The basis of all morality


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.

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38 Responses to The basis of all morality

  1. […] of a divine third-party, I just completed a separate, lengthy article ambitiously titled, “The basis of all morality“. I very briefly touch on some of it below, but I get much more in depth on my central thesis […]

  2. Josh says:

    I agree with your conclusion, but you missed am important third option besides “live together” and “die apart;” what about gaming the system? Convince your fellow social animals to do the heavy lifting and give little or nothing in return?

    • mjr256 says:

      Very true. There certainly is a degree of gaming the system that goes on, especially in the U.S. Though I still think it’s not a great long-term strategy because while having great wealth has its obvious advantages, when that wealth is taken away from services like public education and healthcare, it can ultimately work against the individual in unforeseen ways. For instance, less education tends to lead to less employment, which in turn leads to an increase in crime and even violent crime. And the rich make a great target for violent crime. It was a year or two ago that we saw, for instance, massive riots in London due largely to a people feeling disenfranchised. I’m not suggesting anything supernatural like karma, but I think there are greater long-term advantages to keeping large segments of the public from becoming disenfranchised and maintaining relative stability. That’s why I think the healthiest nations today tend to be Scandinavian countries like Norway, which almost every year is found to be the happiest nation in the world, as in the one with the most satisfied citizens.

  3. […] The basis of all morality ( 46.490000 -81.010000 Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Essays and tagged Christianity, Lady Gaga, Levant, LGBT, Morality, Philippines, Semitic by Gideon Jagged. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  4. Octavian says:

    The healthiest nations like Norway have their problems too… Anders Behring Breivik has defended his massacre of 77 people… another one who plays the God’s role in the name of the nation.

    Well, Plato had rich friends that bought his capital punishment and got him out of prison… unlike Aristotle who had to die. Plato was an Atheist though his religious father was known as a person who “met” and “talked” to the God Apollo many times… so how can we not admire Plato? Unfortunately his two dialogs Timaeus’ and the ‘Critias did more damage and the New Age contactees from our time got a great source to make money and write about Atlantis… it is so immoral!

    • mjr256 says:

      I didn’t intend to suggest Norway was perfect or not without its problems. But I think next to everyone else, they definitely seem in better shape in terms of low crime rates, strong public healthcare, good treatment of criminals, low teenage pregnancy and abortion rates, low unemployment rates, and numerous other factors that suggest a fairly healthy society.

      Regarding Plato, it’s not my goal to defend him as a person or defend every idea he ever committed to paper. But he is an important early philosopher who did make several worthwhile contributions to philosophy. One of which is the Euthyphro Dilemma, which has yet to be sufficiently resolved by any known religious thinker.

  5. mjr256 says:

    The commenter who inspired this article continued to argue:
    “Just because Kant said it is categorically imperative I should be a good boy, doesn’t mean I should be; his moral conclusions are no worthier than mine in an amoral world. Science means we can do whatever we want, that is its moral dilemma, just ADMIT it. ”

    My response:
    I would say this is a gross mis-characterization of what I’ve said. I definitely did not suggest that people should be good because of what Kant or anyone else has said. What I said was cooperation within groups is often correlated with long-term survival of individuals in those groups. And what we call “morality” adds up to little more than game theory in an amoral universe, which all current evidence suggests we’re living in. We could all disagree on morality, but morality is not truly relative in that the goal of morality seems to universally be optimal efficiency for the most people with least amount of suffering and one person’s opinion might objectively lead to better outcomes than another’s. So yes, you CAN do whatever you want, but like the person who chooses to run a red light, you risk increasing the probability of a negative outcome. And because the society benefits from maintaining a state of relative equilibrium between its individual members, if it’s discovered that you’re not playing fair, the society itself may turn against you and take away the privileges you enjoy from being a part of it.

    • Octavian says:

      Kant’s ethics were based on socialism… though he was a capitalist… is that moral? He couldn’t afford to study without money, he would have had to have money at that time, lots of money.

  6. thepegasean says:

    Please forget the Camusian Dawkins waffle that the universe is ‘pitiless indifference.’ The stranger shoots a man because the sun shines in his eyes, but it was not the murder, but that he felt no remorse, that condemned him. If we are not pitilessly indifferent then neither is the universe. Lifeforms are evolving from unconsciousness to consciousness, competition to cooperation, amorality to morality, on Earth and probably on millions of other worlds throughout the galaxy, and that is a pitilessly indifferent universe? A meaningless fluke? How has scientific understanding created such an abysmal misunderstanding? Why find meaning and call it unmeaning…?

    • mjr256 says:

      Is the dining room table indifferent? Is the gun indifferent? Is the chair that witnessed the whole thing indifferent? We’re dealing with inanimate objects. The universe is of the same opinion about murder as every other non-living thing…cause it’s not alive. They may very well turn out to be other life in the universe but that would be other life IN the universe, not the universe itself. There also might be people in the house next door; that doesn’t mean the house itself has an opinion on the matter. Things need minds to have opinions and mindless things don’t care one way or the other about anything. They simply exist.

    • Octavian says:

      Hi mjr256, I am more a guy who believes in a random genetic drift rather than positive selection. If there are more strangers that shoot other men then it will come a time when the World will be populated only by strangers that like to shoot… and the science does not have anything to do with it!

      • mjr256 says:

        That’s called Artificial Selection, and science has everything to do with it. Social dynamics are a part of game theory. And though we don’t know everything about how people behave, it’s not unknowable. There is a science, or more a calculus to human behavior, not unlike what we observe in other species such as flocks of birds.

      • Octavian says:

        If on an island are plain frogs and also frogs with white spots, and an earthquake destroys all the plain frogs then the frogs with the white spots will populate the island… this is called random genetic drift. The fact that Neanderthal man, Homo de Cro-Magnon and others looked so different than us now it is because the random genetic drift not because the positeve selection. The Neanderthal man suddenly disappeared in the favor of Homo de Cro-Magnon… Something had to happen, a cataclism, cold weather etc that instincted suddenly that species. The fact that we couldt be the only civilization in the Universe is because the Random Drift, the Chance!

      • mjr256 says:

        I fail to see the relevance this comment has to the piece you’re responding to.

  7. Octavian says:

    I was trying to imply that the Universe is an Organic Universe that might have an “opinion”

    • mjr256 says:

      And my pants might one day get up on a stage and perform Shakespeare. It’s just not very likely. In order to have opinions, things need minds. And in order to have minds, they must have some physical mechanism like a brain to produce that mind. If the universe does have a mind, there’s no evidence for it. But if we try to infer what the universe’s might be thinking anyway, from its behavior, I’d say then that it doesn’t like us very much at all and has plotted horrific ways to murder us.

      • Octavian says:

        You are right, you proved your point!

      • Octavian says:

        Talking about the micro-universe, though the neurons perform their tasks, the cells from the skin and liver do their specific tasks, I guess each individual cell from our body has all the information to clone us disregard their specific functions, if we would have the technology to do that, still in order to have a mind as we know it they have to cooperate together, in that “Universe” named human body. I guess talking about macro-universe and multi-verse it could be the same thing just that at our level we don’t understand that yet. I am neither a New Age guy nor a scientist but I am sure that the scientists are the ones who open the doors to the future, not Maharishi with the transcendental meditation. The multiverse could have an “opinion”!… though as I said you proved your point…

      • Octavian says:

        And as you said, even if the Universe has a mind it proved it care less about us, but I tell you that our mind care less about our body too because there are so many accidents, and people lose their limbs, others are not prevented in time they could have cancer etc.

  8. thepegasean says:

    They don’t care one way or another and yet result in creatures that do. The universe has an opinion because we have opinions. That is my point. In producing consciousness the universe becomes conscious. It has purpose, because we are purposeful. Unconsciousness baby stepped toward consciousness, therefore it has cognition latent in it somehow. Where else did ours come form?

    • mjr256 says:

      Matter is governed by the fundamental physical laws of our universe; it’s a fallacy to assume that because something happens to do something, that that must be its purpose. A bee may produce honey or pollinate a plant, but that doesn’t make it the bee’s “purpose” in any meaningful sense. It’s simply obeying millions of years of evolutionary processes. Just like if I throw a ball up in the air, it’s not the ball’s “purpose” to obey gravity by dropping to the ground. Purpose requires a subject. Objects don’t have purposes unless subjects assign purposes to them. But if the universe did have a purpose, based on our observations, it looks like that purpose would be to build black holes.

      And regarding consciousness, that’s too long of a discussion to have here, so I’ll just link to a great video of Dr. Stephen Novella discussing the nature of consciousness:

      • thepegasean says:

        You are deciding it is not its purpose. I am convinced otherwise. If something happens, it was meant to happen. Those millions of years of evolutionary processes happened and so were meant to happen. Black holes extract the information from the heliospheres of the stars that produced them, this information is then reused in producing solar systems throughout an infinite multiverse. We are the continual evolution of a conscious being which exults artistically in the beauty of creativity. The universe is no fluke, it is a living, intentional being and every aspect of it aspires to the whole unto eternity.

      • thepegasean says:

        Maybe ‘meant to happen’ is the wrong phrase, I mean the energies were intended but what they produced could not be predicted, the universe is continually learning, it does not know what it shall or should be, it combines and recombines in order to attempt all possibilities.

      • thepegasean says:

        The best comparison is with the artistic imagination, it creates just like creation, by experiment. God, or what science calls dark energy, has limitless potentiality, physical laws are not absolute, there are many more universes than our own. God, or potential energy, limitlessly expands in innumerable combinations, we see but a minute aspect of its magnitude. It does so for pure joy, for creative exultation, just as the artist paints or writes poetry for the fun of it. I cannot prove any of this but I know it, somehow, don’t ask me how, I don’t know, but there it is, like it or not, agree or don’t.

      • thepegasean says:

        As Blake wrote, ‘Energy is Eternal Delight.’

      • thepegasean says:

        And, ‘Infinity is in love with the productions of time.’

      • thepegasean says:

        Sorry, ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’

      • mjr256 says:

        “If something happens, it was meant to happen. ”

        That’s circular reasoning and an enormous pre-supposition, at least as interpret it. This is not to say I believe free will is much more than an illusion. Human beings, just like all matter in the universe (animate or not) appear to be slaves to the fundamental physical laws of the universe. And that includes the law of cause and effect. So my issue isn’t with the potential deterministic interpretation of what you said, but with your insistence on calling it “purpose” or “meaning”, which imply such things can meaningfully come about through non-subjective means.

  9. thepegasean says:

    Every particle knows its place in every atom. It might be unconscious knowing, but it has a role and it plays its part, metaphorically speaking. No molecule mistakes its mission in creation.

  10. thepegasean says:

    This is an understanding that has to be poetic as well as scientific, it has to be imaginative as well as evidential, conceptually holistic as well as particularised.

  11. thepegasean says:

    Who are we to say we are a thing apart from all that is elementary within us? How could intelligence spring from an unthinking source? Galileo fathered science and he did not believe we were the children of chance, he understood as real science should that chance breeds fate, a process the ancients worded ‘God.’ We no longer need the word, but we still need what it meant.

    • mjr256 says:

      I do not think we are a thing apart from all that is elementary within us. But whether human “consciousness” is meaningful to anything but our own subjective opinions is unclear to me. As Dr. Manhattan says in Watchmen, “A live human body and a deceased human body have the same number of particles. Structurally there’s no difference.” Regarding the notion of first cause, I refer you to Lawrence Krauss’ book “A Universe from Nothing.” Galileo was a smart guy, but not everything he believed was true. Not that it’s necessarily all his fault. He died long before the discovery of quantum physics, astrophysics, and all of modern cosmology. And if you tried to explain iPhones to him, he’d have think you were crazy.

      • thepegasean says:

        But there is a difference. Consciousness and unconsciousness have no physical difference, and yet they differ! I cannot reconcile that contradiction. I tried for most of my adolescence, but the attempt almost drove me mad. I will research the Krauss book because I have reverence for your advice, you really helped me with reference to Platos genius in the Euthyphro Dilemma, slapping me down on the whole morality issue. That shit I should have known. It’s exceedingly poetic.

  12. thepegasean says:

    I might have explained my nonsense more sensibly had I more time and patience to do it but unfortunately I am often incoherent impassioned and the hours grow too old whilst I am young to be wasted with argument.

  13. thepegasean says:

    The difference between me and you, my friend, is so necessary it hurts. Without your ilk, the universe would be incomprehensible, without mine, it would be too damn ugly to care about. I just want a universe that is beautiful, and beauty is perfection, and perfection requires an intension somewhere somehow somewhat imaginable. Ok, subjectivity creates beauty, but subjectivity was created; we are subjective beings despite our objective powers. Don’t ruin life for us poets! Let us make what you make sense of splendid… I cannot live in a world reduced to simply 2+2=4, it has to be at the same time a world of 4 of what and why should I care? All too humanly, perhaps, but we cannot but be human. Forgive us our reveries.

  14. thepegasean says:

    Did mine not make you think twice like no other irrational folly has ever done? By the way, your blog is one of the best on the web that I have read and I will be reading as long as you write it.

  15. thepegasean says:

    My opinions change like the weather, I do not ignore facts but my interpretation of them is as flighty as a bird on unpredictable winds. Dispute is the aeroplane of discussion, agreement only takes us as far as the common horizon; I become the angels and devils advocate as aptly as my horns grow or halo slips. I tickled you to hear you giggle, not to hold you helplessly in my hands.

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