The origins of morality, the glue that binds human societies

Jumping off from Hector Gamboa’s excellent piece Evolution-based Morality? Don’t Pick Up the Soap!, I thought I’d share my own readings on the controversial subject of the origins of morality.

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt makes a case for the way morality arose as humans evolved stronger and stronger tendencies towards groupish behaviour that conferred survival and competitive advantages over other tribes, groups and communities, and even other species with regard to collecting and accumulating resources.

straight_and_narrowAccording to Haidt, moral codes evolved to temper individualistic and selfish motivation in individual humans just enough to enable the close cooperation and socialisation with one another needed to form and achieve collective goals. Communities that successfully internalised effective codes of collective behaviour — i.e. “morality” — tended to be the ones that were better-organised to accumulate resources and defeat rival groups.

I also recall another book (I forget the title) that highlighted differences between the cultures and even individual temperaments in people depending on the type of resources their communities managed. According to the research, cultures that depended primarily on herding livestock evolved to be more insecure and quick to act on impulse while cultures that depended primarily on cultivation and gathering tended to be more regimented and structured. The “morality” of herding cultures tended to be more tolerant to swift harsh summary justice, while the “morality” of cultivators and gatherers tended towards deferring to supernatural forces or entities for guidance.

The theory that emerged out of these observations, as I recall, is that herds of livestock, as community assets, are more volatile, prone to theft, and, as such, demand a management approach that favours a quickness to respond to even the slightest perceived threats. Cultivating and gathering societies, on the other hand, organise their community activities and resource management approaches around stable cycles — such as annual seasons over which planting and harvests, say, are scheduled.

This could explain both (a) differences in religion and (b) different ways the same religion may be practiced by different societies or cultures.

In short, good and bad are relative and framed by the context of the demands of the circumstances of one or the other society within which moral codes evolved. To Hector’s example of the circumstances of Eskimo communities that explain their practice of infanticide, I add the example of the theorised differences between herdsmen and farmers above.

Going back to Haidt’s research, there are still common denominators across societies and cultures. Things like control of internal violence, senses of fairness and justice, and respect for property are consistent features across stable societies regardless of scale and culture. However, people in every society, understandably, tend to see the application of these codes as not extending beyond their respective communities — which is why it is easy for people to effect violence on individuals from “other” societies (such as in war) while maintaining an ordered peace amongst their own “kind”. This is a natural outcome of the competitive pressures that shaped the evolution of human societies and culture. In a harsh environment where resources are scarce it makes survival and competitive sense to trust members of your own community or “your own kind” and regard “outsiders” or “others” with suspicion and even contempt. Acquiring energy sources and food and territory to settle are costly collective endeavours for competing tribes and communities. So the motivation to secure that investment from “them” is paramount in every human society.

The only difference between then and now is that we as a species, presumably, have gained an improved ability to be more self-aware and conscious of the primal motivations that evolution has implanted in our minds and the collective characters (cultures) of our societies. While these were essential to the survival and thriving of human communities in the past, they no longer serve us well under more modern approaches to regulating ourselves. The concept of multiculturalism, for one, is a modern achievement in overcoming our inherent distrust of “others”. Religion, which evolved as one of the strong social mechanisms for gluing communities together into cohesive forces is increasingly losing its central place in modern societies, making way to more intellectually-based secular governance doctrine. Science has now largely replaced superstition and belief in supernatural forces as a framework for acquiring and managing resources.

Nonetheless, our sense of what is “moral” today continues to trace its roots to the culture of our respective groups, communities, and cultures. The only way forward is to continue evolving in the direction of a heightening of our awareness of the circumstances of the “others”.


Post Author: benign0

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7 Comments on "The origins of morality, the glue that binds human societies"

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a day's learning

remarkable concepts that would take a lot of readings and contemplation- so easily wrapped up in a nutshell.. excellent piece. thanks


“Do not do unto others; what you do not want others do unto you….” states some Buddhist teachings. Morality is relative. The German Nazis murdered millions of people; and they call this “morally right”…The Islamic Radical terrorist murdered innocent hostages. And, they call this, “morally upright” , according to their Radical Islamic beliefs.

Aquino and his political followers stole millions of pesos from the National Treasury. And, they claim to have clear consciences in doing the stealing.

I will not disagree with the totality of what BenignO is writing here. It is the same thing I am reading from other references. One can’t disagree with things that make sense, or that which jives with commonsense. Where I will disagree is with his prognosis of religion, and I quote Pew Research Center. Quote..There is a long history of people predicting the demise of religion, but religion has proven more resilient than many people anticipated. Prior predictions were rooted in theories about social change rather than demographic data. For instance, some social scientists argued that people would move away… Read more »
a day's learning
if such things do really jive with “common” sense, then there wouldn’t have to be any arguments against them. The entirety of the article proceeds from the basic premise that morality arose as product of evolutionary processes, a concept which is just one among the spectrum of theories explaining the existence and phenomena of moral belief systems. For others somehow, how evolution theory would explain (if it could) the phenomena of what people worldwide commonly call as “guilt”, or “conscience”, or human’s aversion to “evil” and other points of controversy regarding ethics or morality hardly make sense… unless one is… Read more »

Don’t let your special character and values, the secret that you know and no one else does, the truth – don’t let that get swallowed up by the great chewing complacency.