Goodness and morality

by Marcus Loane


"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."
Albert Einstein


"How can there be morality without god?"

 If a belief in God and a fear of God’s punishment is the only thing keeping you good then it sounds more like coercion into goodness rather than a choice to be good.

First, is there an objective morality? That question can have two meanings.

  1. Does morality somehow hang "out there" separate from us humans?
    I don't think so. It is an interesting question but difficult to test.
  2. Is there a subset of morals that the majority would agree on?
    Now this definition of objective morality is more tractable. I have heard it argued both ways. Different cultures and times in history reveal startling differences in what is considered right and wrong. But I do think there is a (very tiny) subset in common, containing things like "care for your children" or "incest is taboo". (Even those are sometimes annulled in certain cultures or circumstances).

In one sense I would say there was an objective morality although I am not sure if objective is the exact word I would use. I prefer "morality-in-common". It does not imply an external or divine source. It can be explained by biology.

Morals are partly of genetic origin and partly learnt. Some are based on sensible reasoning about the consequences of our actions. Do you want to live in a society where you will be stolen from or killed on a whim? Of course not, and that is why murder and theft are considered immoral and there is usually legislature in place to discourage such behaviour. Note that most societies will agree on this regardless of religious tradition. Morals can be judged by their consequences for society.

Loving thy neighbour as thyself

I said morals are also partly genetic. This may seem strange but it can be explained by evolutionary theory. It applies in humans and other animals. First there is kin selection. That basically means "caring about your relatives". Why do we care about relatives and where does the phrase "blood is thicker than water" come from? It just seems like a natural instinct. Let us say there is a gene or genes which just happen to cause an animal to perform selfless acts for their immediate family group. In a bird it could be to give a warning cry when a predator is spotted. This would help save the lives of the family group (at the cost of drawing the predator's attention to the crier). Now since the bird is related to the group there is a high chance members of the group share many of the same genes (eg. the one for the warning cry). This means that that particular gene has increased the chance of copies of it surviving in other bodies to the one it currently finds itself in. Therefore any such gene would tend to increase in a population.

So a gene for selfless behaviour can have the effect of helping to spread itself. At the organism level it is selfless. At the gene level it is metaphorically selfish. What has this got to do with morality? Rather than considering a gene for specific behaviour we can consider a gene or set of genes that codes for a more general trait such as "caring about close relatives". The same argument applies and these genes will flourish by "looking out for each other" (metaphorically speaking of course) in the bodies of relatives. The closer the relative, the more genes are shared and this is consistent with the degree of caring about relatives being less, the more distant the relative. It is irrelevant what the actual motives of the organism are. It does not need to have knowledge of genes or even be conscious. As long as the genes lead to certain types of altruistic behaviour they can increase in frequency down the generations.

That was kin selection. There is also the evolved behaviour of reciprocal altruism. This is the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" idea and there are many examples in the animal kingdom. It applies to non relatives as well as relatives. I will write a more detailed explanation of this when I have more time. It will show there are sound reasons why this type of behaviour can evolve. Again the actual conscious motives for the behaviour are irrelevant. In humans for example they may have the conscious awareness of really caring about other people and wanting to help them without any thought of gaining anything in return. However if having genes for those traits in actual fact leads to benefits (perhaps indirectly) from the reciprocal behaviour of others, then those genes can proliferate in a population.

So as well as our more selfish traits, some sense of caring for others, "loving your neighbour as yourself" is in our DNA .

There are good evolutionary reasons for other psychological traits related to ethics, such as a sense of justice, fair play, and detection of cheaters. This is well backed up by many examples in non-human species.

While these "moral" traits are part of us, we should not underestimate the effect that cultural influences can have in overriding them. Even the strongest taboos are sometimes overcome. For example sacrificing one's own children or committing incest has been done as a result of religious beliefs.

Supertermite morality

To illustrate how our sense of morality is deeply connected with our genetic makeup (evolutionary history) imagine that termites evolved to become the most intelligent life form rather than primates. The mound building termites of Africa build nests containing millions of inhabitants. The hypothetical intelligent termite descendants would codify the following behaviour which is observed in today's termites: celibacy and non-reproduction of workers, the exchange of symbiotic bacteria by eating one another's faeces, the use of pheromones (chemical secretions) to communicate and routine cannibalism of shed skins and dead or injured family members. Biologist Edward O. Wilson writes the state-of-the-colony speech for supertermites:

"Ever since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved ten kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the late Tertiary Period, and learned to write with pheromonal script, termitic scholarship has elevated and refined ethical philosophy. It is now possible to express the imperatives of moral behavior with precision. These imperatives are self-evident and universal. They are the very essence of termitity. They include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic penetralia of the soil; the centrality of colony life amidst the richness of war and trade with other colonies; the sanctity of the physiological caste system; the evil of personal rights (the colony is ALL!); our deep love for the royal siblings allowed to reproduce; the joy of chemical song; the aesthetic pleasure and deep social satisfaction of eating faeces from nestmates' anuses after the shedding of our skins; and the ecstasy of cannibalism and surrender of our own bodies when we are sick or injured (it is more blessed to be eaten than to eat)."

This suggests that is difficult to argue for the universality of morality. There cannot be absolute right and wrong. Our ideas about right and wrong are products of human biology, with the overlay of cultural evolution which codifies them in conventions, laws and religious rule making. This does not lessen the concept of morality or goodness. It actually makes it more real. It has a real explanation and it has real effects. It strengthens and deepens the concept of morality and goodness.


When teaching morality I think the best approach is to reason out the consequences of actions and to use the golden rule to "not do unto others what you would not want done to yourself".

"Loving your neighbour as yourself" has manifested itself in the sayings of many religious belief systems:

Brahmanism (Hinduism): "This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you" (Mahabharata, 5, 1517).

Christianity: "All things whatsoever ye would that man should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7, 12).

Confucianism: "Is there one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout oneís whole life? Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you" (Analects 15, 23).

Islam: "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself" (Sunnah).

Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary" (Talmud, Shabbat 31d).

Taoism: "Regard your neighbour's gain as your own gain, and your neighbour's loss as your own loss" (Tíai Shang Kan Ying Píien).

Jainism: "The essence of right conduct is not to injure anyone."

Buddhism: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful" (Udana-Varga 5, 18).

Marcus Loane