Morality: Why “Good” is Good and “Bad” is Bad.
Yesterday I published “The Myth of Religious Morality” which was written to answer the unavoidable argument of theists that without religion there would be no moral framework to guide humankind. The article demonstrates, I think, that the moralities of both the bible and the quran are at best confused and contradictory and at worst downright monstrous. My article did leave something out however: If not from a deity then from where did humanity develop it’s morals? Why do we have any moral concept whatsoever? How is it useful?
First off let me say I am not a biologist, or a sociologist. I’m just a layman who likes to question things and then try to find out the answers. For this reason there will be no heavy science in this article. If you want it it’s out there but while not totally incomprehensible to me it is a little dry for an article which was, after all, written for people like myself, interested thoughtful laymen.
So, where does our morality come from? What is it’s purpose? It’s really not all that much of a mystery. Many other species on this planet are also social animals. Dolphins, whales, and great apes like chimpanzees all demonstrate social traits similar to what we would define as “morality” Primatologists (people who study primates) note that chimpanzees and other great apes demonstrate a great many behaviours which are at least preliminary to human morality. Behaviours like attachment and bonding, cooperation, empathy, sense of community and adherence to the rules of that community are all observable. Dolphins demonstrate altruism, helping injured members of their pods to breathe by helping them to the surface, and even protecting swimmers from sharks by swimming in circles around them. These traits foster harmonious, productive communities which in turn allow the animals involved, in these cases apes and dolphins, a greater chance of survival than they would have on their own.
Whether or not you accept the theory of evolution as true it would be hard to make an argument against the statement that humans are social creatures. Archaeology shows that humans have gathered together into communities since our earliest days. We gathered together to enhance the odds of success in hunting and gathering, and to ensure greater security against predators. In order to ensure the successful maintenance of these communities common sense says that some rules would need to be put in place. A community where the members killed each other with impunity wouldn’t survive long. The same is true of a communal grouping in which constant fighting over thefts would reduce the population quickly. This would also explain the familial bond, the protection of our young, and the urge to defend and protect friends.
The great separator between humanity and other animals is of course intellect. As our intellect and understanding grows so too does our morality. Our sense of right and wrong is transitory. As we’ve grown as a species it too has grown. The simple strictures against theft and murder which early man put in place to ensure that our hunting and gathering groups would remain productive and harmonious have evolved. Human morality at its best today encapsulates a belief in freedom for all people, equality for women and people of diverse ethnicities, tolerance of alternate points of view and belief systems, an aversion to violence and slaughter, protection of children and innocents from harm, and a host of other values that primitive cultures would have dismissed as foolishness or even blasphemy. This growth of our intellect and therefore our morality is apparent even in religion. Not in it’s dogma or doctrine, which remain fiercely unchanging even in the face of monumental proof of scientific and ethical growth, but in the theist’s interpretation of their dogma. What once was literal fact becomes symbolism in need of expert interpretation. “Of course they don’t really mean kill all the women and babies! That would be immoral!!” shout the apologists.
Morality can be explained as a natural progression of social strictures designed to keep communities peaceful and thriving. This is a reasonable explanation of moral development even without taking into account the fact that evolutionary biology proves we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other great apes which demonstrate proto-moralities from early ages. This fact strongly points to some genetic basis for basic moral guidelines.
Isn’t the simple naturalistic progression from self-interested animals to an evolved free society which cares for the safety, health and wellbeing of it’s members a more life-affirming and uplifting prospect than the idea that we are simply rutting, murderous animals? That we are only capable of civilization through the grace and commandment of some almighty overseer? In a time when we face problems and conflicts without parallel in our history couldn’t the idea that we share much more than our holy books allow for, raise us up? If we accepted that we are evolved animals who have reached the high, if imperfect, peak of civilization we now occupy through determination, strength, tenacity and constant self reflection wouldn’t this idea unite us? Finally if we accepted that we had the power and responsibility to form our moral principles on our own rather than relying on ancient texts to give it to us wouldn’t that free us to build an ethical system where “good” meant good for everyone and “bad” meant anything contrary to the benefit of all?