What makes us moral and ethical beings?
For some the idea that our moral behavior is an evolved trait is disconcerting. But, we can see signs of morality in other animals. Animals who live in groups have social rules. They have standards for behavior. For example, you have probably seen a nature show where the young cub tugs on and bites at the older male. The older male does not hurt or kill the young cub. The standard of behavior is that older stronger lions don’t hurt younger, weaker ones. Here is a short New York Times article about primate morality. Here is another link about animal morality. It seems that moral behavior is more common than we might think in the natural world.
This idea is upsetting to some. Often our human ability to be moral is given as evidence of how we are different than other animals. ( I’ve written about that difference a few times on this blog, here for example. Or search under “animals” to find more.) The idea that other animals may be moral doesn’t upset me. I find it hopeful and reassuring that morality appears to be part of what it means to be an animal. Morality would be a good thing to have throughout the natural world.
Some think that to suggest an evolutionary role for ethics and morality reduces or removes God’s role from the event. But it seems to me, if God wanted a sense of moral, ethical behavior deeply and permanently embedded in us, DNA is the way to go. Religious and cultural norms can be ignored or rejected, but it is hard to defy biology.
It is always good to define and understand the terms one is using, so here is a link from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Morality. When I searched that site for “ethics” 1373 entries were found. To make things a bit easier, here are the Wikipedia entries for “morality” and “ethics”. Any surprises for you when you read these articles?
To think evolution plays a part in morality doesn’t mean that society and religion don’t also have a place in forming our moral and ethical values. I suspect that all three play a role. Part of my fun this summer will be to do some reading in this area. Any suggestions about what to read?