Saturday, March 1, 2014


What is Morality and where does it come from?

It’s usually best to begin by defining confusable terms.  In this case I’m using “morality” and “morals” to simply refer that part of us that seeks to act fairly, kindly or altruistically.  It is the innate desire to do right.  We may have rules, laws, social conventions and other codified ethics.  But the feeling, the underlying motive, the meta-ethic is “morality.”  This definition may seem to be inconsistent with traditional usage.  By this definition many activities traditionally identified as immoral seem to be dismissed or perhaps still are immoral but for different reasons.

In order for an entity to be a moral agent it must have subjective experience and empathy. 

The subjective experience is a matter of environmental factors generating preferences in us.  Things that tend to damage us tend to feel uncomfortable or painful.  Things that tend to increase our safety, survival and reproduction tend to feel comfortable or good.  Without this subjective experience it would be difficult to justify any claim of one thing or state being better than another.  We would still have considerations of practicality.  For instance we might realize it is better to keep both arms than to lose one.  Or we might consider it is better to be alive than dead.  But without subjectivity in our experience we would not develop spontaneous preferences.  Without our own subjective experience it would be difficult to appreciate the subjective experience of others.

As biological organisms we have needs and constraints and as a result: drives.  Food, water and breathable air cover our most basic individual needs.  Since we are mortal, we as a species need to reproduce as well.  We require an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold with a fairly narrow ideal temperature range.  We can refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy for an extend list of less basic needs.  But the required resources available to satisfy these needs (and/or our ability to gather them) are limited.  We typically find ourselves in competition with each other and other organisms for the resources to satisfy our needs.

We have the ability and tendency to recognize, anticipate and appreciate the subjective experience of others.  It’s difficult to say whether (or to what degree) this empathy is genetic versus cultural (nature vs. nurture.)  The physiology of mirror neurons supports genetics but I wouldn’t expect that to be the whole story.  Additionally we are social creatures.  There are many species of social creatures all of whom have little or no culture.  Whether empathy gave rise to our social drives or our social drives gave rise to our empathy is subject to speculation.  (“Empathy gave rise” is far more plausible.)  But in humans social drive and empathy don’t seem to scale in one-to-one correlation.

Subjectivity and empathy make us moral agents: entities capable of recognizing, anticipating and appreciating the subjective experience of other subjective entities, even where that capacity is not reciprocal. For instance we would be able to appreciate the suffering of a komodo dragon but we should not expect it to appreciate our suffering.  The dragon is not a moral agent.  What about a baboon or gorilla?  These are creatures that appear to appreciate the subjective states in others of their own kind, at least of their own group.  If they attacked a human they would probably have a fair understanding of the suffering their human victim would experience.  But would they care, or rather could they care?  The answer seems to rely on previous interaction, on established relationships and on the situation at hand.  Moral agency in non-human primates appears to be present but stifled.

Group identity will strongly influence behavior in social creatures.  Our devotion to our many social circles varies.  Family tends to generate the strongest devotion but shared experience and ideology can create strong psychological bonds as well.  We find ourselves grouped with friends, neighbors, co-workers, civic groups, political groups, people with shared interests (environment, sports team, music genre/artists…), religious groups and others.  Our devotion to the people and groups we identify with can be based on familiarity.  But often we find ourselves devoted to an ideal, a cultural concept, which in turn reinforces our devotion to the related group and individuals.

From an evolutionary standpoint the power of cultural influences may seem difficult to reconcile.  But ceremonies and rituals almost certainly predated language and served to reinforce group cohesion. Behaviors that originally would have augmented kin selection and nepotism have long since become just as effective at dissolving family cohesion.  I make this claim in regards to potential rather than likelihood or necessity.  Families may share ideological beliefs or hold conflicting ideologies with varying degrees of dedication.  In the early millennia of cultural development it’s unlikely that there was any diversity.  So evolutionarily, the strength of cultural identity on group cohesion is not surprising. 

In considering the origins of morality we should remember that there are many social species aside from humans.  Schools, hives, prides, packs, herds and troops should make it immediately obvious that intelligence and culture are not prerequisites to cooperation.  Social instinct has appeased natural selection in many species. 

We tend to value individuals in our groups that contribute more resources to the group.  Conversely, individuals that contribute less are generally devalued.  And individuals who cheat jeopardize their perceived status as a member of the group through a waning of trust.  Our moral agency (subjective experience combined with empathy) gives us perception of whether interactions are generous or stingy, fair or unfair, kind or unkind, caring or callous, and generally good or bad.  We appreciate the experience of the individual in a way we think of as rights.  We appreciate our relationships and place in a group in a way we think of as roles and responsibilities. 

We need to execute some measure of selfishness to survive.  But given our limited ability to gather necessary (and otherwise desirable) resources as lone individuals, we also need some measure of selflessness, manifesting as cooperation.  The underlying drives for each are instilled by biology.  Like most biological systems the way things work, the ‘rules,’ tend to resemble self-balancing conditional algorithms rather than linear instructions.  We seek equity for ourselves and others.  We deplore inequity at our expense and also when others suffer unfairness.  The more closely we identify with others (an innate recognition of in-group status) the more sharply we recognize and care about their suffering and well-being.

As cognitive social animals we share information: culture.  But cultural information is highly subject to being incomplete, misleading or wrong (by degrees varying form not quite right yet functional to completely contrary to demonstrable factual reality.)  And yet what we learn from experience and from shared information influences how we perceive new experience and information.  We are entirely capable of doing the wrong thing while thinking we are doing the right thing based on existing beliefs.  Ideologies are particularly culpable but simple misunderstandings lead us astray as well.  We develop beliefs which bias us when considering new information which is added to our beliefs in cycles that allows us to convince ourselves of just about anything.

As a result the idea of Objectivism (philosophical morality theory) doesn’t quite make sense because it is based on subjective experience.  Relativism doesn’t quite work because there are some very basic, fundamental commonalities to the subjective experience, many of which can be misinformed by cultural beliefs hijacking our perception.  Emotivism doesn’t work for several reasons: we are always working with incomplete information, morality is a social issue as much as (if not more than) a personal issue and again mistaken beliefs can, perhaps must, skew our perception.

Tribalism presents another skew on morality.  Our empathy for others and disdain of injustice are stronger and consequently more motivating in-group, toward people we identify with, than for “those other ones” (out-group).  Us and them, worse us versus them, undermines our ability and willingness to support “them.”  Ideologies, proximity, appearance, etc. create counter-productive us and them barriers.

If there is any hope of anything resembling an objective morality it will be accessible only by a willingness and ability to consider our beliefs skeptically and strip away dubious opinions in order to find a balancing mechanism that supports individual rights and social responsibility based on common human subjective experience, empathy and a lust for fairness.