The Past, Present, and Future of Right and Wrong
We all want to be good people. At least I think we do. But what that means — being a good person — is not always easy to define.
Morality is a ubiquitous term, but relies on so much context as to become virtually meaningless. The definition of what is moral depends entirely on where you live and what you and those around you believe.
Are we good people? Do we know that is truly moral? Is morality even a real thing? Can we be trusted to make the right decision?
In this post I explore the relationship between evolution, our unique place in the world, and the ever elusive definition of morality.
What is Morality?
Morality is a system of values that provide its holder with a code of conduct upon which to act. It provides us with the ability to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. It helps us judge between good behavior and bad behavior. It helps us avoid mistakes that will be detrimental to our lives and the lives of those around us.
When a society is acting in a manner which is deemed moral, it creates an environment of moral order.
These definitions of morality make it sound very beneficial — and it can be. However, there is a serious challenge to the idea of morality. The biggest is that its principles are not universal. Morality can differ from one group of people to the next, and even from one individual to another.
What some would deem immoral is perfectly acceptable to others. It can be scary to think that the moral values you’re trying to teach your kids are not the same as the moral values your neighbor is trying to teach theirs.
And, beyond just our own species, mother nature is extremely cruel and unforgiving. While there are plenty of examples of animals acting in altruistic, affectionate, and even downright charitable ways, it’s abundantly clear that morality is not a universal truth.
Like all other social constructs, morality is a human invention that varies with time and location.
How Does Morality Serve Us?
Regardless of the source of our morality, an awareness of what others among our family/friends, classmates, colleagues, and communities members believe is correct behavior enables us to avoid social missteps.
From an evolutionary perspective, social awareness and acceptance is the critical benefit of morality. For the earliest of humans social cooperation was a crucial component of their ability to survive — something I discussed briefly in the post Evolution and Early Homo sapiens — thus rules or norms for interacting were a must.
Morality it may be argued is part biology and part environment (but isn’t everything?). We are programmed to be a social species, which means we cooperate, we look out for each other, and we often do what is in the best interest of the group.
This is why activities commonly defined as vices have either been prohibited or controlled in pretty much every society at some point. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, and sex may not be inherently bad, but taken to excess they can harm individuals, families, and communities. Thus they are frowned upon.
Additionally, we have social norms that are passed down not through our genes, but through cognitive education — our families and communities teach us how to behave. Without a value system that informs us of how to act, we would struggle to hold it together as a society.
Moral order is good for us. It provides societies with peace and prosperity, reductions in violence, peaceful lives and communities, increased sense of safety and trust, and higher levels of commerce and production.
Where Does Morality Come From?
To some it seems like an impossibility that an individual who subscribes to evolutionary science could long hold to a set of moral principles. The claim has certainly been made that without religion there can be no morality. Consider the following quotes and the seriousness of the assertions they put forth.
There are numerous problems with these assertions — primarily the fact that even in cultures that don’t strictly connect their behavior with their religion, moral codes still arise.
In fact most civilizations and cultures act upon a basic moral code that exists simply as a means of facilitating positive social interactions — the very benefits moral order affords.
This code includes rules such as don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t murder. If we were to compare the various moral codes from culture around the world, we would likely see a very familiar bell curve pattern. In the fat of the curve we would find the ethics and morals which are basic tenants of any well-functioning society (see figure 1).
Granted there are plenty of cultures that break away from this central moral code. Variations arise when groups understand ideas differently. For example the idea of property ownership or the definition of murder. Though we may think of it as abhorred today, for many ancient cultures senecide — the abandonment, death, killing, or suicide of the elderly — was an accepted practice. Additionally, in many honor-based cultures, death during a duel, either with a sword or a gun, was not considered murder.
The point I’m trying make is that the basic tenants of human morality due not require the guidance of a religion, but are more likely the result of evolutionary adaptation for social survival. There is no doubt that Homo sapiens would not have lasted this long, if in general we were unable to rely on each other. The moral principles in the center of the moral bell curve enable us to do just that. They can be explained by constructive social evolution. The basic moral practices are shared across culture simply because they ensure survival among other intelligent, social beings within our species.
What is fascinating is that religions, rather than producing moral codes along the center of the bell curve (lets say the safest part of the curve) tend to push the boundaries of what morality means. They use their dogma to justify actions that appear immoral at best and in many cases outright disturbing.
From the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) we see a number of the moral outliers on both sides of the curve (see Figure 2). While some of these practices do exist outside of these religions, I’ve included them here because they are explicitly condoned within the religious text.
Now, the range of religious do’s and don’ts (the moral outliers) related to sexuality extend across such extremes that they deserve their own figure as well (see figure 3).
I’ve allowed us to drift into the topic of uncomfortable moral codes, simply to illustrate the point that rather than providing the core of human moral value, religion expounds on that core, to justify the stretching of moral norms.
So, if religion does not explain the creation of morality, then what does?
Can Evolution Make Us Moral?
Still, others would argue that evolution is also not a good starting point for developing a utilitarian moral code. Is competition not the fundamental Principle of Evolution? It seems plausible that competition would only lead to some form of Thunderdome type justice system, or potentially even worse — a moral system based on Trumpian ideals.
Now, that would be scary.
Evolution also produced the natural world, which is chalk full of horrific actions by cruel and menacing figures. Carnivores tear apart their prey with absolutely no concern for the suffering they inflict. The males of many species battle to the death for the right to reproduce with not just one, but every single female in the group. And, within the animal kingdom, infanticide and abortion are practiced in spades, with some mothers even eating their own offspring.
But here’s the thing — evolution may have created a plethora of scary monsters (including ourselves), but it has also given us exactly what we need to develop a highly evolved moral compass.
Morality Through Evolution (Morality of the Future)
An acceptance of evolution and the principles that guide its process, allows us to take a step back and re-examine the moral code to which we subscribe. Evolution is the means for changing things over time. All things adapt to their environment or they disappear.
If we extend this principle to the idea of morality, then we see that our moral order is simply the outcome of billions of years of evolution. We don’t have all of the answers and things aren’t perfect, which can be humbling, but its also very empowering. This frame of mind allows us to look at morality as a blank slate. We get to define it based on our ability to reason and empathize.
Because of evolution, we’re not trapped in a static state. We can make things better.
While we can be quite animalistic in our nature, we also have that ‘transcendent’ nature to which Kenin Malik referred. Not only can we feel love, compassion, and empathy — our evolution has allowed us to understand those feelings, contemplate them, and expound upon them.
Even Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist agrees that relying upon natural selection is not the answer to our moral dilemmas, but rather evolution has provided us with the cognitive ability to solve those dilemmas ourselves.
In his phenomenal book, The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley calls upon the philosophy of Adam Smith to explain much of the evolution of morality. Smith’s claim was that morality arose in every person from nature and then changed based on that person’s nurture (their environment).
Ridley also point out that over time the human race has become more moral. This idea is counter to the argument of most religious apologists, who claim that the world is becoming ever more engrossed in sin. Yet, Ridley uses two effective examples of how the world has become more moral — (1) homosexuality and (2) pedophilia.
In the case of homosexuality, the people have been far ahead of the churches in recognizing the absurdity of persecuting people for their sexual orientation. And, in the case of pedophilia, it was clearly not the Catholic Church driving its condemnation, but rather covering up its perverse actions.
In both cases the sermons from the religious leaders now correlates better with the change among the people. Morality does not come down from the pulpit, but rises up to it. And as a society, we are evolving to be more moral.
Now, we truly have seen that evolution has allowed us humans to reach a point where we can rise above evolution. Kind of ironic, I know.
If we can put aside religious dogmas, and the uncomfortable moral outliers they create, we can begin to fashion a society based on truly beneficial morals. Rather than beginning with “God has directed us to …”, we can begin with the fact that we’re all humans and we’re all struggling through the human experience.
We may look slightly different and speak wildly different languages, but we’re all humans. We all feel love and pain; joy and sadness; fulfillment and loss.
I’m not saying its gonna be easy, but hopefully this is a start.
Earlier I shared a quote from Abhijit Naskar that made the prospect of evolutionary morality appear bleak, but I left off the last piece of the quote. The full quote reads,
It’s a beautiful thought, but it’s not necessarily the power to not hit back that is empowering — it’s the ability to choose not to hit back.
Evolution gave us that ability, but its up to us to choose how to use it. Evolution dictates that morality will continue to evolve. Will we be able to keep pace?