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Where Does Morality Come From

Where Does the Knowledge of Right and Wrong Come From?

Where Does the Knowledge of Right and Wrong Come From?

Recently in a discussion with a member of one of the revealed religions this was the question she asked.   The angle being that our morality itself comes from God and hence that proves the existence of God and hence it proved her version of God exists.  Now even if we take this view that “morality comes directly from the creator” that doesn’t do anything to prove the existence of any specific version of God.

This is actually a new question for me, just when I had thought I had heard it all now religion isn’t being defended as a keeper of ethics but the source of ethics.

I personally find this preposterous.  I can put together a group of people that have no faith as we use the word in any God, true agnostics or even atheists and most will still have a pretty decent morality even if they were raised by and spend their time with others of the same view point.

Yet recently I  have actually heard the argument from this woman that all law and morality has their roots in the Judeo Christian tradition.  Got that?  All “just law” is based on Judeo Christian ethics.  As if those the native Americans who had never heard of such things had no law, morals or ethics until we came here and desavageized them.  Yes I just invented a word!

While this point for me is a non starter I do think the question of simply, where does morality come from, is an interesting one.

We should ask why do we have morals and ethics and is that unique to humans?  Do any other creatures show kindness and concern for others beyond basic parental instinct?

Well, I know of one verified true story where a pilot whale was being a bully to the smaller dolphins at a marine park.  The trainers got an idea, they drained the tank to where the whale was safe yet stuck and stranded.  The water was only about 3 feet deep.  The dolphins could swim no problem while the whale cried out.  I am pretty sure the “language” of pilot whale and bottle nose dolphin are quite different but the sound of terror and stress is pretty universal.

Now the dolphins had the upper hand and could have tormented their bully but they didn’t, instead they swam around the whale and actually tried to comfort it.  When the water was put back the whale ceased being a bully.  This showed that first the dolphins chose to aid the whale even though it had bullied them.  And more impressive the bully having been stressed and afraid then comforted by the dolphins was able to understand what happened and express what we can only see as gratitude to the dolphins.

Now dolphins are smart I grant you and do have a sort of language but they ain’t humans and have no where close to the comprehension of humans.  We certainly know they haven’t read the bible or the Torah.  I also don’t think they have “profits” that talk to god, do they?  Yet this behavior is something we can only describe as one based on a kind of morality!

In the Wild this is a Sign of Aggression.

In the Wild this is a Sign of Aggression.

Though less evident we see it in dogs that aid or defend their owners in ways that are not fitting with the dog’s normal behavior.  While most stories of “hero dogs” are exaggerated forms of Yellow Journalism, dogs do exhibit this behavior, they even learn “human manners”.

Have you ever seen a dog grin?  It is a clear expression of being happy, in the wild with dogs that don’t know humans and other wild canines like wolves, dingos and coyotes the animals will sometimes behave his way but never when face to face with another animal.  Bearing the teeth is a sign of aggression, even in a “grin”.  Yet dogs that live with humans learn that this is not aggressive and not only don’t see humans smiling as non aggressive, they accept if from other dogs.

Now you may say the dog thing is minor, but it some ways it is more impressive than the dolphins.  This response of bared teeth means danger and aggression is hard wired into the canine brain, yet even dogs taken from the “wild” as pups quickly adapt when raised by humans.

It isn’t morality in and of itself, it is actually an expression of etiquette.   To have etiquette, one must first have a morality of sorts to have any concept of adapting to the etiquette of another being.

There are many examples of cooperation with animals that you have to see as somewhat moral.  When I got my first flock of geese I had always heard they were cooperative more than other birds.  That as they mate for life there is no real need for conflict, but I was not prepared for some of the behaviors I have seen.  When my geese were small and just began to swim, since we have no ponds we provide them stock tanks and kiddie pools.  One day one goose was in the pond the other trying to get in and managed to do so.

Now the tank was pretty crowded and the last goose in had its foot extended back behind itself.  It wasn’t in pain or anything they can bend this way and do so frequently. But it could not manage to pull in its foot.  I was about to go motivate him a bit when I saw something I would never have believed.  One of the other geese looked its brother, cocked its head, considered the issue and then gently as a goose can do used its beak to help the other one by pulling his foot into the tank.  A simple tiny honk honk was exchanged.

Another time I was at a zoo, a young orangutan was playing and its mother got bored and decided to move elsewhere.  It was a really great zoo and nice habitat and she swung across a gap easily.  The young one tried to follow and could not and started to call out.  The mother thought about it, went to the gap, spanned it with her incredibly long arms and legs and formed a body bridge.  Rather than carry her child across it she became a bridge and let the little one clime across her, then went on to sit in a tree and think about whatever it is orangutans contemplate.  This wasn’t just raw protective mother instinct it was a decision to not only help but to teach at the same time, and the child clearly learned.

Now I am not making a case that any animal has the higher morals of a human, just that they have some level of concern for one another and even at times for members of other species and that they act in a way to render aid or comply with etiquette of the same, that folks is morality.  Now this doesn’t prove or disprove that morality is something of what we could call a “gift” from the creator, simply that it isn’t the product of religion.

Where do you think morality comes from?  Is it simply how humans have come to survive, a mere product of evolution?  Is it just innate to life and the higher the life form the higher the ability to develop a moral code of sorts?  Or is morality simply the result of understanding, empathy and compassion for other beings?  Or is it a product of evolution but as part of what some call “intelligent design”?

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3 comments to Where Does Morality Come From

  • Aaron

    What if morality was written into the code of creation itself?

    Have you seen the Nova Special Dogs Decoded? Your article made me think of it. As a dog lover it is, I would have to say my favorite documentary.

    They show how dogs are the only animal that can read human emotional facial expressions other than other humans. Personally I think they are better at it than humans.

    In some ways dogs are the smartest animals next to human beings. I absolutely think they have a sense of morality, of course I think that all of creation does.

    Dog’s Decoded also shows how silver foxes in Russia evolved into a very much dog like creature after only a handful of generations selected merely on the temperament of the animal.

    it is fascinating to me how just selecting behavior can make an animal like a fox more appealing to humans. They began barking, and showing affection, they changed colors, got spots, droopy ears. All just by choosing the more friendly foxes and breading them together.

    It’s almost like Dogs were meant to be a companion of humans.

    Here is a link to the Nova special on Youtube.

    • ModernDeist

      “What if morality was written into the code of creation itself?”

      Good question with some real truth to it, too complex for a comment response and worthy of a post in the future. No time for it this week though most likely.

  • Aaron

    Looking forward to it. This video might help your research, it’s only 10 minutes long but it is the best scientific explination I have heard of free will that is truley free.

    Evidence that suggests to me that there are certain things about the future that even the creator of all things cannot know because they are perfectly random and where designed that way.

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