The Flipside – Moral Constants

Posted by on January 24, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 0 comments

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In relation to my previous post about morality and its malleable nature, some further thoughts come to mind about the constants which show themselves in morality. This was explored at length by Sam Harris in his book “The Moral Landscape“, in which Harris suggests that there are some aspects of morality which could be measured and seen as universal across the board. In this, I agree with Harris, that all morality is built from this base state, and then embellished along the way to create a “moral code”, one that changes from culture to culture.

For example, all moral codes say it is wrong to kill other people, at least in the first instance. In a given culture however, this “thou shalt not kill” edict can be overridden by further caveats which make it okay to kill in certain circumstances. Depending on the relative maturity of the culture, the progressiveness of its people, and the honesty from which they ascribe their moral code, this may be overt or it may be assumed. Religious doctrines play a large role in this sphere, but are not the roots of this phenomenon.

Step back, before large cultures arose, before formalised laws, before councils and primitive governments, to a time when humans were small familially based troupes which rarely encountered other groups. Moral codes at that time would have been simple, based around the good of the troupe and the ability for the group’s patriarch to propagate his offspring. They were unspoken rules around who owned what and pecking order politics. A lot of this comes from the way we evolved over time, and the behaviours that best suited the protection of the troupe, the offspring of the patriarch, and the well-being of its citizens. Relatively simple moral codes exist in the lives and families of other primate species, and can be observed today. Many would just call this politics, but the way it is enacted in these primates is most definitely a form of morality.

The development of altruism in primates is the exact same altruism we see in today’s societies, but this was rarely extended beyond the immediate group. The reason for his is simple, and involves “in-group/out-group” psychology, which stands to protect the “in-group” from rival factions or troupes. In the book “The Selfish Gene“, Dawkins points at the way genes promote and protect themselves at the level of the organism, and  in doing so those who share genes are more likely to promote and protect each other than those who are unrelated. This goes against the once popular theory that the “group” protects itself for the very same reason, as E.O Wilson suggests in his book “The Human Conquest of Earth“. However I see no reason that there isn’t some kind of middle ground between these states, especially given the nature of modern societies to combine and cooperate well beyond the immediately related familial group. We create societies based on not only our relation to each other, but geographical, psychological, social and moral groupings, which are unrelated to the genes we share.

If it were true that humanity only holds the interests of its immediate family in mind when interacting with others, we would see a much different world to the one we now encounter. It would be one of small and battling tribes, one where a chance meeting on the street of unrelated people would end in bloodshed. There would be no way that we could co-operate beyond these small groups if there weren’t some kind of “larger group” thinking inherent in the way we deal with others. Altruism extends well beyond the bounds of the immediate, and into the realm of the unrelated. This is where things get interesting, because not only do we create our morality around what best suits ourselves, but the base of morality comes from what best suits those around us.

The precis statement above, about the evolution of humanity, is by no means exhaustive, but it serves as a basis for thinking about how morality may have evolved, and what factors have influenced change in them over millennia. Go back to my post “What Is Well-Being?” in which I said:

“(Sam) Harris equates the idea of a scientifically based objective level of morality with the idea of doing whatever it takes to give the most people the best well-being. This is all assuming that there is a state of “normalcy” among people that is healthy to begin with.”

The constants of morality should therefore be tied very closely to whatever it is that makes us well, and anything beyond that is embellishment to suit the wants of a given culture. Morality, at its base, stems from the combination of our need to protect ourselves (coming from our genes), our need to protect those related to us (genes again), the need to be able to cooperate with others outside of our groups (because societies are intermingled), and our ability to recognise and shun the suffering of others from an empathetic and altruistic standpoint (because of mirror neurons, the compulsion to alleviate suffering etc). I know this is all very vague, but it serves to show that maybe, beneath the surface of our perceived morality, there is a basis from which this all springs, and just maybe, this could be codified to become an indisputable right for every person to have.

What we do have is the gift of self analysis. We have to remember that as culture and humanity evolves, the way we interact also changes. We have the advantage, as thinking and analysing individuals, of recognising our innate animalistic natures and adapting them to suit our best outcomes. We also have within us some very selfish and self-serving propensities which are harmful in today’s society. But given the ability to see and change what we do, we have the potential to bring about wholesale changes in the way that we treat our fellow humans and the planet at large.

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