There is intrigue about morality. Unless there is a psychopathic disorder, everyone has a moral sense. It seems to be a universal ability but why do we need morality, perhaps a unique trait in the world of living things?
In our search for morality as a human condition, we must omit those moral behaviors that are induced by groups. This will be hard to do because many “moral” actions by more than one person, for example religion, charities, corporations, mobs, the military, in fact, any group action that has a predetermined purpose for its moral behavior, does not accurately measure the source of morality. Group acts are salted heavily with cultural conditioning and prejudice. So clouded are the definitions that even one person’s apparent behavior is heavily salted.
The mariner would like to press beyond surface definitions such as, “virtue,” “conformity to ideals of right human conduct” and “since each person is raised differently with very diverse experiences, each person has a unique definition of morality and ethical beliefs.” More directly, it is the personal ability to possess morality rather than the behavior that is measured socially. What inside an individual enables morality?
Just as secular groups have prejudice and predetermined expectation of behavior, religious organizations do as well. Religious groups have taken the position that morality is related to Godliness in some way or can be acquired by following rules of behavior cited in religious literature. While the objectives of religion promote goodness more than secular groups, still having preset objectives means that religious organizations are prejudiced.
It was author Graham Greene who said, “Christians can’t steal all the virtues…. Even the caveman wept to see another’s tears.” His comment suggests that moral ability has been part of our species for a long time.
If morality is not based on cultural prejudices, what is left?
Dachel Keltner, The director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, who recently published “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” suggests that compassion and empathy are genetically embedded in our genome and are the reason Homo sapiens morality is a central element to the success of the human race. If the reader wants further information without buying the book, Keltner talks about the content of his book on the Internet at
Keltner builds a case against the common position that depends heavily on Freud and Kant, which says human behavior is a negative, defensive response, one that is motivated to avoid bad things and that this drives the human psyche rather than positive behaviors like empathy and compassion.
We are left with a decision to accept Keltner’s examination of compassion and empathy as a genetic role that is the salvation of humanity versus the idea that human behavior is a reactive defense system designed to optimize success.
Interestingly, this choice seems familiar. In capitalism, success is a negative action that takes advantage of a situation where someone else will pay the price that assures success. This proves to be a successful economic strategy across the planet. However, just because the capitalistic model works for some, does that means it is good for the survival of the species? This is a deep question. The reader should note that the capitalist model concentrates wealth for the few while the population gives up its capital to assure that wealth.
Is wealth of the few a guarantee for the evolving human race? History suggests that the accumulation of uncontrolled wealth eventually leads to a breakdown of society. Cyclical breakdowns of society indicates an unstable function among the species. A less selfish model for sharing resources, that is, a model based on compassion and empathy as Keltner suggests, may in the end, lead to an improved human species.
Let’s leave it there for the moment. Ponder the powerful short term advantages of a negative reactive behavior, which has its financial merits, versus a positive behavior driven by compassion and empathy, which has long term stability.