The nature and origin of morality – Part 0: Introductory comments

I have to start this with a warning: this is merely an exploration of my incomplete thinking, not a thoroughly researched exegesis. So I will ask now that if you are reading this and can suggest further reading that I might undertake, please suggest them in the comments, and I shall add it to my reading list. That said, my reading list is very very long at the moment and I may not get a chance to read them very soon. In relation to Part 5, I have already got my sights set on Talking to the Enemy.

Morality is a subject on which I often interject with a few thoughts during a conversation or argument. One of the places these arguments frequently take place is my old haunt of Cif Belief between christians and atheists. It is worth noting that the number of atheists on this discussion forum far outweigh the number of christians. That said, the number of reasonable participants who want to take part in a constructive and thoughtful way are about equal on both sides. There is also our resident Buddhist, who is very well educated and acts as a good voice of reason in the face of some very vitriolic trolling. It is because of my disillusionment in people’s ability to listen that I have tended to post on this site less than I used to.

The particular impetus for this train of thought, however came from a different thread on Cif. A philosophy student (who has most probably done research on the matter than I) made a comment that morality developed as an evolutionary mechanism to ensure the survival of the species.

Below is a copy of the typed conversation. Any annotations I have made will be in square brackets [ ].

Interesting debate actually.

“The evolution of moral behaviour distinguishes humanity from the animal kingdom (though I agree, it’s not the only distinction).” [this quote was from another user, called Peter, who is referred to later]

This is very unlikely to be true. As discussed the other day, much of “moral” behaviour itself probably has evolutionary causes stemming from biological harm, like incest. The example you give is a good one, the “filthiness” of pigs. I wonder if this “morality” itself doesnt stem from biology, namely that eating raw pork does you harm whereas raw beef doesnt. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this is where the disdain for pigs originally came from.

Is it not a truism that “morality” will face largely the same evolutionary pressures as biology? A morality which encouraged constant internal group fighting, murder, incest and rape would be at a major disadvantage to those groups whose morality encouraged harmonious living.

Talk of morality separated from biology and evolution strikes me as a typically absurd consequence of the Cartesian mindset. [This last sentence is the bit I disagreed with and prompted me to post the following reply.]

I have to disagree with you here, Jay. Using the same logic, it would be like saying you can’t talk about what’s on television without talking about electromagnetism.

Though you could not be watching tv without someone having built a tv with a good knowledge of the models we use to understand electromagnetism, you can nonetheless discuss Question Time, Newsnight, X Factor or Eastenders.

Evolutionary theory is a fantastic way in which we understand biology, but it stretches the credulity of the sciences when you start to apply those principles to areas beyond which the evidence points, in this case morality.

Not really, no. Peter [the same Peter as above] has claimed a dividing line between animals and humans based on our morality. Thats what i disagreed with. Firstly, we are animals. Secondly, we face evolutionary processes just as animals do. Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolution and biology.

The analogy falls down because electromagnetism, the medium, has no effect or link to the content whatsoever. This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there’s a causal relationship here.

I understand your point (I think), JayReilly. My disagreement is on this statement:

“Thirdly, much of our morality is a direct consequence of evolutiion and biology.”

Where is the evidence to support this idea?

Morality is not something tangible. You can’t pick it up and count it, there is no empirical method of measurement, it doesn’t fossilise and it leaves no physical trace of itself. Consequently, it falls outside of the scope of the natural sciences. So your statement:

“This isnt true of morality with regard to evolution; these are strongly interlinked, there’s a causal relationship here.”

is unevidenced speculation.

As I was typing quite fast, I didn’t have time to lay down all my thoughts on the matter, so this little series is an attempt at doing that. When I began to write it, I thought of going straight for the heart of the matter, but kept coming across some stumbling blocks where I felt I needed to clarify things, and where I also wanted to explore one particular issue that I have often struggled with, and after a recent conversation at a church housegroup, reminded me of the issue. So the plan (at the moment) is to proceed as follows:

Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature.
– I felt this needed to be added at the start as a discussion to clear away a few common objections that would otherwise hinder any progress.

Part 2: Can christians claim a monopoly on morality?
– One argument I often hear from christians is that morality can only derived from God, thus implicitly stating that christians have a monopoly on morality. Here we discuss that proposition.

Part 3: Can we rule God out?
– A common counter-argument to that used in part 2 is that appealing to God is an invalid argument that cannot be used and that alternative means have to be used. So this part will discuss whether or not that dismissal is premature.

Part 4: Moral law preceding statutory law.
– This will attempt to look at the links between moral law and the development of statutory laws, and how the former precedes the latter.

Part 5: The christian difference.
– Here we’ll look at some thorny issues where christians tend to differ from the rest of society, and I hope to examine the more fundamental reasons for these differences, including a discussion on moral relativism.

Part 6: Genesis 22 and the problem of Abraham.
– If murder is immoral, then why was Abraham willing to kill his own son? What ramifications does it have for how we understand religiously motivated fundamentalists and their link to acts of terrorism.

It seems unwise of me to begin by trying to define morality. Though it is a concept which is easily understood, trying to pin it down in a few words is distinctly difficult task and one which would most likely come back and bite me later on. To coin a phrase, it is like trying nail jelly to a wall. It is elusive but nonetheless real.

Due to my own limited knowledge of attitudes to morality outside of proponents of the abrahaimic faiths and of atheism, I shall not be undertaking an holistic viewpoint and admit mea culpa from the outset on my own ignorance.

It is probably worth stating at this point that I do not consider morality and ethics to be the same thing, or even siblings. My own view is that morality is the teacher of ethics. That is, ethics is the practice and real world ‘living out’ of the values that are derived from the more fundamental subject of morality. I know this is a view that is accepted by all, but as with anything I write, you are welcome to disagree and to point me towards an alternative view.

If you’ve been bothered to read this far, I hope you find this enjoyable and thought-provoking. I would like to add ‘informative’ to that list, though that is probably a little too optimistic to be reasonably hoped for.


One response to “The nature and origin of morality – Part 0: Introductory comments

  1. Pingback: The nature and origin of morality – Part 1: Christians, hypocrisy and human nature. | The Alethiophile