I want to talk about morality for a while. It is a well-known and often confronted argument on the part of religious folks to state that without some form of belief in a higher, benevolent power, you are without any form of moral compulsion to do good to your fellow man. They state that good moral values are derived straight from religious texts, and by default from the word, true and infallible, of some or other deity.
What makes us moral animals? What is it within the human mind that generates a morally beneficent deed when you see someone who is in trouble and needs help, irrespective of color, creed, religious beliefs or race? It’s an interesting question, and one which we are going to explore.
There is no doubt that amongst religious people there is a strong belief that without religion you are also without moral values. One of the major criticisms of atheists by religious people is that they have no moral values, and therefore allocate themselves the freedom to do any and all kinds of things generally prohibited by religious texts. Atheists are believed to be free to rape, pillage, destroy and kill as often as they can, since the implication is that without moral values, they also have very little compassion for their fellow human beings. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact the history of Christianity is one of murder, pillaging, rape and incest, to mention but a few, and many or most of these acts were performed with the blessing and active support of the Hebrew God.
But where do morals come from? Is it something we believe we should have as good Christian people, or is there a more deeply rooted basis for morality? This is not an easy subject to explore, and I ask that your bear with me. In this discussion we will touch on moral issues such as homosexuality, abortion, murder and the likes. These things lie close to the hearts of many people, particularly those with religious convictions.
At its basis, the concept of morality is really nothing more than a decision between what we consider to be right and wrong. The environments in which such decisions are taken may differ due to culture and age, but the basis remains the same. What is considered wrong at age ten might be considered acceptable by age 18, within the same cultural setup.
During childhood we develop our characters, and we learn to discern between right and wrong. Our characters are the psychological “muscles” for controlling impulses. To be a moral person is to be able to think morally and act accordingly.
As a child develops cognitively, it also builds its moral judgments. You cannot have an opinion about something you don’t know about. This process takes place in three distinct psychological stages.
Firstly, up to age 9, most children have a pre-conventional morality, mostly based on self-interest. One often sees children act exceptionally cruel towards each other, claiming a toy or a sweet without any compulsion about how the other child might feel. To them morality is a very basic thing. They obey to either avoid punishment (self interest again), or to gain concrete rewards (if they do something good they will get a sweet).
By early adolescence, their sense of morality changes to a more conventional type of morality. In this state they generally care for others and uphold the laws and rules of society. As such they are able to see another person’s point of view and be sympathetic towards it without abandoning their own, perhaps contrary view. In general, adolescents act morally in order to attain recognition from peers and their moral decisions are aimed mostly at ensuring that they remain within a social group.
In post-conventional morality, some of those who develop the abstract reasoning of formal operational thought might reach a third level. Post-conventional morality affirms people’s agreed-upon rights, such as the right to live. It may also be apparent in the manner in which they follow what they personally believe to be basic ethical principles. In this they use their own awareness of their own morality as a means to determine the morality of the actions of another person. They often make statements like: “you will not be able to live with yourself if you steal those drugs”, even if they know that the theft of the drugs would be to the benefit of a loved one who needs them.
Our sense of morality also has a great effect on our feelings. We refer to this as moral feeling. When people perceive others engaged in an act which is degrading or hurtful to other humans, we feel repulsed by what we perceive as the worst in human nature. Conversely, when we see someone doing good, we get that warm, tingly feeling when we feel a sense of unity with what we know is good within all humans, and we feel good to be a part of something good. We feel an innate sense of unity with those that do good around us.
In many cases, we can remain good moral people even within a society where moral values are degraded. Research amongst many Nazi officers who were in charge of concentration camps during WW2 have shown them to be perfectly good moral people who loved their families and only did good towards their fellow Germans, but whose minds were corrupted by a system that managed to justify the horrors of their daily actions. This relates, in my opinion at least, to the same type of mental corruption that is employed by religion which manages to justify the horrors of their own past, and still consider themselves to be morally superior to others.
But there is a deeper root of our morality, one often denied by religious people. We must understand that if we choose to believe in our human history to be based on evolution, and not the fantastic story of Adam and Eve, then we must understand that as part of that evolution would also be our sense of right and wrong, our sense of morality. Is this also an evolved trait?
Sometimes a person grows up within a society where a specific set of moral values are adhered to, many of which may be different to that in the new society he is placed within. This creates the potential for conflict both with his own value system and with the inhabitants of the new society. He might then, being ignorant of a particular moral point, engage in an activity that transgresses that moral point. In some cases such morality might be enclosed within a legal definition of an activity, which would then cause him to break that particular law. How do we judge such a person, and how do we judge the act of which he is being accused? One might argue that it is his duty to familiarize himself with the relevant laws of the new society he has moved into, but there will always remain within him the cultural bias towards his own value system upon which his morality is based.
Morality may also create conflict within a person if he chooses to evaluate all of his actions against a commonly accepted set of moral values. For example, a person who grew up within a racially prejudiced society may find himself in a society where such prejudices do not exist. Subjectively, he is still biased against those members of the particular society that belong to a different race, but the commonly accepted norm of morality within the society is that there should be no such bias or discrimination. In this manner we find that a person would act in a particular way towards those members of the group which he is not traditionally biased against, but that his behavior will change when confronted with those members that fall within the group that he is traditionally biased against. This unhealthy situation applies not only to race, but also to religion. Despite the acknowledgement that we are all members of the human race, we find that we have divided ourselves into groups based on race, belief systems and cultural values that create a situation where we always refer to them and us as different and separate from each other. Our sense of morality is favorably biased towards those with whom we share a belief or a cultural heritage. We forget that we are all human.
Let’s go on a short journey down a path seldom travelled. This path will show us some of the theories that evolutionists and psychologists have come up with in order to understand the morality of modern man.
Evolutionary psychology is basically the science of understanding how our evolutionary past is manifested in the structures we find within our brains, and what is controlled by such structures. It is not a great stretch of the imagination to understand that we are who and what we think we are. Everything we think and remember is the result of the activities within our brains, some of which has already been explained in this letter. Nothing happens without the brain. Our emotions, thoughts, memories, feelings and dreams are all the result of brain activity in some part of the brain. Even heartache comes from the brain. It is therefore simple to assume that whatever moral values we hold onto, also reside in the brain. But why are they there? How do we measure them and understand them? But more importantly, where do they come from?
As stated in the beginning of this section, religious people believe that morality comes from the scriptures. This is partially true, but one must remember that all scriptures, despite numerous claims to the contrary which claims that they were inspired by some or other god, were written by men. They described particular events only after measuring the event against their own set of moral values, which automatically places some bias onto whatever it is that they wrote. As we have seen in the Old Testament, it might have been a good thing to destroy other societies and rape their daughters due to the over-bearing moral imperative to satisfy the God they believed in. It cannot be denied that they described what they saw and interpreted it in the light of their own basis of morality. In this way their works were influenced by their own cultural flavors, and the moral values of their culture. This, logically, implies that their work were at first assembled and presented to their conscious minds by their brains. Whatever we read in any of the scriptures today, is the product of some person’s brain. That brain contains all of his value systems, his sense of morality, his feelings, emotions, memories and everything else we associate with the brain. In the same way that I am now relating to you, the reader, the contents of my conscious thought and reasoning, in the same way did they when they wrote the scriptures.
But if we ignore the concept of Adam and Eve as being the origins of man, and we accept that we are the products of evolution, then those brains that produced the scriptures, irrespective of what they believed, were also the products of evolution. It can be no other way. This then tells us that the origins of the moral systems of the ancients are the same as ours. It’s evolutionary. Despite the changes brought about by the different societies and civilizations that have developed subsequent to the writing of the scriptures, the basic origins of theirs and our morality is the same. This then forces us to look at that shared heritage. In order to do this effectively, we need to choose a subject that has at its basis a moral value. Since most modern views on morality, particularly within the minds of religious people, involves sex, I suggest that we use sex as the vehicle that will bring us to a better understanding of morality and it’s evolutionary history. But we must understand that sexuality is not something confined to humans. In order to propagate their species all animals have to indulge in some form of sexual activity. And many species, including mankind, often use sex in a deceptive manner. An example would be the female firefly of the genus Photuris who mimic the mating flash of the females of the Photinus genus, and when the unfortunate male arrives, lured by the signaling, she eats him. Poor little guy. He did not see that one cumming…*s*
At its basis, our human sense of morality has at its evolutionary roots, the desire to ensure that we produce successful offspring. We commonly acknowledge that there are a few simple instincts within the human world that stand above all others. Firstly, it is the instinct to ensure the survival of the individual and to maintain that survival for as long as possible. Secondly, and this is where the sex comes in, there is the desire to ensure that we have successful offspring. In modern societies the need to produce as many as possible is constrained by the very nature of the environment within which we live, where financial pressures will create for us a limit to which we will produce offspring. Instinctively, due to this knowledge, we work so much harder to ensure the continued survival of the few that we do have. In older days there were no such constraints, and a man’s riches, in some societies, were counted by the number of healthy children that he had.
But the fact that we do not have as many children as in the past has no or very little effect on our sexual behavior. Within both men and women there exists a deeper sense of morality that determines which mates we choose. In simple terms most men prefer women who are still young, healthy and attractive. This, from an evolutionary perspective, makes them believe that that kind of women will surely provide him with the healthiest and strongest offspring that will have the best chance of survival. From a woman’s perspective, she evaluates potential mates on who would be able to best provide for her future offspring. In the modern world, such men are generally those that are successful and financially stable. In the ancient hunter-gatherer days, those men would have been the most successful hunters, and the ones who can best protect the woman and her children from that which posed a threat to them, such as sable-tooth tigers. No Mr Ham, dinosaurs and man did not walk the earth at the same time! Your little herbivore dinosaur with a saddle on in your museum is a joke, and you know it!
The subtleties of sexual behavior are something we can talk about for hours, but this letter is not the time nor the place. But since we are talking about the evolutionary nature of morality, and we have decided that we are going to look at the morals of sexual behavior, it is important that we do look at some of the other animals with which we share DNA, and compare their sexual behavior with our own. In this way we can either decide that the behavior of the animal is immoral, or that our own true nature is based on theirs, but that we have evolved larger brains that allows us to think about things and rationalize them first, before acting upon primordial impulses.
Our own sense of morality, from a religious perspective, can be traced back to a Persian shepherd-prophet whom I have mentioned before in this letter, that being Zarathustra, which later became Zoroaster. The instinctive desire that we all have to classify things into right and wrong were the mental mechanism used by Zoroaster to create the two gods we mentioned earlier. In this version of the world, reality is made up as a battleground between good and evil, where evil are those without morals, and the good ones are those who adhere to whatever moral values are in place within the relevant society. However, within many religious doctrines, the evils of the world were taught to be much closer to home in that the body with its wishes, desires, needs and weaknesses are considered to be evil, whereas the soul that resides within the body is pure and will one day return to god, if it controls those same evils that are so prevalent within the weak bodies we inhabit. This form of duality, as initially proposed by Plato, is still prevalent within modern religions today. Isn’t it time we move on a bit?
From a sexual perspective, we do not have sexual minds. But we do have sexual bodies. The desire for someone else is primarily a desire that we have little control over. The instinctive nature of the desire to propagate our species and to ensure its survival is very strong and it manifests itself in numerous physical ways. When our bodies are sexually aroused, the chemical balance of our blood is altered, there are physical manifestations of such arousal, and the hormones that flood our bloodstream has very much the same effect as alcohol and other psychoactive drugs. We lose perspective, we are prepared to take bigger risks, we are prepared to be unfaithful to those whom we have made promises to. Most of these things are viewed to be immoral, unless they are directed at those whom we have chosen as our mates.
During mating season in Alaska, one often finds the poor male Moose wandering around within the boundaries of urban areas, desperately searching for a mate. If he then comes across a mailbox which resembles the female Moose and tries to hump it, we laugh at its stupidity. We fail to look beyond the obvious and understand the nature of the mechanism at work. When a man looks at a two-dimensional picture of a naked or provocatively posed woman and gets aroused, we fail to see the resemblance. Even if the man “knows” that it’s just a picture, he still gets aroused by the image. What is the mechanism at work here?
In the wild, where apes that are genetically closest to humans, being the chimps and the bonobos apes, such animals often abduct females for their sexual pleasures. In many cases the females do not object, since they are also inherently driven by evolutionary forces that will ensure the future existence of their species. In humans, men often whisper sweet little nothings into the ears of likeable and suitable females. In a way, the end justifies the means, where either forced abduction or whispered promises have the same desired outcome.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that the male has an infinite supply of sperm cells that he is obviously willing and able to share with every female that he fancies. On the other hand the woman has a much less bountiful supply of eggs that can be fertilized. One a month is not really a lot, and it really limits the number of opportunities the female has of producing viable offspring. Due to this women are much more careful in how and why they choose a mate. If women were as easily aroused by pornographic images as men, the world’s population would have increased incrementally to the amount of access to pornography. The fact is that most women are not turned on by images of naked men. They are much more discerning, whether consciously or sub-consciously, in their choice of possible mates. As such the woman needs to be a lot more careful as to whom she will allow to fertilize her precious eggs.
The manner in which the male and the female advertise themselves is also important to consider. Most men, in general, consider themselves more attractive, kinder and better than what they really are. It is the manner in which the female of the species advertises her capabilities to be better at producing healthy offspring that often causes older men to go for younger women. Sadly, and in a weird evolutionary screw-up, men remain virile for much longer periods than with which women remain fertile. Most men have viable sperm counts deep into their advanced years, but women find that early to late forties, with the onset of menopause, is when they fail to produce eggs any longer. Instinctively, men realize this and their evolutionary drive to have more offspring is still alive within them.
As you can see, when reading between the lines, the issue of the morality of sex is clearly stated. From an evolutionary point of view, sex is a natural thing, something we evolved as a means of ensuring the continued existence of our species. It is the most natural of all natural things. However, from a religious perspective, the pleasures of the body are sinful, the body is weak, and the punishment is severe. It was St Augustine who first wrote in detail about the nefarious nature of sex, and how the religious person should guard against being seduced by it. The father of sexual morality was also very prominent in establishing religious views about sex and human sexuality.
In summary, our morals and sense of morality is based on an evolutionary reality and not what we have learnt from the holy scriptures of the various religious that now poison the minds of men, women and children. I will write more about St Augustine and what his views were, and it will become clear how and why religion views sexuality as a slippery slide to a fiery eternity. But it was initially based on the experiences of a single man who wrote of his own struggles with sex and his desire for a particular person. As a result, everything associated with sex, outside of pious condonation, is considered sinful. A sad and terrible state of affairs indeed, and the ruin of so many young minds who are simply acting on the evolutionary drives they subconsciously experience.