The Origin and Nature of Morality

Morality comes into being when all, or virtually all the members of a community come to agree collectively that a particular action or thing is morally right or wrong as far as the interests of that society as a whole are concerned.

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The monotheistic religions teach that the source of morality is supernatural – that morality expresses the way that God wishes humanity to behave, and so is derived from God. If humanity were to vanish, morality would still continue to exist. In terms of this conception, there is only one moral code, on earth and in the entire universe, and morality is accordingly described as being objective (‘external to the human mind’). This moral code is seen as being fixed and unchanging, as God has no need to change his mind.

With the decline in religious belief in the current secular era, many people reject the blatantly supernatural concept of a deity, but nevertheless, under the 2000-year influence of Christianity, continue tacitly to assume that morality is objective. (This archaic belief underpins and greatly facilitates the continued existence of irrational, revelational, and ‘magical thinking’ in our secular era, as it did in the earlier religious age.)

The secular and scientific understanding of morality, on the other hand, is that it is purely a product of the human mind, without any supernatural element. It is accordingly described as being subjective (‘dependent on the mind’). Observing that there are many varying moral codes on earth, each created by a particular community or society, and subscribed to by its members, this secular perception of morality is known as Moral Relativism – morality being seen as relating to each society or culture. (The designation as ‘Collective’ Moral Relativism would help to distinguish it from plain moral disagreement – disagreement between two individuals as to whether a particular action is morally right or wrong, which confusingly, is also at times referred to as moral relativism.) Morality is not held to be fixed and unchanging, unlike objective morality. Certain moral beliefs may change over time, as have those in the West in respect of slavery, capital punishment, and homosexuality, among many others.

Each society’s moral code will tend to reflect that society’s unique historical experiences and circumstances. Accordingly, the various moral codes can be expected to differ to a degree. However, a far greater influence than historical experience or circumstance on the formation of moral codes is human nature itself. As much as their experiences and circumstances may vary, humans are far more alike in regard to their basic natures and their needs than they are different. This commonality is reflected in their moral codes. In respect of those matters that are of fundamental importance to human survival, moral codes will tend to be identical or very similar: every society holds murder and rape to be morally bad, and courage and compassion to be morally good. In respect of less fundamental matters, however, such as whether or not it is morally wrong to eat beef or circumcise male infants, differences in moral beliefs are to be expected.

The fact that many moral beliefs are similar across all societies, is often misleadingly cited as a proof that morality is objective and universal, rather than as reflecting how similar in nature and needs humans are. The empirical and undeniable fact that many different moral codes actually exist on earth, renders the ancient, objectivist claim to there being only one true morality, untenable. The further consideration that humankind believes in not just one, but in hundreds of different gods who clearly do not all promote the identical moral code, renders the belief that there is only one, transcendent moral code as somewhat eccentric.

Morality is a social adaptation, functioning in order to regulate the behaviour of each of the individuals in a society, so that their behaviour facilitates, and does not damage, the collective interests and needs of the community as a whole.  As the primary biological motivation of the individual human is self-interest, and thus at times is in conflict with the collective interests of the society in which he or she lives, a system is needed to reconcile any such conflict, and to facilitate mutually beneficial behaviour. Morality has evolved to do just this.

Morality comes into being when all, or virtually all the members of a community come to agree collectively that a particular action or thing is morally right or wrong as far as the interests of that society as a whole are concerned. Consensus within the community is required because it is only when all, or nearly all the members of a community are willing to agree with any particular moral judgement that it can become socially effective. If a substantial minority disagree with a judgement and so do not observe it, it cannot become part of the community’s moral code. It is the very fact that there is consensus in respect of the formulation of any moral judgement that gives morality its enormous social power, and its psychological hold over the individual. To knowingly violate a moral injunction is to place oneself against the wishes and the moral and physical force of one’s entire community – not something that anyone other than a psychopath can easily do. The consensus arrived at in the creation of morality is possibly the closest that humans ever get to wisdom.

The morality of each community is an ancient, organic behavioural code, stretching back in time and passed, like language, from generation to generation, in which each cohort participates, slightly modifying the moral code in the process, as the community gradually adapts to significant changes in its circumstances.

Given the enormous diversity of human opinion on any particular issue, arriving at consensus on moral questions within a community, in the ongoing process of maintaining a moral code, is clearly a complicated and fraught negotiating process. That the process takes place successfully at all, is remarkable, and a positive comment on humanity’s basic common sense. Many concessions must have to be made by individuals, against what initially seem to be their own, personal interests, in order to achieve the consensus that is ultimately recognised by all as being both in the community’s and the individual’s interests. It is, no doubt, in the course of this that the inherent and inescapable philosophical conflict between individualism and collectivism commences.

While the primary purpose of morality is to regulate the behaviour of the individuals who constitute a community, it serves the additional and vital social function of binding all the members of the community emotionally, through their acceptance and sharing of a common set of values. (Can it be doubted that all social animals are moral?)

In terms of the secular understanding of morality, moral values are shared by every normal member of each community because they form part of the ongoing consensus. If a society holds a moral opinion on any particular issue and two people born and bred in that society cannot agree as to what is morally right in regard to the issue, they have only to ascertain what the community consensus is in order to find out what is morally right. If there has been no consensus, no collective moral judgement will have been made. By definition, the consensual moral opinion in regard to any moral question is the correct and appropriate opinion for the society, and only for the society that created it. When two people morally representative of different societies disagree on a moral question, unless their respective societies happen precisely to share that moral belief, they have no rational way of determining which of their respective beliefs in regard to the question is the more morally correct, because moral rightness or wrongness is defined collectively by each society, and not by any individual, other group, or divine opinion – or by science, for that matter. No moral code can be morally superior to any other – by definition. It may be held to be more conducive to human wellbeing, or more rational, or more civilised, but it cannot logically be more moral.

The old, religious perception of God as the source of all morality has led to considerable dispute regarding what is morally right and what is morally wrong throughout history. This is because God’s supposed word has been interpreted in different ways by many different people over the centuries, and as he is not available to give a ruling, a significant degree of moral uncertainty has been, and is, inevitable.

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  1. Johan Reply

    Your statement that belief in the existence of God or the supernatural is archaic and irrational is completely without justification. The fact that different societies have different moral codes thus not make the idea that objective morality exists untenable, it simply means that people disagree on what constitutes objective morality.

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