Eliyahu N. Kassorla
Human Nature and the Social Order II
Rational Basis for Morality
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֵת
כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֵאמֹר“…
“And God spoke all these words, saying…” That is how we all remember reading about how the Ten Commandments were given. The divine revelation, with all of the Israelites circled around Mount Sinai, and the basis for Judeo-Christian morality, spoken by God himself as a rule of law, an idealistic vision of how we should behave. Then the Israelites made a golden calf to worship, and smiting ensued. The central question is whether our morality comes from divine law or whether humans do these anyways.
“Thou shalt not commit homicide,” reads the sixth commandment. It is a very specific statement against intentional, premeditated, cold-blooded, savage killing. Is it the reason that we do not kill and murder? Frankly, early civilizations with complex religious structures had similar judicial codes forbidding the same practices that many of the Ten Commandments also prohibit. So the Judeo-Christian view that morality comes from the revelation is untenable. Further, considering that the Old Testament contains a total of six hundred and thirteen laws, and people are not overly concerned with Jubilee years or the prohibition against harvesting the corners of their fields, the fact that a law comes from on high is coincidental at best.
Human evolution has been shaped and forged for at least the past 250,000 years. Human behavior and psychology is built on the blueprint model; survival behavior coming from reptiles, emotive behavior coming from canids, social behavior from primates, and lastly our frontal lobes which are uniquely human. Whether it is believed that God began our evolution or that there is no God and evolution is an emergent phenomenon, the end result is the same: that our morality is in our genes. Saying that religion dictates our morality is a fallacious statement, considering religion is at best 10,000 years old in general, with Judaism emerging about 3,000 years ago. So why no great immorality? Naturalistic observations of primate colonies have revealed that when monkeys cheat, the others remember and are less apt to share the rewards of the group. Cognitive psychology has revealed that by using a logic puzzle named the Wason four card task, logical thinking is not something humans are good at; however, by phrasing the logical statement in a rule-violating cheating context, performance is hugely enhanced. Perhaps we have been designed for highly social tasks? Designed by God or designed by evolution? In any case, the history of morality did not begin with revelation. Religion is what teaches us that morality comes from God. If it were the case that morality comes from God, then what accounts for non-Judeo-Christian society’s morality? If the revelation of the Judeo-Christian God is what brought morality, then non-Judeo-Christian societies, by default, must be wanton gluttons that murder, rape, and pillage. But the Buddha teaches that all life is suffering, that self-denial is the key to enlightenment, and kindness and fellowship are important virtues. And Hinduism is not made up of murderers and thieves, either; rather it encourages introspection and reflection.
Adam Smith, in his exploration in the growth of the economy, notes that
With the growth of the economy comes the increase in moral behavior. Why is that the case? Adam Smith believed that the economy drives innovation and industrialization, which makes what was once hard very simple, and that frees us to introspect and not be immoral out of desperation.
“Every savage undergoes a sort of Spartan discipline, and by the necessity of his situation is inured to every sort of hardship He is in continual danger: he is often exposed to the greatest extremities of hunger, and frequently dies of pure want. His circumstances not only habituate him to every sort of distress, but teach him to give way to none of the passions which that distress is apt to excite. He can expect from his countrymen no sympathy or indulgence for such weakness.”
According to Adam Smith, less technical and less industrial societies by their virtue of being less developed have a more rudimentary value system. However, notice that the principle of natural rights is not violated. Imagine a normal curve, and 68 percent of the people of a given society obey natural law, and 95 percent of the people mostly follow it with a few violations here and there. Those that tend to violate natural law are the outliers, three or more standard deviations from the mean! Evolution is meant to be successful, not accurate. But the way social behaviors emerge from our brains to make and acquire society helps us to identify cheaters and punish them by social isolation. Thankfully, we have moved beyond swift death penalties to the more humane, and moral, institutionalized system of incarceration.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in "The Gay Science", states,
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Nietzsche appears to mean that God is no longer a tenable explanation for morality. Without the Judeo-Christian moral architecture, we still do not violate the norms of what we call moral behavior. Nihilism would become the norm according to Nietzsche because of the lack of divine order. However, this is in contrast to what is actually seen in the real world when societies do not base their tenants solely on religious law. If we take a divine law interpretation, where are our cities of refuge for accidental murderers? Or should we incarcerate based on negligent homicide?
Religion is good for outlining best case ideals, but a full knowledge of the biblical texts show that there are incongruities with what people interpret the meanings to be and what the scripture actually says.
Religion is a highly personal experience, is an ideal situation, and can be a good thing to aspire to. However, there are natural explanations that do not resort to reduction ad absurdum arguments to explain the occurrence of morality, nor one that is unseeable. Rather than externalizing morality to an outside force, morality is an internal force, congenital, and an emergent property of the brain. Humans are not designed to receive reward later; the nucleus accumbens, the neurological reward structure, does exhibit activation in anticipation of reward, but behavior change only occurs when it is later strongly activated. Humans have an inventory of successful behaviors, just like lions and antelopes, which have kept us alive as a species. If life is good, then human biology is designed to produce low levels of aggression, and high levels of benevolence. When aggression is encountered, aggression increases. When life begins to diminish in its “goodness,” positivity is reduced in favor of a more pragmatic behavior pattern. These traits have made humans especially adept at surviving in less than optimal conditions, and maybe, just maybe – a species worth saving.
Cosmides, L.; Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptions for social exchange. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mechon Mamre. The book of exodus. Retrieved on April 23, 2008. Web site: http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0220.htm#2
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1974). The gay science: with a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs. Walter Kaufmann, ed, trns. New York: Pocket Books.
Smith, Adam. (2000). The theory of moral sentiments. Amherst, MA: Prometheus Books
Wason, P. C. (1971). Natural and contrived experience in a reasoning problem. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 23: 63–71.
68% of all data is within one standard deviation from the mean.
In all sexually reproducing species, traits are distributed approximately normal. Extreme outlying values for traits are typically selected against, while successful ones cluster around the mean.
When the environment exerts selection pressure in either direction, the curve shifts, and the more successful value for the trait tends to become the new mean.