wealth, poverty, chastity, obedience, revolution, and so on. So when we talk about the origins of morality it seems, to me at least, that our biology sets the framework, and we use our intellect make conscious decisions that affect the direction of societal beliefs. I guess that’s the crux of what I believe about morality summed up in one sentence. Could have saved us all a lot of time if I just said that in the beginning…

Thanks again for letting me join in. I hope I’ve shed a little light on the subject anyway.
Anyway, thanks for the interesting, informative and frank discussion, and thanks for letting me chime in. I appreciate the generosity of letting me repost the conversation here, as well. I hope that my comments will spur more thought not just hate mail. Anyone else care to have their voice heard on this topic?

1 comment:

TJ said...


Thanks for reposting this with your thoughts, it's really quite good. I'm going to have to post your part in my blog too, I can see now. I know that I promised to do it 2 years ago, but in a few weeks Bill and I will be done with the Universe paper, and It will certainly be worth revisiting this, especially with your addition.

I'd like to especially get people's take on the Heinz Dilemma.