The Nature of Morality
- In a previous post Mike began to ask questions about the nature of
Morality. Here is my current take on the subject. A lot of my ideas
derive from christianity but none of them depend on it. Hence this is a
purely psychological theory of ethics.
Of course Right Behaviour is part of every conception of a sacred social
order, hence a fitting topic for the Sacred Landscape list.
Ethics and Empathy - Notes on the Nature of Morality
Rules - what I know I should do in order to play the game correctly
Desires - what I actually want to do
Conflict between rules and desires - For the game of Poker, I may want
the money, but I know I’m not supposed to break the rules to get it.
Common moral rules: don’t lie, cheat, steal, or make out with your
What makes these moral rules as opposed to the rules of a game like
poker? With moral rules there is still the conflict between rules and
desires. I may be tempted to steal office supplies from my company but I
know that I am not supposed to do it. Why is No Stealing a moral rule?
You can bow out of a game of poker but there are certain games that we
inevitably play as part of being a human being.
have sexual feelings
interact with others
make a living
A moral rule is one that forbids damage to oneself or another human being.
You damage me when you lie to me, because I can’t make good decisions
based on lies.
You damage me when you cheat, because you win and I lose in an unfair way.
You damage me when you steal, because I need the cash and property to
take care of me and mine.
You damage me when you seduce my spouse, because you are wrecking my
home and my family.
Ultimately moral rules are based on empathy.
The Golden Rule shows this foundation in empathy clearly: Do unto others
as you would have them do unto you.
If they do it to me, I will be hurt.
If I do it to them, they will be hurt.
I understand how they will feel as a result of my actions and care how
they feel, because I know how it feels to me.
This is the basis of the extension of moral rules to all of mankind, not
just my country, my tribe, my friends, my family. Without empathy there
would have been no creation of a set of moral rules.
The interplay between current feelings of empathy and moral rules:
No empathy and belief that rules don’t apply to them: nuke the arabs
No empathy and rules do apply to them: love to nuke the arabs but its
against the rules
Empathy and rules do apply: can’t nuke the arabs, they are our brother
and sister human beings.
Empathy, with love: what can I do to help the arabs heal and be happy,
the poor darlings have been desperately hurt.
Can’t I kill the killers and maim the bad guys?
No, you have to have empathy for them even though they are a danger to
you. They are not a special class of people exempt from the moral rules.
You can’t lie, cheat, steal, or kill them at your whim.
We have good moral values when we actually want to do what the rules
tell us to do about damaging and healing ourselves and other human beings.
Jesus says go beyond the rules
stop wanting the bad and start wanting the good
love your neighbor
love your enemies
Paul says you will die out from under the law if you accept the way of
Jesus. Love/empathy is the basis for morality. If you love, you will not
need the law, the set of rules to remind you to do the right thing,
because you will naturally want to do the right thing.
Moral rules are based on empathy for others. They are the set of rules
for doing minimum damage to people in playing the game of being human.
Far better, though, that we love our neighbors and actually want what is
best for them, rather than have to follow a set of rules.
In teaching morality then, teaching empathy is just as important as
teaching moral rules.
Question: How do you teach empathy?
Question: How do you teach love?
- In arguing about ethical relativism with Einar I have been saying that
morality is genetically based in human beings. Here is a development of
that idea. Some of the framework is taken from Jonathan Haidt’s work on
the social pschology of morality.
Moral values are not handed down by God and they are not inherent in the
nature of the universe. They are an instinctually based part of human
nature that evolved during our 2 million years in nomadic
hunter-gatherer groups to help us survive.
Morality evolved as a way of maximizing group effectiveness. The more
effective the group, be it baboon troop, human family, or extended clan,
the more it will preserve the life of its members and hence their
ability to reproduce.
Definition of Morality – a set of genetically based values that maximize
the effectiveness of a group’s ability to preserve human life.
The six basic moral values:
1. Honor the group – Patriotism, nationalism, civic pride, team spirit,
2. Keep the group orderly (minimizes disruption) civility, honor,
purity, sacredness ==> virginity, monogamy, no adultery, no promiscuity,
no vulgarity, no out of control rage, no killing within the group.
3. Respect the hierarchy – follow the rules, reverence authority, have
ambition, strive for leadership
4. Divide things evenly (within hierarchical level) – no cheating, no
5. Tell the truth to the group. Don’t lie. The group needs accurate
information to effectively deal with threats and to promote trust.
6. Sacrifice for the group. Risk your life in time of war. Give up
personal pleasure to nurture children and other members of the group.
It is my contention that these 6 rules are part of the instinctive
equipment of all human beings. They are cross culturally valid. Twin
studies that compare fraternal and identical twins should yield some
information on how much genetic determination there is in moral behavior.
Re 1 Honor the Group: We all know that dissidence in a democracy is what
it is all about. We have a duty to criticize what we see as wrong. But
with a war on the love-it-or-leave-it mentality of the Patriotic spirit
overrides good sense, our instinctual nature kicks in and we all sing
God Bless America together.
Re 2 Keep the Group Orderly: The Iraq war may be promoting promiscuity.
Couples may be working overtime to replace the soldiers lost in war.
Re 4 Divide things evenly: Why aren’t people more outraged by the make
the rich richer agenda of the Republican party? Perhaps because there is
a hierarchical stratification to the divide things evenly rule. We
expect the lions to take the lions’ share.
In this scheme our sense of the sacred is part of the keep things
orderly rule. Purification comes before revelation. And revelation says
that there is a divine order and perfection that pervades all things.
Ergo celibacy as a religious commitment. Keep things serene with
emotions under control, that is the way to achieve the revelation of the
divine order of the group.
One way of looking at people is to see what groups they belong to. What
are the norms of these groups and how do those norms compare with the 6
There is a genetic basis for loyalty to the corporation one works for.
It is a major group in one’s life. Dissatisfaction with modern life may
stem in part from the fact that the corporation is not giving adequate
group support. Employees are seen as interchangeable, transitory, and
replaceable. In the modern workplace workers hop from job to job. Temps
are used more and more to do the corporation’s work. Unions have been
pretty much broken and disbanded. Jobs are going overseas, which shows a
lack of corporate commitment to the group. There is crime at the top of
the corporate hierarchy. The bottom line is valued more than people. The
corporation may engage in environmental abuses and human exploitation.
E-mail may be the solution to many of these corporate troubles. A brief
weekly e-mail from the chief executive to all employees of the
corporation demonstrating caring, honoring group moral values, and
discussing the competitive situation could deepen company loyalty, raise
morale, and reduce turnover. Even lay-offs or out-sourcing can be made
acceptable by presenting them within the framework of sacrifice for the
lotta stuff to think about here.
Starting with the definition [always a good place to
--- "Daniel N. Washburn" <danw@...>
> Definition of Morality a set of genetically basedvalues that maximize the effectiveness of a groups
ability to preserve human life.
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