I’ve been involved in a couple of forums where the subject of morality has come up. In one, the members are interested in spirituality. Some of these people seem to think that non-dualist spirituality means there is no such thing as bad or good. Everything’s perfect so morality is basically meaningless.
On the other forum, most of the members are atheists, and they’re trying to understand how an objective morality could exist. The question is, without a God imposing morality on humanity, how can a human system be anything but relative?
I’m not an atheist, but I don’t think God intervenes in the evolution of the universe. In other words, I think the unfolding of evolution proceeds in an inevitable fashion. So I like to find ways to explain phenomena like “morality” and “love” without recourse to metaphysics (although I think there can be an explanation from an underlying ground of consciousness, see note at end).
This question of the objectivity of morality is important. By objective I mean something that can be agreed upon by other people. If morality is subjective, that means you can just do what you like; there would be no difference between saving someone from drowning and cheating that person out of their life’s savings. Any society that adopted that ethos would quickly descend into chaos.
Last year I read philosopher Alexander Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality and enjoyed it quite a bit more than I thought I would. I think part of the reason is that Rosenberg attempts to understand concepts such as morality as evolved behaviors.
Evolutionary biologists propose that a special dynamic of evolution called “group selection” has brought about altruism in humans: groups in which the members cooperated and could trust each other did better than groups in which there was a lot of infighting and deceit (see this blog post). This process led to the development of moral attributes.
Rosenberg asserts that there is a core morality that all human societies share, and the most basic components of that morality are: reciprocity, fairness/equality, trustworthiness/honesty, and caring for your children. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (you can read chapter 9 free online which discusses morality) has identified six candidates: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Other possibilities, he says, are property, honesty, and a dislike of wastefulness.
Rosenberg writes, “All societies and cultures have words for anger, disdain, shame, and guilt, and in each, they name roughly the same set of bodily feelings.” Shame is the feeling we get when we go against core moral principles, and blushing is a signal to the others in the group that we realized we made an error.
When it appears that other cultures don’t share this core morality, Rosenberg says it is because of the interference of beliefs (see this post for more on beliefs):
The next step in understanding moral disagreement involves recognizing that such disagreements always result from the combination of core morality with different factual beliefs. When you combine the uncontroversial norms of the moral core with some of the wild and crazy beliefs people have about nature, human nature, and especially the supernatural, you get the ethical disagreements that are so familiar to cultural anthropology.
He uses as an example genital mutilation (fgm) of females by African Muslims. These people have the core morality component of caring for children, but their beliefs instruct them that caring for a girl child means cutting her genitals because otherwise no man would marry her.
Someone I know has created information materials for medical practitioners to help them understand refugee women from cultures that practice fgm. She wrote in an email to me that some of these women felt the procedure was not unlike male circumcision, and thought it odd that women in western cultures find it normal to “mutilate” their breasts and faces to make them look better while decrying her culture’s practice.
I just finished Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel, in which she describes her journey out of Islam (she’s the Dutch parliament member whose film, “Submission,” incited Theo van Gogh’s murder). She is Somalian, and her culture practices fgm. Yet Ali never uses that phrase, she always uses the Muslim term “excision.” She has become an apostate, which means she has completely repudiated the teachings of Islam, she was “excised” as a child and worked to end the practice in Holland, and yet she doesn’t call it mutilation. I found that interesting in light of this discussion.
Another example of beliefs modifying the core morality is the international reaction to Syria’s use of chemical weapons last summer. What is it that makes a group of countries agree that it is immoral to use a particular weapon? Why is it moral to kill people using drones but immoral if chemical weapons are used?
After chemical weapons were used in WWI, a new belief was formed: “this is too terrible a weapon to be used because the indiscriminate nature of it leads to high civilian casualties,” so this weapon (along with biological weapons) was banned by the international community. But after WWII this same belief-modification did not extend to firebombing. Untold suffering occurred in Germany and Japan among civilians due to firebombs, yet they weren’t banned. We used them in Vietnam. And there’s no ban on the use of nuclear bombs, a much worse weapon than chemical armaments by far.
A third example of beliefs modifying the evolved core morality is the advance of civil rights in the last sixty years in the U.S. The core morality says that within your group you should treat others as you would like to be treated: as human beings who you can’t mistreat, cheat, abuse, kill, etc. The problem has always been: what’s the requirement for membership in the group?
In the past, people of color were outside the dominant WASP culture of this country, so it was moral to treat them badly. The collective belief held that these people weren’t fully human, and they certainly weren’t part of “us.” Slowly different ethnicities were added to the dominant group - Irish were admitted around the turn of the 20th century (they were once viewed as being a swarthy race, not equal to "whites"), and blacks during the Civil Rights era.
If you look at photos or film of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960’s it’s easy to think, from the perspective of 2013, that the white people resisting integration were evil or immoral in their thinking. But that is a flawed perspective. These people were certain that they were taking a moral stance. Many were good people within their group; they were upholding the morality of their tribe that said it was right to exclude blacks from public spaces.
Martin Luther King, Jr. made this point beautifully in his account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom. In the passage below he is writing about his thoughts the night his house was bombed. He had compassion for the white people involved because he realized that they had been taught to think that black people were inferior; they were good people who did bad things because of their conditioning:
I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectful and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all the very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural tradition under which they have grown—a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more than 90 years of segregation—teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely the children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.
What has changed in the last sixty years (not completely, unfortunately) is the belief about who is human, who is part of “our” group and must be treated with respect. We’re currently witnessing the extension of the group-identity to include gays in such fast-forward that the shift in beliefs is visible.
We’ve still got a way to go. One day, there will be only one group, the human race. No lines.
The point here though, is that what’s changing is not the core morality, it’s the beliefs that interpret the meaning of the morality. There is an objective morality that we all share.
What I think is powerful about this view of morality is that it allows us to feel differently towards those we think are being immoral. They may actually be very moral people, but with twisted beliefs. We can have compassion for their confusion and do what we can to change their beliefs.
And to means our collective morality can keep being improved until it embraces care and respect for all living creatures, ultimately for everything.
Note: I believe that there is an underlying consciousness that is the Ground of Being. This consciousness is present in all physical form, but is very well buried in most of the universe. It’s coming awake in life-forms, and an evolved creature like Homo sapiens is just aware enough to be conscious of this underlying Ground consciousness. This consciousness is Love, and with love underlying all form, moral behavior is going to be the default.