25 October 2009

Inevitable morality

A few weeks ago blogger Rita put up a posting on the old question of where morality comes from. The old idea that morality exists by divine diktat is fairly easily disposed of, but then, why does it exist?

It occurs to me that the real answer to this question can be found by analogy with natural selection. To see why this is, try turning the question around: Would it be possible for morality not to exist?

Try to imagine a society in which theft, rape, and murder were considered proper and acceptable behavior. Obviously such a society would not last very long. If you imagine a world in which some societies freely allowed such acts and some did not, then within a couple of centuries, only the societies of the second type would still exist. Notice that this is still true even if none of the societies in question have any religion. It's purely a matter of the inevitable consequences of behavior.

One could imagine a morality-free society reaching the logical conclusion that theft, rape, and murder should be discouraged purely because they are dangerous both to society and to the individuals within it, and decreeing punshments for that purpose; however, this alone would be of limited effectiveness. The police cannot be everywhere, and people of normal intelligence could figure out ways of indulging in forbidden behavior while reducing the risk of punishment to an acceptable level.

Such a society would be much less stable than one in which each individual was also discouraged from engaging in theft, rape, or murder by some form of internal inhibition, which is to say, a sense of morality. Notice that for the sake of this argument it doesn't matter whether that inhibition is a genetic trait or just a cultural feature that some societies happen to possess. The point is, societies which possessed this feature would be much more stable than societies in which those behaviors were accepted, or societies in which they were discouraged only by punishment; and so, over time, only societies of that type would survive, while societies of the other two types would disappear.

The actual roots of morality probably lie in the social organization of primates. Chimpanzees have various constraints on behavior within their social groups. For example, males fight each other for dominance, but restrain themselves so that these conflicts rarely lead to death or serious injury. This isn't due to a commandment from some chimpanzee Moses; it's because chimpanzee groups regularly fight each other, and any group in which the adult males mostly killed each other off would likely be wiped out by some neighboring group in which they did not do so; thus, only those groups which harbored the inhibition about internal fighting survived to transmit their genes (including the genes for the inhibition) to future generations. Most other chimpanzee behavioral inhibitions have obvious similar explanations.

The more elaborate morality of humans probably evolved from such primate inhibitions over time as our ancestors' intelligence slowly increased. As Charles Darwin said, "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man."

But whatever the origin of morality, the important point is that human societies which did not have it would be at a disadvantage in competing for survival with societies which did, and so today we see only societies of the latter type.

Notice that this argument applies only to actual morality, and not to the hodgepodge of sexual taboos which, weirdly, are what religious people tend to mean when they use the word "morality". There are no human societies in which theft, rape, and murder are considered morally right, but attitudes about contraception, homosexuality, abortion, adultery, pre-marital sex, etc. vary wildly from one society to the next; any or all of those things may be considered crimes worthy of death in some cultures, utterly unobjectionable in others. This is because under most conditions, a society's attitudes about these things have only a marginal impact on its chances of survival, so the "natural selection" effect is not triggered. (Obviously a society in which all sexual activity was homosexual or all pregnancies were aborted would not last long, but societies in which homosexuality and abortion are accepted when individuals prefer them, can and do continue indefinitely.)

So the question of why we have morality is similar to the question of why we have sexual desire or fear of death; if our species didn't have such traits, we wouldn't even exist to be asking the question.

16 Comments:

Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Well put...in a way that it is easy to understand.I may say something about my moral's in a conversation...but I just loosely use the word when talking with other's. I honestly dont know much of anything about where our moralities come from of why they are or anything else...I reckon just some kind of rules,standard's or whatever.But I cant help to notice them while spending time looking at other ape societies. I told a christian one time trying to compare other ape's and their action's and used the word "moral" when I told her to look at the moral's of Chimp Societies...and she almost bit my head off...telling me that ape's dont have moral's!!,etc. I sometime's felt that my moral's may not only come from childhood but rooted in me genetically ... yet... I gave up just about tryin to figure it out. But the way you put it here is a more basic and simple look at it...to where it dont get all watered down with various philosophies or other complexities that I have read out of folk's.Your post here make's it sound to me like just basic "survival rule's" that we have made for our tribe's...which is easier to understand.

Thanx Guy ..........

25 October, 2009 07:45  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

An excellent post, Infidel (and so was Rita's, which I should actually say on her blog).

Something to ponder along these lines:

In a paper last month in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul finds that countries with the lowest rates of social dysfunction—based on 25 measures, including rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, unemployment, and poverty—have become the most secular. Those with the most dysfunction, such as Portugal and the U.S., are the most religious, as measured by self-professed belief, church attendance, habits of prayer, and the like.

This from Sharon Begley's Newsweek column, (Un)wired for God.

See also Was "Ardi" a Liberal? by Frans de Waal.

25 October, 2009 13:57  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Infidel, I can't give your post the proper justice, since I have a horrendous headache today, but must add that your point on the role of internal inhibition in creating our morality is spot on. That inhibition, btw, is rooted in empathy we develop for our fellow human beings, but also other living creatures. That's why psychopaths, who are unable to feel empathy, are among the worst moral and criminal offenders.

Unfortunately, they are also overrepresented in our political and financial elites, since the fields which offer power over others tend to attract psychopaths in a disproportionate measure.

25 October, 2009 14:04  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC -- Religious people tend to react with hostility when you point out the startling similarities between apes and humans. I've experienced that too. It's very threatening to their world-view and their self-concept. Of course, most of them don't have much actual knowledge about apes.

Elizabeth -- Thanks for the links. I hope your headache improves. I'm at something of a low ebb myself today -- the pain in my hand is acting up.

About the country comparisons, similar observations have been made about red states and blue states within the US.

It is striking that psychopaths are so overrepresented among ruling elites. Men like Stalin, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Ghengis Khan, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, etc. were certainly at the far end of the bell-shaped curve in their sadism, amorality, and all-around evil. Probably barely one person in a million is like that. Perhaps ruthlessness is an asset in clawing one's way to the top. Societies are well served to have mechanisms in place, such as democracy, which enable such defectives to be removed from power.

25 October, 2009 14:42  
Blogger Zardoz said...

A very interesting post, Infidel. You've made some valid points about societal evolution.

I've always thought that morality developed simply because one person doesn't want to do harm to another person out of fear that yet another person will in turn do harm to him. What goes around, comes around. Religions have appropriated this built in self-defence mechanism and promptly claimed the moral high ground, too bad that religious nuts can't live up to their own standards.

25 October, 2009 16:01  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Religion seems to undermine morality, if anything. Stoning to death, burning at the stake, crashing airplanes into skyscrapers, etc. are not acts that most humans would commit under normal conditions. Such things happen when the belief that one is carrying out God's will (often rooted in a convenient conviction that God's will aligns with one's own prejudices) disables the normal inhibitions.

25 October, 2009 22:58  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I think you hit the nail on the head Mr.Infidel when you said that religion undermines morality! I have kind of wondered myself at time's, what the Hell does some of it have to do with "morality"?. No Caca ... I remember looking at some of the rule's and level's and ass scratchin practice's and the long list's of other requirement's and BS that the Catholic Church has for instance to make you in "good" standing with the church community...it's INSANE actually. "ANYONE" who even remotely believe's in a higher power/god must be loosing their mind's if they think that a god this powerful, would make up such stupid rules and restriction's...then hand them to some over paid jackass to feed to us! Over a decade ago ... the last Pope annunced that Hell didnt exist, and it was just a state of mind that one has when they disconnect themselve's with God. So basically what he said...is for over a thousand year's(no tellin how long) they been BS-ing everybody. I am thankful that my parent's, grandparent's,etc., didnt push any of this on me as a child. I can only imagine sometime's what kind of person I would be if I was raised as an evangelical christian. YES ... Just look at these other Ape's, their is certainly plenty of video footage (hidden cam)too, just look at how they interact...and they dont have any rule book's.

In one of my latest posting's I posted a brief interview with Dr.Richard Dawkins on his latest book...he was asked what religion would god endorse if there was a god(similar)...he said that any god would be so grand...that basically any of what "we have" now, which he described as "portrait puny productions" wouldnt even be part of it. I love this guy...he has such a way with word's! :) (actually pretty damn humorous)

Thanx .............

26 October, 2009 04:47  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Another point on religion's I wanted to put. Is notice how in religion's (pop mega religion's,christian,muslim for instance) it's all about"man", all the writing's/teaching's are about male's? What I found odd about that when reading the Gospel's (no, my parent's never asked me to read a bible...they didnt even have a goddamn bible! ... I did just out of curiosity) when their saviour the Christ figure ressurected and appeared outside his tomb...it was "to women" and he told them (according to the story/gospel) to go spread their witness to all of what they seen and heard.Yet the church for centuries had this problem with letting women preach ... I mean, the man himself...the Christ character "TELL's" them to go preach! Are they saying that Jesus didnt mean what he said? Perhap's they think they are above this Jesus/God that they claim to worship ... at least they act like it.

26 October, 2009 05:03  
Anonymous rita said...

Very insightful & though provoking post, as per usual. :)
My questions about morality have mostly been answered to my satisfaction at this point. At least I know which direction to go.

It's obvious to me that the secular POVs contain the most logical & scientific theories about morality.
It is interesting that this is one subject that many people are ignorant about or don't bother to look into. I think this is because the Religious mindset has indeed "undermined" morality & as zardoz says "Religions have appropriated this built in self-defence mechanism and promptly claimed the moral high ground."

Also Elizabeth's point about psychopaths is well taken.

26 October, 2009 09:27  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I certainly dont agree with Ms.Elizabeth or Ms.Rita at all on the statement that Ms.Elizabeth say's that psychopath's are unable to feel empathy or whatever, and being the worse kind of criminal's or whatever ... absolutely an urban MYTH.

26 October, 2009 10:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Isn't that part of the definition of a psychopath?

26 October, 2009 10:55  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I dont have the book knowledge or formal education of those like yourself or Ms.Elizabeth or even close...I have sat down face to face with those who were considered or "labeled" as psychpathic ... not only talking...but have a shlew of letter's as evidence to me from some...as well as art ...and even birthday card's to my own daughter from one ...throughout the letter's feeling sorry for my mishap's or situation of the week..or my felling's,extending their sympathy to me, etc,etc,etc. Even in most cases...more "honesty" and "compassion" and straightforwardness than most people of everyday that I have dealt with.So you can see why I think this.So I am in a situation that I CANT believe this based on my personal experiences .. not because I dont think that folk's like Ms.Elizabeth doesnt have a wealth of knowledge(her profile state's that she is in the education industry I believe). But ... I dont see them as much different emotionally than anyone else...or as far as their moral's, value's,empathy, etc. I am sure some folk's could present a whole 9 yard's of expert studies,theories and other point's based on their action's that they determined that they are "emotionless monster's"(as I have read some say about people that I have talked to)with no regard,empathy,feeling's etc. By their definition...I have never met a human like that in my entire life.

Thank You Guy ..........

26 October, 2009 11:20  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Also I would like to say...that what they define as psychopath's would apply to most politician's,corporate executive's and leader's...for they are the only human's I see with no regard for humanity,respect, and especially EMPATHY. So perhap's those we dont like instead of those who are popular and loved are psychopath's? A kid goes into his school and shoot's up a group of kid's who have psychologically and socially tortured and abused him over and over...they done everything to him but kill him, he then goes to the school one day, open's fire and you have a blood bath.The victim's are shown on the news in smiling pictures and how great they were...the shooter is showed on the news with an angry look on his face they found from some unplanned photo... he is called a "monster" or a "psychopath", I understand that the victim's didnt take their action's to his extent, but no...I cant find him to be a psycho because he lost control of his anger ... it happen's... we all have different tolerance level's...I am VERY emotional myself...and have been quick to even fist fight as a young man... although not a wise decision...cause alot of times I got my ass whipped good as well, and was said as a child, by child psychologist's to have a problem with this and some of my way's when locked up ... but I am a loving and caring person to anyone that know's me...and have alway's been. As far as thinking about murder,rape,revenge, or other COMMON thought's.I think all human's think like that at some time or another...it's common.Look at entertainment of horror/gore, and violence and sadistic sexual act's that sell massive and explode at the box office, most of those who wait like dog's in heat for the next release are loved by other's and considered "sane" and well rounded member's of society. I was in a neighborhood porn store (yes...I view porn and have even masturbated to it...many normal folk's would not...or at least say they dont...to be loved)and one of the hottest selling fetishes is underage sex and rape, straight, gay as well.Made to act out pedophile fantasies....and you should see the line's of guy's and even some women in line to buy the latest release ... they most look like well educated teacher's and like they have degree's and go to church on sunday...or on the PTA.Perhap's they just rent and buy it for research and study. I find our society to be very strange in how we think...all around.

26 October, 2009 11:46  
Blogger Zardoz said...

Perhaps a psychopath is someone who is so self-centred and so antisocial that they are amoral, not immoral, but amoral. They don't judge their actions by the harm that they do to others, they just commit crimes for the pleasure of it. It's all about them!
I also think that a psychopath can be very dishonest and deceitful. They may fake empathy and love simply in order to get what they want out of others, but it's not true empathy or true love. Maybe it's this deceitful side of the psychopathic personality that throws moral people off balance; we expect others to be at least fairly honest with us but a psychopath is playing by an entirely different set of rules.

Just my $0.02 worth.

26 October, 2009 11:57  
Blogger Zardoz said...

Ranch Chimp,

I think you're right about politicians and CEOs. In order to succeed in the political arena or the world of big business, you have to put your feelings aside and just think and act for yourself. In this sense, perhaps capitalism itself is a psychopathic system: nice guys finish last!

26 October, 2009 12:02  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Well Mr.Zardoz ... I must say ... you left me speechless! Well put.

26 October, 2009 12:57  

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