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What Is Morality?

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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 a bit.

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." Of course this is my own speculative idea, but it fits with what we know of human psychology and how children start to use language.

By the way, you can click here to learn more about how you can become an expert in the field of psychology. 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 the least.

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 "guidance".

"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.

The Truth?

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 of Morality


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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.


Radical New Thoughts | What Is Morality?