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Human Morality

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  1. Did Morality Evolve?
  2. Why Selfishness?
  3. Evolution is Dynamic
  4. Consciousness
  5. Morality Codified
  6. Imperial Religion
  7. Artificial Morality

Did Morality Evolve?

Does human morality have an evolutionary origin? Darwin thought so, and many have thought so since. Today, it is getting to be generally accepted by people, except Christians who, as always, raise as many spurious objections as they can, and enter into any degree of special pleading that morality is God given, to preserve the beliefs most of them have had indoctrinated into them.

The behavior of life forms is evolved behavior, produced by the influence of various types of natural selection. Morality is a type of behavior, and so it ought to have evolved. The Christian argues that evolution is selfish and morality is not—it is altruistic—meant to help others despite its cost to the helper. Helping others is the opposite of the evolutionary purpose of survival of the fittest, Christians say, but they are either unable to grasp, or deliberately misunderstand, the notion of the survival of the fittest.

The fittest are not necessarily the biggest, the most aggressive, or even the most selfish. Sometimes the smaller an animal is, the better equipped it is to survive. Indeed the smallest animals seem to live longest in terms of their genera and families. The same is true of aggression. Cows and deer have not been replaced by hyenas or wolves. There are a lot more passive ungulates eating grass and shrubs than there are voracious predators.

What about selfishness? If evolution meant survival of the most selfish, then no animals could possibly have become social. Hyenas, wolves and human beings are among the animals that live in groups. How could it be possible if selfishness were a requirement of evolution? The purpose of social living is that the group has better prospects than the individual—it offers evolutionary advantages. They are that members of the group help each other in many ways—in looking out for predators, in helping fight off threats, in sharing food, in protecting young ones, and so on. These are the actions that we humans consider moral!—caring and sharing, empathy and altruism. Moral tendencies are social tendencies, besides the obvious—helping others—some examples are:

  • caring for children
  • marriage to one person for life
  • being friendly
  • being faithful to friends.

Why do we consider some motivations good and others not? Caring for children is moral because without it, our species could not survive. It could not be immoral, if parental care was not necessary to us. Some species do not care for their children in the least, but warm blooded mammals and birds do, and quite a lot of cold blooded animals do too. But for others there is no need for it, and the offspring are allowed to disperse like plant seeds, or fend for themselves from birth.

It is in the interest of society that parents are responsible, and take on the duty of looking after their children. In a society, when parents do not take care of their children, or at least have relatives who will, the children have to be supported by others in society, so the unattentive parents are free riding on the backs of others. Society then has a moral right to resent it and punish the guilty ones.

The purpose of marriage was to force people to attend to their children, and had no other reason. Marriage contracts did not evolve! What is natural for humans is that we associate for personal reasons, and often children are the outcome. If societies had not enforced marriage, whatever genes make parents abuse their children would have died out, because the abused and neglected children would have been more likely to die than loved and nurtured children. The genes responsible would have had less chance of replicating.

Not being reliable is a fault when others in society rely on you, a spouse perhaps. So philandering, male or female, is classified as immoral. Some males might have a genetic inclination to spread their genes far and wide, but it is disruptive of the harmony of a society, and so is morally not approved of.

Not being friendly, aggression and hating others are frowned upon within a society, but are encouraged in defense of it. When Christ told his followers to “turn the other cheek”, he was not saying to Jews that they must accept Roman oppression. He was saying to Jews, that they ought not to fight each other. They ought to unite against the common enemy.

Why Selfishness?

So, our inborn or evolved sense of morality helped us to become social, and helps us remain social, but less socially adapted people will try, by fraud or free loading, to lie to us and deceive us to gain a personal advantage. They can fool us into trusting them, when they are not honest at all, and indeed hope to defraud us in some way. We therefore have always to remain on our guard to some degree. We cannot be unquestioning, or totally gullible. Again religious functionaries are all too often utterly trusted when they are not worthy of it. Equally, we should guard against the temptation to use the same or similar tricks ourselves, by doing our best to look better than we are. That too is trickery.

Most people recognize consciously that their moral sense is advantageous to them. They will help others while appreciating that they do so because they expect others to treat them similarly. They dislike selfishness because they know the selfish people are taking advantage of others while refusing to pull their weight in helping others. Moral codes therefore discourage others from being selfish—though it is a good trait for solitary animals—and discourage nepotism—though it might be a good adaptation for animals living in small family groups.

No doubt, societies formed from families getting more extended until they became small societies. The family group became a clan, then clans became tribes, requiring social help to be extended to the extended family first, then to the tribe, and, in each case, anyone able to restrict favors to their own family when others could expect to be considered, in all social fairness, as antisocial and so immoral. A moral precept such as “give without thought of reward” is advantageous to anyone who preaches it but does not practice it. Someone unscrupulous can encourage others to be altruistic to satisfy themselves. It is all the more successful and unscrupulous when the figure doing the preaching is especially trusted. That is why religion is a prime target for frauds and grifters.

Evolution is Dynamic

One might ask why all animals are not social, if being a social animal is such an advantage, and the answer is that nature has “niches”, space for all sorts of different types of animal, and there are always niches for some solitary animals. They can, for example, be much stealthier than a pack of animals.

Moreover, there is another aspect of evolution that Christians refuse to comprehend, and that is that evolution is continuous—it is dynamic. Wolves or sheep have not always been identically the same as they now are. They are not even all the same now—species survival depends upon variety. Variation ensure that some of the individuals in a species have the characteristics that will let them survive, and continue the species when the environment changes.

So, just like us humans, animals vary, and also just like us, they tend to vary in the same way in different environmental situations. But environments rarely stay the same forever, and neither do the animals that live in them. Even without sophisticated types of natural selection, merely by chance, some things will change, so that a species today will not be identical in a million years time. Evolution allows for differences as well as similarities.

We might be able to understand that living in groups, living socially, gives us an advantage over a similar animal living a solitary existence in the same environment, but we have to understand that neither the social nor the solitary animals will be uniform in their adaptations. Empathy might be more highly developed in a social animal, but it does not have to mean that all solitary animals lack it. They might, for example, show empathy towards their offspring. Equally, for social animals, the strength of the feeling of empathy might vary considerably. Thus some human beings care a lot for the suffering of others, and some seem indifferent to it, or even take pleasure in it.


We humans are even more complicated because we are conscious animals in the more refined sense of being aware of our own thoughts and emotions. They are part of the many influences that affect our behavior. We no longer only act on instinct, a reaction that an animal species has evolved from many millennia of being subject to some influence, and the effect on survival, and thus selection, of acting on it or not. Animals that fail to act might get killed by a predator or poisoned by bad food, and the ones that acted such as not to be killed or die of poisoning survive with the genes that conditioned the action that preserved the animal. Thus it becomes an instinctive action—the animals that have survived have it!

We can use our consciousness to decide whether to act on an instinct or not. If the instinct is a moral instinct then we can decide consciously whether to act morally or not, and when we choose not to, we will probably suffer from feelings of guilt, a feeling we have evolved to help condition us to being moral. Christians cannot accept or refuse to recognize that all of this is simply evolution. For most of them everything has to be black or white because, they think, God has laid out distinctly what is right and wrong. Thus they will ask:

If morality has evolved, why do we feel any conflict between what is right and what we want? Why do we puzzle about what is right and wrong, and then have to teach our children what it is?

It is a typical ploy of Christian apologists that what they cannot argue against in general principle, they try to undermine in specific instances. Though they have God acting on their behalf, no Christian has yet formulated a TOE (Theory of Everything), to borrow an acronym from the cosmologists. They have never formulated a TOA, a Theory of Anything, but they realize that they can point out this or that instance that seems peculiar, as if the scientists had not noticed, then claim it destroys a scientific theory that otherwise explains a great deal.

Though much that any hypothesis explains was unexplained without it, no Christian will be patient enough, unlike the scientist, to see whether more data or better tests will give us an insight into what presently seems anomalous. The Christian mathematician, Coulson, called it “the God of the Gaps”, and warned Christians against it, but they use it still. They find the gaps in science, and say only God can explain them, and so the science is faulty. Later when science has an explanation, they simply look for another gap! When science finds a theory really is faulty, it refines it, or finds a new and better theory, and knowledge advances.

Evolution is often, especially when something is still evolving, much fuzzier than Christians like, or are comfortable with. It is a fault of their own upbringing—lacking nuance, in the modern metaphor, or lacking shades of grey in the old one! We might be evolving towards stronger socially moral instincts, or our seduction by the greed necessitated by our economic system might wean us back to solitary selfishness. Meanwhile our morality is confused, though we can decide what is better for us—whether we would prefer to be caring and social or to be selfish and solitary.

Animals other than ourselves do not reason about right and wrong, but nevertheless they exhibit various moral behaviors. Most advanced animals love their offspring. It may be the trait from which other forms of caring among social animals have evolved. Social animals help one another, and sometimes even animals not of their own species. They co-operate, they share things, especially food and protection. To accept such traits in animals puts Christians in a difficult situation, so they incline not to accept it. Yet, if these behaviors have evolved in animals, then it is absurd to pretend that, in humans, they are uniquely God given. It is a powerful incentive for Christians to deny evolution all together.

The same kinds of emotion of concern for others and the behavior they engender is common across all human culture, and a refinement of evolutionary theory can explain them, though they seem paradoxical in the simplistic Christian way of thinking about evolution. Kin selection explains why animals can be altruistic in particular cases without violating the principles of natural selection. In other words, why helping particular others can better propagate one’s own genes! Animals, including humans, can help their kin, animals with a high proportion of the same genes, and by helping them to survive, boost the survival chances of genes that are the same as their own.

It goes further, though. If animals are able to make some sort of assessment of the chances of getting a favor returned by another animals favored, then they can decide to help others who they judge will help them in return. It is—put in terms of monkey behavior—“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, otherwise dubbed “reciprocal altruism”, and is much improved when non-reciprocating animals are discriminated against for not reciprocating. In short when the non-reciprocators are punished. It explains the necessity of punishment for non-co-operation or selfishness, which some, such as Libertarians, think is wicked in a free society, but is actually absolutely necessary if society is to be maintained at all.

Morality Codified

Human moral codes unquestionably can be explained by evolution, and the fact that such moral emotions as empathy are not uniformly strong across all human beings is simply an expression of the distribution laws, and perhaps our atavistic nature—a tendency for us still to revert to the behavior of the solitary, and necessarily utterly selfish, animal that we once were many millions of years back. It reflects the fact that evolution is not a discrete stepwise process but virtually an analogue continuous one. The behavior of the solitary animal is impressed deeply in our psyches and the newer social behavior is perhaps unevenly laid upon it.

It explains why sociality requires impressing upon us or many of us may be inclined to revert. That is the purpose of culture and education in human groups. Our social instincts need to be maintained by society, the group of people we live with. That is culture, and that includes religion—though religion was not considered in any way separable from culture until fairly modern times. Without proper cultural conditioning to be moral, we may be more ready to be immoral, that is selfish, favoring ourselves, or, rather, as in kin selection, our close kin, a social sin called nepotism.

And in ancient times, religious leaders realized that, through the influence education and culture has on what people thought was right, they could influence them. They invented pseudo morals that were not founded on anything innate but suited the changing social scene—that is to say recent social changes—in evolutionary terms, too recent to have had any effect. So, our moral beliefs do not always stem from an evolutionary feeling. Sexual mores in Christianity had much to do with Christian social origins in the extremely prudish Essene sect of the Jews, rather than any moral aversion to sexuality, an utterly absurd notion.

Similarly, the notions of sacredness and purity had nothing directly to do with religion, but originally had to do with instincts like avoiding danger, notably food poisoning. The idea of disgust was transferred by culture to an abhorrence of the pollution of sacred spaces and objects, spaces and objects that were reserved for public use, as opposed to private use. Private usage of public property became disgusting to people because private usage polluted them, or magically stopped them from being sacred any more. And pollution was considered contagious.

It is entirely cultural, but makes use of a natural feeling, disgust. Morality starts from evolved dispositions, and it is the morality directly associated with our nature as social beings that written or spoken morality properly supports. Some other moral attitudes taught by churches are only indirectly associated with evolution in that a natural feeling has been transferred culturally to something quite different. All sacraments are cultural inventions, and have nothing to do with evolution. We saw there is nothing natural about marriage. It is a social contract formally entered into to give churches authority over people.

Christians pick on some of the moral aphorisms of their own god, Christ, as being quite counter to the evolutionary explanation, such as “turn the other cheek”, but there is nothing at all in such advice that is contrary to the moral aim of preserving society intact. It is a rule meant to apply to small groups of people—originally the Essenic brotherhood to which Christ belonged. If any such brotherhood felt it proper to fight among themselves, then the fellowship of it would soon fall apart. The instruction was not to retaliate, but do the opposite, to preserve the society from internecine quarrels. In the era of WMD, it remains good advice, but must be extended to whole nations. The Christians who have the power to make such notions real prefer their nuclear and biological toys.

Imperial Religion

Morality is a direct product of small group evolution. That is what is difficult in modern mass society. People still tend to remain loyal to lesser groups within society, to street gangs, to local employers, to football and baseball clubs, to churches, often to groups that approximate to the original tribal extent. Religion has emerged as an institution to attempt to hold people together in a loyalty across mass society, by attempting to get people identified with a nationwide church, the state itself, via patriotism that established religion always favors, by building ambiguity towards strangers and anyone not conforming to received behavior.

These are cultural adaptations of the basic moral senses we have, but are too often used to maintain differences. Modern politicians like to have a threat, just as medieval churches did. Then it was the devil, but today, even many Christians will not wear the devil as a threat. Most of them do not take the devil seriously as a supernatural threat. Any threat has to be real, though politicians are ready to say the devil is behind it, and is usually based on xenophobia, the natural feeling people have not to trust those with whom they are not familiar. Modern societies have to be the opposite—tolerant of others. People have to be persuaded that, in these days of potential mass destruction, we cannot afford to have anything less than a global mentality. Just as family favoritism was right when the biggest social unit was the family, then tribal loyalty when it became the tribe, and family favoritism became nepotism, a moral failing, now we have to extend our concern for others to all others.

Universal—that is how early Christians in the west’s largest political entity in those days, the Roman Empire, understood Christ’s small group—Essenic Jewish—morality, yet few Christians actually ever practised it. You only have to read many of the US Christian right ranting on the internet to realize that Christianity is now anti-Christianity—they do not revere Christ but Anti-Christ, their own horrific distortion of Christ. Most Christians, certainly those of a right wing authoritarian tendency in the US would again crucify Christ, as a liberal, if they ever met him today. The Romans crucified Jesus as a Jewish social troublemaker—a rabblerouser or even a terrorist in modern terms. Morality was meant to facilitate group cohesion, and to punish those who are socially divisive. Now that the human group is global in size, we cannot continue to act as if we were living in a kraal.

Our moral inclinations and impulses make good sense in evolutionary terms, a conclusion backed up by the consistency of basic human morals across cultures. Few modern societies are small tribes living beyond the influence of advanced societies, so the dominant cultures of today are large ones, ones that have been made necessary by the growth of large scale empires over the last 3000 years. This is roughly the timescale of the growth of modern large scale religions. Large religions were engendered by large empires, so the modern, so-called “great” religions are actually imperialist religions, meant to favor the dominant power and their ruling class. These religions had to find ways of getting its vast populations united behind something, and thereby to become self controlling.

Moreover, they had to value certain things as particularly valuable, indeed as inviolable. We saw the modern religious ideas of sacredness and pollution were developing, building on an earlier inchoate tribal regard for common property as sacred. Similarly, loyalty, a feeling of attachment to the local group, the small scale society which had to be defended against nearby rival tribes, was extended under the imperial religions to patriotic loyalty and religious conviction, the idea that the imperial religion was the only true religion, that it and, by inference, its believers were superior. These built up barriers in the imperialist age against defections to rival imperialisms who were treated as morally wicked and inferior, and justified their destruction.

Thus much morality became a cultural convention of imperialism, an aspect of cultural imperialism, and modern people have difficulty in distinguishing between such conventions and innate moral feeling. Whatever is ingrained at an early age can seem to be incontrovertible, seem to be moral. That is why religion is taught to children, before they have time to consider its merits, and those of alternative ones. Religion and patriotism are to stop us from choosing. We are brought up with our choices already made for us. What is “right” is indoctrinated into us often at an age before we can remember experiencing it. The morality that has evolved within us does not change, but the imperial morality laid on top of it can change according to the power in control of us.

The western imperial religion is Christianity, a religion whose god extols the value of poverty, and is utterly unmistakable in declaring that wealth prevents salvation. Yet the modern western economic system tells us to get on, to get as rich as possible, irrespective of the consequences for others. Putting others down is a necessity of modern capitalism, and modern US pastors are defying their supposed god in extolling the virtue of riches—the Mammon of the Christian bible. It is no longer a bribe of the devil, a bribe such as Christ rejected when he met the devil during his forty days in the wilderness. Now wealth is a gift of God!—a gift that requires the impoverishment of others.

Plainly, moral codes issued by imperial states and their religions can change. They can be utterly immoral, but the outcome will be the destruction of society. Capitalism is a return to the solitary state, a state of individual competition against others, and, with no regard for Christ, Christians have fallen for it wholesale.

Artificial Morality

All of us who are whole, who are not mentally damaged in some way, know what is right and wrong instinctively, but it is brought home to us more easily when our parents or teachers tell us and explain it. We differ from most animals in being cultural, so that we can do the right thing more easily than unthinking animals because we can be taught it. We do not have to deliberately copy the behavior of adults, though we do, of course, for they can save a lot of time and grief by telling us directly what is proper. We can also be told wrong things, improper things.

It is because this is our nature as socially conscious animals that we can debate what is the right and the wrong thing to do. When social scientists, however, test us subliminally, around 80 percent of people will do what is instinctively right. The remainder are free loaders or free riders! Science shows that most humans have a common moral psychology. The rest is deliberate confusion, and the dangers offered to society of pandering to selfishness, to the selfish twenty percent.

Morality enhances our fitness as social animals. We want to be moral, to help others and be helped by them, and to punish the selfish. Most people in their everyday lives succeed in doing just this. Whenever we feel we are not doing the right thing or are being selfish and uncaring, we feel guilty. We might do wrong things, but we usually know. We do not feel good about it. Some, though, either do not have these feelings, or have realized that our modern capitalist society allows selfishness in no small way. The most successful people in society get rich at the expense of others. For most of us, our conscience does not let us pass by an injured man in the street, but the number who will is growing alarmingly. Good Samaritans are less likely to be Christians than non-Christians, testing shows!

There is a plain conflict between moral sense, and the moral teachings of Christ which reflect it, and how we are required to act to get on in capitalist society. Doing the right thing requires an effort. We feel that we have to stand out against the crowd, when we expect the crowd to support us on moral matters that concern our community. We are involved in a fight between what society seems to think is proper under capitalism, and the instinctive way we feel. We often feel it is right to resist our instinct and do the wrong thing, and few others are willing to contradict this view. We are caught between what we are taught in life, culture, economics, success, and what we feel is right, and what we read is right in the teachings of great men like Confucius, Plato, and Christ.

Defenders of the imperial religions ask why we have moral codes at all when our morals are laid inside us. The simple answer is that we have intelligence, and in particular conscious self awareness. It is because we can examine our own feelings, and society, and can express them in words. Thus we can write out what our societies consider as proper. We might not know why it is proper, all we know is that it is. This is the early stage of philosophizing about ourselves.

When societies grew beyond the tribe into nations and empires, morality became an adjunct to law, and law was what the emperor required to maintain order. Social order was still largely instinctive, but mass society had extended the boundaries of society. People even from within our own societies appear to us as strangers, but emperors wanted us to see we had important things in common—our religion, our country. And religion, we were told is the source of morality, and our country the source of pride.

Now religion could, up to a point, decide what was moral and what was not. We had to act properly, according to the morals prescribed by religion, or God would see it, and punishment was certain. Religious people became self policing, and truly conservative. What God and the emperor gave us, they were told, was the best of all possible worlds until the afterlife. Whether a vale of toil and tears, or a garden of delight and indolence, it was God’s will! Thus religious devotees became society’s moral policemen. It all worked rather well as long as no one thought about whether they were entitled to exercise their own free will rather than God’s. To want to be free was to defy God, but God was the emperor in practice.

The pious policemen were never without God’s example. He could always show his disapproval by causing earthquakes, famines or floods, and the priests of the imperial religion and their devoted thought police would blame it on to the sins of the others—the people! It was a punishment for their moral misdemeanors. They were being warned to come to order or the world could possibly end. people came to order, and the rich usually got richer. Spurious associations between behavior and national catastrophes, meant the church could mould morality in ways that suited imperium. People still think natural events are the wrath of God!

We are naturally moral animals because we are social, and morality pertains to the proper treatment of others in our society. Our elders save us the bother of having to learn morality by experience by teaching us it, but we can also be taught things that are not moral. We are especially susceptible to it when we have been taught to respect those teaching us. We should, though, be cautious who we believe. Often churches have been too ready to teach immorality because it suits our leaders. Now, evolutionary psychologists are discovering what morality really is, the morality that has evolved to suit our social nature. It does not always coincide with the morality that religions are obsessed with.

Written by mikemagee

9 May, 2010 at 5:04 pm

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