I usually stay away from writing on morality and moral systems. the reason is simple enough, it is a very complex question that almost always promises the most vicious arguments by the most well intentioned of individuals. People place a great store of value on morality even if they have little understanding on such a subject. Now, I do not claim any special knowledge in this field dominated by religion and philosophy. In that regard, I claim no appeal to authority on the subject nor should anyone be so inclined. Authority has nothing to do with a moral code of behavior, and it is behavior that matters most. No, I prefer a more common sense approach to the subject. So let me begin by making a distinction between a moral code and a set of ethics or ethical behavior. A moral code is, in my opinion, a broad base set of beliefs about human behavior and tends, by the nature of the beliefs, a more broad based and less defined set of behavioral rules. A set of ethics or ethical behavior is a more narrowly defined set of rule specific in application, what we expect of others in our dealings with them in everyday situations. Ethics are also defines further by a set of professional rules of behavior such as for lawyers and doctors.
Everyone who is born on this earth is born into a group, a group not of his choosing. He or she is stuck with the mother and usually the father (but not always in these modern times), and any siblings who may have been born before him. He will eat the same food, wear the same clothing, and learn the same values as his parents. But unless mom and dad happen to be Adam and Eve, he will come under the influence of other groups, other families in the neighborhood who eat nominally the same food, wear the same clothes, and share the same values. We should note that shared values have more give to them since we are not ants who act in lock step because we are clone copies of one another. Of course even with ants there are very slight variations of behavioral choices. Whether one goes to the right or to the left or straight ahead when foraging for food is still that individual ant’s prerogative. If the local neighborhood values the color of red over the color of blue, there will be individual preferences as to the exact color (lightwave vibrations) not only in the perception of that color but also in its desirability. Again, individual variation or expression is an important component of our lives. And because we live in groups we devise ways that help us insure our survival in life. The one imperative that binds any group together, including the family, is cooperation. In fact, we learn cooperation as children, our parents teach its meaning and usefulness. Cooperate with mommy and open you mouth. That’s a good boy. Wasn’t that delicious? Is it any accident that food is the first teacher of habit (where habit is a behavior or even set of behaviors one engages without much thought). If you have ever tamed a feral cat the first thing that bonds the cat to you is food, that act of feeding it. This is how we learn trust. It takes time for that cat to learn to trust you to the point of touching. And given enough time the cat learns that your touch is pleasurable. Trust leads to pleasure. This is actually a moral precept, trust leads to pleasure. And we learn trust through cooperation. I place a bit of food for you, the feral cat, and you cooperate by eating. We establish a relationship. You go and return later, same time and place, the next day, and I repeat the process, we are cementing our relationship. I depend one you to come and you depend on me to place a bit of food for you. This is an act of cooperation? Why? Because we both get something out of the transaction. Cooperation is a very important part of life. That is why we believe stop signs actually stop cars. Those individuals who do not stop at the stop sign are being uncooperative. This is how you acquire a culture, a moral code. It is basic cooperation between and among individuals and groups of individuals.
Troops of chimpanzees usually do not reach more than sixty members before the tensions within the troop are too great and cause the group to split into two or even three groups. There is a reason for this. The more removed by birth and by family group you are the less you are willing to trust these strangers? Aroma place a very large part in the identification of members of your immediate family and then the surrounding family groups. This has to do with physical proximity. The further another family group is removed from your space, the less physical contact one has with them and the less familiar one becomes with their scent. Once a family group is removed to a point where another family group has no memory of that family scent, then they are strangers and hence not to be trusted. There is a more practical aspect although I am sure the primates are not really aware of it. The larger the group size the more land area it most cover to feed itself until it literally eats itself out of house and home. In order for the environment to be relatively self sustaining the group that feeds upon it must be small enough to let it regenerate naturally. For hunter gatherer groups the optimal size that can be sustained is about one hundred and sixty individuals. Why the difference in size between the two primate groups (Oh, you’re surprised you’re a primate?)? Gossip and grooming. Outside of food, these are the two factors that hold different family groups together as a larger unit. Group size is important. If it is just me, mom, and dad, then I have to depend of dad to keep the leopard from eating me. But if I have not only my own extended family but some neighbors around, then statistically I have less chance of being dinner than one of the adults who will fight off the leopard. But how do we encourage others to form a large group with us? for chimpanzees, grooming is a key activity. It is cooperation and reciprocation. That’s right, reciprocation or better know as “What’s in it for me?” Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound very moral. Ah, self interest is a moral imperative. Why should I uphold your set of morals if it does not benefit me? A code of morals should act in a reciprocal manner to those who adhere to it. If you expect me to be honest the I must expect you to be honest and we both need to act in ways that confirm such honesty. You scratch my back and I scratch yours. Chimpanzees spend quite a bit of time grooming others. But there is a practical limit as to how many others you can groom and thus establish a relationship of cooperation and reciprocation. And when one is foraging food and comes across some really tasty fruit, one first calls to one’s friends and then to the rest of the troop. If I eat all the tasty fruit and other find out, next time they find the tasty fruit I don’t get called. Sharing, which is really a variation of cooperation and reciprocation, is another point in our moral code.
Gossip is what we humans do because we have language. You know that big ape of mine? He was out with some female floozy last night. First he gets me pregnant and now he’s going to get her in a family way. If he doesn’t watch out this troop is going to get too big for his britches. Yes gossip, unfortunately chimpanzees can’t engage in it. But we do and for some very good reasons. In any hunter gatherer group freeloading is a crime. The man who won’t go out and hunt with the boys better have a damn good reason for his absence, else he gets no meat. The woman who won’t go out and dig in the earth to plant some corn or whatever crop that extends the group’s diet better have a good reason or her family suffers. Freeloading is stealing from the group. Language makes it possible to dish the dirt on freeloaders and get them to shape up or ship out. Expulsion form the group is a death sentence, by the way. Yes, part of our moral code, thou shall not freeload. If you are a member of the larger group then you can expect two behaviors. You help those who are sick or injured and you expect that same help when it happens to you. True, you can tell stories, relate culture, and do other things with language, but gossip is what binds the group together. If you intermingle with another group on certain occasions you don’t gossip about your own people to them, you keep it local. Gossip is how we keep ourselves and other honest. When these small groups are on the edge of survival, all the above becomes very important. Our moral code is compact and fit for our survival. When we grow into agricultural and then into industrial societies where our group sizes are immense by hunter gatherer group size, then we expand our moral code accordingly. The larger the group the more issues it has for survival as a large group. When hunter gatherer groups collide they get a few bruises, black eyes and a couple o broken bones, When large societies collide, a lot of people die. Thus our moral code must expand a bit to take these developments into account.
In the regions where hunter gatherers can exist, the land limited carrying capacity, that is, the environment can only support so many individuals before conditions become catastrophic to the indigenous group. Thus a type of birth control is practiced to limit the fertility of the group to replacement levels plus a little more. Childhood disease also keeps the child population down. But for the agrarian societies, without the more modern farm implements, farming is difficult. First men the oxen the horses pulled the plow, an invention that sped up the planting process. Farm animals replace human muscle power for some but not all operations of farming, milking, and herding. But farming was more than concern with horse power. When one becomes sedentary in living, one is apt to acquire possessions. When is is a nomad, one is limited to what one can carry and both weight and size are liabilities. But possessions have a kind of power all their own, for we may count the tools of the trade as objects to be owned individually. Here, theft from an individual is not so much of a harm to the group as it is to the individual. The implication is that if one can steal from one individual then one can conceivably steal from all individuals. This includes those plots of agriculture and the fields of pasturage. Ownership becomes more defined. Land, itself, can be categorized in terms of its productiveness., its potential fertility. Very fertile land is greatly praised for offers more food for less work, in short, it is very productive. Permanent structures are built, we no longer rely on animal skins, palm leaves and woven reeds for our shelter. And we have, for the first time, a sense of privacy. Where a couple would take to the fields or woods for procreation and other pleasures, we had four walls, a rook, and a door to give us immediate privacy. Finally was the idea of inheritance, what possessions did one leave to one’s children? In our farming community we still had extended family but now we needed to import strangers for our prospective brides and bridegrooms, we needed to mix our blood to insure that children were stronger and would survive. One can see that our need for an expanded moral code grew and our populations and relationships changed.
Thus, as the membership of the group increased there grew to be the need that the heads of families should gather to make general decisions for the community and possibly settle arguments among its membership. A common defense of the group must be provided and a sense of social order set. We modern people just don’t understand how so much of this was trial and error with error being the norm. Becoming an organized society is a messy process since these individuals had no pattern to guide them. Essentially you make up your code of morals as you go along. One way to achieve some sort of unity for a large group, one that may number several hundred to a thousand, is through the establishment of religion. No given that all individuals usually have some sense of god or creator or universal ruler of the world, belief evolves from the simple to the more complex. Clergy expands not because the people need more clergy but because the religious beliefs expand to give more clergy jobs or work. And the clergy needs rulers, head clerics and super head clerics. And since they all need something to do, religion expands in what it believes and why it believes. Why is our god different from your god and why our god is more powerful, smarter, better suited for worship, ad nauseum. We also need laws set in stone or codified. It was common in the ancient world to care in stone the various laws so that all who could read could know them. Thus if one was illiterate one was at the mercy of the literate to tells us what the laws were. Sort of the first lawyers and judges, if you will. Things haven’t changed all that much.
So now we expand our moral code to accomodate written law and require that the literate exercise a sense of honesty and justice over the illiterate, or a code of ethics. See how all this works. Civilizations are made from the ground up. A moral code does not exist out there is the ozone somewhere, waiting to be discovered and carved in stone tablets by a religious and political leader. They exist because we make them in respond to a need from our group memberships. They serve as guidance and must be changed to suit the times. Is this always progress? No. Sometimes we end up taking a few steps back because we forgot who brought us to the dance. I have been general in my reasoning and this lack of specificity mirrors one common fact. Groups, communities, societies, and civilizations are variations on a common theme. They do not all act alike, did not develop alike, and are expressions of their times, their environments, and their people. Tracing the influences from outside groups when they reach the society level can get rather tricky and would divert your attention from the main theme. I’m sure all you religious types will insist on a top down explanation, God did it all for us. Good for you, that is what belief is for. I do not offer absolute truth, I offer only reason.