Ronald Lindsay pretty much summarizes a general utility of morality….. “Simplifying greatly, it seems to me that morality helps to provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complementary goals. In short, it enables us to live together and, while doing so, improve the conditions under which we live.”
Lindsay is right, but he falls short of a compelling argument for embracing morality and I have never seen a convincing argument for why we should live by the Golden Rule of “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.
Morality is about how we interact with each other with an underlying recommendation to take the interests of others into consideration. Why should we have a concern for the interests of others? Because the world, from the quantum level to society (in reality, the entire universe) is built upon stable, enduring interactions. Lost to the layman and most intellectuals in Tennyson’s “Red in Tooth and Claw” and Spencer’s “Surival of the Fittest” is the well recognized (and published) long-standing notion that cooperation plays an essential role in evolution. If you put aside the notion of cooperation as a willful motivation of a conscious mind and see it as simply a co - or mutually interactive operation of two or more separate items, you may recognize that an enduring theme throughout evolution has been co-operation. The incorporation of alien organisms that evolved to be mitochondria or chloroplasts in single cells and the evolution of multicellular organisms demanded co-operation between “alien” objects. The evolution of social behavior is an expression of co-operation. In short, evolution teaches us over and over again that co-operation is an essential ingredient of our “fitness” to survive.
Most people see morality as as an intellectual overlay, whether implanted by a “superbeing” or evolved along with intellectual capacity, in either case, providing a basis for us to get along. Clearly, the mandates of “getting along” to create the universe we experience today arose in the early moments of the universe, even before organic molecules existed. It is a fundamental of existence, not just a “nice” way for people to behave. If we are to recognize the true potential of morality, we need to break out of the notion that morality requires a “mind” to evaluate. Such “intellectual morality” is but a small subset of moral demands and serves to misdirect us from the possibility (and reality) that some morality has evolved to be hardwired into our brains by way of our genes.
Let us take an example - altruism, often used by science to suggest that morality goes well beyond the human domain.
Definitions of altruism..
1 : unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others charitable acts motivated purely by altruism.
2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.
I suspect that the use of “animal” in the definition is a consequence of blinkered vision by the originator of the definition. Plants meet the critera too (Google altruistic plants).
Number 2 is a biological definition of altruism that evokes no conscious motivation.
One of the most fundamental functions of an organism is reproduction. Set aside emotional issues and reproduction offers no benefit to the individual organism and is certainly harmful in requiring higher energy demands amongst other issues. There are even many instances where reproduction results in the death of one parent. It certainly benefits the species since the species would die out without the ability to reproduce. So here we have a “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” The motivation to reproduce isn’t generally an altruitic notion to propagate the species. It is a response to many evolved mechanisms that pretty much mandate reproductive activity. Those evolved mechanism include neuronal wiring that help initiate and execute reproductive acts.
Thus we have an “altruistic” (moral) act that has a significant contribution from evolved brain wiring. Is there any reason why other activities or sentiments related to some types of activities may not be similarly “wired” in the brain to accomplish those behaviors that we define as “moral”?
It seems so absolutely clear that evolving levels of cooperation have enabled human beings to accomplish what they are today. Multitudes of cooperating individuals provide the infrastructures essential for us to conduct our lives as we do as others work towards introducing even more new features into our world. (The introduction of new features may not necessarily “improve” our lives but provide the raw materials upon which natural selection may operate). Is it not very clear that cooperation has benefited the world at least to the same extent as competition? Indeed, cooperation provides the means to compete at much higher levels of functionality. Competition isn’t necessarily bad but in the global mindset it overshadows the vital necessity of cooperation. Morality is the biological mandate to cooperate.
The notion of “feeling” what is moral and what is not no doubt adds to the notion that “we” are in control of our morality. In some sense we are, but why express morality as “feelings” rather than hardwire them? Because morality depends on circumstance. “Walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge them” expresses quite well the notion that the acts of an individual, or even a group of individuals depend upon circumstances that may or may not provide justification for their acts. The circumstances must be weighed and one way our brains can do that is by providing feedback that reinforces or punishes our actions. Feelings are one means of accomplishing that, whether we are the ones committing the questionable acts experiencing the response of our conscience or the ones determining our responses to those acts.
To summarize, morality is about how we treat each other and evolutionary theory suggests that a gene pool will better thrive if the individual members comprising that gene pool operate in a way that optimizes and grows the gene pool. Evolution suggest that a desirable way to do this (a trait) is for individuals in the pool to cooperate with each other. Morality facilitates cooperation and optimization of individual and group performance. Evolution determines morality.