Friday, January 31, 2014

The Source of Morality

Morality is all about right and wrong behavior.  In some ways it is like having a little rule book regulating behavior built into us somehow.  If we follow the rules we are moral.  If we disregard the rules we are considered immoral.  But where does this rule book come from, and why does it seems so integrated into my life?

Absolute Moral Standards

There is much discussion today concerning the nature of morality.  Is there such a thing as an absolute moral?  Or are morals always relative, varying across societies and time?  I commonly hear people today argue that morality is always relative; there are no absolutes.  And yet those same people will vigorously argue that slavery is just wrong, always.  That child abuse, at least once they are external to the womb, is abhorant, always.  That discrimination because of gender, sexual orientation, or skin color is intolerable, always.  And that sounds suspiciously like absolutes to me.

The problem with absolutes in the moral realm is that we have to account for them.  What makes it wrong to enslave another person?  Who says it is wrong?  If it is a human convention, then it can change as human society evolves; and it indeed is relative.  But if it is relative, then we cannot say that slavery was wrong in the past, nor that it will always be wrong in the future.

It is also not uncommon to hear people criticize or condemn the morality of another culture.  Those of us in the US typically look down on the morality of Afghanistan or the Arab world, calling them barbaric or uncivilized.  And they in turn look at our morality with disgust.  But ... if morality is relative, what gives me the right to consider my moral code superior to that of another?

By claiming my moral code is better than your moral code, I am actually claiming that there is a standard, an ideal, a best moral code.  And that I am closer to that standard than you are.  And so, by claiming that my code is better than yours, I acknowledge there is a standard, an absolute morality, even while claiming that morality is relative.

Differences in Moral Standards

Those who would argue for a socially derived morality will point to the differences in morality across different societies.  And indeed we do find differences in morality across different societies and ethnic groups, and sometimes even within a society.  Who I can have sex with is a good example of this.  In my social circle, it is limited to married spouses of a different gender.  Other circles will extend that to same gender, semi-stable relationships, or with just about anyone.

But while we may disagree over the issue of who we can have sex with, there does seem to be nearly universal agreement that we should not have sex with an unwilling partner, and those who do generally are punished by their society.  Cheating on your partner, while it happens frequently, is also something that is generally frowned on, as is sexual relations with children, although the age there will vary across cultures.

So while there are some variations in how morals are implemented across cultural groups, they are variations on what appear to be some pretty common moral absolutes.  Killing people, taking their stuff, lying, sleeping with your friend's wife, not taking care of your family: does any moral code not include these prohibitions?

Morality: A Product of Evolution?

There are also those who will claim that morality is a product of our evolutionary development; that our morals are a genetic trait that developed to help us better survive as social creatures.  By no means am I an expert on the theory of evolution, and I suppose it is possible that some aspects of the way we relate to each other have developed that way.  But some aspects of our morality seem pretty contrary to an evolutionary approach.

Evolution, at least as I understand it, involves genetic change; change that in some tiny way makes me different that the rest of my social circle.  If that genetic change gives me a survival benefit over my fellows, then I am more likely to pass that trait on to my descendents.  If the change makes me less competitive, then my chances of having offspring, and passing on that genetic trait, are reduced.  Makes sense.  So if morals are genetic, then it would seem that those morals that are developed should give me a survival benefit over those who do not have those specific morals.

But do they?  Some would be easy to understand as providing a survival advantage, especially something like motherly love and care of offspring.  But some would seem to be counter to that.  Suppose you are walking along a raging river and spot an unknown child hanging onto a tree out in the middle of the river.  What is your first instinct?  More than likely it will be to attempt to rescue that child.  But why?  What survival advantage is it for me to risk throwing away my life, and the possibility of reproducing my genes, for one who obviously has a weaker genetic makeup (otherwise they would not be out in the river while I am safely on shore).

Self-sacrifice, the hero thing, is an admired trait.  We look up to people who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives for others.  But how can this moral trait possibly be one that has any kind of evolutionary advantage.  If it is genetic, it would seem that it would be selected against.  Everyone who has it would die sooner than those who didn't.

Universal Moral Law

So where does morality come from.  It is possible that some aspects of morality have a survival benefit.  It is likely that some aspect of morality are simply social conventions that we adopt either during our childhood, or upon entry into a new social circle.  But neither of those can adequately account for all of the morality that humans wrestle with.  A lot of our morality seems to come from outside of human culture or evolution.  It is as if there were some form of universal moral code, or law, that impacts us from outside.

This law is in some ways similar to gravity in that it is part of the structure of the creation, and influences us whether we like it or not.  But it is different in that we seem to have the capacity to resist it and, to some extent, mold it to our own purposes.

But where would a universal moral law come from?


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