Thoughts on Morality

Update: sorry to subscribers if you are getting this post multiple times. I’m trying to get Facebook to publicize correctly.

Here’s a paper I wrote for a freshman Philosophy class I thought I’d share. Feel free to comment. I’ve thought a lot about this subject since I wrote this paper, so maybe I’ll write a follow-up.

Philosophy 101
25 April 2008

“Morality is of the highest importance–but for us, not for God.”
Albert Einstein

Cultures have always relied on each of their members to uphold the commonly accepted morality in order to survive and prosper. To disambiguate the ideas of what is right and what is wrong for their subjects, leaders often write out moral code as laws. But where do these moral codes come from? Are all laws moral? Are all morals law? What makes something “the right thing to do?” Is morality a universal set of rules with a list under “right” and a list under “wrong,” or does it differ depending on the culture–the individual even? Or perhaps no moral view can be known to be true, and most thoughts of “universal moral codes” are false? In order to explore these questions and get an idea of what morality entails and why it important to society, it is sensible to consider several arguments concerning the subject, and the objections thereof. Upon analyzing several arguments, I have come up with the idea that morality is a combination of certain behavioral traits that have evolved as a means for the survival of society, and the beliefs that different cultures acquire as a result of history and circumstance. To show this, I will sift through various arguments, objections, cases, and definitions of terms concerning morality.

Historically, a popular view of morality has been that of “Universal Morality,” also known as “Moral Objectivism.” This view states that there are, indeed, moral values that are objective to any circumstance, and are true in all cases for all people. The downside to this view is that it suggests that because cultures have and have had varying moral codes, it is plain that only one (or perhaps none) of these cultures follows the set of universal morals. This mindset has caused the people of various cultures throughout the course of history to believe their culture happens to possess the one
“true” ethical system, and thus try to force these “better morals” on other cultures for their own good. This philosophical effect of moral objectivism is undesirable because cultures that wish to impose themselves on other cultures because of the idea of “cultural superiority” cause conflicts that result in the unnecessary deaths of otherwise capable humans whose abilities could have been better served for other purposes. Also, it seems a mark of total arrogance for a particular society to decide that its morals are the objective morals, and all other cultures are wrong and must be convinced of “the right way”–as depicted by the famed quote, “‘If only war can convince others that your ways are better, then they aren’t.’”

These effects of universal morality have aroused some philosophers to consider the idea of “Moral Skepticism.” Moral skepticism is the notion that moral views cannot be known to be true, and in fact, moral beliefs are generally false. This idea is troubling, because if one believes that moral views cannot be known to be true , and moral beliefs are generally false, then he would patently meander through life never knowing which actions to take or what to believe because the morality behind an action or belief would always be in question, and there would be, according to moral skepticism, no way to answer those questions. Again, for some, this answer to morality is unacceptable, and so must be modified.

A popular modification of moral skepticism has been the idea of “Moral Relativism,” or the idea that there are no universal moral truths, but rather morality is relative. “Cultural Relativists” believe that morals are relative with respect to culture. Let us examine an argument for cultural relativism to see what can be learned from it. The argument is formed as follows:
1. Different cultures have different moral codes.
2. A culture’s being different from another culture doesn’t make it more right or wrong than another culture.
3.Conclusion: therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
The cultural relativist claims with this argument that the moral code of any society has no special status, and what a society deems “right” is right within that society. This is appealing because it means that different societies cannot judge other cultures, but rather view them with tolerance. Under this view one could determine “the right thing to do” in any situation merely by consulting the standards of her society. However, there are some interesting and notable objections to this argument. First, one could argue that the second premise is begging the question, or assuming the conclusion already. A moral objectivist could say that a culture’s being different from another culture could make it more right or wrong than that other culture, and the cultural relativist could not refute him without assuming his conclusion. Second, if cultural relativism were true, no society could make moral progress. For example, American culture in the past has held the view that capturing people from other parts of the world and using their slave labor to make profit is perfectly sensible, whereas American culture today (for the most part) would consider this practice inhumane to say the least. The cultural relativist would be obliged to say that these two cultures are different, and neither is more wrong or right than the other. Third, many, if not all societies share some common moral values. This certain commonality might suggest that there is something more to morality which cannot be explained by relativism. This will be discussed in further detail later when discussing the evolution of morals. Fourthly, the cultural relativist cannot account for occurrences when a society is divided on certain issues, such as America with abortion and war funding. These cases are controversial, and the cultural relativist would find himself ambivalent regarding any issue that is debatable within his society, perhaps changing him to a communal relativist. But communities often are split much like the societies which they inhabit, perhaps forcing the cultural relativist to ultimately become an individual relativist. This is not to say that nothing can be learned from the cultural relativist. One can learn to keep an open, tolerant mind to the differences of other cultures because some of his culture’s moral beliefs could be particular to his culture as a result of historical events and
circumstances. This idea in conjunction with the next argument compose the bulk of my beliefs about morality.

A more scientific approach to the problem of morality comes from the philosopher John Leslie Mackie. In Mackie’s “Laws of the Jungle,” he depicts an argument of morality based on evolution. Mackie proposed that much like organisms accruing beneficial traits to help them compete for resources, groups of organisms develop behaviors to help them function effectively as groups. Groups that practice self destructive behavior do not compete as well as groups that acquire behaviors that improve group efficiency, and are effectively weeded out through natural selection. Those tendencies and behaviors that contribute to the ability of a group to survive and thrive become “moral” over time. An idea that qualifies this consideration is that of “memes.” Memes are outward traits which replicated along generations by memory and imitation, much like genetic traits that are replicated along generations by reproduction. Memes allow the successful, “moral” behaviors of groups to be passed down generations. Not only memes support this argument. The discovery of mirror neurons in 1996 seems to support the idea of the evolution of group behavior. Mirror neurons in someone’s brain activate not only when he experiences emotions, but when others experience them as well. One could hypothesize that this facility of the human brain is a byproduct of the selection of successful group behaviors, as empathy often plays a large part in the discussion of morality. An objection to the moral evolution proposition posed by Richard Dawkins is as such: Consider a group of birds that is constantly harassed by deadly ticks. The birds cannot remove the ticks from the backs of their own heads, but they can remove ticks from the backs of other birds’ heads. If the birds do not remove the ticks, the whole lot will die out. Dawkins proposes two inheritable tendencies in the bird group: “Suckers,” who will groom anyone, and “Cheats,” who never groom anyone. Dawkins suggests that because the Cheats get the benefit of being groomed by the Suckers while not having to waste the energy to groom anyone else, they will be favored by natural selection. Eventually, the group will consist
of only Cheats. Soon after that, the group will die out because none of the birds will groom the ticks off each other. Dawkins proposes that this “selfishness” that organisms like Cheats possess prevents moral behavior from evolving like genetic traits. Mackie addresses Dawkins’ scenario by suggesting a third type of bird–the “Grudger.” Grudgers will groom any except those who do not groom in return. With a group of birds consisting of Cheats, Suckers, and Grudgers, the suckers will die out as they did in the first scenario, and the absence of suckers will cause the Cheats to die out, leaving a group of Grudgers who are evolutionarily stable (meaning that their strategy is one that will survive in competition with other strategies). In this way, it is possible for the selection of successful group behaviors which provide for the most basic, intuitive feelings of morality.

It seems that through analyzing various moral arguments, cultures share similar basic morals because they rely on those behaviors in order to function successfully. Different societies can have fairly different ethical views because history has provided each culture with different stories, circumstances, people, and events. This explanation leaves room for the progress of cultures, because group strategies can be improved or modified depending on situations. This explanation respects tolerance for other cultures, because no culture evolved its morals under the same conditions as any other. This explanation means that as societies come together ever closer because of the internet, business, communicational breakthroughs, or what have you, the strategy needs to change. The individual must now consider not what is good for his own sub-society (i.e. his country, state, etc.), but rather how he can act so that a new, budding global society may survive–thrive even. The individual is burdened to balance the struggle to compete as a single organism with the struggle to lift the species so that it may not fall. As Mr. Einstein said, “‘Morality is of the highest importance.’”


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