Wednesday, November 11

Where do morals come from?

Possibly Frederick Nietzsche’s most important work was in his “Genealogy of Morals”; where he posited morality stems from the   ascendancy of one will to dominate others. Nietzsche contended this so called “will to power” was analogous to nature’s quest for territory.  His philosophy was life affirmation (as in the will) does gives us the freedom to opt to live our life to the fullest, regardless of suffering or even possibly because of it. His concern was we were descending into  nihilism, as a consequence of a slavish type mentality of weakness, spurred on by religious overtones.
Some would argue his prediction was soon realised not long after his death with the outbreak of hostilities in World War 1.

But casting aside Nietzsche’s philosophy for the time being the question arises from whence do morals came from. Are they connected nature ?  Does evolution in nature exhibit some form of morality ?  What role is there for religious thinking? Are morals innate?Is it virtually impossible to trace their origins?   

Before attempting to answer these questions one needs to acknowledge morals are subjective in nature. What might seem unequivocally immoral to one society, say for instance the death penalty, may in turn be perfectly acceptable to another. For instance the death penalty for desecration or even entry of sacred sites by early tribespeople’s might seem barbaric to us but perfectly moral in the context of that culture then. Nor do I think it is wise to say morals are transcendal. Not that I am against spiritual enlightenment but practicality and merit has always been necessary if we are avoid the pitfalls of adopting abstract values.
Hence the question of a definition of morals is a difficult one but I have opted for one that involves a work in process concerned with evolving principles to signify what is considered right or wrong for various cultures.  
It appears reasonable to me one can answer in the affirmative to the earlier questions – but only to a degree, because the ingredients to morals values are many, not to mention such things as new discoveries, experiences and knowledge. This leads me to confine this paper to some of the more obvious ingredients -with a particular emphasis to the role of social cohesion.
It’s hardly surprising then that most moral philosophers up until fairly recently steer clear of any discussions as to where morals come from. Hence the view expressed in a paper from Stanford University “if a moral philosopher asks “whence morality,” she is more likely to be concerned with the justification of moral principles or the source and nature of obligation.
However the author does make a strong case to answer such questions from the viewpoint of an interdisciplinary inquiry. Still, there are important potential connections between the scientific explanatory issues and philosophical ones, opening the way for profitable interdisciplinary inquiry”.  FitzPatrick, William, "Morality and Evolutionary Biology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =>.
Another paper I intend referencing concerns biological altruism -Okasha, Samir, "Biological Altruism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Aim of this paper
Hence my aim is to shed some light on these key ingredients that contributed to our morals.What I also hope to achieve along the way is  to determine the consequences for their continuation or otherwise into the future.  
In the beginning
There is no reason for me to dwell on the miraculous events over billions of years for the first evolved multi cell creatures to emerge, except to say these insights into our past are only made possible by the evolution of our self-consciousness.

It is only thought to be only in the more modern era in evolutionary terms – that is within the past few hundred thousand years, we have some evidence of the ingredients which united humanity in the various groups under the principles of societal cohesion. As these ingredients to societal attitudes took hold we see evidence of their influence in the various cultures and how they became enshrined in their tribal laws.     
Instinctive type feelings things are either right or wrong and the possibility of biological altruism.  

Rather obviously behaviours evolved earlier on as instinctive type reactions as evident in the animal kingdom, primarily driven by a will to preserve the species. Over time our adaption meant a connection of such feelings to be associated with emotional values.  Psychological traits evident in loyalty to the immediate family became associated with positivism thereafter leading to hierarchical positions of tribal authority, deference to elders and so forth. But that is not suggest we have little control over these so called repertories to feel what is right and wrong, that arise more or less instinctively. Such feelings are not hostage to our future actions which can be subject to change from the jolt of psychological or environmental factors of one kind or another.   

Sober takes this argument a step further to argue there is no particular reason to think that evolution would have made humans into egoists rather than psychological altruists (see also Schulz 2011). On the contrary, it is quite possible that natural selection would have favoured humans who genuinely do care about helping others, i.e., who are capable of ‘real’ or psychological altruism. Therefore, evolution may well lead ‘real’ or psychological altruism to evolve. Contrary to what is often thought, an evolutionary approach to human behaviour does not imply that humans are likely to be motivated by self-interest alone.
The Stanford article on morality and Evolutionary Biology contends “very little in the study of human life has been left untouched by developments in evolutionary biologyand inquiry into the nature of morality is no exception.” 

The authors list is extensive, from appetites for food or sex, fear responses, patterns of aggression, parental care and bonding, of patterns of cooperation and retribution, to posit patterns of behaviours are often best explained as biological adaptations, i.e., traits that evolved through natural selection due to their adaptive effect. 
As various instinctive type reactions underpinned enhanced survival, psychological traits became aligned to this social cohesion principle and which was reinforced by evolving beliefs. Hence what emerges to sustain tribal cohesion and existential order is the requirement to adopt principals of fairness to ensure optimum survival outcomes.    

An example of how the ingredients for social cohesion enhanced existence and fairness in an evolving culture.  
The Australian aboriginal, as the longest known uninterrupted culture on the globe offers some clues and valuable insights of how social cohesion, reinforced by evolving beliefs may have influenced materially their society.

From what has been uncovered it is clear their existence was supported and reinforced by ideas closely aligned with nature, underpinned by the ideas on the dreamtime, a period considered outside of time when creation was thought to have occurred. In this respect reverence is demonstrated to be shown in practices that point to a type of communal existence co-dependent with nature together on what was regarded as sacred land.   
The underpinnings for these came from the dreamtime which posited a first Creator  appeared in the physical world to bring forth natural children and plants under the control of a mother earth, from thence came animals but lastly humankind.
Dreamtime stories were instrumental in defining their tribal values and which led to an elaborate system of rules under the common law, such as initiation into adulthood. This law covered ritualistic ceremonies such as the processes for corroborees when the tribes met to resolve matters such as arranged marriages, to plan for trade between the nations, to celebrate and so forth.
However one should not imagine there existed some form of utopian existence, as some evidence exists for severe skirmishes between tribes and a high level of violence as scores were settled brutally by means of “payback”. Penalties were quite severe and death prescribed for unauthorised entry into sacred sites.
But what was remarkable was their existence for such a long period without denuding the landscape, although changes due to the operation of fire stick farming may have led to the extinction of some species. 
Physical evidence of evolved changes in the brain supportive of enhanced moral reasoning.   
We also have physical evidence of the changes to structure of modern day brains and that of the more highly developed animals. There is clear evidence of the older repositories housing the more emotive instinctive responses, which combine in the extensive circuitry to the more newly evolved frontal lobes regions. Hence our brains bear evidence of the evolutionary journey with older instinctive regions designed to signal the emotive survival issues such as danger and the newly formed areas enabling more complexity types of  abstract thinking. 
There is no reason to feel one region, due to its more recent development, is superior to the other, since each is co dependant on the other. What I think we can say about the development of the frontal lobes is they played a key role in terms of awareness. From an evolutionary perspective it appears this development occurred relatively late in the evolutionary journey, in what would be regarded as modern, in the long journey of humanity.
Spirituality is also an ingredient, as I have attempted to illustrate in the previous section and in most cultures and has gravitated around the idea fairness.  In many other respects, it facilitates judgments, unclouded by what might be purely emotional reactions. 
A possible return to the moral value of fairness.
What is clear is our earliest codes of accepted behaviours was to put sharing ahead of individualism, so that loyalty to the group underwrote enhanced chances of survival. The success of the human species adapting to the enhanced dynamics of the group has been extraordinary but many would argue to excess. One could argue we are have become consumers and not sharers in nature’s bounty.   

Possibly the early roots for this twist in the evolutionary road from sharers to consumers may be linked to the idea we have dominion or superiority over nature, which is to be tamed and brought under human control. Such a view, combined with our extraordinary inventive improvements and adaptions in modernity has prospered humanity, but often this is at the expense of all of the other species. This in turn has the capacity to change our ideas on what are our underlying values ; to engender the need for a revision in our thinking to return to the way we viewed the lands when once we were more reliant to respond to the changing seasons for our survival.  This is even more relevant today, yet it can be can be hidden in the unrestrained growth of populations represented in urban sprawl and in modernity so that it not as readily discernible.
I think there are grounds to believe there are many ingredients in a universal type of morality entwined in nature, brutal as it may be seem, although of course this cannot be proven and is by no means is easily discernible. What I think this paper does illustrate is the important ingredient of social cohesion which played a key role in in our own early evolutionary journey. But I also think we can take note of Nietzsche’s dissertation on morals in the hope that a more dominant will is to emerge that recognizes the need to be far more attuned to that of nature, from whence we evolved.  In other words the need to show reverence to all of life, upon which we depend, and that which was once clearly recognised in many respects as a moral necessity by our ancient ancestors.  


Tom said...

I do not know where to begin to respond to your paper. I could, I suppose, attempt to answer paragraph by paragraph, but where would that get us? The problem that immediately comes to mind is that we are looking at a subject by studying, as best we can, the outcomes. A study of origins might be a better approach, but that does not seem to be achieved by asking, "Where do morals come from?" Even the use of the word "morals" means we have jumped to the end without studying the beginning.

The difficulty here is similar to that which I experienced when writing my latest post; sampling the ocean by taking a spoonful, and hoping one has taken a representative sample. I have to ask just what is morality a sample of? Is it enlightened self-interest? Is it an evolutionary development for survival? What aspect of survival are we dealing with?

As you recently pointed out in a comment to me, "...... our emotions mostly tell us the truth about how we feel but not necessarily the truth." I think the word "mostly" is important here, even if emotions are only the interpretations of certain brain chemistries. If one follows that line, one might eventually conclude that morality is nothing more than a very sophisticated-looking instinct for maintaining our comfort zone. Way back in the past that miracle which resulted in the construction of the amoeba, and its descendants, may not have had the concept of morality in mind. As experienced by the amoeba, all that was desired was the maintenance of the right temperature and comfort levels.

I remain unconvinced by the idea expressed by some that there is such a thing as a higher morality. Furthermore, the link between original morality enshrined in later religion would imply that this is not what may appear to be a chicken-and-egg situation. That which might be described as morality came first. It may well be that something is going on that gives the impression of morality, both higher and lower. On balance I go with the idea that the origins of morality are indeterminate, if for no other reason than my uncertainty that that is an appropriate question to ask from the viewpoint implied in your script. We can always ask questions, of course. Whether they are the right questions is another matter. I do think, however, that questions must be asked, in the hope that the right question eventually surfaces. In a sense, when we have part of the answer, we can ask the right question.

I freely admit that I have skipped and skimmed across the surface of your thoughtful paper, but I feel unable to do anything else, bearing in mind that I too often face this problem of linked complexity every time I lift my virtual pen.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Tom
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. My first draft did indeed devote much more analysis and narrative tracing the miraculous conditions that occurred and gave rise to the earlier evolutionary journey. I subsequently only included a few scant observations as it was suggested to me most of it was irrelevant, but had I persevered I might well have come to a conclusion as you have suggested that conceivably morality is nothing more than a very sophisticated-looking instinct for maintaining our comfort zone.
However I would hasten to add, that we are talking about modernity in evolutionary terms, mostly in terms of its more noticeable aspects covering a period within the last 200,000 years? Hence don’t you agree that a “knowing” (if I can use this word ) as in the abstract capacity to view ourselves as separate to self as in self-consciousness was crucial in kicking off varying interpretations on what was right or wrong as in morals? Hence I think this was a very significant advancement in the evolutionary journey where psychological patterns came into conscious play to associate values with feelings? From thence they became engrained into tribal law. ? From thence came the birth of religion?
However I take your point I have only taken a sample of morals and agree you can’t really say definitively where they came from, except I have attempted to say what I think was one important ingredient evident in tribal law for instance – social cohesion. Hence I think the principal aspect of survival we are dealing with was one that was reliant on a continued affinity with nature as was evident on the aboriginal culture, reinforced by their spiritual roots embodied in the “dreamtime” as I outlined. Asking the right questions is crucial and possibly I would have better to have asked the question as to what are origins go morals. Please come back with any more thoughts you mat have on the subject.
Best wishes

Tom said...

Hullo Again. "It was suggested to me....." Being thoroughly nosey, might I ask (with the understanding that you are not obliged to respond) whether your writings are part of some larger enterprise, an open degree perhaps?

It may well be, although I have some reservations, that a growing sense of "I" has focussed our attention on the "rightness" and "wrongness" of our actions, and how our resulting actions affect our communal relationships. Whilst one can view this from the point of view of survival - does one really want a neighbour eyeing us up with spear or boomerang in his hand? - it equally can be seen as a self-comfort issue - same example.

Having said that, it does not seem to me that moral "advancement" takes place on anything like a broad front all over the world. Man's ill-treatment to man, and also his cruelty to the rest of the animal kingdom, would seem to bear that out. Thus any improvements in this system we call morality seems to be sporadic, of varying depth, and far from universal. I suspect, therefore, that the process has less to do with evolution as we normally use that term, and more about increasing levels of consciousness which relates more to an individual's psycho-spiritual development - evolution used in a more lay sense.

Finally, there appears to be a large area of disagreement about what constitutes morality. The Church still teaches that certain personality traits are wrong, or 'sinful.' I remember having an argument with a RC priest on retreat, where he told me in no uncertain, even angry perhaps, terms that anger was a sin. I didn't agree then, and I do not agree now. I maintain that it is the use to which we put our emotions and feelings that may be assessed as moral or immoral. But as I have said before, my understanding of the ego-self is that it includes both emotions and thoughts, as well as our physical sensing systems. Being ego-oriented, therefore, and knowing the ego's propensity for self protection, even in the face of quite contradictory inputs from the outer world, I feel more and more that morality may well walk hand-in-hand with one's own growth and development, rather than a universal evolutionary trend. That we as a species may fear universal extinction does not, it would seem, gainsay my point. At some very basic level we all have similar reactions to threat.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Tom – thanks for your further thoughtful input and there is no problem at all asking any questions about my writings which are purely as a consequence of just having an interest in philosophy and in philosophising in general. There is much in what you say and I agree that morality may well walk hand-in-hand with one's own growth and development, rather than as a universal evolutionary trend. In that respect however, one might say it is a “work in process” which I included in my definition of morals.
However the question to be asked is why “advancement” has been sporadic, of varying depths, with continuing examples of man's ill-treatment to man and to the rest of the animal kingdom.
The existential philosophers pointed out our existence always involves a tension between the instinctive emotive style responses – (struggling for words can I call them animal spirits) and the more rational which carefully considers all of the consequences. Then there is the tension between the factual and transcendent.
Although Nietzsche was not an existentialist many of his ideas resonated with those of that movement and possibly with what you are saying. The I was taken out of the equation, as although he talked a lot about ethics which are usually linked to morals, he posited morality was prone to arrogance, which I also hinted at in my paper. From his perspective humanity is a product of history and of our memories. His fear was that with our comparative advantage and propensity to dominion over nature and intrinsic (will to power) mankind was prone to descend into nihilism, unless we adopt a morality based on aesthetic ideals. That might well marry in with an ongoing process of increasing levels of consciousness.
I don’t think many today would entertain the idea that personality traits are wrong, or 'sinful.' Certainly I agree the emotions themselves aren’t moralistic of themselves, it’s how we react that is relevant.
Please feel free to come back with more thoughts.
Best wishes

susan said...

Although this has been a very interesting post to read I can't answer it with the kind of intellectual rigor you and Tom are devoting to the question of ultimate morality. It seems to me that morality comes from the heart - best shown in the Gospels when Jesus tells his followers that they have a duty to take care of children, the poor, and other vulnerable people - that they aren’t supposed to obsess about other people’s sins, but should leave that to God, and attend to their own moral failings instead.

Perhaps he added a part about looking after the natural world that never got translated because nobody then could imagine the damage we would do.

Best wishes to you, Lindsay.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan
Indeed, the salient message is as you have put it. If anything I think Jesus refrained from telling people they were immoral, except to point out the hypocrisy of those in authority lauded it over others and postured in purely outward signs of a false claim to holiness. Instead there is the appeal for compassion as he rallied against the old ideas of an eye for an eye.
Hence I think there are many parallels to Buddhism, as notice Jesus never claimed he was GOD. Rather he called for a new order as a spiritual leader, so I think we can see him more intimately as a spiritual work in process (reincarnation if you will ) which has never been fully realised. Rather to see him and the positivism /influence of a message from the heart, continuing on in time and space. Instead we have reverted to an obsession to concentrate on this one single one event, with all of the baggage in dogma (ascension to where?) that such a stance carries with it today.
Around the village of Nazareth, from whence he came, it is still fertile and no doubt nature and the abundant fields around him profoundly influenced his outlook and to which he continually referenced in the parables. I agree a sacred affinity to the land and the new kingdom he foresaw possibly was never translated because nobody then could imagine the damage we would do.
Best wishes

susan said...

Your thoughts about Jesus are beautifully put, Lindsay. Personally, I've been convinced for a very long time that Jesus of Nazareth is a Buddha ('was' simply not being a suitable description for such Beings - the Buddha nature being beyond words and concepts).
I think the version of Christianity most Westerners are familiar with lacks subtlety and deep understanding. That's likely because the religion was developed as a means of controlling the populace rather than as a means to realization.
Best wishes

Learnto Sing said...

A thought provoking posts .. And comments above :) Perhaps morals come from the dreamtime where the past, present and future are all one. Where we collectively agree to certain cohesion for the sake of our evolving dream creation.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi learn to sing
I'd sing to that - how about composing some lyrics to go along with that idea. Better than this but you get the idea ?

In the dreamtime.

Ancient moon beams
Rest on my skin
In the dreamtime
Mothers dreamland

I saw the creator
Wrapped in light
Breathed upon the land
Mothers dreamland

As all creation began
Rocks and rivers form
that's how it all began
Was Mothers dreamland

Accorss the rcky land
Best wishes

Learnto Sing said...

Lovely! Yes I've been contemplating the word "dreamtime" a bit lately. What's interesting is that it's an attempt to translate a concept into English but the concept isn't inherent in the word. Dreamtime isn't the past. It's not of time. Quite mind bending stuff. Maybe write a post about that? :)