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The Moral Question (Ethical Decision-Making As a Sub-Set of Decision Making In General)

The Moral Question

Philosophical theories of morality (see here) are inconclusive. They all raise questions. Moral values and behaviors do not appear to be driven totally by oneʼs conscious mind, nor do they appear to be due totally due to genetic predispositions (including to some degree the behaviors the human species shares with its primate ancestors), nor totally due to repeated lessons from birth that eventually become ingrained behavior patterns requiring little to no thought. Moral values are based on all of the above, which is why they feel so much a part of us.

Furthermore, moral values appear to be a sub-division of the relative values humans place on things. For instance, I donʼt think many people have great difficulty agreeing on what values they hold dearest relative to the alternatives:

  1. being healthy rather than chronically ill or in pain
  2. being mentally healthy, rather than losing oneʼs memories and ability to concentrate
  3. eating rather than starving
  4. having at least a little money rather than living in abject poverty
  5. being sociable and having some friends rather than being shunned or living in total isolation from other humans and their society or their creations
  6. living in peace and safety rather than living in fear of having oneʼs life, belongings, family, friends, job, etc., taken from one at someone elseʼs whim
  7. living in peace and safety rather than living in fear of having oneʼs life, belongings, family, friends, job, etc.,taken from one via natureʼs whimsical disasters, pandemics, genetic mutations, or day to day accidents

Such “choices” seem undeniably obvious to us, being a species with a long shared biological background, large brains, similar sensory organs, similar nerves that record similar feelings of pain and pleasure, and a similar psychological need to feel wanted and belong, rather than mocked and shunned, and a hunger to be in the presence of other members of our species like our family and others who stimulate us physically, verbally, and mentally. Hence, joys shared are increased, while sorrows shared are reduced. (Two notable exceptions would be psychopaths—who usually show signs while very young that they have a much diminished sense of empathy; or, complete hermits who attempts to isolate themselves from the family or society in which they were raised.)

Second, we all know life is a risky business. Painful, joyless experiences occur no matter what oneʼs belief system. For instance, it has been said that “in a cosmos without God anything is possible,” but even in a cosmos WITH God, anything is possible. So we seek ways to avoid the worst and accentuate the best. We make laws, hire police, as well as develop ways to increase our happiness, i.e., music, drama, parks, arts. And courts to argue continually over how far most people in a society ought to be allowed to go in pursuing their anger, vengeance, as well as their pleasures, based on how such pursuits affect the lives of others in that society. In a similar vein, senators, governors, city councils and courts pass regulations regarding city planning, safety and health in order to help us avoid other things we dislike, such as debilitating accidents, illnesses, foul water, and natural disasters.

No doubt thereʼs both an attraction toward being sociable and the opposite, i.e., self-centered impulses as well as the possibility of being irritated by others or acting aggressively toward others. That is the old evolutionary trade off seen in all large-brained mammalian species, even the most sociable ones. There is also the fact that a species with large brains can grow addicted to nearly anything, which can lead to some very anti-social behaviors. The brain does not discriminate concerning what kinds of behaviors feed it the chemicals that give it internal pleasure. Not to mention other jury-rigged features of the mammalian-brain-mind, like the numerous cognitive biases we are all born with and subject to. Luckily, studies in behavioral and cognitive psychology have allowed us to grow more cognizant of such limits to sociability, and also, most intelligent brain-minds throughout history have pointed out the obvious benefits of mass civilization over mass barbarism. With civilization we can extend our curiosity and imagination beyond the stars, while with barbarism we can merely stick spears in each other and tremble in fear of what lies over the nearest darkened hillside.

Also see How Atheists Ground Morality

RECOGNITION OF UNFAIRNESS probably arrived with the evolution of new types of brains that could compare situations in increasingly more generalized ways. Such recognitions preceded the arrival of humans on earth. For instance, monkeys sense when someone else is getting a “better deal” for the same token, and they complain about that by THROWING BACK the cucumber they were paid for handing over their token, once they see the monkey in the cage next door getting a more sought after food like a grape for the same token. This resembles in some ways the Wall Street Protests.

SPEAKING OF MORALITY IN AN EVOLUTIONARY SENSE, Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.
(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

These [priority] systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt—though of course usually an unsuccessful one—to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we—being creatures subject to gravitation—could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwinʼs idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention.
[Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopherʼs Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001]

Monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation/forgiving behaviors (stretching out a hand, smiling, kissing, embracing, and so on) which means that it is probably over thirty million years old, preceding the evolutionary divergence of these primates… Reconciliation behavior [is] a shared heritage of the primate order… When social animals are involved… antagonists do more than estimate their chances of winning before they engage in a fight; they also take into account how much they need their opponent. The contested resource often is simply not worth putting a valuable relationship at risk. And if aggression does occur, both parties may hurry to repair the damage. Victory is rarely absolute among interdependent competitors, whether animal or human.
[Frans De Waal, “Peacemaking Among Primates”]

The bottom line is that it appears that humans have been teaching EACH OTHER how to behave for a very long time. And not just adults teaching adults, but also adults teaching their children. So, the process begins early in life and continues throughout life. Children naturally tend to act in ways that annoy or harm others or harm themselves, therefore humans begin teaching or training other humans how to behave at a very young age. Itʼs natural for large-brained mammalian parents to deliver lessons in behavior to their children. So morality evolved not only among and between adults but also as part of the human developmental process as directed by parents. Humans have been teaching other humans how to behave, generation after generation, ages before even a written language was developed. Large-brained mammalian species from apes and dolphins to elephants form tribal societies that involve teaching the young how to behave. In one case I read about, juvenile elephants moved to another territory by themselves started acting like “Lord of the Flies” children, rampaging and even trampling animals of other species, until some older elephants were added to the mix, who disciplined the adolescents and taught them lessons in how to act.

Lastly, among large-brained primates, thereʼs the fascinating species of chimpanzee known as the bonobo. Last I read there was no record of a bonobo killing another bonobo in nature compared with the pan species of chimpanzee that is known to kill each other and hunt monkeys for food. It is hypothesized, based on what evidence we have, that the bonobos branched off from other chimp species after some ancestors crossed a river in Africa and began living on the side with far fewer predators and more abundant food sources, but there is a further curiosity…

“Without a doubt the most peaceful species of chimpanzee is the ‘bonobo.’ Among bonobos the females—not the physically larger males—dominate the hierarchy, and casual sex soothes all conflicts. Bonobos even engage in such human-like practices as French kissing, face-to-face sex in the ‘missionary’ position, promiscuity, and homosexuality.”

“The discovery of such a species of ape with such behaviors disturbed the creationist Christian reviewer of the book, “Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape”, who wrote, ‘In an evolutionary framework the integration of such sexual features [as promiscuity and homosexuality, both of them favorite pastimes among bonobos] into human society is out of the question, but the Judeo-Christian tradition indicates that promiscuity and homosexuality are secondary events, coming into the world after manʼs ‘fall’ and dragging the whole of creation into a new pattern of life.”

“Aside from the fact that this ‘Christian’ explanation for the ‘sexual features’ of bonobo behavior doesnʼt explain why the other well known chimp species (pan), does not engage in such behavior [Is the other species less ‘fallen?’ By how many degrees of ‘fallenness?’], it also seems to me most unfair that these attractive, harmless chimps should have been affected in any way by Adam eating a piece of fruit. But I will admit that they seem to enjoy the results.”
[Dr. Colin Groves, commenting on a book review in Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1999 that was written by creationist, Sigrid Hartwig-Scherer]

When early tribes of humans became city dwellers they could no longer know everyone in their tribe at a glance since their tribe was now a whole city, so they could not know what kinds of behaviors they might expect or enjoy or fear from others, and neither could the whole tribe still be involved in ostracizing or ousting or reacting to unwelcome behaviors, so the creation of laws and their enforcement by the ruler seemed like a more impersonal and natural next step beyond tribalistic morality.

But to continue to add a personal tinge to such laws, plenty of ancient civilizations claimed such laws were handed down or inspired by a personal divinity, such as the story set in stone of the Babylonian sun god Shamash handing down or inspiring the laws of King Hammurabi even before the earliest possible dates for the time of Moses and his reception of laws from the Hebrew high god, Yahweh. Neither is that the only case earlier than Moses of Egyptian and Mesopotamian laws being handed down or inspired by gods. (Even the story about a Hebrew king receiving directions for how Yahweh wanted His temple built was preceded in time by a rock-carved tale of an Egyptian king having recʼd directions direct from his god on how that god wanted his temple built.)

The OT contains divinely inspired “moral” laws nobody but the most hard-nosed Calvinist adores, and even then they adore them from afar, knowing that theyʼd get arrested if they starting stoning homosexuals, witches, women-not-found-to-be-virgins on their wedding nights, and disobedient children in their mid-teens.

In the NT, Jesus left a long list of commands to his followers, including, “take no thought for the morrow, or what ye shall eat or drink” “sell all you have and give it to the poor,” “give to all who ask, asking nothing in return,” “love your enemies,” but again, those are adored from afar, not to be confused with a “morally objective” list of laws to be enforced by government.

In fact nowhere in the Bible is mass murder, slavery (which is never called a “sin,” but slaves are to be duly disciplined even with physical punishment as even Jesus taught in a parable), polygamy, concubinage, the persecution of witches, homosexuals, heretics and blasphemers, and the stoning of adulterers and disobedient children, and the beating of children till they are black and blue, condemned, but each is divinely instituted and/or acceptable based on the era and circumstances.

What appears to have happened in the history of human morality and lawmaking is that humans have been learning (not without effort, and only after centuries of conflict, exploration, discovery, and increases in worldwide communications) to recognize the value of “the other” in ever widening circles, from tribal laws to city-state and national laws to international laws, including a greater recognition of equality and/or tolerance for racial minorities, females, gays, and people of other religions. Some seek to grant greater equality and protection to chimpanzees (especially those being used in laboratory experiments), or to a variety of species being slaughtered, in danger of extinction, or eaten.

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