Rarely does a question succeed in evoking so much debate as the question concerning the nature and origin of human morality. Immanuel Kant called the moral energy that resides in the human soul an impenetrable mystery.
Those of religious faith believe that our morality is given to us from above, from God. If this is the case, why didn’t God give morality to all people in equal measure so that we could live a peaceable life without being continually plagued by the complex problems of coexistence? Why do the type of people we consider immoral exist? Would these individuals also consider themselves to be immoral and where is the proof that we are right and they not?
Some people believe that the moral principles to which the majority adheres can be instilled in a child via their upbringing. If that is so, why is it that brother and sister who receive the same upbringing and love from their parents often end up supporting completely different moral values in their adult life?
Each one of us can no doubt cite hundreds of examples of this tendency among their friends and relatives. Research shows that upbringing can only assure the passing on of etiquette (how to sit properly at the table and hold one’s knife and fork etc), but not ethics or morals. Naturally, one’s upbringing and education have some effect on the formation of a person’s sense of morality but to a lesser degree than we might think. More often than not, our upbringing teaches us to hide where our morality is lacking.
Totalitarian systems believe that even if the morality they choose to cultivate cannot be instilled naturally, it can be forcefully driven into the minds of the adult population through propaganda and repression. So why is it then, that time passes and the population inevitably rises up in protest against the morality that has been enforced upon them?
Genetics fans who like to explain everything in terms of the gene would say that human morality is unequivocally determined by a person’s genetic makeup. If this the case then why do identical twins experience a different sense of morality?
What ultimately defines our morality as human beings and where does it originate?
In the 17th conversation of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer” which focuses on the topic of Freedom of Choice, we identified the human soul as the ability to choose to act in accordance with or against one’s natural instincts, the most fundamental of which is the gene preservation instinct. The morality of every human being represents the result of how they choose to behave and treat others. This is what accounts for the diversity in our sense of morality as human beings, the difference between one person and another, one group and another.
Let’s take the example of a small group of 2-year-olds playing in a sandpit, who as yet have developed no sense of their own morality. It is not unusual to observe one child, attracted to one of the other children’s brightly-coloured toys, trying to take it from them. At this point, the unfolding scenario becomes potentially diverse and unpredictable because, at this age, children are still unfamiliar with the rules of conduct established by a conventional sense of morality. It would be correct to say, the morality developed and accepted by the majority in society. Here follows one possible scenario for how the children behave next:
- Day one: The ‘child-aggressor’ (more often than not a boy) takes the other child’s toy and walks way happily. The “child-victim” stays put and lets out a loud howl.
- Day two: The ‘child-aggressor’ tries to take the other child’s toy again but the “child-victim” having learned from the experience of the previous day, shows a strong response and fights to stand their ground. The ‘child-aggressor’ is left with a few bruises but no toy.
- Day three: The ‘child-aggressor’ having learned from the previous negative experience, approaches the ‘child-victim’ and offers one of their own toys in exchange for the other child’s toy, thereby initiating a possible satisfactory outcome for both parties and laying the foundation for a more civilised relationship in the future.
There are endless scenarios for the possible outcome of this type of interaction and I am certain that morality among primitive peoples developed in this manner, through trial and error in relationships with others. As a child grows and develops from the moment of birth to adolescence, they walk the path of acquiring a personal sense of morality, just like all humanity has done over the ages, from primitive societies to modern day society.
Of course, for every child, the path is an individual one and its shape will depend on a whole range of conditions: the influence of older siblings, parents, school environment, etc. In the same way, the path is different for each individual nation which explains why their moral codes differ to some extent, albeit not fatally! The difference between nations is often defined by where each nation is positioned on the arrow of time. In society, just as with children and even adults, the development of morality is connected not only to individuality but also to age.
The main conclusion I would like to draw here is that whereas a common morality can be adopted by a majority, there is no such thing as a common morality per se. There is no absolute or universal morality. The commandment “Thou shalt not murder” for example doesn’t work when it comes to street gangs and is quite inappropriate in the context of an army at war.
Moreover, a person’s sense of morality can change not only from one person to another and from one group to another. We all know of examples where the moral principles of an individual or even a whole nation change with changing circumstances. People will very quickly drop a moral code they held previously and just as easily take up a new one if the circumstances call them to do so.
For example, the moral principles that underpin the interaction between a man and a woman can change when circumstances so require. In the 1970s, I ended up at a Soviet youth camp on the Volga River near the city of Kazan, which took up to five hundred young people at any one time from all over the Soviet Union. On the very first evening, there was a disco attended by 500 young people, all furiously driven by the Law of Gene Preservation. The group was made up of young Soviet women; majestic, formidable and all dressed up and very timid-looking, young Soviet mathematics students (mainly men), who were participating in a scientific conference that was being held over a few days at the youth camp. What a shock it was to discover, after no more than half an hour had passed, that the ratio of young men to women in the room, far from being the normal 1:1, turned out to be less than 1:10 i.e. one young man to every 10-11 young women.
So what happened next? I won’t go into details, but a couple of hours later, half the lovely ladies who recognised that their chances were slim and didn’t want to negate the normal model of behaviour, saw no point in staying and left the disco hall. The other half, on the contrary, turned a blind eye to the convention, took the initiative and vied for the attention of the men they invited to dance. The young men, despite their initial shyness, suddenly adopted the role of the “lady” and were blatantly fickle in choosing whose invitation to accept.
The disco continued like any other, the only difference being, that the role of suitor was played by the women and the role of the lady, by the men respectively. I remember this occasion so vividly because it was the first time I had seen so clearly how moral conduct in relations between a man and a woman, which have developed over centuries, if not millennia, can transform in the blink of an eye if the situation requires it.
In conclusion, morality is nothing more than a ‘Pavlov’ conditioned reflex, which is evoked in response to external conditions and stimuli and which disappears the moment those conditions are removed.
If morality is nothing more than a conditioned reflex, why do we attribute such great importance to the teaching and promotion of morality? What is this ‘natural’ morality that society is constantly seeking from its members, and the family from its children?
It’s not actually a difficult question. Compassion or empathy, which lies at the core of the concept of morality, exists to one degree or another only in gregarious, herd-like species, including human beings. Understandably, solitary animals have no need of compassion. Compassion and mutual assistance within the herd are of direct benefit not only to every member of the herd in its task of Gene Preservation but also to the herd as a whole.
In my research, more than anything else, I was astounded by the behaviour of wolves, who brought back food from the hunt for a wolf-invalid. One may confidently claim, that herds of animals which are incapable of empathy are equally incapable of survival.
Recently, scientists discovered the altruism gene, which we more popularly refer to as compassion. So far, the altruism gene has only been found in microbes living in colonies but it is very likely that it will also be located in all gregarious living beings.
The taboo on murder within a herd is dictated by the Gene Preservation Law and again, this law explains the moral of encouraging the murder and destruction of other hostile herds. However, in specific circumstances, the same law may engender the opposite behaviour even within the herd, as for example in the case of lions where the new head of a pride will kill the cubs of the defeated male.
Among our human ancestors, the prohibition of murder was also applied solely within the tribe, although with the development of globalisation, the extent of the prohibition’s reach has expanded its boundaries. The universal prohibition on murder, to which Jesus Christ called man, will clearly only be implemented after the complete globalisation of the planet.
Morality which calls us to respect the Freedom of Choice of others, as a way of guaranteeing respect for our own Freedom of Choice, emerged in human society quite recently and only exists in democratic countries, where human rights as a priority are officially proclaimed. This complex form of morality, which exists only among human beings and which remains a constant focus of both the arts and the sciences, is, of course, a product of Freedom to Choice, which likewise exists solely among the human race.
Recently, a rumour was circulated in the global press that a freedom gene had been discovered, or to put it more clearly, a Free Will gene. Later they started to refute the rumour which may well have been fake news. Other ‘unscientific’ considerations, however, have been raised related to the topic of Freedom of Choice and so we shall comment on them here.
According to science, humankind’s ancestors (Homo habilis) have existed on the planet for about 3-4 million years. Ninety-nine percent of that time, if our ancestors did evolve, then they evolved in the same way as their primate relatives in accordance with Darwin’s theory. If our ancestors used sticks and stones during this time, then it should be pointed out that many other primate species used and use to this day these same implements for hunting and gathering.
And when less than one percent of this time was left i.e. 30-40 thousand years ago, the first signs of human evolution appeared i.e. signs of human activity significantly differentiating the species from other primates. Even in this period, for 30-35 thousand years, humankind was just ‘building up’ to the process, preparing for the great, real, human evolution.
The human evolution of the past 5-10 thousand years has taken place with exponential acceleration leading to what we see of the modern-day world with all its aeroplanes, ships, missiles and preparation for a flight to the planet Mars.
Suspicious? In my opinion, it is more than suspicious.
Perhaps, 30-40 thousand years ago (give or take a few) a Freedom of Choice gene appeared among mankind’s ancestor’s for the first time as a result of a process of natural mutation. This moment can be called the birth of the first Homo sapiens, or Homo eligenti as suggested in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”. Some might call it the reason genome, but that’s irrelevant and doesn’t change the essence here.
The mutation which allowed people to start choosing their behaviour freely, rather than acting as a response to blind instinct turned out to be extraordinarily helpful and from this point onwards, the carriers of the freedom gene acquired a huge advantage over other humans around them in the struggle for survival.
Over a period of 30-35 thousand years, the gene victoriously expanded across the breadth of the earth and finally, 5-10 thousand years ago, only the descendants of the new gene carriers remained. This most certainly explains the disappearance of the Neanderthals. Those primates who were genetically very similar but didn’t carry the new gene remained primates stuck with their sticks and stones.
(Part 2 of this article explaining why levels of human morality continue to improve over time is available here)
Translated from Russian original by Joanna Dobson
This article isn’t intended to give a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is simply an addition to the book’s contribution to the theme of morality already considered at length in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”.