Moral codes

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from?

  1. Our moral code is an example of a complex system.

  2. Where does our sense of right and wrong come from?

  3. How are these values reinforced over time?

  4. Why are there differences in the moral codes held by different societies?

  5. Is there a fixed core of morality which is shared across human beings?

  6. Morality from the perspective of other species.

Our moral code is an example of a complex system.
Many of us believe that since moral codes exist in human society, this must mean that a higher moral authority exists. (Refer to the discussions Life and Creation and Truth and Morality for related topics.)

The underlying assumption is that such sets of guidelines could not have emerged organically and spontaneously, through a combination of trial and error, and planning on a smaller scale.

Is this assumption valid?

First, let's get an overview of how complex systems come about. (For a detailed explanation, refer to Emergence of Complexity.)

Many people think of certain phenomena as being unitary and indivisible.

For example, each of our human faculties and attributes, such as our sense of morality, our personality, and our sense of consciousness, seems relatively resistant to change over time, and appears to consist of components that are inseparably fused together and mutually interdependent.

We tend to have the strong, intuitive impression that each component is crucial and inseparable from the rest, so that if one were lacking, the whole system would be unable to function.

This perception, however, arises from our egocentric view of reality, and affords us only a partial glimpse into the workings of our mind. Individual components are separable, and if we remove them from the system, we impair the functions for which they are responsible, and although this is likely to have detrimental effects on the workings of remaining components, the rest of the system often continues to operate at some capacity. This is referred to as ‘graceful degradation.’

Our moral code, for example, is not a fixed set of rules that are immutable and equally applicable in every situation. Attempts to follow each of these rules with equal doggedness lead to conflict when rules are mutually inconsistent.

Instead, our code consists of a modifiable assembly of guidelines. Each guideline has a certain degree of relevance to a particular situation. We adjust our prioritisation of guidelines to suit the situation and thereby select the most appropriate behavioural response.
Where does our sense of right and wrong come from?
Where does our sense of morality come from? Why do almost all humans seem to share a common denominator of standards regarding right and wrong? What gives so many of us the gut feeling that acts such as murder, rape, and theft, are often inherently wrong?

Firstly, our common denominator of opinions and beliefs arises because we have biologically similar brains. People have descended from a set of common ancestors, and have been living side by side with each other, changing and adapting to a shared environment, throughout our evolutionary history.

Secondly, the evolutionary pressures that have influenced and shaped our behaviour over time are such that acts such as murder, torture, and theft, have tended to be detrimental to the survival of our species, whereas kindness, altruism, cooperation, and love have tended to benefit our species and helped it to thrive and proliferate.

Whether certain acts tend to bring about positive or negative effects depends on the particular circumstances under which they are carried out.

The world that we live in is full of organisms trying to survive, and sometimes helping each other to survive. Often, when human beings pool their resources, they reap larger rewards than they would if they functioned solely as independent agents.

During the process of evolution, characteristics that help an organism to thrive and produce more offspring tend to get passed from generation to generation, and the genetic factors that give rise to these characteristics remain in the gene pool.

Genetic factors that impair an organism’s reproductive success tend to dwindle or disappear from the gene pool because the organisms that carry them have fewer offspring on average.

Traits such as altruism and cooperation have been so beneficial that the genetic elements that produced them have persisted in our gene pool. At the same time, we evolved to view these traits, and the behaviours that tended to accompany them, as desirable, whereas traits that were associated with destructive behaviour came to be viewed as disadvantageous.

The ability to identify desirable traits, and to recognise the types of behaviour that are closely associated with them, coalesce into moral codes of conduct. We realise, however subconsciously, that altruistic deeds benefit numerous individuals, as well as the individual that performs them.

We discern patterns that link altruistic tendencies with commendable behaviour, and with time and experience, we use our observations of human biology, to codify these types of behaviour into formal rules, which we see today in the form of laws, religious commandments, guidelines, and manners. Moral codes refer to attitudes regarding patterns of behaviour that are typically found to benefit their adherents.

Human societies may differ substantially in their particulars, but as a species, we have many traits in common. Heinous crimes are, on average, detrimental regardless of the societies in which they are perpetrated, thus they remain considered heinous by nearly all human beings. The same goes for extremely positive acts such as self-sacrifice, courage, love, and honour. This is where the shared values of humanity come from.
How are these values reinforced over time?
Over time, our moral codes have become deeply engrained and internalised, partly because our societies advocate and enforce these guidelines.

Individuals that obey these standards tend to thrive in such societies (all other things being equal), whereas those who fail to operate by the rules are penalised and are less successful on average.

This is a pattern of self-reinforcement. Organisms apply rules within their societies, the societies favour those who heed the rules, and the result is a proportional increase in the number of individuals who favour the rules, a cycle that can be observed among societies and organisations today.

We see not only the emergence of a common denominator in moral standards across human beings, but also the establishment of shared subset of values within particular cultures and geographical regions.
Why are there differences in the moral codes held by different societies?
Certain cultures, religions, and corporate environments tend to be much more conservative, whereas others are more permissive.

Consider the moral standards that are applied on a finer scale, and are concerned with attitudes that tend to diverge widely between groups of people. Think about codes that relate, for instance, to: gender inequality, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, contraceptive use, abortion, human slavery, and euthanasia.

A certain set of rules becomes well established and accepted across individuals within particular groups, but are quite distinct from those instituted by another group. This testifies to the mechanism by which these attitudes emerge- a group’s moral standards are established, propagated, and reinforced among people who live under that system.

These people are inclined to comply with the group standards because the group authorities have the power to enforce their recommended measures. Those outside the group, who lie beyond the reach of its enforcement agencies, are not given external incentives to comply with the standards set by any group that is not their own.

Thus, the self-reinforcing mechanism applies primarily within, rather than across, groups.

If all moral standards were to be applied uniformly across the 6 billion individuals on our planet, then we’d probably observe a closer convergence in our attitudes and behaviour.

In contrast, what we observe today is the implementation and enforcement of distinct codes of conduct, among separate groups of people- divided by nationality, religion, level of education, and to a certain extent, geographical location.

Thus, ethical guidelines and beliefs tend to be shared closely by members within a group, and tend to show higher levels of variation between individuals from different groups.

Note that the pattern of reinforcement that I’ve described is a phenomenon that emerges when the interactions and actions of numerous individuals are pooled and averaged together.

Naturally, individuals differ in their levels of compliance with the standards set by their system. Globalisation dissolves group boundaries and allows contact between people with different value systems.

This is why we hear about dramatic shifts in people’s attitudes (e.g. the Catholic church’s stance on the use of contraceptives), and about situations where irreconcilable beliefs held by people from different cultures lead to conflict and disagreement (e.g. the wearing of headscarves in non-Islamic countries).
Is there a fixed core of morality which is shared across human beings?
Moral standards are not absolute and unchanging.

If one considers only the standards that address behaviours which lie at the extreme ends of the spectrum of human ideals (the very good and the very bad), then it may seem as though our moral code is fixed and uncompromising.

This is often cited as evidence for the existence of a divine power whose standards are uniformly, consistently applied throughout humanity.

However, when one examines behaviours that occupy intermediate parts of the spectrum, we realise that the stances taken regarding such behaviours are much more flexible and variable, and that the precise standards adopted depend on the history and cultural preferences of the society in which they're implemented.

Religious mantras arise out of our biologically dependent moral code, rather than the other way around. Once moral codes have emerged naturally in society, however, they do get perpetuated by religion, sometimes long past their expiry dates.
Morality from the perspective of other species.
Finally, let's examine what the situation is like for species other than our own.

Earlier on, I described how evolutionary pressures lead to the gradual emergence of codes that are widely shared by all humanity.

Evolution employs the same techniques, regardless of the species to which a given organism belongs. Other species have their own sets and subsets of moral codes, too, even if many of us humans don’t realise it.

When we choose to apply ourselves, we clearly observe codes of conduct in, for example, non-human primate species, which bear many similarities to our own.

As we learn more about the role that other organisms play in their ecological niches, we come to realise that they operate according to certain rules, which guide their behaviour in ways that are fundamentally similar to ours.

The fact is that we're naturally predisposed to viewing and judging the qualities of other species from our human perspectives, and often find it counterintuitive to adopt a broader perspective and try to see things from their point of view. (Refer to the section on Hierarchy of Species for more on the similarities and differences between human beings and other species.)

Human beings have a relatively well-developed sense of self-awareness, and a wide repertoire of behavioural choices at our disposal. This combination of self-consciousness and the ability to select from a variety of options gives rise to our sense of volition and ‘free will.’ Although our ‘free will’ is finite- limited by our abilities and perceptions- the range of options it encompasses is sufficient to cover the vast majority of our needs in daily life, and provides enough choice to keep us satisfied.

This relative breadth of freedom that we enjoy when setting our moral standards and choosing our codes of conduct makes it seem as if our morality is more highly developed than that of other species.

It depends on what you mean by ‘highly developed.’

I certainly agree that our range of choices, our ability to navigate and shape our environment, and our desire to do so, are less limited than those of many other creatures.

But the range of choices that is available to other species seems to work well for them much of the time- after all, they exist on our planet alongside human beings, and have been evolving and adapting for just as long as we have.
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