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Reflections on Ethics 61
Morality: invention or discovery?

by: Bernardo Arroyo

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I have been thinking about morality since I saw the videos from the "Beyond Belief" conference. We agnostics and atheists seem to agree that the human notion of morality does not come from gospels, from historically improbable super heroes or from ancient myth. We also seem to agree that the writers of such fiction may have projected their own morality on their writings, therefore immortalizing a flawed and partial morality, rather than misinterpreted or misquoted the "true word of god". Apart from that, there seems to be little agreement.

Some say that morality is somehow an evolutionary result, specifically for the case of humans. Some say that the simple concepts of good and bad are evolutionary pointers that assign instinctive value to behaviors that are convenient or inconvenient for the human species. Some seem to imply that the concepts of good and bad are somehow intuitive or axiomatic. These arguments, regardless of their mutual areas of agreement and disagreement, seem to point towards morality as being a set of more or less complete rules, already present in the human intellect at birth.

Does that mean that other animals also have moral codes? What if morality doesn't really exist, unless we invent it?

Animals in the wild steal, cheat, deceive and kill all the time. Families or related groups, however, seem to have some basic rules of cooperation. Is that their version of a simpler morality?

In my usual speculative non-expert way, I would suggest that human morality is a relatively modern invention. Perhaps developed from these basic rules of cooperation. But mostly a pact of sorts drawn from our need to feel safe. In other words, if we could all agree not to kill, steal, or harm each other, we would feel safer and would be able to concentrate better on gathering, hunting, agriculture or whatever we did at that time. From that point to our days, a thousand different ways to convince people have been devised; and a thousand different ways to enforce the pact have been tried. It all comes down to education in the end.

The cynics might say that those who knowingly ignore the pact while the others follow it, will be the ones to thrive and dominate. Who knows, but some people behave like non-human animals. And not just the sociopathic cases. They steal and cheat their way through life and don't seem to have remorse at all. Perhaps they have simply decided not to adhere to the pact or don't even know there is one. Perhaps morality is not so natural in our intellect as it has been suggested by some.

This doesn't mean that religion is necessary for human harmony, like many believers say. If anything at all, it may show that education is far more important than religion or evolution or intuition, when talking about morality.