Over the last few months, I have been involved in a number of colourful and rigorous discourses on a range of topics. In more than a few of those recent spates of discussions, I have found protagonists claiming justification for their argument on claims based on ethical or moral grounds.

This got me thinking, can one actually argue morality without fear of rebuttal? Perhaps the rules of morality are not vaporous but can not only be defined, but systematically tested?

So, let us begin with a conjecture : the biggest misconceptions about ethics and morality is that they are anything more than a mental illusion.

They are, in short, what we decide they are.

This is not to argue they are not required though.

Morals seem to be (as far as we can determine) a socio-evolutionary selection that seems to be most evident within the ape family and especially developed within the Homo sapiens branch.

As a species, humans have selectively bred with (and thus fostered) those individuals that seemed to have a stronger sense of empathy. Those behaviors that were most beneficial to the family unit (and later the village and community) have become the default developed range of behaviorism and responses that, whether through a default nurturing programme or some form of epigenetic response are now interpreted (and indeed, all but accepted) as a form of universal values that underlies all human behavior we identify as ethics.

These behaviors are such fundamental aspects of the human psyche that the majority of people (regardless of race, culture or creed) find it emotionally (and in some cases even physically) uncomfortable to perform actions that go against the protectiveness of the family, community or species. Those behaviors - lying, stealing, cheating and murdering – are seen by most as a set of reprehensible actions.

By our very (selected and fostered) nature we tend to actively seek fair social exchanges. We seek out those who show empathy, sympathy and protection to those with whom we are related and to those whom we have built a social integration with.

Further, we actively seek to punish those whom we consider have not behaved with fairness and especially those who do not act in the best interests of our families and tribe.

The fact that these rules sprang up and are agreed upon by so many disparate groups speaks to the notion that these are universally convergent evolutions. In short, these rules are universally beneficial to survivability and thus the rules have very little to do with theology at all …

However, the rules of morality seem to be far more complex than simple survival. Other values of morality exist and are espoused. Rules based on cultural, societal or theological systems are common. However, they are not natural. They are, by definition, rules of accepted behavior. They are relative.

However, are these morals any less real or necessary than those developed for the protection of the species? Do they have value outside of the relativism of the group? Are they valid against an objective yardstick?

I am not for a second stating that they may not, indeed, be necessary – but they are relative to the person (or group) experiencing them and are why there are so many conflicting moral arguments.

From a purely logical standpoint, we can look at the commonality across religions. We can see that in all of them there are rules governing how we interact with others. The vast majority of religions have some version of the these rules or codes of conduct, a set of commandments, if you will. These commandments pretty much tell us not to disrespect our family, lie, cheat, steal (money, stock or wives!) nor murder.

I have seen an argument for an epigenetic triggered predisposition to these behaviours being proffered in the past (without scientific citations) because it seems to be such an innate aspect of our species. Often “proof” of the value of this hypothesis comes from any number of observations including watching the behavior of toddlers who intuitively sooth each other when one is crying.

Obviously, some form of empathy is at work here. Hoiwever, is it morality? Either way, no proof of genetic linkages have (to my knowledge) been made to date.

So, let us think of it in another way.

Morality co-evolved with human society.

When you consider that it is a set of rules that society holds and places values on and that these are passed on to successive generations within that society.

Consider - it is plausible that perhaps moral code varied from village to village, and gradually changed over time?

You can easily imagine two neighboring villages – each with differing moral codes – facing a disaster or predator. If one of the villages had an “every individual for themselves” value structure, they may have very well been wiped out whilst the society that upheld the a cooperative “all for one, one for all” value system would thus be more likely to survive.

So, just like natural selection – societies with value codes that prolonged their survival, had a better chance of continuing to exist, to grow, and thus pass their values onto the next generation.

This happened to be traits that are made possible with empathy – like cooperation, sharing the food and tending to the weak. In short, upholding the life of those whom we have built a social integration with.

Further, we built right into this set of value codes a way of preventing it from being corrupted by condemning different value codes through the punishment or to simply ostracize those individuals who practice them.

Self-sacrifice, altruism, compassion for fellow-man, these are all the results of this process. Humans thus do not need a theistic deity to tell them how they should behave. The very fact that they have survived this long as a species means that ingrained, within the very fabric of society, is already the set of values – the rules and codes – that have allowed their continued survival.

These are traits that humans have, and are proud to claim. These are the traits that are espoused and ensure that are passed on the children. This is seen as important because that’s the purpose of being a parent – to guarantee the survival of offspring - and these behaviours and value codes are seen as a way to secure their survival and that of the human race.

These values, this thing we call morality, has had evolutionary benefits for humans. Humans have evolved into social animals. Morality enables societies to function. In fact, morality underpins practically all social interactions. These values translate into a strong instinctual sense of right and wrong, because they have inherent survival benefits.

So, it is fair to infer that morality was not a simple form of logical reasoning from a single human mind. It was derived through the process of natural selection. An emergent property of society.

Morality, however, is not necessarily logical. These values of right and wrong are also strongly interwoven with the emotional part of the brain. When humans see actions that are considered to be morally wrong, they feel uncomfortable. It’s a “gut reaction”.

This is why difficult moral questions such as “would you kill x to save y?” are so difficult to answer, because it causes a conflict between the two aspects of morality – the values driven by the emotional aspect pushing to us to do what feels right – and the reasoning aspect deriving the logical action. These two systems battle it out for control of our behaviour on a daily basis.

So, reiterating: all ethics are (primarily) predicated on what is best for humans — on what favours human survival - and thus are an evolutionary trait of the species.

From this position one can perceive certain fundamental guidelines or moral principles – and these are the same principles that inform the codes of conduct and societal laws.

Because human survival is paramount, there are three basic principles that underlie all aspects of this value system:

  • it is wrong to kill another human
  • it is wrong to facilitate the death of another human
  • it is wrong to interfere in the survival prospects of another human

However, there are no moral absolutes and here we hit obstacles immediately. A simple alignment of what is right or wrong in particular acts is not possible.

The lived experience is far more complex than any absolutist credo can allow for.

If it is always wrong to kill someone, then how does one deal with the dilemma of being able to stop an individual who is about to commit mass-murder by ending their life?

Humans are able to expand on these primary principles. They utilise three primary drivers of the human experience to help them make those complex decisions:

  • Innate ‘moral’ sense
  • Intelligence (allowing them to hypothesise, consider and foresee the consequences of their actions)
  • Compassion/empathy (allowing them to place themselves in another individual’s situation and thus understand how those consequences might affect others)

Is that enough though?

Some have suggested that perhaps there is a human moral imperative. A “self-preservation clause” as it were.

This hypothesis suggests that humans function on an ethic of reciprocation. This is generally referred to as the rule of “treat others as one would like others to treat oneself” or (put the other way), “do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated”.

So how do we relate to all of those other rules and values we accept as cultural norms?

How do we classify those differing cultural views of right and wrong?

Well, a group of social and cultural psychologists created the “Moral Foundations Theory” and propose that several innate psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics”.

The theory states that there are six foundations that cultures have utilised to then construct their virtues, narratives, and institutions upon and thereby created the unique moralities (and subsequent conflicts) around the world.

The foundations (as listed on www.moralfoundations.org) are:

1) Care/harm:
This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating:
This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3) Liberty/oppression:
This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal:
This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
5) Authority/subversion:
This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation:
This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

According to the research, most people care (to some extent) about all of these principles. What is an interesting aspect of all of this is that different cultures, and indeed individual people, tend to interpret their relative value of importance in differing ways. These biases show up in different ways, such as seen within political leanings.

If one was to accept this research, it would seem that there are still baseline moral inclinations and that much argument and dissent based not on the baseline, but how variably those foundations are valued.

All of that said, there is still one defining, unifying theme that links across all of these foundations and principles.

Cui Bono?

“For whose good?”

The obvious answer is: our own – Humans.

If health is doing what is most beneficial to the body, then morality is doing what is most beneficial to the society (and species) as a whole.

So the next time someone calls something immoral, run it through the test.

  • Is it a valid argument for their actions?
  • Does this “morality” offer good or harm?
  • Is it good for them?
  • Is it good for other people?
  • Will it stand as good for the entire human species or global society?

Morals may be a mental illusion – but it is one that all humans share … and perhaps, therefore, it is our imperative to ensure we continue to foster those values?

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Recycled with edits from a previous personal blog post