Objective Morality and Other Myths

I had a professor whose work and intellect I greatly admire. The course was on Ethics in Journalism, but the fundamental concept of morality eventually required addressing.
After a hefty classroom discussion of relativism, the focus finally came down to the question, "What is morality?"

My professor posed that since humanity across all cultures identifies things like murder and theft as immoral, some universal "code" of objective morality must exist.

I had to counter by saying that all humanity across every culture is also xenophobic, sexist, and racist. Yet we deem these qualities as morally wrong. How can there be a universal human morality if some intrinsic values are "right" and some intrinsic values are "wrong?" And if objective morality exists, where does it come from?

Reluctantly, my professor, a brilliant man, had to defer to the Big G - not by name or specifics, but by implying that there has to be some outside force that decrees what is "right" and "wrong" in the universe.

As a steadfast atheist, I could not accept this supernatural explanation. And though we agreed to disagree that day in the classroom, my mind has been on this topic ever since.

My conclusion, which is of course not original or new, is that cosmically speaking, there is no such thing as morality. What we perceive as right and wrong are evolutionary mechanisms of human survival.

Humans, like most mammals, are extremely social animals. This is not just because laser tag and the Macarena are lots of fun, but because teamwork, group living, and society are (and were always) critical to human survival.

Because the group is so important to our particular species, evolution has wired us with a disdain for things that threaten the stability and function of the group; things like theft and murder, among others.

And while our genes are only out for themselves, they make our brains understand that doing right by others improves our own chances for survival in the long run. I will share my food, save you from drowning, and let you have the window seat, because if I do so, you'll most likely do the same for me when I hit hard times.

It's a strong sense of reciprocity, and likewise a detection of system-cheaters, that keeps human groups working as they should. "Do Unto Others" is not the sole province of Yahweh's boy. It's an evolutionary revelation millions of years in the making.

Evolutionarily speaking, there is no such thing as "good" and "evil." Survival is the only thing that matters to DNA, and all primates, including us, just happen do it with teamwork instead of big teeth, or camouflage.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, this philosophy does not advocate some sort of anarchist, nihilist fantasy. It works beautifully on two levels:

As a civilization, we can still make and follow rules against theft, murder, and duplicity because those actions threaten the well-being of our society - not because God made a list with two columns.

But while my fellow man may be upset when I steal his collection of autographed Bon Jovi muscle shirts, the universe doesn't care.

In five billion years, when the sun explodes and vaporizes our solar system like the speck of cosmic dust that it is, we'll all look back and laugh at how seriously we took ourselves.

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1 comment:

Kaitlin said...

word. i had a professor who said that morality was simply an evolutionary stable strategy. an instinctual game of dice. see also, evolutionary game theory.

-k. tietjen

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