Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Origins of Morality: My Speculations

The Origin of Morality is one of the great debates of philosophy, and has been for millennia. For what it’s worth, I’ll voice my own views on the origin of morality by considering how morality could exist in the first place. In particular, I’ll bring up some hypothetical planets: one completely lifeless, one with only one human, and one with only two humans. This sounds to me like a reasonable basis for determining not only the point at which morality could exist, even in theory, but also which actions could qualify as moral, neutral, and immoral. I will not deal with the theological aspect of the issue because I think (for now, at least) that my comments below apply just as well to a theological world view (of any religion) as they do a decidedly atheistic world-view

Completely lifeless planet: No morality is possible there, for mere non-living matter is not capable of being hurt or injured (except in a very metaphorical sense). It certainly doesn’t matter if some deformation or destruction happens on the planet because there’s no living thing there to care what happens.

Add a single human to this planet. Unless this person is a bonafide psychopath, he or she will have a sense of right and wrong. Morality still can’t exist here either; for there’s nobody else that can be affected by his or her actions, whether physically or emotionally. That means any action he or she takes will absolutely lack morality.

Now, add a second human to this planet. In this case, morality can exist because there is a person who can be influenced by his or her actions – for good or ill. In this case, these things can happen: the first person gains while second person loses or vice versa (an exploitative/oppressive relationship) or the two persons can choose to cooperate (mutually beneficial, whether a symbiotic relationship or not). Regarding the former, if a person can feel pain of any sort, or any lessening of their ability to contribute their best talents to the well-being of both themselves and their group, then that is universally regarded as immoral.

However, one can argue that killing that person wouldn’t necessarily be immoral. With that person’s death, the population drops back down to one. In this case, the murderer is potentially in the situation described in the previous scenario, for reasons described shortly. Arguing against this point is the notion that morality starts from “Self Sovereignty” – the right of a person to determine his or her own destiny as long as it doesn’t cause unreasonable harm others. “Reasonable”, of course, depends on many factors, including the issue of whether it’s moral to kill one person if the only alternatives are that both die, not to mention a whole host of other issues.

Nevertheless, killing one party only potentially leads to all cessation of morality; for the killer could still have a guilty conscience about killing the person, even if the sentiment behind the killing would qualify as murder in any human society. The reason is that the killer may still have a sense of guilt for taking that person’s life without that party’s consent. Furthermore, even if that person did consent to have their life taken, the killer can still feel very badly afterward. The guilt comes from having put the person in pain (if indeed pain accompanied the death). Even if no pain accompanied it, the killer may feel bad knowing that he or she snuffed out of existence a fellow conscious and/or sentient being. After all, killing someone necessarily involves denying them future enjoyable experiences and in general the feeling of being alive. This is particularly true if the killed person were not suicidal.

Therefore, at this point, I believe morality can exist only in cases where (a) there are at least two previously existing people and (b) that the surviving party has empathy and compassion. Regarding point (b), these are not the same thing. Empathy is simply ability to read and feel how others would feel, compassion is the urge to reach out and help others in need and/or pain OR the sense of pain one would feel if they caused harm or pain to others). Other elements undoubtedly are necessary for morality to exist, but I will leave these speculations for a future post.

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