Cover of Plato
I feel like I’ve written this article several times before. But since it’s been awhile, since I got into a lengthy exchange with a commenter on the topic of morality, and since reading a recent piece on the moderate Christian site, Think Christian, I’ve decided to return to this subject of morality and hopefully go a bit deeper on the topic than in the past.
Though religion typically takes credit for morality, it’s really philosophy that has made all the true breakthroughs in this arena. And though many religious folks insist that objective morality can’t exist without a divine dictator, it’s the opposite that’s true. The presence of some divine dictator who unilaterally decides good and evil on his/her/it’s own is anything but objective morality. Further, the very concept of an absolute moral standard is antithetical to justice. As Captain Jean Luc Picard so eloquently said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute.” And of course Plato dispensed with this whole hypothesis 2,400 years ago with the Euthyphro Dilemma. But since Plato, many philosophers have contributed to how we think about ethics such as Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Locke, Mill, Rawls, etc.
For a much richer discussion than I can provide here on the most prominent schools of ethical thought, contemporary philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has written a lengthy series on the subject: “On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way”, “On ethics, part II: Consequentialism”, “On ethics, part III: Deontology”, “On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics”, “On ethics, part V: Contractarianism”, “On ethics, part VI: Egalitarianism”, and “On ethics, part VII: the full picture”. I’m not going to get into these distinctions here, however. But that should at least give those who like to think morality begins and ends with “for the Bible tells me so” something to consider.
The three topics that even the most liberal religious followers seem to have the most difficult time accepting without appealing to a third party deity are: something from nothing or “first cause”, meaning or value, and of course morality. Hell, if you ask Kirk Cameron, he’ll tell you that without a god, his specific god, there would be no reason to not just rape and murder people indiscriminately. The idea that one might actually think of good reasons on their own for not doing so seems to utterly baffle him to no end. But of course that’s because Kirk Cameron is an idiot. Or just a terrible liar. Either way though, it kinda gets us back to idiot.
What it really seems to come down to for the religious, in my opinion, is they don’t seem to like the idea that the universe is chaotic. As the commenter who inspired this piece argued:
Why does chaos result in biology sprouting a moral stem, and us its flower? Niether [sic] Aristotle, Kant, Hume or any other philosopher can give us a WHY, without a ‘God’, without INTENTION.
I’d say it’s so because we want to survive and thrive in our environment. Why would you choose behavior that wasn’t advantageous to your survival? It’s easy to look at homo sapiens and say look how good we turned out, but what about all those millions of species that failed to learn how to work together and perished as a result? And even humans have hardly mastered the art of cooperation. We risk our own extinction as a result.
There is no objective morality in the sense that the religious often mean it. It is a chaotic world with no inherent morality but that which we define for ourselves as a social species. Morality has two main elements as far as I can tell: the biological and the the social. Social species realize that their survival depends on social dynamics of cooperation and trust. The universe is a struggle for existence. Social species must learn very quickly that if they are to survive, they’re going to have to work together and form cooperative groups such as herds, packs, prides, schools, societies, etc. Then they must quickly learn that if these cooperative enterprises are to be maintained, they must form rules to govern behavior as to guarantee the safety of the individuals within the group. It’s this that we call “morality.”
All morality, more or less, can be summed up as our trial and error process of figuring out what’s most advantageous for our survival and flourishing, as in the survival and flourishing of society. It’s like traffic law. There was no god of traffic who decreed that we must have stop signs. We just figured out as a group that stop signs were useful. Same with the rules we came up with for governing who has the right of way at a 4-way stop. In a short-sighted Randian objectivist society where everyone just does what they want and “don’t stick my neck out for nobody,” as Rick Blaine from Casablanca would say, a 4-way stop would likely just invite collisions. But we recognize that rules governing our behavior on the road is advantageous for all motorists in that it will facilitate less traffic and less accidents while making everyone’s travel more efficient. I contend that traffic law is a microcosm for all morality in that way. There was no need for an outside third party to devise it but it was designed by us within the system. Our laws are certainly not perfect. But they tend to gradually improve over time as we learn. And improvement is generally defined in this sense as working more efficiently and effectively for the community they govern.
Again, here’s how my commenter responded:
Fair enough, a compelling argument for beasts, but for the human individual, schooled in science, entirely irelevant [sic]. Our one mortal existence is all we shall know, and all we can get from it. The past, the future, pride and pack mean little more than what we can get from them, so long as we are individually victorious.
I said morality derived from both biological and social forces. I’ve just discussed the social aspects. This is where the biological components come in. We, like the proto-RNA we started as, are genetically programed with the drive to replicate or reproduce. Now as we evolved higher order thinking and grew more social, that drive has begun to mutate. Our programing used to drive us to spread our own genes. But once we developed social structures like herds, packs, and societies built around reciprocal altruism, it became less important for individuals to protect and spread their own genes and more important for individuals to protect and propagate the genes within the pack, whether they belonged to that individual specifically or not. Now because there was no guiding hand behind this social grouping, many social species further developed a sense of empathy for those outside of their pack or even outside of their species altogether. This is why we’ll sometimes see chimps and monkeys protect birds or see dogs protect humans, or humans protect whales, etc. Through an evolutionary misfire, we’ve come to identify with other species and empathize with them.
This expansion of herd mentality goes beyond just including other species in our sense of the herd but also allows some people to not have the same drive to propagate their own genes at all, leaving the application of the survival instinct to others in the society. There’s no separating beasts from humans because humans are beasts. We’re just really, really social ones, a trait that puts us at the top of the food chain and allows us to dominate this planet over all other species.
So while it’s almost certainly true that I get only one life, neuro-biological processes I have no control over make me care about the continued survival and flourishing of the species and other species after I’m gone. And those instincts to propagate human genes are as ingrained in me as any other aspect of my personality. But while that may be important to me as a human, the universe has no such affection for humanity or the Earth. The universe has the feelings of a dining room table. It didn’t smile when we were born and it won’t cry when we die, and it won’t miss us when we’re gone. It looks on us, as Richard Dawkins once wrote, with “pitiless indifference.”
Can an individual choose to forgo the society and choose an “every man for himself” lifestyle? Sure, but as millions of non-social, now extinct species would tell you, the odds do not favor the uncooperative individual. If there is an ultimate morality, then it’s live together or die alone.
Again, my commenter:
Amen. But what matter if you die alone, if you had a rich and powerful life? What matter if the rest of you species goes extinct, if you are but your mortal life and the power and pleasure you derive from it? You admit life is amoral, then speak as if it there are some kind of moral balances that tilt toward us living together, but where are those balances? What makes it favourable for us to live together? You are getting dangerously close to a God here, my friend.
I’d say it doesn’t matter, at least not in any larger, cosmic sense. Though in the grand scheme of things, being the king ant on a tiny blue dot in an unremarkable sector of the universe for shorter than blink in the existence of the cosmos is a far less ambitious goal or at least a less impactful one than helping to build a legacy that will greatly outlive you. But to each his or her own, I suppose. You can decide that in the face of an absurd universe, nothing matters or everything matters. Your choice.
NOw I thought I covered what makes it favorable for us to live together. To quote an old obscure movie from the 80’s, “it’s cheaper, faster, much, much safer.” You didn’t have to build your house or your car. You don’t have to hunt for your food or build a fire to cook it. Or sow your own clothes to keep warm in the winter. We have developed a complex system that allows everyone (at least ideally because let’s keep it real here) to get what they need by compartmentalizing and delegating labor responsibilities. This is massively advantageous and has allowed us the time to make countless technologies and discoveries we would never have otherwise found the time for. Some of which, like medical science, allow us to live much longer lives, which if your goal is survival, is kind of a no-brainer advantage.
Last year, I attended a lecture by Patricia Churchland, who wrote the book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, where she took a look at the evolution of moral behavior common to all mammals. In that talk, she emphasized this combination of biology and social components by suggesting trust and attachment are the platform for moral values, aided by oxytocin and vasopressin. Mammal evolution produced an expansion of the pre-frontal cortex, which gives us our inhibitions or self-control. Oxytocin decreases defense postures and fear responses from the amygdala, increases the level of trust and safety signals, and decreases autonomic-arousal. She continued that cooperation is the result of a general platform of trust and that all highly social animals take care of others: kin, herd, or species. Mercats and wolves, she said, only have one reproducing couple in the group and any others are killed.
Other areas Churchland discussed included in-group bonding and how as a population grows, benefits can come from expanding trust relationships and the emergence of institutions that enforce their trust-conventions. She cited a case of an orangutan and dog who befriended each other and became inseparable as a demonstration of how group bonding can emerge between species.
In conclusion, I could go on but I don’t think I need to. The facts overwhelmingly show that what we think of as morality is simply the name we call the bi-product of biology and social dynamics relating to trust, attachment, and cooperation. Non-social species don’t display a sense of morality while all social animals that we have observed do. It has nothing to do with any supernatural third party dictator who makes grand pronouncements about how we should or shouldn’t live our lives, and calling an action immoral or evil divorced from any actual societal harm is simply incoherent. Life is struggle. And if we hope to live long and prosper, the best long-term strategy is to work together. Live together or die alone. And that is the nature of all morality.
Though I’m also quite fond of this quote from John F. Kennedy:
A man does what he must, in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures. And that is the basis of all human morality.