Moral Evolution

Compassion is the basis of morality.
-Arthur Schopenhauer

A common claim of the religious is that objective morality cannot exist without a deity. How can we know right from wrong without a lawgiving creator who has imprinted the laws of proper behavior upon our souls? This is an insulting assertion that, though we have complex brains capable of science, art and abstract thought we are otherwise incapable of recognizing the wrongness of homicide, theft or adultery.

By contrast in our world that appears to be functioning by natural forces alone, moral behavior yet exists. Assigning moral source to deity is a crutch for not taking responsibility for ones own actions, or less harshly, a set of morality training wheels that we are afraid to remove.

So what is morality, objective and subjective, and what is moral relativism? Morality is the principle of distinguishing between good and bad, right and wrong, in behavior.

An objectively moral action is so regardless of circumstance or justification. Genocide, for example, is objectively wrong. In practice however this is a harsh standard to reach, perhaps philosophically impossible. One can justify killing in self-defense and war, or stealing as a desperate measure to keep one’s family alive. In this way objective morality may be considered an aspiration rather than an absolute.

Subjective morality is that based on judgment and opinion, from situational decisions made by individuals to definitions codified by society. Though generalizations are easy to agree on, gray borders surround these delineations and opinions compete to identify right behavior. Consider expressions such as “one man’s rebel is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Moral relativism is comparatively defined at the societal level. A behavior may be acceptable within one society while being completely abhorrent to another. Consider female circumcision, a cultural practice performed as a method of purification. Time period is also a factor—current day vs past ages. Witch-burning anyone? Relativism is a bothersome concept to many, a source of justification for dubious behaviors.

Morality exists in nature, most visibly in higher animals. Though proof of an evolutionary theory is a work in progress there are examples of both precursors and refined behaviors. Some colony insects work solely for the benefit of others within. Grouped animals share food and warn each other of predators. Protection of the young is innate, a behavior perpetuating the gene line. Parents in most species would starve together rather than eat their young. The behavior is so strong that it can overcome other instincts, as this amazing video demonstrates.

Primate studies continue to show examples of awareness and practice of fairness.

People exhibit moral acts voluntarily using common sense. The Golden Rule is ubiquitous. As an emergent, complex behavior of an animal with a highly developed brain it is a practice of choice and instinct, with benefits. Sam Harris makes a strong argument for inherent morality in his book, “The Moral Landscape.” To distill his thesis one can imagine two similar acts, one being more moral than another, for example, killing another person to steal their meal vs buying one yourself. Consider any two similar acts situationally close or far apart. We are able to identify the better and worse choices. This is moral distinction, the awareness of a landscape of moral highs and lows.

Collectively morality develops further at a cultural level–better and more widespread moral behavior evolving as a culture matures. In fact this can be used as a metric for cultural maturity. A civil society is an evolved culture. One that contains a system of fair laws and enforcement is more evolved that one that is anarchistic or totalitarian. The stumbling block concept of moral relativism can be overcome by agreeing upon cross-cultural standards of decent behavior. Those who act below these standards, individually or societally, may be labeled morally immature, subject to international ridicule and pressures to change. We now recognize human rights globally—disgust with human trafficking, abhorrence of chemical weapons, revulsion toward tortuous imprisonment, etc. More issues will are added to this list as international consensus builds—expanded women’s rights, LGBT acceptance, perhaps even rights to food, energy and healthcare. This is cultural evolution, not biological.

While there will always be usurpers of these standards–dictators and such–the standards remain defined through these setbacks. Politics and nationalism also intervene but eventually the moral arc leans forward.

Religious doctrines are problematic when they advocate practices below the current standards. Two examples are the suppressed role of women in many societies and inhumane forms of criminal punishment. Sacred scriptures are highly resistant to modification. Conservative clergy and apologists apply rationalizations and interpretations to justify old practices, or worse, scale up enforcement. Meanwhile followers remain stuck below global standards, their opinions suppressed.

We all know what moral behavior is with the tiniest effort of thought. It’s one of those ‘know it when you see it’ things. For guidance in a questionable situation, reference the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have done to yourself. For those who worry that we would behave horribly without a supernatural driver, relax; this is just not true. Morality is evolutionarily inherent. We all love our families, respect our friends and neighbors, and have concern for the welfare of others, near and far. It is common sense neither practical nor desirable to do otherwise, at least not for long. Those whose actions cross the lines of acceptable behavior are being sociopathic by definition; those who worse lack an ability to empathize are psychologically pathological, biologically disordered.

So be the good person you are without the baggage of instruction, guilt or coercion. Demonstrate your concern for others. Promote the expansion of moral human rights. Help raise inter-cultural standards and support the spread those standards to all corners of the globe. It’s the right thing to do.