Where does morality originate? What are good and evil?
I suppose for many people, morality, a knowledge of good and evil and a compulsion to do the right thing, arises from religious considerations. Evil, or immorality, is what offends God. This knowledge comes from Scripture and from religious teachers. We are taught in our religious education about good and evil, and we are encouraged to do good. This seems to be a pretty universal human trait. People want to be good and do good, even though there does seem to be some disagreement about what those terms mean, from person to person, from religion to religion, and even in each of us over time. And most of us recognize that we are often not consistent over time in our moral behavior. Still, there does seem to be some general understanding and agreement of good and evil inherent to all people, regardless of their religious beliefs.
I was brought up in a family with no religious beliefs. We were not atheists, it was understood that there might very well be a God; but we knew little, if anything about him. We really had no way of knowing whether or not there was a God, and if there was one, whether or not he had a plan for us, or a set of rules for us to follow. We didn’t even know if God was aware of our existence even if he did exist, or if he was still active in the world’s affairs. I was taught that there were many different Gods, each culture and nation had one, but that they all had certain beliefs in common, things like the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule. And it was understood these were pretty good rules to live by even if it turned out there was no God at all.
Like most people, I adhered to the concepts of religion as they were taught in my family, in my house; a good clue that those religious philosophies taught in other houses and families were of, at best, equivalent value. At an early age, I thought there was a God, but he had little to do with the being discussed in the world’s religions or in Scripture. I thought he, or it, was something more like the Force in Star Wars, a vague natural tendency like Entropy. By the time I was a teenager, I cast even that belief aside. While still recognizing that I might be mistaken, I came to accept that it was highly unlikely that a God existed. I ould see the universe was random and indifferent. There were precise physical laws that dealt with purely technical issues like electricity and gravity, but as long as those laws were observed, everything else was pretty much chaotic. If there were any rules, we got to make them up as we went along. The moral and ethical universe was strictly a human concern. All I could see around me was matter and energy interacting in time and space.
I like to think that this is not an arrogant statement. I do recognize there is much that is wonderful and mysterious about the universe, that it is much greater and fantastic than I can think or conceive, and that there is something behind the mask of reality I will never begin to understand. I even think of myself as a highly spiritual person. I just can’t imagine the traditional human concept of a God has anything to do with it. It seems too simple, too childish, too easy. There must be more to all this than just that.
Still, the idea of good and evil still persists. I believe in it, although I can’t really explain why. Maybe it was the result of my upbringing, my family and culture, my community and early education. Maybe it was wired into us by evolution–we are social creatures and we must learn to live and work together in groups to survive. Group loyalty must be a survival trait. The rugged individualist gets no help from the other monkeys in the troop. He is not trusted, not cherished, and probably doesn’t survive long enough to pass his selfishness to his progeny. But the kiss-ass pushover probably doesn’t last long either. Sure, primates have their hierarchies, and our sense of being good to others and to the group is always in conflict with our desire to find our place in the clan, to rise to the top–to compete for dominance. There must be a gradient with all levels present, from totally selfless to completely selfish, and as the environment changes the mix adjusts to meet conditions. Its all natural selection.
And how does nature do this? We have inherited empathy along with aggression. Personally, I don’t enjoy watching others suffer, even those I cannot stand, or even beasts. I can easily kill an animal if I feel I need to, to eat or defend myself, but I derive no pleasure from it and cannot understand people who do. It makes me upset, even physically ill when I see a human being or an animal in pain. But I know I could probably kill if I convinced myself I had to in order to survive. I was fortunate I never was in combat, because (with military training and motivation) I could probably kill someone I had no quarrel with or hatred for, simply because I knew he was under the same compulsion himself. I am prepared to kill a perfect stranger who threatens my home, family or myself, although I have no way of knowing if, when that moment comes, I shall actually be able to force myself to do so. There are actually people who look forward to that moment, when they have the right to kill someone. I find them incomprehensible.
I recognize I am not alone in these feelings. In fact, I consider most of my fellow humans feel the same. At least, the ones I want to associate with. I don’t like people who like to hurt others.
We are torn between these two poles, loyalty to those in our group, and the ability to be aggressive against those who threaten that group. Evolution must have to balance these two contradictory forces. It can’t be easy, and its no wonder sometimes it doesn’t work. But that is what morality is, not necessarily violence and aggression, but any of the other ways we have of hurting each other in our complex societies, theft; betrayal, deceit…all those things the religions warn us against. This is sin, not what offends God, but what offends our fellow men, and our own humanity.