The Origin of Morality

In theistic / non-theistic debates, the short list of contentious topics invariably includes the issue of morality. More specifically, how does the non-believer know what is right and wrong without the edicts from the supernatural? Many enlightened theists acknowledge that [their particular] religion is not the sole arbiter of morality. Other, less enlightened, theists proclaim that non-believers, by definition, are variously amoral, immoral, degenerate or evil. In a recent discussion that on-line discussion, a newspaper letter writer stated (as though factual) that “atheists deny God to justify their degenerate lifestyle”. I must say that I cannot resist confronting the rantings of a bigoted simpleton so I jumped into the conversation. You can read it here. The letter writer was, pretty much, universally condemned, but there were those that thought the letter writer “was hinting at” a bigger, important question. If you read his original comments; it is clear that he was not asking questions, but rather condemning and demonizing…all with no evidence.

That conversation seemed to winnow itself down to two or three contributors, so I suggested that we move the conversation here. The ‘Cliff’s Notes’ of my part in that conversation is a follows:

My contention is that the core impulses that our advanced brain interprets as ethics and morality are evolutionary traits. To my mind, the concept of “The Golden Rule” or “Do unto others …” is the distillation of [what is known as] reciprocal altruism. I have the great fortune to have a very good body of empirical knowledge on the matter to back up my contention that morality (or at least proto-morality) exists in other higher species and not only pre-dates Christianity, but predates our species. In fact, every species tested for altruistic traits or empathetic behavior exhibited such traits.

Such a contention is in stark conflict with theistic claims that human-kind was created uniquely and separately from other animal species, created in God’s image and imbued with special privileges, responsibilities, and concepts of right and wrong. (Just calling the human species an ‘animal’ is offensive to some). I don’t have a problem with the last concept…that we, possibly uniquely, know the ethereal philosophical concepts of right and wrong, but the evidence shows that other species also know right and wrong even if those other species don’t understand the concepts. Our mutated larger brain allows us the ponder such abstract concepts to, apparently, the exclusion of all others.

Nicholas Wade (a science reporter for the New York Times) had a nice distillation of some of the empirical evidence that we have. He writes:

“Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.”

These are just two examples of many that show actions that benefit others with no direct benefit to the actor. It is hard to take those types of behaviors and paint them with something that does NOT include core components of (what humans would call) ethics, morality, and empathy.

In these discussions, I do NOT take the stance that “Morality IS an evolutionary trait and you are stupid to think otherwise”. My stance is that the theory that morality is an evolved trait makes sense and has broad empirical evidence that supports it. I only feel this is worthwhile to discuss because there are some that will dismiss the evidence that there is (if they know about it) and claim that their particular deity is responsible for right and wrong. This, in itself, is perfectly within the rights of any person to believe. The rub comes when, by extension of their theistic claim of ownership of morality, the theist demonizes non-believers by claiming that, by denial of their religious creed, the non-believer is (as I said before) variously amoral, immoral, degenerate or evil. This stance victimizes a segment of society that is demonstrably as moral and ethical (sometimes more so) based on NO EVIDENCE BEYOND A BRONZE-AGE TEXT. This latter position, I consider to be immoral in itself. I operate on this simple code: "If there is a victim to my actions, then it is probably wrong". Demonizing a person or a group without warrant creates a victim, hence it is wrong.


Paul said...

I am inclined to think that morality is becoming a hybrid of evolution and free will, with the distinction being so hard to measure and quantify it can’t be proven one way or the other.

I choose to believe that altruism is a choice, only because it advances the concept that life has ‘meaning’ and hence offers a level of comfort. Then again, psychiatric treatment might offer the same benefit.

A monkey may forgo food to prevent pain to another monkey:
1 As a result of the evolutionary trait to protect the pack and hence themselves
2 The monkey might understand that the food comes with an unusual cost and is confused
3 The monkey might be making a moral decision to self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other.

I notice the author says the monkeys will starve themselves for several days. It doesn’t say the monkeys will starve themselves to death.

We don’t have the ability to understand what the monkey is thinking and why. In many cases, we don’t understand what we ourselves are thinking.

What little evidence I have to support human altruism is mostly opinion. Evolutionary wise it makes more sense to let the weak and infirm of our race just die and save precious resources for those more likely to survive. Even if you hope for reciprocity, it’s unlikely some mentally handicapped child or an 85-year-old invalid will ever have anything to offer me.

I supposed I could hope that by taking care of the 85-year-old invalid it sets an example so that some youngster is more inclined to take care of me when I’m 85.

We are generally, but not completely, self-aware. When I make a donation to the United Way or Red Cross it’s with the belief that I will NEVER need the services they offer. (I understand there is some self denial there) .So I’m pretty sure both consciously and unconsciously that I will see no personal benefit.

What’s the evolutionary logic in that?

Samanthamj said...

Great post... and blog. I hope to read more soon.

Take care,

Matt M said...


(I found your blog through the atheism discussion on Talking Philosophy)

I've had this discussion with religious believers myself.

If the point of atheism is to lead a degenerate lifestyle then I'm extraordinarily bad at it - I don't do drugs, rarely drink, and there's been a frankly shocking lack of loose women in my life. :-)

The thing you have to keep in mind is that most religions teach that human beings are inherently corrupt - so without a god or gods to keep us all in check we're supposed go around raping, pillaging and generally making a mess. Whereas from an atheistic pov we're essentially a mixed bag: Some of our desires can undoubtedly be destructive, but we also have a number (the desire for us and our loved ones to be safe, etc.) that promote co-operation and peaceful co-existence. Once you accept that these positive desires exist it's easy to see how morality (as a set of guidelines) could evolve from our attempts to live side-by-side.

I think that the concept that moral rules have to be argued for also disturbs some of the more dogmatic religious believers - as their religions don't tend to go for encouraging the kind of critical thinking that helps out in these arguments.

Matt M said...


What’s the evolutionary logic in that?

Matt Ridley's 'The Origin of Virtue' is a pretty good (from what I remember) account of modern theories of the evolution of altruism. If you're interested, then I'd recommend it.

When it comes to the evolution of altruistic acts you have to keep in mind that facts that a) evolution is something of blunt instrument and b) our species has spent a large part of its "recent" history living in small groups. Rather than a set of specific rules (if x, do y), we've evolved rather general moral sentiments: Suffering is bad, etc. In the time of our ancestors, when we lived in small tribes, this was all we needed. When we felt sorry for someone, chances were that they were a member of our tribe. So helping them (and thereby encouraging tribal unity) had a direct benefit for us. We'd only tend to encounter other tribes in conflict situations, and so our sense of empathy would be overruled by our desire for safety.

(This is a pretty crude summary I'm afraid)

In the modern world, the rules of the game have changed, and "outsiders" no longer represent a threat to us - hence they evoke sympathy in us and we feel the desire to help out (by donating to charities, etc).

I'd argue that this isn't entirely devoid of evolutionary benefit though - It's true that you might never need the help of a specific charity, but, in our unpredictable world, it's possible that you might one day need to help of a charity. So by promoting the action of charitable giving you're creating an environment in which you're more likely to find help should you need it.

Ryan Jennings said...

you write, ""If there is a victim to my actions, then it is probably wrong". Demonizing a person or a group without warrant creates a victim, hence it is wrong."

Question: with such a "good" ethic, if you believe Christians are wrong in their stance that homosexuality is sinful, would you also stand with them or fight for their rights to believe their faith before allowing them to be persecuted (victimized) by a new wave cultural positions backed by progressive lawmakers?

I know this may seem like a speculative argument but I draw the subject matter from your most recent post above. If there is a victim to a "new law," is that new law wrong?

or is this just another "grey area" argument that conveniently allows for disregard on both sides?

FVThinker said...

I will have to ask you to frame your question a little more clearly for me before I respond.

I will say this, though:
I respect anyone's right to 'think' what they care to. I respect the right of the Grand Wizard of the KKK to think that blacks are inferior and I respect the right of [some] theists to think that homosexuals warrant persecution (sometime in the form of saving). I recognize that the Grand Wizard (some serious bible thumpers themselves), Jerry Falwell, Fred Phelps, and Osama bin Laden all [probably] truly believe that they are motivated by the highest and most noble ideals.

I do NOT have to respect WHAT any of them believe and my allegiance goes to the 'first victim'. In the broad topic of Christianity persecuting homosexuals; my allegiance is with the homosexual. If our reaction to your persecution makes you feel like a victim, then you need merely demonstrate that your belief system is true and accurate in some compelling way (and that the central deity is actually a good, benevolent entity). Once your persecution is shown to be warranted, then I can come to your support.

Ryan Jennings said...
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Ryan Jennings said...

so do you agree that tolerance only goes so far?

I guess I should be more forthcoming with this of my biggest frustrations with the "new ethics" of the secular-humanist movement is that they champion the idea of tolerance yet they abhor any idea which is in opposition to Darwinian-evolutionary theory. In fact, just like the case of the whole "global warming" scare the popular mantra is: "this is settled science so now let's move on without further discussion"

That is all so the grand scheme of things there is settling about micro-evolution but nothing settled about macro-evolution, and there is settling about the fact that the earth has been going through a warming spell but nothing settled about how one can quantify humanity's part in the equation (btw...did you know the ice caps on Mars are melting too...damn humans).

Essentially, I am frustrated with those who claim an ethic of tolerance yet so flippantly are intolerant of people who believe in and worship God. That is not tolerance...that is mere hypocrisy...but whose counting right?

I actually like your argument about emanations of ethics coming from the monkey community. It is actually more common-sensical than other arguments I've heard before...I think it is frought with problems too since many communities of monkeys also hunt and eat monkeys from other tribes which venture into their territory...but again there are humans who display such savagery as well aren't there...

btw...the theist who properly interprets the Bible doesn't demonize as you allude to. The true follower of Jesus believes "i am a sinner" and "i need to be forgiven of my sin" and "Jesus is the only person through whom this may be accomplished"...that is the Gospel and that is the message preached to unbelievers. You interpret that as demonizing groups...if that is the case then Christians demonize themselves too...and that is of course the Bible's contention...we are all sinners (Rom 3:23; 6:23). When you misinterpret the Gospel to make Christians appear intolerant it is disingenuous.

And, I like my Bronze-Age Text...written over 1,400 years, 40 diff. authors, all shouting to the world the desire of God to redeem mankind. The Bible is a history tells the story of is a beautiful story.

Thanks for the article...I really feel you are genuine in your arguments...peace

FVThinker said...

Well I don't think your leading question is properly answerable the way it is stated. I will say this though...tolerance should be given to those who deserve it. If a person or group is persecuted, my default position is that protect the victim. In the case of homosexuality, I side with the gay community because they do not intrinsically harm society. Sometimes tolerance is mutually exclusive. In that example, we have the persecuted and the persecutor. Until you can demonstrate the truth and benevolence of your deity, there isn't a reason for me to withdraw my support from the gay community. Nor should I obliged to respect the religious position.

Re: Evolution By Natural Selection (ENS)...
You need a fuller understanding of just what evidence there is and what we really know about macro evolution. Transitional fossils?...we have plenty. Embryo development cycle?...stunning stuff. I couldn't possibly discuss it all here. One radio story I recently heard was a biologist lamenting that because ENS is soooooooo well established, that we don't even communicate just WHY it is so well established any more...hence a lack of understanding by some of the lay public. Never mind that all of our medical advances and biological sciences are built successfully upon the precept. The ONLY intolerance I have in this arena is when creationists try to insinuate themselves into the classroom and not bring science to the table. Believe whatever you want, just don't try to take the science out of science.

Re: Climate Change....
There is no dispute that climate change is very real and, at it's present rate, is a harbinger of massive (and potentially catastrophic) changes in our ecosystems. What we are seeing and measuring now, when compared back historically with ancient ice samples and geology, are the earmarks for massive extinctions. I think we, as a species, are too clever to become extinct under those circumstances; but if our crops fail and our seas are depleted, there will be massive and famine on a previously unknown scale.

Is climate change man-made. The scientific community speaks with nearly a single voice...yes, it is. What is more important is that IT DOESN'T FREAKING MATTER WHETHER IT IS MAN MADE OR NOT!! We need to act as though it is man made. If your religion says that we can sit idly by and do nothing (I don't know if you subscribe to that), then sit idly by and stay the f**k out of our way while we try to address the issue to the extent that we can. Watch a terrific piece from Nova at Good science and absolutely gorgeous.

Psalm 53:1 "The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God'"
Matthew 5:22 "...but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

Fuller said...
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Fuller said...

Although I am a believer, I have to agree with the basic premise of your thoughts: atheist can be moral. Morality without God is not the same as a theistic approach, but it is, morality. The basis for the rules, guidelines, and internal motivation to adhere to a moral code are more derived than accepted because there is no assumed common single source.

Just because Christians have a single source does not mean that all the thoughts on morality are easily agreed to. The article by Mark Smith saying that atheists reject God in order to live wild and hedonist lives is wrong. However, I am convinced that rejection of God comes because of many reasons, generally based on personal experience (Seeing evil, hypocrisy, being personally hurt, not seeing the supernatural in a provable and clear way, etc). What this leaves is the need to build a framework for morality without God, but it does not leave a platform for savagery or a total unrestrained lust for pleasure as Smiths article implies.

For me, the basis of morality comes down to this: Are the claims of the faith true - is so, the basis comes from the system of faith one has before them. If the claims of all faith systems are false (which means either there is no God or spiritual realm or the truth about such things has not yet been revealed to mankind), then the basis for morality MUST come from a derived/evolved system of behavior, values, and guidelines that perpetuate our species.

FVThinker said...

While I do not believe it was your intent; I took your first sentence as a back-handed compliment. It is not that a non-believer can be moral...but that non-believers are demonstrably at least as moral. Even by religious metrics this is true...and I can show you the evidence.

With the exception of specifically theistic moral edicts; there is nothing that shows believers have any leg up on morality at all. As an empirical person, this alone would lead me to believe that the 'theistic' approach to morality does not bring anyone closer true morality.

Fuller said...

I was not attempting to say that believers have better moral standards. I was saying the basis or foundation for the morality is different. (And of course, I prefer a theistic foundation)

I also did not attempt to imply in any way that Christians specifically and theist generally are better behaved. Neither believers or non-believers have any advantage to living more ethically or that they better adhere to the currently accepted moral code than the other. History is replete with all kinds of people - believers and non-believers alike - who display and promote lots of immorality!

My only question is in regard to the source of the ethical framework one lives by.