This is the third in a series of four posts on morality. They are aimed at countering the usual religious claims for a god-given morality with current scientific understanding of how the morality of our species arose. Also, they at tempt to justify a non-theist objective basis for much of the moral decisions we make. The first post (I: Religious confusion) discussed some of the problems religion has in its understanding of morality and the second (II: Objective morality) argues for a non-theist objective basis for morality. This third post discusses human moral instincts.
I think it’s clear that we have moral instincts. We take actions without thinking because our unconscious intuitions dictate that we do. Most of us will instinctively react to save a child in danger (eg., about to run out on to a busy road without looking). And we will sometimes do this even though it threatens our own life.
Our evolution as an intelligent, social species has inevitably left us with intuitions which are unconscious, spontaneous, and usually inaccessible to our conscious minds. These have been necessary for our survival – both in to protect our own lives and those of our kin and in the many interactions we have with other intelligent members of our species.
The fight or flight response, oversensitive agency detection, sexual and hunger responses are obvious. But we also have intuitive feelings for our children, sexual partners and kin. Social intuitions of guilt, judgment, disgust, revulsion, suspicion, trust, fairness and detection of cheating are also present. Attitudes to members of in-groups and out-groups also appear intuitive. Who hasn’t noted how easily human groups develop “them vs us” attitudes.
So, even without applying reason, humans come to spontaneous moral decisions. We are a moral species.
“Natural” doesn’t mean right
However, our intuitions should not be the sole basis for a moral code. I think it’s obvious that an “is doesn’t prove an ought. Just because something is natural it isn’t innately good or right. And if something is unnatural that doesn’t mean it is bad or wrong.
The “them vs us’ instinct is an obvious case. This may have been an adaptive behaviour at earlier stages of human social evolution. Maybe appropriate when we lived in relatively small groups. But that instinctive behaviour is usually inappropriate in today’s world. We may accept it as normal (although potentially dangerous) in sports and parliament. But most of us today find it unacceptable when it comes to religion, belief, ethnicity, skin colour, gender, xenophobia, etc.
Similarly, overdeveloped senses of judgment, suspicion, disgust, etc., can lead to what we would consider morally suspect behaviour towards others.
Often social movements will hijack these unconscious human intuitions. They are able to abuse the ‘them vs us” for politics, religion, military actions, terrorism, etc. Similarly religions and social movements commonly use intuitions of disgust, judgement and. The old attitudes towards marriage, homosexuality and birth out of wedlock are just a few examples. Even today, environmental movements will sometimes use unconscious intuitions like judgement, guilt and disgust.
So basing a moral code on human moral intuitions invites danger – but that hasn’t stopped us. After all, moral codes in the past, and even today, have included justifications for oppression and genocide (by God’s “chosen” people), colonialism, racism, apartheid, segregation, sexual discrimination and religious discrimination. But even these have incorporated some moral logic.
However, although we are an intelligent species, we are a rationalising one rather than a rational one. This is because our natural intuitions include pattern seeking and recognition. Preconception, assuming details about our environment and perception, has evolved naturally as a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, it also plays havoc with our ability to understand the world objectively.
Humans often manipulate logical arguments to produce the wanted conclusion. And it’s easy to see how we can use unconscious moral intuitions, and a rationalising moral “logic,” to justify any desired moral code. Moral relativism is easily based on intuition plus rationalising moral “logic.” And using the authority of a god to sanction the moral code is part of the rationalising process.
Of course, we don’t always use our intelligence in a rationalising way. Moral thinkers have often had ideas of an objective morality. Intelligent consideration of objective moral principles often enables people to break out of the social constraints sufficiently to criticise existing moral codes. We have had opponents of slavery in societies practicing slavery, opponents of racism in racist and apartheid regimes and opponents of sexual discrimination in societies which restricted the human rights of women.
We, as a species, are able to produce documents such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This shows that many of our leaders and thinkers have been able to move beyond natural intuitions and social constraints. We can access ideas of objective morality and intelligently apply moral logic to these questions.
So, in conclusion: We are naturally a moral species. Moral intuitions are inherent in us all. These can result in bad moral decisions as well as good ones. Fortunately we are also an intelligent species. This enables us to move beyond our unconscious intuition. We can discover objective moral principles. And we can apply intelligent logic to those principles, our intuitions and our material situations to produce modern international humane moral codes.
In the next article (Human Morality IV: Role of religion) I will discuss the role of religion on moral questions.