What Is Morality?
By Steve Gillman
To answer the question, "What is morality?" it helps
to think about where the idea came from. A word just labels a
concept, which is "a general idea derived or inferred from
specific instances or occurrences." Concepts are our way
of identifying and communicating reality. They arise for some
purpose, which we can usually decipher if we think about them
Nouns are the most obvious, arising from our need to distinguish
between things when we want to communicate information. Just
imagine us humans back in a more primitive time. Those tall woody
things are distinct from other things, and to think or talk about
them we name this concept "tree." A grunt of hunger
becomes the "word" for "meat, and another sound
becomes the word for "water," making communication
easier and survival more likely.
It's even relatively easy to imagine the origin of higher
concepts. For example, consider the usefulness of being able
to say "It is similar to a deer," when describing a
new animal. Now imagine a stone-age man coming into camp excited.
The others sense that he saw an animal, and say their word for
"lion." He says no. One says the word for deer, and
instead of saying "sim," their word for "yes,"
he says "simi," modifying it slightly. This eventually
becomes the word "similar."
Now... what is morality? What reality does the word point
towards? How could this concept arise, and for what useful purpose?
Here is a possible explanation, using a simple story.
The Origin of Morality
It started as a sound that most of them made when they were
being groomed by the others. "Goo," a human would say
as another combed through his hair, removing any bugs there.
It was a sound they made when feeling pleasure. On the other
hand, when they sat around each night, fearful of the animals
that lurked in the darkness, and huddling together to try to
stay warm, they sometimes whimpered "ba." It was a
sound of fear or pain or anxiety.
One day a father was teaching his son what to eat while they
were on a hunt. He ate some berries and made the sound, "goo."
His son then ate some. When the boy tried to eat poisonous berries,
his father recalled his painful experience with them and made
the sound "ba." Later the son pointed at mushrooms,
and said, "goo?" His father waved him away and said
"ba." At this point these were no longer just sounds.
The father and son had invented words to represent the concepts
of good and bad.
Soon the others followed their lead. A man would stop another
from leaving the cave at night by saying "ba." Another
might play-act the motions of making a fire, and a "goo"
or two would encourage him to start actually making it. Soon
the people found it useful to designate many things and actions
as "goo" or "ba." It was a simple and powerful
way to communicate knowledge that helped them survive. This is
"goo" and should be pursued; this is "ba"
and should be avoided.
Of course this idea of good and bad was bound to develop into
more complicated applications. As more words were invented, rules
of "goo" and "ba" were developed. The sentence,
"meat - six days old - ba" became a "moral principle."
This first "morality," was simply a code for the achievement
of survival. Eating old meat caused sickness and death - something
that needed to be communicated. Such rules were useful, to say
From a simple designation of the good or bad properties of
things, morality had developed into a system of ideas of right
and wrong conduct. A mother told her son "ba" when
he hit his sister, and "goo" when he brought home fish
for dinner. "Hit our people ba," became a moral law
for the members of the tribe, probably followed by "Hit
outsiders goo." Only thousands of years later would there
be general moral laws about not assaulting or killing strangers.
Of course, "goo" and "ba" were a matter
of context. Killing outsiders sometimes assured survival, and
other times it made matters worse. Some individuals might have
seen these finer moral distinctions and complexities, but the
unity of the tribe was of enough importance to survival that
individual judgments were discouraged in favor of absolute moral
laws. This lead to a higher rate of survival at the time, compared
to those tribes who had more chaos due to a lack of this moral
"Goo" and "ba" eventually became the words
"good" and "bad", and were used to create
large systems of rules and laws. With the invention of writing,
these could be passed down through the generations more easily.
The word "morality" was invented to describe these
systems. The concept of morality distinguished between actions
that could be labeled "good" or "bad", like
stealing from or helping another, and those more neutral choices
and actions which aren't moral issues, like whether to have chicken
or fish for dinner.
This story is speculation, but consider the logic of the general
outline. Words do come into being to serve a purpose. Most of
the earliest religious writings fit this theory perfectly. They
prescribe moral laws about how to prepare food, what to eat and
not eat, and other things related to basic health and survival.
Only later in history do we get the more abstract "love
thy neighbor as thyself." In fact, this development from
mundane practicalities to abstract moral philosophy is especially
clear if you compare the old testament of the Bible to the New
Testament. The two books together show a fairly dramatic development
of human thought on these things.
If the concept of morality came from the basic need for survival,
"right" or "good" was, in its simplest form,
that which protects and preserves the life of the individual
or the group. "Wrong," "bad" or "evil"
was that which harms or destroys the individual or group. The
highest value, life, was followed in importance by health and
safety and the things that promote life. This moral system, then,
was a guide for achieving important values, with life as the
ultimate value in this hierarchy of values.
Furthermore, since the impulse to live and to thrive is in
the individual, true morality puts the individual life
first in importance, and the group as secondary. The group is
important to the individual, of course, and so has to be a part
of his morality, but it has to be lower in the hierarchy. A man
might choose to serve the tribe for selfish reasons, because
it protects him, for example.
Systems that place the group higher than the individual may
have seemed necessary in the past, and may be be reinvented regularly
because of poor thinking. But they are often perpetuated and
maintained because they benefit some specific individuals. In
other words, it is useful to those in power to have you place
their interests (which they will call the interest of the group)
above yours, but don't expect them to return the favor.
What is morality then? It is a system of principles that guides
us to survive and thrive as individuals. Life is the primary
value that it achieves, with all other values subservient to
that. Individually, we each place our own life at the apex of
this hierarchy of values...
Continued here: The Meaning
Authors Note: These pages are speculation, an attempt
to look at things in new ways. My own experience (and certainly
that of others) tells me there is a "natural morality"
which is experienced as our "conscience." In other
words, we are born with a sort of "moral compass,"
which is based on compassion. It extends even to other life forms
(we feel it is wrong to abuse an animal, for example).
With few exceptions, this is universal in humans. But it's
not necessary to hypothesize an "intelligent designer"
to recognize this. It is also easy to see that it is in our own
self interest to "do the right thing." Being cruel,
unjust or otherwise immoral does not give people anything of
real value. Experience shows us this, as do the latest scientific
studies of happiness levels in those who practice the conscious
development of compassion.
In regards to this page, then, I am not suggesting that morality
is invented, but only pointing out how the intellectual concept
developed. I am also suggesting that a "forced" or
artificial moral system which makes others the ultimate value
results in a perversion of natural moral feelings and actions.