Theists often claim to ‘know’ that morality comes from their god and is set in stone.
There are at least two problems with this claim.
Firstly, other theists, who worship different gods, make the same claim; they can’t all be right.
Secondly, what is considered to be moral differs from place to place and from time to time.
Click on the pic to see me explaining this to a lecture theatre of Muslim students.
As a science teacher I think that the most likely explanation for congenial social behavior lies in evolution. So, here’s my personal hypothesis, which may be lacking evidence at the moment, but it sounds plausible to me…
Assuming that the ‘purpose’ of a species is
- To survive
- To become more numerous
- To conquer more habitats
These things can be empirically measured and Homo sapiens is a master of them.
There are several strategies that might successfully fulfill those ‘purposes’. One tactic that has worked is to behave cooperatively – many individuals pulling together can achieve more than one alone. This has served many species well – we call them social animals and humans are a good example. It’s important to realize that behaviors can be inherited. If you doubt me, try herding sheep with a wolf hound…
Extrapolating from those ‘purposes’:
- Killing one’s own kind is obviously counterproductive to a, b and c because it reduces population size and territorial expansion instead of increasing it.
- Causing bodily harm to another member of one’s own species is also counterproductive because it includes a risk of death and so takes us back to 1.
- Damaging the home or source of sustenance of another individual is counterproductive since it also includes a risk of death and so takes us back to 1.
This fits with what we know about human societies. The evidence from anthropological research reveals that killing is a moral universal, and we all outlaw brutality, damage to property and theft. Friends and relatives of the victims of such abuse often seek retribution and this has led to the production of criminal laws and justice systems in developed settled communities.
It’s important to think in terms of the population rather than the individual, because, like all organisms, we exhibit variation – some of us are more compliant to these social behavior norms than others. Knowing that explains why a minority of us violate the rules and become criminals.
As I said, I don’t know of any particular evidence for my thesis, I’m not an expert in this field, but I do have some suggestions as to where we might look for an evolutionary explanation of morality.
I contend that the tendency to behave decently towards one another is an evolved adaptation because:
- Getting soldiers to behave inhumanely towards others requires extensive training to dehumanise them – to get them to override their natural instinct not to do harm.
- Many individuals who witness harm being done suffer from post traumatic shock disorder – that indicates it is in conflict with their natural tendency. Granted some do not suffer from PTSD, but, see above, we exhibit variation.
- We can observe similar empathic behaviors, such as grooming and feeding activities in many other social species, they even occur between different species.
- Our pre-lingual infants, and other social species, exhibit an understanding of the concept of fairness.
No god necessary.