Good and Evil. They are only real within our minds, impossible to extract from a thicket of emotions and predispositions. They are inseparable from our consciousness. They are subjective, but they are real, they exist. It is impossible to set them aside for detached, objective analysis because they are a part of us. Studying them is like trying to study a raging whirlpool when you are caught in the middle of it. Their existence predates that of our species by millions of years, and they first evolved in minds incapable of even attempting to understand or second guess them. We have inherited them from our hominid ancestors, and experience them as absolutes, just as other animals do. They defy understanding because they are part of us, can never be “turned off,” and so are not subject to cool, logical analysis from a distance. We cannot think about them without feeling them in the background, insisting, “Yes, we do exist outside of your mind, yes, we are real, yes, we are absolute, yes, we are universally valid.” It is easy enough to understand morality and why it exists. It is much more difficult, once we do understand it, to come up with logically supportable, objective reasons why we really “should” do anything at all. Obviously, we cannot deal with the topic of human moral behavior and all its ramifications in a single post. We will make a start.
To begin, let us consider why morality exists to begin with. As with everything else I will write on the subject, what I write here are hypotheses. Some of the hypotheses will be “stronger” than others, depending on how much supporting information is available to back them up. When it comes to understanding the fundamental nature of morality, it seems to me the hypotheses presented here are very strong in that respect, but certainly not complete. To confirm them, we must understand the fundamental physical processes in the brain that result in consciousness, including consciousness of what we perceive as right and wrong, and how those processes are affected by what we experience. Such knowledge is not beyond our reach, and I am confident we will acquire it as long as we remain free to search and inquire.
My first and basic hypothesis, then, is that morality is an evolved characteristic. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it is not difficult to understand why it evolved; “We all have desires. However, others desire the same things. A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival. On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive. It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.”
The concept of morality as an evolved characteristic, hard-wired in our brains, appeared shortly after Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” Indeed, Jean Meslier had suggested that our concepts of good and evil existed as a result of natural causes more than a century earlier; “The law that compels man not to harm himself, is inherent in the nature of a sensible being, who, no matter how he came into this world, or what can be his fate in another, is compelled by his very nature to seek his welfare and to shun evil, to love pleasure and to fear pain.”
Much more could be said about the reasons for the hypothesis that morality evolved. Those reasons have been set forth convincingly and in great detail by many writers more capable than me. For example, copious supporting evidence as well as citations of much related work by others may be found in the works of Robert Ardrey and Sir Arthur Keith. In particular, see “A New Theory of Human Evolution” by the latter. For more than a hundred years after Darwin published his theory, these thinkers were largely ignored by those whose minds were closed by blind faith in religious or ideological verities. It’s encouraging to note that, as these religious and dogmatic blinders have weakened and frayed, a little light has begun to trickle through. Forty years ago the very mention of human nature based on innate predispositions was politically incorrect. Today, it is accepted almost as a commonplace.
What, then, are the consequences? If morality, like everything else about us, exists because it has evolved, the theological basis for good and evil disappears. If they did not come from God, then the basis for claiming that they are absolute and have an objective existence independent of the human mind disappears as well. If we accept the hypothesis, then morality is subjective. If human beings ceased to exist, then human notions of good and evil would cease to exist with them. In later posts, we will examine the implications of these conclusions.