Quora Question: Where do our morals, ethics, and empathy come from? How can we distinguish between what is socially acceptable and what is not?
Morality seems to arise naturally as a result of the dispositions we have to feel sympathy and empathy and the requirements of living in communities. Examples of cooperation can be found in several animal species and to the extent that these exist they have some survival value. The same applies to human morality. It is likely that dispositions to sympathy and cooperation arose and then developed as they led to more success for those who displayed them.
In philosophy ethics is sometimes discussed in terms of finding a set of rules to allow people to make decisions based on reason and some basic calculation of benefit, motive, or happiness. But, it seems that many of these explanations are not so much explaining how morality arose but how it can be codified and formalized into a “decision model.”
Having said that, many of the starting points of these ethical theories do relate to dispositions, like sympathy and cooperation, that arose naturally. Deontologists focus on what motivates our actions and maintain that for an action to be moral it must be capable of being universaliazed. Utilitarians focus on happiness and the consequences of our actions. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of character. Feminist ethics focuses on care and personal relationships and social contract theory focuses on cooperation. Each of these is likely a critical factor in our overall view of morality.
Another aspect, discussed by psychologists is the importance of very basic concepts such as disgust, cleanliness, and our propensity to divide the world into categories of sacred and profane.
The overall emphasis and evidence suggest that morality arose naturally because it conferred an evolutionary advantage on those who acted on such dispositions. Rules were then developed to codify the importance of these dispositions and their cultivation. It is a fascinating topic and there are some very good books that explore these ideas in much more depth:
Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser
The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright
The Origin of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley
The Science of Good and Evil by Michael Shermer
Braintrust by Patricia Churchland
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Quora Question: Why do i feel like life doesn't really need me and my existence is a bother to everyone?
The Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl once wrote: “I remember my dilemma in a concentration camp when faced with a man and a woman who were close to suicide; both had told me that they had expected nothing more in life. I asked both my fellow prisoners whether the question was really what we expected from life. Was it not, what life was expecting from us.”
According to Frankl “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering" and that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
So, begin with the idea that life is expecting something from you. Your existence is not a bother but rather is important. What is life expecting from you? There is something you can do and that you offer to the world that only you can give. Your experience, your love, your actions. What can you create, what can you experience, how can you face suffering? These are the sources of meaning. And, they matter.
The biologist Richard Dawkins has an interesting perspective on this which might help: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly, those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
What I mean by sharing that quote with you is that we should all regard our life here as a wonderful opportunity. Out of all of the possible people, you are alive. Don’t waste that opportunity. The Dalai Lama makes a similar point that we should use our fortunate birth as human beings to further our ability to gain enlightenment.
Because this life is the only one we have there is all the more reason to make the most of it. Perhaps you can begin with a simple exercise I encourage my philosophy students to do. Ask yourself these four questions:
What do you want to learn?
What do you want to experience?
What do you want to contribute?
What do you want to leave behind?
Your life can have meaning and purpose and be richly rewarding; to yourself and those you help, love, and befriend.
Quora Question: What do you wish others understood better about morals/beliefs?
That their morals are the same and their beliefs are motivated by pretty much the same things as everyone else’s are.
People often look at others with different behaviors, and right away seem to assume that everyone has different morals. This is, most often, simply not the case.
People look at others with different beliefs and conclude that those beliefs are based on emotion, superstition, and ignorance. Whereas almost everyone thinks that their own beliefs are well-reasoned and evidence based. This is what psychologists call the attribution bias. It is, in most cases, false that we arrive at our beliefs in a different way than others.
But, seeing differences is easy. And, it’s probably even adaptive. Humans evolved to live in small groups and protect those groups. Any differences would mean threats to that and so seeing differences was a benefit. Today, things are quite different. Everyone is connected to everyone else is a myriad of ways. In the world we live in, we can no longer afford to focus on differences. We have to see the fundamental similarities that do exist below the surface. We have to find these and work to cultivate an attitude of commonality.
Doing this means looking for the underlying reasons why people believe and act they way they do. It also involves the willingness to reflect on our own beliefs and actions and reevaluate them in light of new evidence if necessary. These are difficult thing s to do but are the most important skills to learn from a course in ethics.
One problem with finding the answers to these questions is that our brains are not evolved to understand or answer these questions. We evolved to survive in small fairly isolated groups and not to see fundamental similarities among all humans. But, we don’t live in isolation any more. We act in ways that affect others in many ways; some seen and some unseen. We simply cannot afford to believe that we each as individuals create our own morality or that others arrive at their beliefs in ways that are worse or less reasoned than us. These fundamentally narcissistic beliefs will only further isolate us from one another and perpetuate the surface differences that already cause so many problems in the world.
Philosophy in general and morality in particular should be about the examination of something deeper than these surface differences. It is about seeing down to what binds us all together as human beings. We all value truth telling, we all value caring for our young, we all value safety and security and wish to avoid a situation where indiscriminate killing is the norm. Yes, how we implement these moral principles varies from culture to culture. But, we are already seeing a convergence among various peoples on a common view of morality. If all goes well, this convergence will continue to grow and strengthen the connection we share with every other human being on the planet.
We decide as a community of fundamentally similar human beings what counts as right and wrong. We recognize together that an action is wrong for fundamental reasons of intent and harm. We share a fundamental core of moral beliefs because of who we are on a fundamental level. We are all wired up the same in terms of what makes us conscious beings. That doesn't mean we are identical and it doesn't mean variation won’t continue. But, variations do not define us and do not define our morality.
So, while we may believe different things we are fundamentally the same in many important respects. If we weren’t this kind of dialogue would be impossible.
This is a common view that is often posed as a challenge to those who point out the problems with religion being a basis for morality. The dilemma seems to be that without some law giver there cannot be an objective basis for morality. And, without an objective basis for morality, there is only moral relativism or subjectivism.
But, more and more research on morality and its origins seems to indicate that not only can there be a natural(as opposed to a supernatural) objective basis for morality, but that there is such a thing.
Morality seems to have arisen out of several basic behaviors that can be observed in other animal species such as reciprocity and cooperation. The outline of the argument for how these traits arose is somewhat involved and requires a fairly good understanding of evolution but from that basis it is possible to show how the moral principles that we have could have arisen naturally. I will recommend some good books below for more on this.
A good place to begin though might be with Sam Harris’ TED talk:
Science can answer moral questions
In this talk he lays out the basic ideas for an objective basis for morality based on the well being of conscious beings such as ourselves. Much of what we understand about how the brain works together with our understanding of evolution is lending evidence to the idea that there are objective moral principles and they are naturally evolved.
A good practical example of this is discussed in James Rachels book The Elements of Moral Philosophy. In his chapter on relativism he discusses some of the problems with that theory, one of which is that it denies any objective basis for morality.
But, consider several examples of moral principles that must be universal: truth telling, care of the young, rules against indiscriminate killing. How do we know these are universal? Because no culture could survive long without principles like this. Think about this in terms of your own community. Suppose you decided to gather a few hundred people together to disprove the objective basis of morality. All you would need to do is show that you could have a successful culture without these principles. So, you decide to operate with these principles instead: never tell the truth, do not care for young, kill anyone you want for any reason. How long do you think your culture will last?
So, the fact that any culture exists now from any time in the past must mean that they follow these principles. Yes, there are exceptions and not everyone will follow them but in general they have to be followed and most people most of the time have to respect them.
The reasons for the existence of these universal moral principles are quite easy to understand and they are quite natural. No divine origin need be postulated to explain them. The facts about what kind of beings we are together with the requirements of living on communities means these principles will evolve and successful communities will adopt them. Communities that reject them will die off.
But, how do we know that all of this isn’t being guided by a “divine moral lawgiver?” Of course, we can’t be absolutely 100% certain but the evidence we have suggests an entirely natural process. In explaining each step of the puzzle we do not need to postulate any supernatural intervention.
This seems impossible perhaps given what has to happen. How could it have all just occurred randomly? But, this misunderstands evolution in general and how moral principles evolved in particular. The best image to help explain this is provided by Richard Dawkins in his book Climbing Mount Improbable. In this book he relates the parable of Mount Improbable:
"Mount Improbable rears up from the plain, lofting its peaks dizzily to the rarefied sky. The towering, vertical cliffs of Mount Improbable can never, it seems, be climbed. Dwarfed like insects, thwarted mountaineers crawl and scrabble along the foot, gazing hopelessly at the sheer, unattainable heights. They shake their tiny, baffled heads and declare the brooding summit forever unscalable.
“Our mountaineers are too ambitious. So intent are they on the perpendicular drama of the cliffs, they do not think to look round the other side of the mountain. There they would find not vertical cliffs and echoing canyons but gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards to distant uplands... The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound. Locate the mildly sloping path and, if you have unlimited time, the ascent is only as formidable as the next step. The story of Mount Improbable is, of course, a parable."
But, the parable illustrates quite nicely the theory of evolution and how apparently designed creatures, can arise through a "non-random," natural process. And, it illustrates how moral principles evolved in the same slow, gradual “non-random” natural process.
Here are some good books to learn more about this fascinating subject:
The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are by Robert Wright
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins
Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser
Quora Question: When we teach our children ethics and morality, are we helping them to live better lives, or are we potentially hindering their chances of success in our society?
Your question implies that we have a choice to make: act in an ethical and moral way or succeed in society. Is this really true?
Yes, there are examples of people who act in an unethical and immoral way and seem to be successful. But, if you examine these cases closely you will see something different. In many cases, you will see unhappiness, a lack of meaning and purpose, stress, anxiety, or worse.
Aristotle made the case that acting in accordance with the virtues insured both a better life and a more successful life. But, he, like many philosophers, did not define success purely in monetary terms.
A more contemporary account of the same idea is offered by Barry Schwartz in his book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do The Right Thing.
So, yes when we teach our children ethics and morality we are helping them to live better lives. We should also teach them that success is a term that is often narrowly defined to include money and things. But, success is different than that.
Being successful means having a positive impact on the world around you, using the unique skills you have to help people, being a caring, compassionate person. Being a loyal friend, a positive influence on your family, children, community.
Being successful means recognizing that wants are not the same as needs. You may want power, fame, fancy cars and houses, lots of money. You don’t need any of these things. In many cases, they are impediments to your own well-being and happiness. As such, they are not contributing to your success but hindering it.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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