Where Does Morality Come From?


Some things I’ve been reading recently have led me to look again at my previous posts about morality (here and here) and attempt to clarify some of the ideas presented there. “Morality” is a confusing topic, debated for centuries by philosophers and theologians, (and not seriously thought about by me for the last thirty years) so it is not surprising that some of my thoughts seem a bit crude and lacking in sophistication.

Let me take a few paragraphs to try to clarify some of my more important thoughts on the matter.

The way I see it, moral rules (and rules of human behaviour in general) are practical requirements developed by community members to further their mutual ends. They develop perfectly naturally in response to the day to day project of living and thriving in a community where getting along with others is of paramount importance. As time goes by these rules become “embedded” in the culture of the group – become part of its warp and woof – and are passed on from generation to generation.

To use the concept developed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene moral rules are “memes” that become part of our identity as people within specific communities. They are not mysterious entities existing in some ideal realm which we somehow tap into when we need to make decisions about what we should or shouldn’t do.

Nor are they divine commands handed to us on tablets of stone or written in some magical holy book. These rules gradually develop for practical purposes as an outcome of communal life. This process is evolutionary and the resulting rules are purely pragmatic constructs we use to guide and direct our lives.

This way of thinking has much in common with (and may in fact be considered a version of) classic contract theory where morality is derived from a sort of bargaining process. In contract theory people within a community agree to certain constraints (such as “Do not kill your fellow community members”) because it is to their mutual benefit to do so.

What I would add to this, or at least make a bit more explicit than is normally done, is that the “contract” process is ongoing. People are constantly testing their moral assumptions against real life and modifying them – working at achieving a new consensus – tweaking the rules – in a kind of dialectical give and take with their fellows, as the circumstances call for it.

An Example – Rules of the Road

Rules of the road, for example, develop in response to actual driving conditions within the community. Not all rules will be the same, because a) not all driving conditions are the same, and b) there may be more than one set of rules (or versions of a specific rule) that will work in any given situation.

Which side of the road we are to drive on is a good example. If the original legislators of the driving rules for a jurisdiction decided drivers should drive on the right side, then certain practices and other rules will follow (or not) from that initial decision. These rules will inevitably differ if that original decision was to drive on the left. The rule allowing drivers to turn right on a red light is a good example. This will not work as well if drivers find themselves approaching an intersection on the left side of the road.

The use of roundabouts is another example of a localized rule-regulated practice that has been introduced in some communities and not in others. Whether it is adopted in a specific area or not is strictly a pragmatic consideration: Does it speed up traffic? Does it eliminate unnecessary stopping? Does it reduce or increase the number of collisions at intersections? Does it facilitate or impede pedestrian traffic? These questions can only be adequately answered through experience, testing in different situations, and trial and error.

Are All Rules Like This?

Does it make sense to bring important moral rules “down” to this level? Is there really no essential difference between “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt drive on the right side of the road”? Yes, that is what I am saying. From the developmental point of view there is no essential difference between these two rules. They are both practical rules that have evolved in an attempt to further the interests of community members.

This does not mean that all such rules are equally important to the community. Obviously the rule “Thou shalt not kill” is more important in the sense that the consequences of disobeying it are more significant. This difference in “importance” is reflected in the way certain rules are codified, made into law, and have different degrees of punishment attached to them. Clearly these degrees of punishment are an attempt on the part of the community to quantify the importance of obeying specific rules.

None of these rules and punishments are “written in stone”. Of course they become more written in stone as their importance increases. But there is nothing to say this “importance” cannot vary from community to community. So we might expect a society which values “female modesty” (for example) to attach more severe punishments to people who do not follow the rules defining female modesty. These same practices may be completely innocuous in another society. The same goes for dietary rules. It may be perfectly acceptable to eat bugs or lizards or fish or horse meat in one society but shunned in another.

Are Moral Rules “Arbitrary”?

I often hear people confuse the difference between a variable or relative condition or rule with an arbitrary one. There are different senses of “arbitrary”. A rule like “Thou shalt drive on the right side of the road” is “arbitrary” in the sense that it could just have well said “Thou shalt drive on the left side of the road”. Somebody, somewhere just made up this rule. They could have chosen the left side – and in some places did!

But this “arbitrary” claim requires at least two caveats. First, it could be that the person or community that first chose right (or left) did so for what they thought were good reasons at the time. It could have had something to do with the dominance of right handers in a particular society, or the way passengers exit from the vehicle.

Or it could have just been a matter of what felt more “natural”. For example, consider the direction of the basepaths in baseball, runners go counter-clockwise. And when hockey players first go on the ice and “skate around” they almost always do so in a counter-clockwise direction. If this was completely “arbitrary” – i.e., random – they would not be so consistent. A decent proportion of groups would skate in a clockwise direction.

The second caveat is that calling the choice of rules “arbitrary” suggests that the rules have no significant impact on the direction that behaviour takes – as if the rule could say something else and be just as effective. Consider the rule concerning entering or exiting a roundabout, or the rule about turning right on a red light, or ancient dietary rules like the forbidding of the eating of pork. These rules say what they say for specific reasons. At some point in time they served a practical purpose. That purpose may be lost in a distant past, but you can be sure it made some sense at some time.

So rules are “grounded” in reality – in what “works”, what brings about the result desired by that specific society. It would be silly to say they should never change. If the conditions that originally led to the adoption of a rule should change, then presumably that rule should change too. Take dietary rules for example. If a dietary rule was originally adopted for reasons of health or hygiene – because of, for example, the lack of refrigeration – it is not difficult to see how that rule would become obsolete and eventually cease to command significant obedience.

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