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Discussion 1 to Reflections on Ethics 61
Morality: invention or discovery?

by: Gordon Barker

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It would seem to me that morality is just a rationalization of the behaviours that we as a species or we as a culture have developed that help us survive.

I have always been a fan of the Darwinian approach and the question of morality seems to one of those problems that seem complex but could be created by simpler mechanisms.

Step out of your human skin for a while and consider the situation from the point of view of, say, a lion. What if lions were suddenly intelligent and were considering their place in the universe and their own moral code. Up until the time they obtained their self awareness, we would consider them to be doing “just what lions do”. After becoming self aware, the lion might ask “what governs my behaviour” (perhaps a Sophist like Socrates but in lion form).

The lion might look at the cheetah and say “I steal food from the Cheetah, but they are not fully Lions and therefore below us on the evolutionary scale” (assuming there was a Darwin Lion of course). “Also, We live alone from other Lions because we are powerful and unafraid of any other earthly creature”. “Wildebeests are just animals and have been given by the Creator for us to eat”. They may even develop rules for when to steal from a cheetah and what wildebeest to eat. Perhaps this is just an extension of their subconscious choices. A new leader of a pride kills all the cubs from the last leader. We see this a maximizing the likelihood that the new leaders genes would be passed down to future generations. Who knows what reason a self aware Lion would come up with to explain and justify this (now) barbaric behaviour.

These are just behaviours that developed to support the existence of the Lion line, coupled with a made-up rationalization. Take away the rationalization and we would say this behaviour is “nature in balance” (but then again, we tend to simplify complex issues down to sound bytes).

Lions steal from cheetahs but no so much that the cheetah dies of hunger. Lions eat wildebeests but not so much that the wildebeest herds die out.

But if the Lions begin to multiply and expand their territory, begin to steal too much from the cheetahs so that they die off, and eat too many wildebeests so that the herds dwindle, the Lions might begin to starve and their civilization crumble and ask “why has my god(s) abandoned me”. From the outside, we would say the stupid lions have overrun their environment and are subject to a natural die off according to predator/prey relationships.

Morality is an expression of the behaviours and rules for interaction that make our species and/or culture viable. They are not absolute and must change with the evolution of the species and culture. If they don’t trouble is inevitable.

If you take a morality that would benefit a species say, around the 1st century when life was very hard, medicine largely unknown and it was mandatory to have 10 children to end up with some that would survive and look after you in your old age (say 35 to 40 years old) and you maintain that morality to today when infant mortality is a fraction of what it was, you would end up with an exploding population that would eventually outstrip its environment.

The same reasoning can be applied to cultures. If say, 200 years ago, it was important for everyone to know how to load, fire and care for a rifle because you lived in an environment where your neighbour was 3 miles away and anyone could be attacked by wild animals or be called upon to serve in the militia to defend your village and/or country, and you extend this to today when your neighbour is 2 feet away and playing his music too loud or cuts you off in his car, then problems might just arise.

Sound familiar? From the outside if you saw this behaviour in a species I suspect your conclusions would not be kind.