How do we know what is moral and what is not? It is the view of religious advocates that religion defines morality and virtue. They say that without religion society would breakdown and immorality would become systemic. But if religion contains so much stuff that we regard as immoral—how can it define our morality? The fact is that religion does not provide our morals what really happens is our internal sense of right and wrong goes though the text of the bible, koran or whatever and tells us what is good and what is bad. Churches have been editing the religion’s morals by picking and choosing what they regard as moral and disregarding the rest or explaining it away with some fancy ecclesiastic double-talk.
Think about it for a second—would you suddenly become feral if one day you were walking home from a night out and were run over by a car and suffered amnesia. Imagine waking up in hospital not knowing where you are or what has happened all your long term memory is gone—you don’t know what the bible is never mind what is in it. Would you no longer feel love for your family? Would you become cruel and violent? This reminds of what Sam Harris had to say in The End of Faith—he suggests that if suddenly all man’s knowledge was lost due to some event that cleared our minds of everything that we have learned— at what point would it be necessary to know that the source of morality was born of a virgin?
This all begs the question—where do our morals come from? We know the story of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain where a young Huck is confronted with a dilemma—helping his friend Jim escape slavery is stealing—Huck knows that stealing is wrong and he could be damned to hell for it—he is so afraid of it and so indoctrinated by religion he even contemplates handing over his friend by writing a note to Miss Watson however, in the end Huck’s own moral code rules and he tears up the note and helps Jim escape. We all know that Huck did the right thing but what is it that made him do it? It surly was not religion because Huck thought he was going to hell—Huck’s sense of moral duty came from a primordial code of ethical actions built into him that was able to overrule his religious indoctrination.
It might be hard to imagine how we got this moral code. For some they see morality coming from society and being instilled into a child from birth. All children are born a blank slate to be written upon is their morals and ethics. This is the argument made by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in seminal work—Leviathan where he looks at the nature of man and he concludes that man’s natural state is of war—every man against every man—and in this state there is no justice or injustice because as he sees it there is no government to give us justice. One place he regarded as living in this state was America however, things have come along since he wrote this in 1651—he regards the Native Americans as ‘brutish’ and without a system of government no sense of good or bad. Now clearly we know this not to be the case the aboriginal Americans have a sense of moral decency and are not embroiled in a war all against all.
Consider then if our biology has any place in giving us a sense of right and wrong. In Moral Minds Marc Hauser gives us a look at a biological explanation of our morality. He looks at our morals as being very similar to any other organ or our body. He draws on the work of Noam Chomsky and his revolutionising theory of linguistics that showed that human beings have a built-in set of principles that are used to learn a language no matter what it is. To give an example of these rules consider the sentence “Frank is foolish” and the same sentence but with the ‘is’ shortened so “Frank’s foolish”—ok so they both make sense but what is I said “Frank is more foolish the Joe’s” now you know that there is something wrong with that sentence but nobody has ever told you that you cannot shorten the ‘is’ at the end of a sentence and yet you still know not to do it that is because you have a rule in your head that tells you that the ‘s sound is too short and it need to be followed by something. This rule would be the same no matter what language you learnt. The fact that you know this rule but, you do not know how exactly how you know it is what Hauser suggests is is happening with your morality.
The same—what is termed ‘grammar’ of morality—can be found inside us. Hauser takes this argument from outside the realm of philosophical thought and does experiments using the old philosophical fact scenarios like—a train is driving along the track and it is unstoppable it can either keep going and kill five people or take a off-shoot track and kill just one—most people choose instinctively to take the off-shoot track. This is not to suggest that every society has the same morals because this is obviously not correct but, it sets up a basic rule system like killing babies is immoral and has room for variances from person-to-person—society-to-society.
How does this square up to the Darwinian survival of the fittest? How can one be the fittest and therefore spread your genes if you are helping other? Richard Dawkins—one of the world’s most outspoken atheists and leading evolutionary biologists—has written extensively on the subject of the evolution of altruism and morality. In Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene the author explains the process of natural selection and puts into a context the development of altruistic behaviour and how that the genes responsible for that behaviour can be favoured by evolution and thus populate the gene pool. It may be difficult to imagine how some behaviour is beneficial to a gene’s promulgation when on the outside it seems counterintuitive to that ends.
You are made of genes—each one of these genes programmes how you are—what you look like; how tall you are; how you behave virtually every aspect of you is controlled by your genes. Genes make copies of themselves and are spread and mixed with other genes i.e. we have children. But, in this process mistakes are made—small mutations. Long ago imagine there was a single type of gene making copies of itself then one time it made a copy that let it get together with another gene that mutated and by being together they were better off—say for arguments sake the two of them together were able to take the sun’s rays and turn it into their own food like plants do during photosynthesis—this means that these two cells are not better able to make copies of themselves and their ‘children’ can do the same thing they are doing so over time they become stronger and the weaker ones die off. I do not want to give the impression that these genes are alive—they are not making the decision to do anything it is just that they happen to be the best at making sure that they are spread. Over time more complex genes start to mutate and for example form legs to move around and a mind to help think and get away from danger—they are changing and mutating all the time—but building on past successes—creating the best ‘survival machines’ for them to be in—if they do not make a good body to live in then they do not get passed on so are wiped out the genes that make the best body get passed on so there are more of them. Eventually these genes formed a survival machine that is us.
So you see that the gene is not trying to keep us alive per se it is just that we do the gene the most good because we are alive long enough to spread it around. So you can imagine a gene that says ‘You are to sacrifice yourself to save ten people with the same gene as me in them.’ This gene would do well because by losing you it has saved 10 other copies of itself and thus made itself fitter—that is the survival of the fittest. But how do we know if them ten people have the same gene in them? Well we don’t—we can guess—our children have half our genes in them so there is a 50% chance that they have that gene in them—this is a why we are so protective of our children—our brother and sisters have the same chance ½—there is a breakdown of all these relationships and why perhaps we feel more protective of our children than our brother and sisters even though the chances are the same in Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Some of us would sacrifice ourselves to save 100 strangers is that because the chance that they have the same gene is higher than if it was just two?
Now imagine again Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature—war all against all—imagine now a gene that said ‘help people that help me’ could spread. If we lived in Hobbes’ state of nature we would be under treat all the time so if perhaps we had this gene to help each other out if they help us we would do much better than the people that did not have this gene so this gene would start to spread. Now perhaps imagine one of us in this society had a gene that mutated to say do not help other but take their help then that gene would start to flourish. But then it would just go right back to the start again however, there is a point where an optimal number of both is reached and it would begin to steady out. “’The ants and termites,’ wrote Prince Kropotkin, ‘have renounced the “Hobbesian War”, and they are better for it’”
Let’s take a look now at some of the principles that are genes have given us. So it is one thing to care for your kin because there is a high probability that they share the same genes as you but, the trouble comes when you look at non-family altruism. Where is the Darwinian advantage in that? Well again Prof. Dawkins’ books try to give us an understanding into this process. The first theory of altruism that Prof. Dawkins discusses is the old saying ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’—indeed a very utilitarian adage that has huge merits for a gene that is trying to get passed on. You can see how a society could grow on this concept—if I have the ability to make pots but don’t know how to cook and you need pots and can cook by working together we ensure both of our survival. This concept can be seen to work throughout nature—flowers can’t fly so the pay honey bees to spread their pollen around and we have all seen on wildlife documentaries small birds that are cleaning the parasites from hippopotamuses that cannot do it themselves. In human society the division of labour has allowed us as a species to flourish and has thus caused the spread of the gene that causes this through our generations. It is really quite clear how this system of helping others fits in with our theory of natural selection.
Reputation plays a part in altruism if I build up a reputation for not buying a round of drinks in a pub nobody’s going to include my when they buy a round. It is observable behaviour in the animal kingdom for reputation precede you—in the stickleback fish population there is evidence that shows that the fish will tolerate defection of fish that have stuck by them in the past over fish that have been wimps when they are going to inspect a dangerous predator—they even choose fish to join their expedition parties that have shown high standing in previous situations. Human beings have a much greater ability to remember who was good to them in the past even to the most to people that you only met briefly—we can all run a list down in our heads of people that have ripped us off and we will be very wary of helping them in the future.
Now this brings us to how our genes influence our morals in a general way. Our genes are too slow to make the decisions all by themselves and there are too many situations—infinite numbers—to all be coded for in our genes. So our genes make more general rules i.e. principles. A good analogy here is communicating over great distances—it takes four minutes for messages to get from Earth to Mars travelling at the speed of light—there is no way to make that faster the speed of light is the maximum speed anything can travel—so imagine now we have sent a robot to mars that is remotely controlled from Earth—as it goes about its business of exploring the Martian landscape it takes four minutes for us to get its information and four minutes for it to get our instructions which is clearly too long a time if the robot encounters cliffs for example—so what do we do? Well we build in rules into the robot e.g. if you come to cliffs avoid them. This is sort of like what are genes do for us. However, what are genes are able to do also is allow for parameter input—that is to say the general principles are set out but they allow for more data to be used in order to make the best decisions. So take for example the principle of ‘be fair to people’—this is a general principle that is set by our genes say—now the parameter can then vary from society to society depending on how it works best—there is no universal definition of fairness but it uses the details of the particular society to set its standard.
For a further demonstration our inbuilt moral judgements—consider two scenarios
1) You are driving along in your new sports car and you see a little girl at the side of the road bleeding. He can take her to the hospital but it will cost you time and money to clean the bloody seat—€200.
2) You see video on TV of children in some poor country that need €50 to save 25 of their lives.
Now most of you will say that in case 1 you are obliged to help the little girl and in case 2 most of you will not believe that you are obliged to send the money—although most of you will sympathise you won’t be under huge moral pressure to help. What this indicates is that our genes have not adapted with our psychology to the ever increasing distances that we can communicate in the modern world. Our genes are no used to dealing with great distances and our psychology is having trouble with it too.
 Harris, S., “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (Free Press, 2006)
 Twain, M., “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (Adamant Media Corporation, 1999)
 Hobbes, T., “Leviathan” MacPherson, C. B. Ed. (Penguin Classics, 1985) p 187 Part I Chap XIII
 Hauser, M. D., “Moral Minds” (Harper Collins, 2006)
 Ibid. ( pg 40
 Dawkins, R., “The Selfish Gene” (3rd ed Oxford University Press, 2006)
 Ibid. ( at chapter 3
 For a look at the statistical relationship of family look at Ibid. chapter 6
 Ibid. ( chapter 5
 Quoted in Ridley, M., “The Origins of Virtue” (Penguin, 1996)
 Dawkins, R., “The God Delusion” (Transworld Publishers, 2006) at p216
 Smith, A., “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (Regnery Gateway, 1999)
 Ridley, M., “The Origins of Virtue” (Penguin, 1996) at p82
 This analogy is loosely based on Prof. Dawkins’ analogy in his book: Dawkins, R., “The Selfish Gene” (3rd ed Oxford University Press, 2006) at p55
 Hauser, M. D., “Moral Minds” (Harper Collins, 2006) at p71
 Ibid. (
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