Morality sans Bible

Pretty much every society, culture, and even religion has their own version of the “Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule says, essentially:

Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.

This Rule is old. Like, old old. Again, it’s found in the texts of pretty much every major religion. Christianity’s got their version, Islam’s got theirs – even Zoroastrians, Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains. If this is not evidence suggesting the Rule (and what some consider the basis of ethics) is not founded in religion, consider that the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians featured it in their texts, and that it can be found in Hammurabi’s code of the ancient Babylonians.

If not because “God made it,” why does the Golden Rule exist? How did we figure out that we need to be good to other people, and that we shouldn’t be bad? How did we even determine what good and bad are? Instead of giving credit to the supernatural, let’s try the practical approach: human evolution.

I should mention right now, before I get ahead of myself, that this doesn’t specifically pertain to human evolution, as some form or another of morality/ethics is evident in other species such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, dolphins, lions, penguins, elephants, and even bats (to name only a few of many). So really, morality has to do not with human evolution, but with the evolution of social animals.

But, being that we’re human, I’ll focus on us.

As far back as when our monkey-like ancestors were still living primarily in trees, we’ve been a social animal, which means particular social “rules” must have existed for a very, very long time. Why? Because without rules, there won’t be cooperation, and a functioning, progressive “society” could not exist.

Close your eyes. Now open them. Magically, you’ve been flung back in time into the body of Bobor, an ancient ancestor of yours, part of a quaint tribe of early hominids living in the outskirts of a forest near the edge of a hot, grassy plain.

Bobor’s role in the tribe is that of a hunter. Every day he and the other men venture into the jungle with crude weapons in the hopes that they will come back in the evening with plenty of food for the tribe. In order to catch their prey, the hunters must cooperate. Sometimes their prey is far larger than just one man, but when two or three work together they are perfectly able to bring it down. The men know that if they do not work together, they will likely not find any food and for that they and their tribe will suffer.

In the evening, Bobor and the other hunters return home with plenty of food. The rest of the tribe is happy because they are hungry, and now they can eat. The women of the tribe cut up the food and prepare it for eating. Soon, the whole tribe is sitting down and enjoying their dinner. Bobor is happy because he got to help feed the tribe. The rest of the tribe is happy with Bobor (and the other hunters) for the same reason.

While they are eating Bobor notices that a hunter, Kraduk, is trying to take food from another tribe member. A fight breaks out, and the tribe member whose food Kraduk was attempting to steal, ended up dead. Bobor and the rest of the tribe begin yelling at Kraduk. The man he killed was another hunter, and so now they will have one less in their hunting party when they go out in the morning.

Angry, the tribe shuns Kraduk for making life more difficult. With Kraduk an outcast, the hunters head out in the morning, now with two less men than the day before. When they encounter their prey, they find it much more difficult to take down. Bobor and another hunter are injured but ultimately they manage to kill their prey and take it back to the rest of the tribe.

Despite Kraduk’s killing of the other hunter, the tribe manages to survive another day, but they will not forget what Kraduk has done, and they will remember the hardships they suffered (one dead, two injured, and one outcast) as a result.

Morality, at least for humans, could easily have spawned from a situation like Bobor’s and Kraduk’s. It was not as a result of religion (though the tribe may or may not have practiced a very primitive form of religion), but simply because of a need for cooperation and cohesion.

Even if Kraduk’s crime had simply been theft, or as petty as lying about something, this could have created distrust which may have shaken the cohesiveness of the entire tribe. So rules are made, whether they’re written down, spoken, or simply understood: don’t lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or kill. The success of your tribe depends on it. Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.

These rules would even spread among other tribes, and dictate how members of one tribe should (or should not) treat members of another. If you kill members of another tribe, the rest of their tribe might come and kill you right back. Or they’ll kill someone else in your tribe. And then your tribe may realize you were the cause of this, and you may be outcast, and now your tribe is two members less than it was before and their chances of success have lessened because of it.

Okay. Close your eyes, and open them again. You’re you again. You are the result of millions of years of cooperation. It seems to be working, so please don’t go and screw things up.

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5 thoughts on “Morality sans Bible

  1. That’s a very nice “just so” story. And it may even be somewhat accurate. Of course, if it is then we shouldn’t fail to understand what it really means. Cooperation and other forms of morality certainly work and we shouldn’t screw it up. But cooperation isn’t really “good.” And stealing or killing aren’t really “bad.” Our brains have evolved to think certain actions are good or bad, but that’s just neurochemistry after all.

  2. I’ve always wondered how pure altruism (actions committed without the possibility of reciprocity) would arise in evolutionary morality. Pure altruism is one of the things humans typically value quite highly, and yet it either provides no benefit or extra difficulty in regards to survival, at both the macro and gene level. The prominence of such a practically irrational behavior is hard to explain through evolution.

    • Good concept poppies. I think pure altruism, if it truly exists, could have evolved simply because it makes the altruistic person feel better about themselves and each kind act strengthens the group by its very definition. An altruistic act must have some benefit for the recipient. Maybe cave-guy Bobor did a few kinds acts for no good reason. This may have made him feel some sense of satisfaction and so became a better Bobor who the cave-ladies liked. Bobor is more confident and self assured. Multiply thousands of generations and the tribes with that gene flourish. Question solved, now on to cold fusion….

  3. A bad story told well is better than a good story told poorly. This is the former. I commend your creativity.

    Is it still wrong to kill because it hinders survival of the tribe or have humans evolved inherent value?

    I have a “just so” story also. It has the same historical merit as yours. But mine says that one tribe should learn to always annihilate other tribes, because of competition for resources. Therefore, ancient almost-humans would have gained the moral of “kill your neighbor, before they eat your hotdog” (they probably didn’t have hotdogs back then, but this is my “just so” story). Or…

    “All humans have inherent value.” This statement explains love, moral ought, even altruism. But the question is, where does this value come from…or, rather, who does the value come from? (that’s a rhetorical question, I think you know what I’m getting at).

    Good story, bad “moral”.

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