The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Thinking About Morality

What is morality, and where does it come from? Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? Most of us treat it as if it’s a simple thing, but it really isn’t. If you live in the U.S., you will most often hear morality discussed as a function of religion. In fact, I find that because I do not share the majority position regarding religion, I am often (in fact, typically) accused of being immoral or amoral – the basic idea being that if I do not believe in a supernatural source for morality, I must be “cut off from moral bearings” or, as Banana Man Ray Comfort puts it, a “moral free agent.”

The first problem is that this particular claim is that, like most of the folks that I know who share my views on religion, I’m pretty boring on the whole sin front. For the most part, I don’t have any particular vices that aren’t also shared with the religious people I know, and I lack even many of those (I don’t drink, never been unfaithful to a partner, no drugs, tend to be a goody-two-shoes as applied to other people’s property, etc.). Where I tend to differ from them is that I do not view arbitrary things that don’t harm anyone as sins – I have no problem with gay people, I don’t really care if someone “blasphemes”, and so on.

In other words, I’m a good citizen, decent neighbor, and all without thinking that there is some sort of being hanging doom over my head if I do wrong. And I am not alone. Time and again, research into the relationship between violent crime, divorce, substance abuse, willingness to cheat others, and so on has shown that these things are not negatively correlated with religious belief. If the non-religious were truly adrift in a sea of immorality, the situation would be quite the opposite.

In fact, as a general rule*, high rates of religious belief in a nation or region correlates with higher rates of crime, drug use, divorce, unplanned pregnancy, abortion, poor social and personal health, etc. (see here and here). This is not necessarily to say that religion causes all of the strife – there are many factors that play a role (some of which have non-causal correlations with religion) – but it doesn’t prevent these problems and may bear some responsibility (by making some topics taboo – such as accurate information about sex education and STDs - or placing some legitimate solutions arbitrarily off-limits – such as the Catholic Church’s official refusal to accept that condoms may be of use in combating the spread of HIV – or placing belief ahead of action – such as the tendency amongst many Christian sects to argue that belief in Jesus is more important than behaving morally, or sanctifying anti-social actions as moral – such as suicide bombers in the Middle East or the murder of people who leave Islam in many Middle-Eastern nations). That religion is not the bulwark of morality against a rising tide of social ills is further illsutrated by the fact that the non-religious make up a smaller portion of the prison population than of the general population (see here and here). Independent of the question of whether or not religion causes social ills (a very complex question outside the scope of what I am writing here), it should be obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together that if religious belief was in fact the source of morality, then belief in gods would correlate with higher rates of moral behavior, but this proposition is demonstrably false.

There is a further problem with the notion that religion is the source of morality: most religious believers don’t actually follow the moral codes that they claim to believe – and, for the record, this reflects well on the believers. For example, in the recent Proposition 8 debate here in California, believers frequently stated that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and therefore gay marriage should not be allowed. They are, of course, correct that the Bible condemns homosexuality**, but they ignored that the Bible also calls for the death penalty for homosexuals – for that matter, most of them even feel that the mandatory prison sentences for homosexuality that were common up through the first half of the 20th century were overly harsh. And we see a similar rejection of harsh punishment for other religious “crimes” amongst most modern believers. In other words, the average believer today demonstrates a stronger sense of compassion and, well, morality than the authors of their holy texts did, and in demonstrating these commendable traits, they are, by the standards of the texts that they claim to follow, committing a sin***. And good for them I say, they are clearly better people, citizens, and neighbors than the original authors of the texts, and I think that this shows some degree of moral progress. But it also shows that even those who claim religion is the source of morality don’t actually behave as if it is.

So, if the majority view is wrong, and morality does not come from religion, where does it come from? How can we be moral? Why aren’t we doomed to nihilism and wickedness?

Well, the answer seems to come from a rather obvious place, really: our evolutionary origins. Put simply, we are social animals, and as such, we have had to evolve both biological and cultural traits that allow us to function in groups.

Let me phrase my argument as a hypothesis to be tested. If our sense of morality comes from our evolutionary origins, then it follows that other animals that are close to us either genetically or in their social organization will demonstrate similar traits to deal with social organization – constrained by their own biological capacities, that there would be evidence of moral behavior across all human societies and not just those with the “correct” religions, and that those traits that are universally “moral” should have adaptive use to mobile hunter-gatherers (our ancestors).

So, let’s start with other animals. When we look at other social animals, we see development of social rules that allow these animals to interact successfully and with minimal conflict – even the fights observed amongst packs of dogs are geared at determining the leader to be followed rather than violence for the sake of violence. As we come closer to humans, we see more and more traits that are recognizable. Chimpanzees, for example, show such human behaviors as warfare and outgroup exclusion (both part of most human moral codes, interestingly), but also show our better traits such as compassion and cooperation. As Jane Goodall, puts it:

They kiss, embrace, hold hands, pat one another on the back, swagger, shake their fists, and throw rocks in the same context that we do these things. There are strong bonds of affection and support between family members. They help each other. And they have violent and brutal aggression, even a kind of primitive war. In all these ways, they’re very like us.

For more information, look into the work of Dr. Goodall, or the work of others researching the origins of morality.

Likewise, we do find certain universals amongst human populations, and I have seen these time and again in my studies and research as an anthropologist: the preservation of the in-group is seen as good; altruism is good; harm to the in-group is bad; harm to the out-group may be neutral, good, or bad, depending on the impact that this has on the in-group; individual compassion is used as a guide to correct treatment of others, but is influenced by the relation of the other to the individual acting; the definition of in-group and out-group is flexible and dependent upon the situation, but is generally correlated to the social and genetic relationship of the individual being acted upon to the individual doing the acting.

So, we do see universals that make sense for mobile, stone-age hunter-gatherers, but not necessarily for modern humans. For example, look up the “Trolley Problem” (listen here) to see how the interjection of technology into the equation causes us to view what is logically an equivalent situation as being morally right or wrong (long story short – technological harm to an individual is seen as being more “okay” than directly-caused harm, even if the resulting harm is identical), or check out how an action that would generally be considered evil can be made acceptable through the phenomenon of groups absolution or the placement of those being acted upon into the out-group. These traits are not adaptive to a modern post-industrial society, in which we have the ability to impact masses of people both positively and negatively, but make perfect sense in the context of stone-age hunter-gatherers.

Now, of course, religion is itself probably a result of our evolutionary histories, and so it is no surprise that it often becomes conflated with morality. But the difference is that when we drop the notion that religion is the source of morality, rather than something that evolved along with it, we can see that morality is a natural thing – that is, it is something that has come about because we need it, rather than being enforced on us by an external force. This has an important implication: we can use the needs of living people as guides to moral behavior, and we can see where there is wisdom to be gained from our evolutionary past, rather than continuing to claim arbitrary and silly traditions from bronze-age societies.

A lot of people find this idea of a changing and fluid morality uncomfortable, and as such they declare that such a notion is bad (some particularly bigoted individuals will then go on to claim that the non-religious are unable or unlikely to be moral – but this says more about the insecurities, and, let’s face it, immorality of the people who claim this than the immorality of non-religious people). However, even these people subscribe to the notion of a fluid and changing morality, whether they admit it or not. As noted above, most believers are not in favor of the execution of blasphemers and homosexuals, though that is what their religious texts call for and their ancestors would have demanded. The reason for this is that our society has changed – for the better – and these old ways are seen as harsh and maladaptive now. Religion has not tamed society and made it more moral, rather, culture has tamed religion and forced it to actually behave in a more moral way. Anyone who clings to the notion of an eternal and unchanging code of morality is lying, either to themselves or to you.

Some may claim that giving up even the illusion of an unchanging morality from the divine will lead to moral decay - gulags for the sick, eugenics, violence against those of a different intellectual bent, etc. Assuming that such a thing is true - which is a debatable point - this claim in favor of a religion-based morality still doesn't hold water, and is in fact rather dishonest (and, ironically, therefore probably immoral) for a simple reason: through most of human history, people have clung to models of morality either dictated by or justified through perceived divine revelation, and that has resulted in persecution of dissenters, genocidal wars, torture, suicide bombings, honor-killings, etc. etc. Even if an openly fluid non-religious moral ethos completely replaces religious ones, and even if it is the worst that all believers claim it might be, it would not really be any worse than the religion-based versions. At worst, it would be pretty much the same, and then we're in the same place that we've always been - except that now we're honest about it.

In truth, those who push the notion (even if they don’t actually subscribe to it) of an un-changing morality handed down by god are the ones who are unmoored from moral anchors. They are allowing arbitrary codes that they themselves only half-heartedly hold to take precedence over the very real needs of people. They are more concerned with having their own prejudices and psychological comforts unquestioned than with actually doing good. They will often try to misdirect you – claiming that you are entering into a dangerous moral relativism, when they are the ones who are holding that their own arbitrary a-priori beliefs are somehow more important than the suffering or joy of others - and the assumption that arbitrary positions are somehow equal to verifiable facts is the very definition of relativism.

In other words, don’t buy it. Think about morality, consider that we do have moral impulses that we can sharpen and make use of for the good of ourselves and those around us, and don't allow yourself to be sold on something that may be doing more harm than good.

*I say “as a general rule” because there are, of course, some exceptions.

**Or, at least, most modern translations do – but what the original Hebrew and Greek said, and whether it was a blanket condemnation or rather a rejection of ritual homosexuality (common in the ancient Middle East), is a matter better discussed by people who know more about the subject than I currently do.

***There are, of course, many rationalizations that believers may give for ignoring these rather evil commandments – “that was a ritual requirement that Jesus did away with,” “that was specific to that time and place,” “God’s subsequent commandments show that this changed.” The problems with these rationalizations are twofold: 1) the same believers will still cling to commandments that can be easily dismissed in exactly the same way (such as the general condemnation of homosexuality), and 2) the same believers often claim that the moral codes of the Bible are “eternal and unchanging” while simultaneously admitting that they have changed.


mr zig said...

Interesting Post!

perhaps the high rate of religion in countries where Crime, and Divorce are elevated is because people realize the state of their nation, and feel they need religion to help them escape that which they see from day to day

Anthroslug said...

Mr Zig: Good point, thanks for commenting. One of the problems one gets into when discussing this matter is that of figuring out whether higher rates of religious belief cause strife, or strife causes higher rates of religious belief.

Myself, I think that there is something of a vicious cycle involved - people go for what they think will be a solution to their problems, it doesn't solve those problems (some it may alleviate somewhat, others it makes worse, but on the whole it doesn't help overall), and so the problems get worse, they cling to the perceived solution, problems continue to be present, and so on.

Kay said...

QUESTIONS: (And feel free to tell me to save it for my own blog of for the next time we are stuck in the car on a long drive.)

Where does the idea of altruism fit into the idea that morality is an evolutionary concept?

What do you think about the idea of an absolute morality? That there is a supreme Right and Wrong? Because I am not sure I buy it… I like the idea of the ever changing ever adapting sense of morality… but then I think that if morality can change due to the time, due o what people feel is right vs what people used to feel is right, then how do we ever have a code that can be followed or understood?

Anthroslug said...

“Where does the idea of altruism fit into the idea that morality is an evolutionary concept?”

Because we are social animals, we require the help of our fellows to get along, and one of the surest ways to do this is through reciprocity – I give to you so that someday you may give to me. The simplest way for this to become wired into our brains is through a sense of compassion and a companion sense of gratitude – so I am inclined to give to you even if I don’t expect you to give to me, but the upshot is that if I am in a bad spot later on, you are likely to return the favor.

“What do you think about the idea of an absolute morality? That there is a supreme Right and Wrong? Because I am not sure I buy it… I like the idea of the ever changing ever adapting sense of morality… but then I think that if morality can change due to the time, due o what people feel is right vs what people used to feel is right, then how do we ever have a code that can be followed or understood?”

I have thought about this a lot. What I suspect is that we have no absolute standard of right and wrong, but we may have a base “grammar” for determining it.

Think of it this way – there are very few “immoral” activities that can not, under the right circumstances, be considered moral. Is killing wrong? What about in self defense? What about executions of murderers? What about in defense of another person? What if it is in the context of a war? Is stealing wrong? What if it is to feed a starving family? What if it is theft against a thief? It’s all contextual – the vast majority of people can think of circumstances under which killing someone may be considered moral, same with stealing, attacking, insulting, etc. etc. The circumstances will be different for everyone, but most of us can find a circumstance under which the benefit of the action outweighs our distaste for it.

This, along with the results of neuroscience research, suggests that we are doing moral calculations, and once the calculation tips far enough in one direction or another, we consider an action moral or immoral.

The only exceptions to this I can find come in a couple of different flavors. The first is the set of things where there is no real benefit to weigh against the immorality – things such as rape, the torture of innocent people, etc. - and situations that are arbitrary and culturally determined – food taboos, prohibitions of particular types of non-harmful sexual behavior, etc. In other words, the only exceptions seem to be those places where there is a clear calculation against the activity deemed immoral, or situations where the culture has arbitrarily declared an activity immoral and thus shut off people’s willingness/ability to perform the calculations. In the case of the former, it’s probably a special case of the calculations where there are some activities that never match up (though you may still find the occasional imbalanced person who thinks that it can be justified). In the case of the latter, it’s culturally developed prohibitions or queasiness that MAY have served a cultural purpose, but are now simply tradition that short-circuits our moral calculations and gets conflated with morality while really having nothing to do with it.

Kay said...

I guess what I meant to ask was more complicated.

I understand that altruism evolved… and I understand why. But if morality also evolves, what I want to know is at what point was it not enough to share shelter and to take turns warning of predators… when did it become necessary for there to be rules and a code of conduct (which as I understand it is what leads to morality being the whole “this is right’ and ‘this is wrong” and such.)

And your idea of the morality “grammar” or context being what influences what is and is not moral makes sense… and your examples of power also make sense, but I wonder (again) how you feel altruism fits into that.

And not to open up a whole other can of worms and really simply in the interest of devil’s advocate, but if there are things that are wrong and immoral no matter what… what are they and who determines? You listed a few examples but I have to wonder…. I can look at a situation, say pedophilia, and say “That is wrong.” But if you ask me why it is wrong and I cannot rely on the catch all “society says it wrong” or “my religion says it is wrong” then I have to use other forms of distinction right? Such as “it is an unfair use of power.” Or “it isn’t fair” or “it is icky” Take another example of say pot smoking. Again we have the “society says it is wrong” or “my religion says it is wrong” or “I personally find it gross”…. And I just wonder how we differentiate between the right and the wrong reasons for feeling or dictating that something is right or wrong.

It seems like it has to do with what is best for society as a whole. Pedophilia is not good for society, neither is pot smoking (even if that is up for debate) or they weren’t at one point anyway thus we have not only laws but moral objections. Because, again, the collective social group has decied that these actions aren’t good for thw group. Which is, in one sense of the word altruism .

See… full circle!

Anthroslug said...

To your first question - I suspect that the idea of altruism in the modern sense probably developed as humans began to develop the ability o think abstractly. We can think of things such as pain, pleasure, guilt, joy, and so on in a generic sense, knowing what they are and what they mean without direct reference to a specific event or time. In that sense, a tendency towards empathy would probably also become abstracted - I can not only know that Steve feels bad because he's being starving, but I can imagine that he would feel bad IF he were to starve. As I can think ahead, I can begin to work out a code of conduct that would prevent him (or other members of the in-group) from starving by working out methods for food-sharing. In the same way, I can work out a code of conduct for any problem that I perceive to be coming down the pipe. The moral grammar would fit in because we have a set of "moral calculations" that we tend to work out, and the code would (hopefully) reflect those as well as it can (though never perfectly).

As for your second question - well, if there are things that are wrong and immoral no matter what, then that would imply either that A) there is an absolute right-and-wrong, a concept that I don't buy, or B) there are some actions that are so difficult to calculate out in such a way as to make them set easy with any sane person that any sane person would reject them.

The outcome is similar, but there is a slight difference, if A is true, then there are some things that are just plain bad, outside of what humans think/feel/do, if B is true, then there are some things that will be universally despised because internally we can not justify them. The end activity may be the same - avoidance of the action - but the relationship of the actor to the morality of the action is different, if you get what I mean.

Of course, here is where other aspects of humanity can do an end-run around moral judgement. Can you convince yourself that someone is not really worth being considered human? If so, then your brain can probably justify all manner of actions against them - look at lynchings, for example. Can you shut off your sense of empathy for someone via cultural means (say, your upbringing teaches you that people in category A are inherently bad)? Then you can once again shut off your empathy and commit acts against them - look at the murder of Matthew Shepherd.

Evan Davis said...

When I heard the trolley problem I said yes to pushing the guy thinking I was choosing the right course. I found it odd then to hear that 9 out of 10 people thought otherwise. I guess I'm more messed up than I thought.

I wonder how much the ideas of morality were a result of rapid brain development. There is a single gene mutation that causes lesser primates to have significantly less muscle for their jaw resulting in the ability for the cranial capacity to grow. I wonder if this developed as a dominant trait the resulting species would need to quickly adapt to the inability to chew through things with raw force. Cranial capacity did develop quickly in our ancestors. Suddenly being able to percieve so much more about their social structure and the environement around them would have required a compensating mechanism to deal with it (and I say suddenly from an evolutionary perspective). I wonder if the development was slower, would we have needed a coping mechanism and what would have been the end result.

As far as violence and other atrocities in highly religious countries I would like to mention that these countries usually have poor education and insufficient resources to support their people (food, money, etc.). I feel the main reason Europe advanced so quickly was that they were able to rape the rest of the world well enough to allow for a significant portion of their population to sit and think. It all snowballed from there.

Another point on the violently atrocious is that I rather think that the religion is the fuel rather than the fire. Whenever there is a group significantly large enough to support a leader, who's only job is to lead, the need to dominate always arises. This not dependent upon the religion. All the religion does is help determine the out-group. So I would say that religion is not the cause. There have been many non-religious throughout history that have found "scientific" ways to fuel their fire as well.

Now I do think there is an overriding truth that morality can be based on, but it is much more complex than to say "killing is bad." Killing in this circumstance is bad and it is ok in this circumstace would be more like it. And I do not think that it changes for that circumstance (whatever it might be). The more we discover and learn as a species the closer we will get to that truth. I just hope it's sooner than later.

Anthroslug said...

Evan - good points, all.

You may be on to something as regards the relatively rapid development of brain growth. Nobody knows how this played in, but I suspect it will likely be something that really gets alot of attention as research goes on.

I agree with you that religion is not necesarrilly the cause of violence - as I stated in the original post, there are a number of factors that come in to play. My simple point was that if religion actually created morality as many people claim, the patterns of violence visible the world over would be the opposite of what they actually are.

You are correct that religion can and often does serve as fuel, but it can be, and sometimes is, the fire as well. By defining the out-group, the religion not only provides targets, but also provides a rationale for going after targets, and for the particularly devout, can provide a motivation where none existed.

In most cases in recent western history it's probably correct to say that it's the fuel rather than the fire, but it would be incorrect to say that it can not serve as the source of ignition. Many forms of violence common in many countries, take honor killings for example, are religious in nature and simply don't happen in even the high-violence secular societies.

Anonymous said...

Good points on evolutionary altruism and the development of morality in humans.

Let's also consider loyalty to the tribe, though. As former fundie evangelical, I think I can speak to this. There are certain members of my former tribe would probably shoot me for acknowledging gay rights, abortion rights, and even the soundness of evolutionary theory. Jane Goodall made some astute observations on chimps, but she would also acknowledge how brutal they could be to a smelled out enemy.

Make no mistake, morality often goes right out the window when enough fear and loathing get generated. This is especially true when there is a scarcity and a group is perceived as having cheated. We are lucky to have functioning universities and libraries in this country, along with a enough food, water, and electricity for most people. Remove these comforts and people go right back to the old brutality and animist blame game. Most of us don't even understand how electricity works. Turn off the power for a few months and watch how quickly people blame atheists, agnostics, and, most of all, heretics like me for God's apparent displeasure. Maybe I'm wrong, though. We didn't have power to communities when the Constitution was written and we somehow managed not to burn people at the stake for witchcraft (at that time,anyway).