Where Does Morality Come From?

How do we know know what’s right and wrong? Is it something we are born with, acquired knowledge, or both? Does it come from a deity or can it be explained through science and anthropology? Are some ideas universal — held by all people in all societies in all ages — or is that nonsense? Is morality static or does it change over time? These are the questions that broaden our understanding of what it means to be human.


Religion-based arguments

In The End of Reason, Christian evangelist Ravi Zacharias writes:

When you assert that there is such a thing as evil, you must assume there is such a thing as good. When you say there is such a thing as good, you must assume there is a moral law by which to distinguish between good and evil. There must be some standard by which to determine what is good and what is evil. When you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver…

Objective moral values exist only if God exists. Objective moral values do exist. Therefore, God exists.

This posits that there is an Objective Morality, a code of decent behavior society did not teach us — it was placed within us by God. The existence of this law means we know what is right and what is wrong, but we have the free will to choose either. Even if it goes against all learned behavior, the ways our culture taught us to think and act, we still instinctively know what is good and what is evil.

The weakness of this idea is obvious. If I believe in some sort of Objective Morality, it is only because I already believe in God. Objective Morality cannot be proven; it’s speculation, without basis or evidence. What good is an argument that uses an abstraction to try to prove an abstraction? Plus, this is an example of circular reasoning (when your conclusion is inherent in a premise; when you start with what you’re trying to end up with). Objective Morality and God are essentially the same thing. What good is it to say, “I believe in God because I believe in God’s Moral Code for Man”? Both require belief in something supernatural; both require simple faith, because there is no observable proof. Abstractions can’t rationalize abstractions, so those who posit morals come from Santa have as much evidence (specifically none) as those who insist they come from Yahweh.

But C.S. Lewis would have heartily agreed with Zacharias’ claim that “Objective moral values do exist.” Apparently, it was Lewis’ thoughts on a moral force that governed man’s behavior that led him to believe in God! He devotes the first five chapters of Mere Christianity to the topic. He writes there are two reasons Objective Morality must be true:

The first is…that though there are differences between the moral ideas of one time or country and those of another, the differences are not really very great — not nearly so great as most people imagine — and you can recognize the same law running through them all…

The other reason is this. When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another? If not, then of course there would never be any moral progress… The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard…but the standard that measures two things is something different from either.

Regarding the second reason, apparently there’s no chance the standard you’re using to compare two sets of morals might be your own. If I’m comparing the cultural moralities of the Ancient Chinese with those of the 17th century French, couldn’t I be using the moral values of my own present society to decide which is better? If my society doesn’t practice human sacrifice, wouldn’t I frown upon societies that did — and might that change if my society did practice such things?

As for Lewis’ first point, if we engage in a serious study of history, do we actually find that differences in morality are “not really that great”? Let us see.


Wildly Different Human Natures

In the appendix of his Abolition of Man, Lewis lists identical laws from across the globe, spanning many historical epochs; he notes how many civilizations had rules such as “Do not kill” and “Obey your father and mother.” So true, but note he does not list any darker edicts societies had in common: laws relating to slavery, the persecution of women, execution for dissenting political or religious beliefs, etc.

This is the first place his argument starts to break down. The positive laws that man had in common Lewis would say are evidence for an innate understanding of how we are supposed to behave according to an Objective Morality set by God; but more sinister laws he would claim to simply be evidence of how man chooses to do what’s wrong much of the time, how “none of us are really keeping the Law of Nature.”

This is highly convenient. So the Spartans who thought it morally acceptable to destroy disfigured babies, the Aztecs who thought it right to slaughter thousands in a single day of human sacrifice, the Jews who thought it God’s will to stone to death homosexuals, those laws can be constructed by societies of men who chose wrong over right. They couldn’t possibly represent how man innately thought he was supposed to act (but why not? Why could one not say the common oppression of women aligned with God’s standard of right?) In sum, the laws mankind designed are only evidence for an Objective Morality if they align with my present Judeo-Christian values! This reasoning is hollow as well. One could say murdering disfigured infants was a value imparted by a deity and he or she would have just as much evidence (specifically none) as one who says this act was a violation of a deity’s “Law of Nature.”

Look at homosexuality, considered immoral or moral depending on the person, society, and age. Lewis writes the Objective Morality is what men “cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey.” Thus, if homosexuality is wrong according to the Objective Morality, gay men and women would know their feelings and actions were wrong (as many but not all Christians argue). Homosexuals of course don’t feel they are choosing their sexual orientation or consciously rejecting an instinct toward what is right or natural or good. A Christian might say they just don’t recognize the moral push, which would obviously make the idea of Objective Morality worthless, or one might say they are lying, which would merely point out the existence of Objective Morality could never be proven based on opinion surveys.

Where Lewis’ argument collapses, however, is that the differences concerning morality between time and cultures are as “great” as any imagination could conjure.

English author Chris Harman (How Marxism Works) writes:

“Human nature” does in fact vary from society to society. For instance, competitiveness, which is taken for granted in our society, hardly existed in many previous societies. When scientists first tried to give Sioux Indians IQ tests, they found that the Indians could not understand why they should not help each other do the answers. The society they lived in stressed co-operation, not competition.

The same with aggressiveness. When Eskimos first met Europeans, they could not make any sense whatsoever of the notion of “war.” The idea of one group of people trying to wipe out another group of people seemed to them crazy.

In our society it is regarded as “natural” that parents should love and protect their children. Yet in the ancient Greek city of Sparta it was regarded as “natural” to leave infants out in the mountains to see if they could survive the cold.

He notes that the structure of society changes human nature (“‘Human nature’ as we know it today is a product of our history, not its cause”). Obviously, being born into a society that stresses cooperation and pacifism will create a child of a different nature than one born into a culture that emphasizes competition, individualism, self-servitude, and patriotic war. People today consider it “human nature” that man is too competitive and greedy to move beyond capitalism, but ignore how humans behaved for nearly 100,000 years, in an age called “primitive communism” by historians. Richard Lee, an anthropologist, writes, “Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality, people lived for millennia in small-scale kin-based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations.”

There are many other examples of vastly different human morals in other ages and places.

People in some cultures did not consider forced genital mutilation, human sacrifice, sexism, racism, polygamy, homosexuality, slavery, or murder wrong — but others did. Many Europeans thought divorce a sin, but to the Iroquois it was no big deal. In Somaliland and among the Formosa people, a man had to commit murder to be considered deserving of a wife. Other cultures of the time would be horrified at the very thought, as most are today. In ancient Greece, homosexuality was mainstream and a natural part of society — men who were happily married to a woman often openly had a male partner as well. But the Jews murdered homosexuals (similarly, the prevalence of patriarchy, racism, and so forth vary widely). They further murdered people for not being virgins, for rebelling against parents, going too close to the Tabernacle, working on a holy day, believing in a God other than Yahweh, and many other nonviolent crimes — ideas of right and wrong that changed drastically over time. The Catholic Church considered condom use a sin until 2010; the ancient Romans created condoms from the skin of vanquished enemy soldiers. Just over 100 years ago, the U.S. age of consent for sex was about 10 years old (in Delaware it was 7), and it wasn’t a big deal to most Americans — most being Christians. Today folks think and feel differently. In some cultures, like the Tibetans, one wife had many husbands. In others, like the Mormons or Mongols, one husband had many wives. It was common practice in some societies to lend one’s wife to a guest. Some groups embraced tattoos, but the ancient Greeks considered them a desecration of the body. To some, infanticide was unforgivable, but to others common practice (Plato recommended it to prevent overpopulation). Hebrew, African, Asian, and Australian tribes forced genital mutilation on their young — still others thought it right to castrate themselves to prevent sin, or to punish others for crimes. At the exact same time Middle Eastern and American men were desperate to make sure women revealed no skin in public, women elsewhere were shirtless just like men. (See The Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell and “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” Bertrand Russell.) In some societies, women breastfed piglets. People in other times and places might consider that wrong (see Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond). In India, Hindu women would sometimes burn themselves to death at their husbands’ funerals in a ritual called sati. The later British occupiers thought this wrong, so they banned it. European Christian societies spent over a thousand years torturing, murdering, and warring with nonbelievers, something unthinkable today.

And of course, within a single culture at any given time there is debate over what is right or wrong.

This is because morality is affected by many factors: geography, resources and wealth, political institutions (would any argue democracy doesn’t change the way people think?), class structure, religion (a powerful force indeed), education and literacy, traditional or commonly-held ideas, scientific progress, individual observation and experience, family dynamics, economic systems, and so on, all varying within a complex society. And these interact with and affect each other; Will and Ariel Durant wrote in The Lessons of History, “Political forms, religious institutions, cultural creations, are all rooted in economic realities.”

Consider the fierce disagreement over slavery in the United States. Racism and slavery were cultural creations, and we can see how economic circumstances affected them. Geography and climate did not make slavery as economically sensible in the North (tobacco and cotton did not grow well), and thus it slowly died out; thoughts on the moral status of slavery changed with it. While Quakers preached abolition in the North, Protestant preachers in the South upheld slavery as ethical, as “God’s Will,” pointing to many Bible verses (see The Slave Community, John Blassingame). Slaveowners saw nothing wrong with slavery, but black slaves certainly did.

Today there is much debate among Christian sects and individuals over what is right or wrong, concerning sex before marriage (and other sex acts besides intercourse), homosexuality, alcohol and drug use, war, assisted suicide, condom and contraceptive use, etc. Whether one is religious or not, there is always debate about when to lie (is it morally right if a killer just asked where your family is hiding?), when to kill (is it morally right if you’re a soldier and your government told you to?), and so on.

Clearly, human values are fluid and varied, constructed by those who came before you, determined by the society into which you were born. Your society, and your place in it, will decide how you think and feel about everything, from violence to competition to sex.


A More Scientific Answer

Readers who object, “You can’t compare ethics in ancient times to modern times!” or “Other cultures thought horrible things were morally right because they didn’t believe in (the Judeo-Christian) God or have his laws!” are not thinking critically. An Objective Morality is clearly nonsense, even if those objections are spot on.

First, an Objective Morality (an innate sense of right or wrong) would not require people to know Yahweh. You can claim people just need to accept Christ, then they will know how to live, according to guidelines in the Bible — yet obviously that is not innate, it is acquired knowledge. Second, if Objective Morality exists, one would think it would be constant between ancient and modern times. Why should people think it morally right to commit mass human sacrifice, or enslaved people, long ago, but not today? Christians tend to think Jesus Christ came along, gave a message of love and peace, and changed the rules. But again, this is acquired knowledge; it was a message apostles had to go out and preach. Further, it does not explain the ethical advancements made by societies that aren’t Christian. How could Confucius and Buddha have conjured a Golden Rule, and their followers put it into practice, long before Christ or Christianity even existed?

One might suppose an all-powerful God could change humanity’s innate moral compass over time, but like God himself this is not provable, and unlikely to convince anyone who does not already believe in him — that is, anyone who trusts that morality can change over time according to societal factors and advancements.

In sum, there is no evidence of Objective Morality. Lewis’ idea that the differences between “moral ideas of one time or country and those of another…are not really very great” is clearly absurd. His belief that your standard of judgement must be supernatural (not a predictable result of your current society) is without evidence and ignores better explanations. Zacharias’ insistence that because you have decided one thing is evil and another thing good is devoid of any rational thought or understanding of how, when, and where you are born builds your moral code. And again, using an unfounded idea to prove another unfounded idea is laughable to any thinking person. Proving Objective Morality exists is as impossible as proving God exists.

So “right” and “wrong” are simply ideas, and feelings associated with those ideas (perhaps we feel horrible when we cheat on our spouse and happy when we help others). Morality is relative, changing, unique to each person. It doesn’t exist outside the individual, except by common acceptance — when more than one person begins to believe executing non-virgins is right, that slavery is wrong, and so on. But how did morality arise in the first place?

Morality is “innate” only in the sense that the behavioral gene variants that allowed homo sapiens to better survive were passed on to later generations. Societal factors discussed above, like the growth of capitalism, the emergence of democracy, the weakening of poverty, the rise and fall of religions, and scientific discoveries, will greatly affect moral thought. But there is also scientific evidence to suggest a blueprint for our morality emerged that aided our survival — in the same way all other species developed habits of feeling and behavior that allowed them to better pass on their genes.

Consider why we experience sexual lust and love. A lucky offspring with a random genetic mutation that pumps higher levels of hormones (dopamine, serotonin, and other neurological drugs) into the brain during casual interaction or sex is more likely to seek out more partners, have more children, and pass on the genetic variation before the bitter end. In this way, the species survives better (natural selection).

I preface with this because understanding that “feelings,” “drives,” and “behaviors” are developed through natural selection is crucial to understanding evolutionary morality. Genes determine behavioral characteristics, so as with lust, love, anger, fear, etc., there were certain genes relating to how we feel when we treat others in specific ways that persisted and certain others that did not, some that helped survival and others not so much. One can see how strength in numbers can aid food acquisition and defense, but it goes deeper. Biologist Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion:

We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth…there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising [attracting mates by caring for others].

As humans and our predecessors evolved, those with genetic inclinations to take care of others were more likely to survive. Those who inherited solely aggressive, selfish traits were less likely to survive. And so the gene pool of “good” morals slowly grew. Modern experiments with infants show that even humans three to ten months old demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of empathy for those hurting, fairness for those who have less than others, and a keen interest in seeing kindness rewarded and meanness punished (see Shermer, The Moral Arc). This is not to say that self-preservation, fight or flight, and other such instincts did not evolve right along with them, for they did, but these are not mutually exclusive things. The genetic instinct to care for one’s young accompanies the genetic willingness to fight or kill for one’s resources, one’s home, etc. Both are in the interest of survival. Evolution explains both moral and immoral behavior and urges. These instincts arose before humans had large enough brains to develop the concept of right and wrong; the concept itself arose from these evolutionary instincts, from how it felt to do this or that.

This is not to say all species evolved in this manner. Ours just happens to be one that did. Our primate ancestors evolved to treat each other in certain ways and experience certain feelings following such treatment, and they survived best because of this (we inherited these evolutionary instincts, just like our ape cousins did, and as we evolved we gained the mental capacity to have more complex, abstract thoughts of how we should behave, and those thoughts of right and wrong changed in different eras and places). But other species evolved to behave in other ways. There are many creatures that abandon or devour their young, survive solely by stealing the food of others, and all sorts of nasty things!

According to Dawkins, homo sapiens are similar to many species that care for their young or even younger siblings (for example: bees, ants, wasps, termites, naked mole rats, meerkats, acorn woodpeckers), give something away and expect the favor returned later (vampire bats pay debts in regurgitated blood), build a positive individual reputation to ensure others will provide help in a time of need (primates), and show-off one’s generosity in order to attract a mate (Arabian babblers). Studies reveal that mice show increased concern when familiar mice suffer compared to unfamiliar mice, monkeys starve themselves to save other monkeys from electric shocks, and chimps and dogs are more or less fair to each other when fed (Harris, The Moral Landscape). Species like elephants mourn their dead.

It goes without saying it wasn’t religion that birthed this morality. Our closest cousins on the tree of life, the apes, share many of our moral feelings and behavior. It has been found that Bonobos attempt to control their temper, are happier and manage emotions better if they are loved by a parent, and are quick to hug, kiss, and pat an upset or stressed companion. But apes aren’t particularly religious, one would think. True, one can say God implanted morals into animals as well as humans, but there is no way to prove this and it is not necessary to explain the phenomenon — it all makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Overall, not only do many creatures experience the same emotions humans do, many mourn over separation and death, punish cheating, dislike betrayal and unfairness, prefer equality, reconcile after fighting, give gifts of gratitude, comfort others, care for the young of others, form friendships, cooperate and share, help or save others with no benefit for doing so, etc.—and not just when interacting with their own species (see Recio, Inside Animal Hearts and Minds). Our ancestors were much like them — morality was instinct, instinct that aided survival. As our brains evolved and grew larger, we were able to have more complex thoughts on how we should act.

Morality, driven by evolution, came before religious beliefs or complex human societies. It was the trial and error of new gene combinations, and the predator and sexual pressures of natural selection.

Dawkins continues:

Through most of our prehistory, humans lived under conditions that would have strongly favoured the evolution of all four kinds of altruism. We lived in villages, or earlier in discrete roving bands like baboons, partially isolated from neighboring bands or villages. Most of your fellow band members would have been kin, more closely related to you than members of other bands–plenty of opportunities for kin altruism to evolve. And, whether kin or not, you would tend to meet the same individuals again and again throughout your life–ideal conditions for the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Those are also ideal conditions for building a reputation of altruism, and the very same ideal conditions for advertising conspicuous generosity.

By any or all of the four routes, genetic tendencies towards altruism would have been favoured in early humans. It is easy to see why our prehistoric ancestors would have been good to their own in-group but bad–to the point of xenophobia–towards other groups.

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