In 532 AD, Emperor Justinian had Hagia Sofia constructed in Constantinople - the "new" capital of the Roman Empire. It was intended to be "the greatest church in all of Christendom" and it was for almost 1,000 years until Mehmed the Conqueror took the city for the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and changed the building into a mosque. The gold icons of saints were plastered over and arabic inscriptions from the Koran were hung on the walls instead. After a mere 500 years in this condition, the Ottoman Empire fell as a result of World War I. A few years later in 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the secular Republic of Turkey, transformed the building into the public museum that it is today with both Christian and Muslim symbols on display side by side. During this entire history, the rules of society as dictated by religion came and went. They also evolved and changed with the times. So if religion, which professes to have the permanent and righteous rules of morality, can come and go over the ages with the ebbs and flows of empires, where does morality really come from? Is there some other more permanent source for it?

In my last three posts (The Evolution of God, The Arguments for God, and The World Without Religion), I covered the stance on religion that I take as part of my Evolutionary Philosophy. To me, religion is clearly something we need to evolve beyond and leave behind as a relic of our superstitious, pre-scientific society. But where do we go next? What rules for morality can we come up with to replace the ancient books written by ignorant ancients? If those rules have lasted this long, shouldn't they be respected? In the ongoing journey to know thyself, it's time to turn my attention to Ethics and Morality. Here are a few things I've written about that subject:

Morality is a system of ideas about right and wrong conduct. A traditional view of social scientists has been that morality is a construct, and thus culturally relative, but cross-cultural studies of ethical beliefs find six foundations for morality: 1) harm/care; 2) fairness/reciprocity; 3) liberty; 4) ingroup/loyalty; 5) authority/respect; 6) purity/sanctity. These are merely rules to promote survival. How else would these rules survive? In essence, it is immoral to do something that is harmful to the long-term survival of life. Morality is relative simply when different cultures have different beliefs about which actions are right for the long term. Some beliefs are based on traditions and myths, others are based on scientifically discovered knowledge, and others are still being formed as the evidence comes in. We must use rational knowledge to inform our morals; otherwise we risk actions that imperil the species.

This is a key point that I want to reemphasize. If you believe that morals are simply rules that a society has invented either through formal religions or informal customs, then of course moral relativism will be the overarching conclusion you reach about how to evaluate moral systems around the world, and once they become relative, they become ungrounded, meaningless, mere traditions to either follow blindly or subvert. If, on the other hand, you believe morals are universal laws handed down to us from a god, then you either believe your god has the right rules, or you believe that the one true god is basically handing down the same rules to people all over the world and we imperfect humans have just not figured out how to reconcile the differences in their translations (from a god's language or from each other's). As I pointed out in my essays about God and Religion though, these "universal" rules of religions are at odds with each other. They have been for thousands of years, and they have spawned countless conflicts ranging from personal arguments to international wars.

If, however, we were to step back from these relativistic or religious views of morality and look not just at the rules of morality themselves, but the overall purpose of what those rules do for us as individuals and as a society, it becomes abundantly clear that systems of morality are just rules to promote cooperation and stay alive as a group in the long run. Thou shalt not kill? Well that's an obvious one. Don't eat pork or shellfish? Prudent advice before refrigeration and cooking temperatures were understood. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca? Bond with our group and cooperate with us. Incest taboos, love thy neighbor, walk a mile in their shoes, don't tread on me, the first rule of fight club, wash your hands after you pee - all of these are rules to help the survival rates of the group that obeys them. They cannot be anything else. Once this basic fact is recognized, the true basis for morality becomes obvious. In fact, we start to see it in other species that are trying to stay alive as well.

Field studies show the natural emergence in the animal kingdom of ethics and morality. Animals live in groups because the opportunities for survival and reproduction are much better in groups than alone. All social animals have to modify or restrain their behaviors for group living. Highly social mammals such as primates and elephants have been known to exhibit traits that were once thought to be uniquely human, like empathy and altruism. While other primates may not possess free will over their morality in the human sense, they do possess some traits that would have been necessary for the early stages of the evolution of morality. Anthropologist Barbara King notes that these traits include high intelligence, a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, realization of "self," and a concept of continuity. Where these basic personality traits are held in common, the basics of sociobiological morality are also shared. As listed by science historian Michael Shermer, these include: attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group. These pre-moral sentiments evolved in primate societies as a method of restraining individual selfishness and building more cooperative groups. Humans evolved to enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments, and reputation building. We are more successful at cooperation because of this.

Knowing now about these roots of morality - as evidenced by the recent field studies observing other animals exhibiting moral behavior - it becomes quite incontestable that morality predates religion.

Religion emerged after morality and built upon our natural needs for self-preservation and cooperation. Religion expanded the social scrutiny of individual behavior to include supernatural gods. By adding all-seeing ancestors, spirits, and gods to the mental world, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups. The adaptive value of religion would have enhanced group survival, thus allowing religion itself to survive. Now that we have come to an understanding of the natural basis for our morals, and learned to use reason to control our emotions, we no longer need to teach beliefs in supernatural gods to guide our behavior. Cooperation is its own reward. Transgressions will be punished. We have a fuller, more justifiable belief system for our morality.

What do you think? Is morality just a set of rules to help us survive? What if they weren't? Would they continue to survive? Wouldn't natural selection select out immoral rules of behavior? And if this is all that morals are, can science help us find better rules for morality? Next week, I'll tackle the ways in which I believe science can and will help us do exactly that. These are exciting times to be alive and thinking about philosophy!



Leave a Reply