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.

Subscribe to our Substack community GRP Insider to receive by email our in-depth free weekly newsletter. Opt into a paid subscription and you'll get premium insider briefs and insights from us.
Subscribe to our Substack newsletter, GRP Insider!
Learn more

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”.

7 Replies to “The origins of morality, the glue that binds human societies”

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

  2. “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.

  3. 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 from religion as they encountered religions different from their own, or as they achieved economic security or as they became more educated… Unquote

    So one could appreciate the context, that quote was taken from here >>

    China is in fact a puzzle, but … quote… Some observers, including Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang, claim that, due to religious switching, Christianity in China is rapidly growing. …unquote

    The study of Pew Research is an attempt to answer the question: “What will the world’s religious landscape look like a few decades from now?” The projections they did through the year 2050 using various demographic factors can be found here >> . It is OPEN to ALL SORTS of INTERPRETATIONS.

    But, Pew Research itself notes the following key points (as can be seen here >> ):

    1) Muslims are the fastest-growing major religious group because they have the highest fertility rate and the youngest population.
    2) The share of the world’s population that is Christian is expected to remain steady (at about 31%), but the regional distribution of Christians is forecast to change significantly.
    3) The number of religiously unaffiliated people, also known as religious “nones,” is increasing in places such as the United States and Europe, and we project continued growth. .. The unaffiliated are expected to decrease as a share of the world’s population between 2010 and 2050 (from 16% to 13%).
    4) At mid-century, Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion in the U.S.: Muslims are projected to be more numerous than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.
    5) Buddhists will decline as a share of the world’s population (from 7% in 2010 to 5% 2050).
    6) Indonesia is currently home to the world’s largest Muslim population, but that is expected to change. By 2050, the study projects India to be the country with the largest number of Muslims – more than 310 million
    7) ……But if they are extended into the second half of this century, the projections forecast Muslims and Christians to be roughly equal in number around 2070, with Muslims the slightly larger group after that year.

    With the projected rise of Islam, and being infidels, we would like to think that ..
    Quote .. 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… Unquote.

    If religion is a human construct, or just a product of past necessities, it sure is a persistent phenomenon. Is it still part of the evolutionary process that has become complex in this day and age? Or, have we come to an age when humans could dictate evolution as they please that any model on rationality we have had so far may no longer be enough? On the other hand, is there something rational about religion? Is there rationality in ignoring it for it is “irrational”? Or, should we take a serious look at its irrationality, not only because of its persistence, but because of the possibility that we may indeed be dealing with something supernatural? If Islam is a human construct, then its rise could be checked by human creativity, development, and solutions. But, if Islam is a supernatural evil, then it could only be stopped by supernatural good. But, could we be open to the concept that there might be one, true religion which could be of divine construct?

    Whatever, it is interesting that evolution and Christianity have arrived at the same commonsensical notion:

    Quote.. The only way forward is to continue evolving in the direction of a heightening of our awareness of the circumstances of the “OTHERS”. Unquote

    1. I agree. As Christianity declines in wealthy societies (along with their populations), the infidels will, once again, threaten the gates of the crusaders, so to speak, and re-claim Jerusalem. Unlike Christendom which has been so gentrified by secularism that they now open their doors to the enemy, other more primitive societies remain solidly unified by their craze for the supernatural.

      Religion was the mechanism that kept European society on their guard and protective of their society’s cohesiveness. Now their multicultural hubris had crossed the line and allowed dangerous cultures that they had spent centuries subduing to infiltrate their cities. Indeed, as you said, the biggest irony today is that the cultivated rationality of the advanced world turned out to be the traitor that opened the gates to the barbarians who remain unified and moved by their traditional beliefs and sense of moral supremacy (a sense of supremacy fueled by, you guessed it, religion).

      We forget that the survival of species is all about population. The species and the cultures with the greatest numbers win the game hands down. A society may be poor, but if they got the headcount (wretched as those heads may be), they will eventually engulf the planet.

      1. So, if we pursue the topic some more, it is after all something relevant to PHL. The topic was started by Hector an article, or two, back, and there were complaints it had nothing to do with PHL. Don’t think any topic, any idea, is irrelevant; it is just that some are more important, or some are more urgent than others. But, there is always no harm in thinking.

        Well, if we think of evolution, or the survival of the fittest, then we have to wipe out the MILF??? But having said that the way forward is to be conscious of “others”, then we have to consider the right to self-determination of minorities, etc. etc.?? But, there is no way we can talk about correcting history as proposed by Igbal and the treasonous tandem of Deles and Ferrer? Evolution is always about moving forward — correcting history is something unnatural.

  4. 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 so biased or contented with one preferred worldview as to attempt at feeble explanations of such other issues just to be consistent.

    Likewise, for some people it does not so easily make sense to think that perhaps morality could have also evolved in animals and other living organisms the same way humans do since the inclination towards herdish or colonyish behaviour is observable among them.

    In fact, a few in the scientific community suggested “animals are moral creatures too”.
    But for some, especially common people, this concept is plain absurd.

    Same old some of the most used, weary, common arguments of course. Evolution vs. Constructs, Creation, Intelligent Design; Constructs vs. Creation, etc.. blah blah.

    Pondering whether it’s morality or religion that is the stronger glue that binds societies together is for some, a mental exercise as consuming, however enjoyable it is, as reading theoretics that when solved, yield no real results to everyday living. Sometimes, some people are just not really into contents, but more into form. They choose to rather comment in on their admiration for a well-crafted article than type into cyber ether whatever disagreements or agreeable supplements brewing in their mind about the content matter, inasmuch as some people should have to bloviate first, or assume, of things that are to their view supposedly matters of common knowledge before conveying their opinions.

  5. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.