Where does morality come from?  For me, this is sometimes confused with where does ethics come from?  

If one uses developed religion as the sole guide, then this question is solved that way.  Morality/ethics is handed down from god.  The task is now trying to figure out what god is saying.  This is usually done through old text and the teachings of leaders.

If deity is not the guide, the question of morality becomes a little more messy.  It does make it a very interesting question to explore.  In my experience, the answers seem to come more or less to the same conclusions no matter which method is used.  There is an intuitive feeling of right from wrong that guides myself and all the decent people I know, regardless of religious beliefs.  But where does it come from?  How does it work?

To start, I think it necessary to build a framework of how humans came to be the way they are.  Without this, an understanding would only be conjecture.

First, humans are animals, shaped and molded by the loose knit rules of evolutionary strategies that have been most conducive to our success.  Other animals have exploited other clever strategies that have born out their success.  Humans, and to a slightly lesser extent, Neanderthals, have been the first animals on this planet to make wide and successful use of complex language.  We won, sorry Neanderthals.  This of course allows us to work cohesively as a pack.  It also lets us learn from the collective experiences of our large group and even our ancestors and distant ancestors.  We could collectively devise clever strategies to plan ahead.  We would find fingers of land surrounded by cliffs and herd buffalo into the trap and push them off.  Ours was a risky strategy as it comes at a great cost.  The molding of our necessarily plastic brains and the large volume of data that must be transferred means that young humans are extremely incompetent, vulnerable and dependent for a very long time.  They are a huge investment and drain on their parents.  Of course it is worth it.  Our survival also requires that our pack invents tools and strategies that work.  Our physical bodies can’t survive without this.  Not to mention that our brains, like modern computers, take a huge amount of power.  Our brain consumes one fifth of our food intake.

Our strategy is of course almost completely useless without an extended pack framework.  We are possibly the worst beings on this planet if alone or completely selfish and unmotivated to work with this pack.  Of course many other species make very good use of this altruistic pack strategy.  I think that sometimes studying simpler systems to be very useful to understanding a phenomenon.  People studying spinal cord injuries find it useful to study a worm that has only one central nerve.  Therefore, I think a lot could be learned in studying the motivations and instincts of wolves working often selflessly in the wolf pack.

As individuals, how we fit into the group largely determines our personal success and safety.  If an individual behaves too selfishly, or perhaps immorally, they risk being ostracized from the pack. This is so important that humans have an entire section in our brain that is devoted to evaluating ourselves and how we fit in.  I would not be surprised if all fellow pack animals had a smaller version of this structure.

Now that I have made an argument for the evolutionary benefits of social cooperation for humans, let’s think about how it works.  What are the mechanics?

Whether we like it or not, our brains are hardwired for a great number of things.  The desire to mate, have sex, to care for a baby are just a few that come to mind.  When you take a step back to consider, none of these things simply keep us fed and comfortable.  These are hardwired motivations for things beyond our personal needs.  They are general in nature and vary from person to person.

How do the motivations work?  Empathy and love are key.  I think that no one would argue that sexual desire is a mostly hardwired trait.  While empathy should be reinforced by teaching and practice, it too has a hardwired basis.  It is one of the more subtle motivations that could use reinforcement because it can easily be overwhelmed by personal selfishness at times.

Empathy and love have much in common.  I feel like one is a modification of the other.  I’m not sure which would come first.  Empathy is a motivation to help others in your broader pack or community.  Its basic structure is to have the ability to see others as versions of yourself, and to care.  Of course then becomes easy to see how “do unto others as you would wish done for yourself” would stem from this.   Love is more specific to your mate, family and closest friends.  It is no wonder that love is a more powerful feeling and motivator than empathy.  Then of course there is sexual desire, which in combination with family love, makes a wonderful combination.  There are other motivations and desires, some very basic and some very subtle.  All of these play together to make a colorful array.  Like many things in the world, more basic building blocks can be arranged in clever ways to make something beautiful.

I believe that with this framework that I have laid out, basic ethics and morality becomes logical.  Many of the ten commandments can logically spring from this:

“Thou shalt not kill”  is perhaps the most obvious.  Besides being a total violation of our hardwired empathy, it flies in the face of good pack functioning.  Doing such a thing would also elicit others to employ their pack skills, ban together and mitigate the threat to the pack, either with punishment or ostracization.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery”.   Successfully raising a child takes a tremendous amount of work.  So much so, that in our evolutionary past, a single parent was unlikely to be able to achieve it.  Therefore, to pass on your genes, you are largely motivated to work together as a loyal family unit.  Love is then the main prewired mechanism to make us do that.  Committing adultery will damage your cooperative bond with your mate.  You can of course see some evolutionary advantages to cheating, and low and behold, that is just exactly what happens on occasion when one feels they won’t be caught.

  • “Thou shalt not steal”
  • “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”
  • “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” and
  • “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”  

are all things that will obviously do a good job at pissing off your tribe and get you punished or kicked out.  These actions harm the health of the pack and its effectiveness.

I am not one that often speaks of declining society because generally I don’t feel that way.

I do, however, believe that morality is under pressure.  Not  because of declining religion, however.  Morality is in decline because we are too successful for our own good.  In the past humans were not so exceptionally wealthy and well off as we are now.  We as individuals needed the tribe for our basic needs and safety.  That personal need motivated each individual to practice the traits and skills that evolution gave us to fit into the tribe, because we needed the tribe.  Necessity was the enforcer.   Today, individuals can easily meet their own needs, without feeling any need to fit into the tribe.  This, more than any other factor, including religion, is a monumental change in how humans have had to behave.

The ongoing scourge of humanity:   Empathy has a switch.  

Empathy towards your immediate pack gets greatly enhanced during times of danger, while at the same time gets completely turned off towards individuals of the threatening pack.  It is evolutionary brilliance, and makes logical sense.  Drawing on empathy of the near tribe to protect against the evil others.  They are not us.  They cause all the problems and have evil motivations.  They are beneath us.  It is a rallying cry to bring the near tribe closer together and justifies war and the killing of others.  How much empathy did we have for the German soldiers?  How many people feel it’s a bad or sad thing when we kill an enemy soldier during war.  It’s an accomplishment!  We are making progress!  Unfortunately, war seems inevitable, but perhaps consider how reliably humans agree with and line up with their immediate tribal leaders and are all too eager to start murdering and taking from the evil others without much remorse.  The people on both sides are simultaneously doing the exact same thing.  How can both sides always both be right and both be evil?  When in conflict, we are hardwired to bond more closely with our immediate pack, while simultaneously turning off our empathy for a competing pack.  This, unfortunately, makes us vulnerable to manipulation by leaders with selfish interests.

There are a couple of things to notice when looking at this explanation of the basic moral motivations of our species.  First, while doing a fairly good job of making us behave pretty well towards each other, it does not make us exceptionally good at it.  Second, the goodness, the failings and the on off switches match very well with what we see in the world around us.