Listening to a discussion about perceptions of morality and/or amorality in tactics of war, the question came to mind, What is morality, anyhow? I mean, where does it come from? Is the human sense of morality, or peception of morality, evidence of influence from a higher, spiritual source? A creator, perhaps? Does it bear any sort of real authority? Or is it just something thrown into the human psyche coincidentally by "natural selection"? And if it's the latter, is anyone rightfully bound by the moral perceptions of anyone else? Anyone have a perception on this they'd like to share?
Hmmm, a tough one this.
My own personal thought on this is that in the main what we perceive as moral or immoral comes from our social context. The group we are born into provides the framework for how we act in any given situation, acts that are considered ‘bad’ by the group, acts that harm one or more members of the group, result in punishment of one form or another. Because we have evolved as social animals and we need to operate as a united unit, any action that may compromise the survival of the group has to be discouraged. The desire to avoid the disapproval of the group is very strong – an evolutionary imperative. I believe that this desire is so strong in fact that such acts that would be disapproved become almost ‘hard-wired’ into our behaviour, so that even if it were true that we could get away with ‘immoral’ acts we have a hard time overcoming that inbuilt conditioning. Groups exist at different levels, and we may be part of more than one group, and different groups exert more or less influence on our behaviour; for example – family, friends, local community, religion, country etc.
Acts that are always going to be disadvantageous to the group, i.e. murder or stealing, are pretty much fixed in stone and universally considered immoral.
Morals do change over time though. It was once considered immoral for a woman to show her ankles in public – now we don’t consider that immoral. It was once considered fine to send little boys up chimneys – now we do consider that immoral.
Very severe conditions, such as those encountered in war, can override normal conditioning though. I think this is due to even deeper instincts (that of personal survival – physical or mental) overriding less entrenched ones.
But of course that view, taken alone, is somewhat simplistic. We are not merely animals. We are intelligent. And we are civilised. That intelligence can be used to ponder abstract ideas beyond mere instinct. That instinct is still there – the driving force behind everything – but we have grown beyond it to encompass such ideas as empathy and altruism (often called ‘emotional intelligence’). We have become the very essence of ‘God’, (the gift of Adam?) deciding for ourselves what is right or wrong.
Thanks for your astute perspective, Dmouse. I was beginning to wonder if my post had even made it to the board!
I agree that our social culture seems to set the criteria for what we perceive as moral or immoral. But I also agree we seem to be 'hard-wired' with certain moral sensitivities. I'm just not convinced that they have come about strictly through evolutionary processes. If that is the case, it would be most interesting to look into the future and see how "morality" evolves over the next couple of centuries.