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
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator