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Natural Morality

Humans have a natural propensity toward morality. Evidence from evolutionary biology conclusively demonstrates that humans and many social animals we share a common ancestor with instinctively promote some behaviors and discourage others. That many of these behaviors seem altruistic can't be denied. Emotions such as shame, anger, jealousy, and resentment are shared by many animals and indicate natural responses to the behaviors of other animals. Humans seem to be unique only in the attribution of intentionality to others of our kind. Whether chimps or dogs or any other animal perceives other animals as having minds, I can't say, but it doesn't appear that they do. In any case, it is clear that humans instinctively think of other humans as having minds and acting intentionally. Praising and blaming others comes naturally to us. We don't see our fellow creatures as automatons, but as persons with free will.

Seeing others as moral beings, as purposive agents who do good or evil, may come naturally to us, but it is an illusion. It may be unnatural to see others as being governed by inexorable deterministic laws of nature, but I think it is the correct view. Praise and blame, developing elaborate arguments to defend punishing evildoers and rewarding the morally good, may also be natural but the specific systems of ethics created to defend what is just and what is not are artificial, arbitrary, and depend for their acceptance on principles that often contradict one another and can't be justified. When we call something ultimate or say it has intrinsic value, we mean we can't prove anyone should accept it. All ethical systems depend on a belief in free will and, if free will is an illusion, then ethical systems are intellectual fabrications. That doesn't mean they're not useful. Of course, they're useful. They provide a framework for stable social existence and the eventual development of law and order.

Morality may be natural but it is built on several illusions. We have evolved to see the world as full of solid objects, some of which move on their own and causally interact with other objects. Our natural inclination is toward animism and vitalism (things are alive and centers of energy) and dualism (minds and bodies are separate things). Science has revealed that those solid objects we perceive aren't so solid after all. We perceive the rest of the universe from our planet. Everything seem solid, still, and full, until we look up at the sky. We see the star we call Sun moving across the sky. Science has revealed that our planet is whirling through space, rotating while moving around our star. Our star is part of a galaxy that is whirling through space and is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. Space and time are measured in miles and minutes, but deep space and deep time are measured in ways our minds can't really fathom. Most of the universe is nothing but emptiness. Yet, we think of ourselves as at the center of a great creation and that we are great and special. Science tells us otherwise. Science is an unnatural way of seeing ourselves and the universe, but it is probably giving us a glimpse at what things are really like. Evolution may have been kind to us, we may think, but it has not designed us to see things as they are. It has designed us to see things in ways that help us survive and reproduce. Truth has nothing to do with it. Nature didn't "design" us to be thinkers, much less critical thinkers.

Moral systems and ethical theories may owe their origins to a set of natural sentiments that we share in part with other animals, but no other animal on the planet has a system of morals. The reason is simple: moral systems and ethical theories require advanced rational thinking. Humans, chimps, dogs, and other animals may have a sense of fairness, but that sense is not based on the recognition of some moral principle. Nature's formed us that way. Humans, however, have evolved beyond the point where we simply bite, shun, or physically attack those who offend our moral sense. Some of us may still act according to our animal nature, but some of us have developed elaborate rationalizations to justify behaving in certain ways. It may be true that human societies developed their mores in accordance with natural sentiments that seemed as if they were governed by some principle of social utility, as Hume argued. But it does not follow from that fact, if it is a fact (and I think it is), that we ought to behave in ways that promote social utility. It doesn't even follow from the fact that we each desire our own happiness that we ought to act in ways that promote our happiness. Our natural propensities aren't imperatives.

Without our natural propensities, it would be impossible to have established the kinds of societies we humans have created. But it doesn't follow from that that we should create any particular kind of society, set of laws, or moral rules. Clearly, not everybody has the same sensibilities, nor does everybody act in accordance with propensities that promote the common good. A concrete example might help clarify this point.

We have laws prohibiting murder and most of us consider it immoral to commit murder. Forget for the moment the problem of defining murder or distinguishing degrees of culpability and the like. On the other hand, we have people who commit murder or try to commit murder. Most of us are repulsed and disgusted by the thought of someone murdering someone else. We see a program about Cary Staynor, who murdered four women in or near Yosemite National Park in 1999, strangling two to death and slitting the throats of the other two, and we are physically revolted. Being told that he was mentally ill doesn't mitigate our feelings. We don't care if he felt compelled to kill or that the women are as much strangers to us as they were to him. Our revulsion is natural, and that revulsion is in part why we deem murder immoral and illegal.

When we make anything illegal, we attach a punishment to doing it. Of course, whether anyone is actually punished for anything depends on their being caught and convicted. Theoretically, the more heinous we deem the act, the more vigorous our pursuit of violators. Also, the more heinous the act, the more severe the punishment. When we say something is immoral, however, we don't necessarily assume there is any punishment attached to its violation. Some people bring in an invisible god who keeps track of immoral acts and who will punish them after the person dies. This illusion of a future life to get one's just deserts seems designed as a backup to conscience, which seems to have evolved as a way to enforce mores from within. Conscience is a backup system to social enforcement, the ostracism, shunning, or physical infliction of pain on those who offend our sensibilities.

Those who think that it is wrong to murder only because some god says so are deluded on several counts. First, there are no gods. Second, if someone claimed some god revealed that it is ok to murder other people, we'd kill him. Third, it is possible to get people to believe some god commands that we not murder one another only because we already know that it's wrong because living amongst homocidal maniacs is not something social creatures will tolerate. Fourth, gods and moral systems are brought in to control behavior because conscience doesn't always work as a sufficient control and neither does the threat of punishment.

To the fideist who says 'if there is no god, then why not just kill everybody,' I say that you should be the first to go. You, your god, and your unnatural morality are the epitome of anti-social tyranny. We shouldn't tolerate you any more than we should tolerate Caliph Ibrahim.

further reading

Dogs possess a sense of fairness, so why not you?


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