If we lose all our literature, and socially created moral frameworks including religious ones. How much will we be actually be losing? What if we are to start a new life without knowing anything about what our ancestors did? What if a few surviving human children after a catastrophic destruction of their environment, start living in a small group? What if humans start from square-one as a tribe? What would the morality in that tribe be? Regarding primitive tribal morality; in my opinion, there is a lowest ebb that humans can fall in to. We will not fall below that level. With or without religions, humans will never become 'animals', There is a built-in moral compass within all of us, that is decided by our genetics. Yes, genetically, we are still the pack animal that is evolved to live in small groups as hunters and gatherers. There are whole host of "human" qualities that we carry genetically that helped us to survive collectively in that habitat. However, all the qualities that we have built on top of this tribal morality, are creations of society. They are carried forward in our memes and not in our genes. If we are to lose our socially created values, carried forward through generations, we will still have the values that is encoded in to our genes. However, it will be a loss of about 10,000 years of human creation. We will then have to create our moral zeitgeist from the scratch.
Following essay is triggered by a discussion happened in Facebook between a friend of mine and I. The discussion was triggered when I suggested that human are inherently moral, and there is innate ‘goodness’ within us. I guess here I did a bad job with my selection of words. What I actually wanted to say was that we have an inbuilt moral compass, direction of which we may not necessarily follow always. However, at least we "know" when we violate this direction from our moral compass, due to the guilt and anxiety we feel when going against the direction pointed by the moral compass.
The question then is; how did we get this internal moral compass? It is society constructed? It is simply the social norms that is fed in to us from childhood, or is it more fundamental than that?
Some creationists do say that God implanted morality in human brain. Obviously this is not something atheists like to hear. Therefore most atheists used to speak of moral relativism. The notion that there is no absolute reference point for measuring morality, and all reference points are socially constructed. However, a lot of social experiments tend to suggest that most humans subscribe to a basic set of moral codes regardless of their culture and upbringing. This seemed like a temporary win for the creationists, who like to suggest that a higher-being has designed the humans to be moral. However, Richard Dawkins fought back for atheist camp in 1975 when he published the ‘Selfish Gene’. With his gene centric view of evolution, he managed to show that what we perceive as the ‘moral compass’ is nothing but our evolutionary instincts that helped us to survive. We simply perceive that the direction that this compass points as the correct ‘moral’ direction, simply because that is the most fitting direction for survival.
Obviously my initial choice of words did not convey the above meaning, and my friend rightfully challenged the view I initially expressed with following thoughts and examples:
Here is my response to that:
I like your thinking; especially the comment about millions of brains working together as one being, and building the civilization, and the comment that we are moving forward collectively. This is an idea that I like to promote too. The glue that bonds us together is the collective will to make things better for everyone. The collective will drives us forward. No religion that I know provides this kind of glue. It is the thought process that lies outside of mainstream religious doctrines that brings people together in a synergistic manner. That is a point that I also like to drive home.
Recently I had a over-the-tea chat with someone from an Abrahamic faith, and he was in the opinion that world is becoming increasingly bad place, and there is no solution for that, and things will be sorted out by God only at the day of Judgment. Needless to say; I am in the opinion that world is becoming increasingly better place and God (if he/she exists) seems to have nothing to do with it. However, it became clear to me that putting things in the hand of a God that is unlikely to exist, is really a bad idea for the human race.
On the other hand, Buddhism and similar religious doctrines view the world as a place filled with suffering, and suggests 'letting go' as the means of sorting out that problem. While I see how this can work in theory, I am yet to meet a person who has sorted out their problems using this method. Besides, even in Sri Lanka I don't think even 1% of the population practice this kind of Buddhism. We have around 70% people who practice Abrahamic Buddhism that put things in the hands of unknown powers that are unlikely to exist. So, we come right back to the same issue even with Buddhism and similar religions.
My comment about evolutionary instincts was only regarding one aspect of all this. viz. The question of moral compass that guides us. One that perhaps you ignored, since you are not interested in that philosophical question. This philosophical question has bothered many people. How do we decide on the moral direction to take? Basically the question is "what is the basis of defining what is good and what is bad?". Throw away all literature about what is moral and what is immoral. Wipe out all religious doctrines that purports to tell you what is good and what is bad. Without all such reference frameworks (Bunch of little kids growing up and surviving in a Island as a group, without any knowledge of their previous generation's customs, beliefs, rules; is the closest 'thought experiment' I can think of to simulate this) will an order and a moral framework emerge from nothing? This is a very important question that sciences could not answer until very recently. The answer was out there all the time, but until Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris el al very eloquently pointed out that the answer lies in the basis of "survival of the fittest", science used to shy away from "moral" questions. The answer is pretty plain, but it will be too much for me to explain it here fully. I will rather give some pointers.
However, until you go along those pointers and comprehend more, just to make sure that anyone does not misinterpret; it is not that there is something inherently "good" in us. But we tend to see whatever that gives the genes inside us a survival advantage as "good" things. The "Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins will be a good read. There is a chapter that discuss the innate morality of humans in the book 'God Delusion' as well. Sam Harris’s 'End of Faith' is supposed to discuss the same topic, but I have not read that book as yet, and therefore I don't know for sure as yet.
A heterosexual male's brain responds to, and invokes very basic instincts at the sight of a sexually attractive female. This urge is not driven by reason or logic, but by pure instincts. Similarly, most people are appalled by the sight or the thought of killing a fellow human. Both these instincts are primitive to us. Most people feel a rewarding happiness when they help someone in need of help. This again is a basic instinct. These traits are innate and they are invoked without us applying any logic or reason. During millions of years of natural selection, these traits were selected as the "fittest" traits for our collective survival. The communities or individuals not having these traits were naturally de-selected as they could not survive the challenges of their habitats.
A human newborn is a very vulnerable creature. Newborn human come to this world with very little hardcoded knowledge in its brain. It knows how to suckle mothers breast for milk, and that’s pretty much about it. It need so much loving tender care. On the contrary, a baby turtle coming out if its egg has all the hardcoded knowledge that is enough to survive on its own for the rest of its life. Baby turtles 'learn' from adult turtles only in kids's cartoon movies. In real life, they don't do any learning at all. Human babies on the other hand, cannot even survive a day without adults supporting them. However, they are capable of not only learning from adults, but lead their lives in a different way than how adults taught them. This is where humans and animals close to humans really differentiate themselves from the rest. The very feeble nature of the human baby is the very basis of the powerful human race.
For the feeble human baby to survive, a tender loving, caring adults must exist. Any traits that erodes the tender loving nature of adults, will not be beneficial for the collective survival of the human race, and thus such traits have been de-selected by the natural process of evolution.
Compared with most animals of comparable size, any single human being is not a powerful creature, . Their strength comes from the ability to synergize. The synergy in the human community is reinforced by traits like empathy, respect, altruism, and non-violence towards own kind (sometimes extended to non-violence towards other kinds as well)
Anyway, we know that Bonobos (south bank Chimps) who lives south of Congo river, separated from Common Chimpanzees millions of years ago due to the formation of Congo river, have very different social structures and very different moral frameworks than their common chimp counterparts, although they are genetically very similar. Therefore, there are counterarguments to the theory of morality that I explained above. Common Chimps were able to survive and thrive with relatively violent manners, while Bonobos did the same with very peaceful social manners. Anyone that rebels against established leadership is violently killed in Common Chimp camp, whereas matriarchal society in Bonobos does not even know of violent power struggles. Sexually promiscuous behavior is violently opposed in Common Chimp society, while sex is treated as a recreational activity in Bonobo society. It could be purely by chance that Humans have taken a middle path between these two Chimp groups. May be there is no real biological moral compass that guides Chimps, Bonobos and Humans. May be it is all a social construction. May be, but still we cannot ignore the evidence that suggests otherwise.