I wrote this essay in September 1985 in response to a question asked me by Charles, a creationist friend at work. From the letter accompanying the essay:When I stated that morality does not originate from religion, you asked me "Pray tell, whence?" (I quote you freely here.) Before I could answer, we were interrupted by official business. In the form of a simple answer, I say, "From the culture." Since I had not yet committed my thoughts to paper, I composed a complete answer and have enclosed it. I have used the Two-Model Approach to organize "An Evolutionary Basis for Morality." Some of the problems I raise in the paper are also raised by [Dr. A. E. Wilder] Smith [in a book that Charles had loaned me].
AN EVOLUTIONARY BASIS FOR MORALITY"Do not to others that which is displeasing to yourself. That is the whole of the Law; the rest is just explanation. Now go and learn it."
Rabbi Hillel, 10 B.C.
- In Western society we are raised to believe that morality is derived from religion, namely the Judeo-Christian religions. This belief is so prevalent, that most people cannot conceive of morality existing without God. Such an attitude has destroyed many lives.
If a person is only taught that morality comes from God, then what happens when he loses his faith in God? If God doesn't exist and the only justification for morality is God, then there is no justification for morality. A common conclusion for a new-found atheist to reach is that morality is just a tool of the priesthood for the oppression of the populace. If the atheist was taught that without God's law he would sink into hedonism, then his subsequent hedonistic behavior, and the consequences thereof, is a result of his religious training, not of his atheism. Christians blame godlessness for the loss of moral values in our society, but I believe that it is this insistence in only teaching the divine origin of morality which is to blame.
This is made even more tragic by the fact that a second model of morality can be constructed. Rather than base the model on the existence of God, one can base it on the functions that morality serves in society. It is an evolutionary model which describes the development of morality to allow societies of individuals to live and work together for their common survival. Not only does this model remain valid regardless of religious beliefs, but it also explains the facts far better than the religious model.
Definition of Morality:
- Definitions of morality:
- conformity to ideals of right human conduct.
- principles of right and wrong in behavior.
- conforming to a standard of right behavior.
From these definitions gleaned from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, I submit that morality addresses behavior, that a standard is set for that behavior, and that it is by that standard that behavior is judged to be right or wrong. These standards exist in all societies regardless of culture and religion.
The Evolutionary Model:
- Now we can present the evolutionary model of morality. The key to evolution is survival; we ensure our survival by working together. By working together in a society a group of individuals have a far greater chance for survival than a single individual. To be able to work together, people must be able to deal with each other and to stay together; i.e., the society must be cohesive lest it splinter and dissolve. Certain behavior, such as cooperation and group participation, helps to make the society more cohesive and would be considered right behavior in that society. Certain behavior, such as aggression and theft, causes division and distrust, reducing the society's cohesion, and would be considered wrong behavior. Right behavior ensures the survival of the society and so the survival of its members. Wrong behavior endangers the society and so its members. In studying group dynamics (refer to management texts), we find that each group establishes standards of conduct and expects the group members to conform to those standards. By the definitions given, the society's standards of right behavior constitute morality. QED.
Discussion of the Model:
- Therefore, the source of a people's moral values is their culture. Each society has survival problems to solve: food, shelter, fuel, raw materials for artifacts, common defense, functioning together, etc. The totality of a society's solutions to these problems constitute its culture. Cultures differ mainly for two reasons: societies exist in different environments and a particular problem can have more than one solution. Cultures change over time, and so also does social behavior. As new survival problems present themselves, the culture changes, usually by modifying an existing element of the culture to meet the new need. This modification in turn can present new solutions to old problems and so prompt more modifications. Of course, the modification must work; otherwise the survival of the society could be endangered.
A kind of a dilemma presents itself in that a society must be able to readily adapt to its environment but it cannot afford to change too readily lest it abandons a tried-and-true solution in favor of an untested idea. If the modification works, then it can be incorporated into the culture and, by the survival of the society, can itself survive to be passed on to subsequent generations. Conversely, a maladaptive modification, if incorporated into the culture, would endanger the survival of the society and thus diminish its chances of being passed on to subsequent generations. Due to the obvious parallels with classical Darwinian theory, this process has been termed cultural evolution. Because moral behavior is subject to change along with the rest of the culture, it can be said that morality has evolved.
The evolutionary model describes a relativistic standard of conduct; each society sets its own standards of conduct according to its needs. Objections have been raised that such relativistic standards create opportunistic environments in which an unscrupulous government can write its own ticket, or in which everyone sets their own rules on a whim. Such is not the case. Since every action bears some kind of consequences, a new behavior pattern could possibly result in devastating consequences for the individual or for the society. Although people can set new standards of conduct arbitrarily they have practically no control over whether or not those new standards will work. The consequences of a pattern of behavior depend on the environment: survival needs, human nature, the reaction of fellow society members, etc. By analogy with the classical Darwinian model, the introduction of new behavior patterns constitutes variation and the consequences of that behavior constitutes natural selection. People and governments may be able to rationalize "doing their own thing," but such behavior is maladaptive and such a society would diminish its chances of survival.
Most changes exert side effects, so the solution to one problem can itself generate more problems elsewhere often with unforeseen consequences. In this way, most traditional moral values demonstrate their value by having ensured the survival of society. Morality must be able to adapt to new environments, but only a fool would throw away something that is known to work.
Comparison of the Two Models:
- Although both models agree that morality is extremely important, they disagree on the reasons for its importance. The religious model describes morality as establishing and improving one's relationship with one's God. While this may be a valid theological function for morality, it does not explain why the moral values of the rest of society should be of any concern to the believer. In contrast, the evolutionary model shows that the moral values of the other members of a society has a very definite effect on both the individual and on the society itself; immorality weakens the society, lessening its ability to survive.
Morality exists in all cultures and religions. The religious model argues that the Judeo-Christian God gave His worshippers their moral values. Such a strongly ethnocentric view cannot account for the existence of morality in other religions and cultures. Indeed, the religious model predicts just the opposite; pagan cultures should not have moral values. This is clearly not so. If anything, pagan cultures have stricter standards for conduct since their society lacks our infrastructure and so must rely on each other more. In contrast, the evolutionary model not only can account for the existence of morality in other cultures, but can even account for the reason behind a given moral value.
From the study of developmental psychology, we find that the learning of moral values starts very early (circa 2 years of age) and occurs in all societies regardless of culture or religion. Even children who receive absolutely no religious training learn moral values. The religious model predicts that the learning of morality would be the result of religious training. This prediction is contrary to the fact that the learning of morality is independent of religious training. In contrast, the evolutionary model not only accounts for the learning of morality, but it also accounts for the children's drive to learn the rules of conduct.
The religious model predicts that religious values would be synonymous with moral values, whereas the evolutionary model predicts that they should not be synonymous, with the exception of those values that were adapted by the other camp. One moral value in particular is the preservation of a human life. In Judaism, a particular religious value is obedience of the Law. Yet Judaism exempts followers from obedience of the Law if that would endanger a life. Judaism places moral values before religious values. In contrast, Christian Scientists and some Fundamentalists maintain faith healing as a religious value. There are uncounted incidents of children dying because their parents withheld medical care rather than to compromise their beliefs. At the trial of one such couple, they stated that they would do the same with the child that they were expecting. These are cases where religious values take precedence over moral values. Obviously, religious values and moral values are not synonymous.
At this point of the Two-Model Approach, I am expected to entreat you to decide between the models. This is not necessary since the two can be reconciled.
- A rabbi once taught me that almost every human activity could be experienced at various levels: physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual levels. As a human activity, morality should be treated no differently. Science deals best with the physical level and can handle the other levels with the exception of the spiritual. Religion is at its best with the spiritual level but at its worst with the physical. It does not do the subject justice to concentrate on one approach alone.
Although it did not create morality, religion has traditionally been deeply involved with morality. In most societies, its religion is closely involved with the transmission of the culture. Therefore, it has traditionally been religion's job to teach the society's morality and to monitor the people's compliance with the moral standards. In the process, some cross-fertilization has occurred. Many moral values have been incorporated into religious values and some religious values -- such as observation of religious rituals, refraining from blasphemy etc -- have been incorporated into moral values. There is little wonder that so many people confuse religion and morality!
As vitally important as the social functions of morality are, I have only heard a few sermons that touched on the subject. These sermons were of the "Gee whiz" variety; after looking at a particular moral value, they would say, "Gee whiz, this stuff actually works!" Of course it works! Why else would it exist? It would be better if preachers were to teach the practical reasons for morality. It would not detract from their religious messages but would complement it.
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First uploaded on 2002 February 12.
Updated 2011 August 18.