“We have dedicated our lives to being good humans because that’s what God wants us to do.”
A lovely elderly couple recently said this to me. The topic of conversation was centered around what motivated them.
While religious pursuits are an uncommon motivating factor, there are many of us who are motivated to be “good people”. In fact, most societies have morality at the heart of their institutional or legislative design choices. For example, the laws of a nation, which include punishment for certain behaviors, are often rooted in what is considered moral behaviour.
With morality playing such an important role, I thought it would be interesting to investigate if there are any patterns in how morality changes over time.
The topic seems interesting because stable societies seem to build their “Do vs Do not do” decisions on unstable and ever-shifting moral foundations that change their form with time (like sand dunes), versus some sort of immutable laws and stable rules (like concrete).
In that context, let us investigate what causes this sand to shift? Furthermore, could this investigation predict how a society’s moral trajectory will change with time.
Spoiler alert: I think it can!
Original Sin: an evolutionary theory
Let us attempt to understand morality’s origin story first.
Perhaps a good way is to take some of the heavyweight “sins” that have been around the longest and look for similarities.
Three perennial contenders emerge (regardless of religious affiliation): murder, theft & betrayal. Of course, other ancient sins exist as well, but let us start with the three biggies — we will tackle some late additions to our moral frameworks (slavery, human rights etc.) in the next section.
The interesting thing about murder, theft & betrayal (esp betrayal of the tribe) is that there is indeed a common thread. Specifically, these are actions that, if left unchecked, could lead to chaos & anarchy within tribes of humans. To align it to evolutionary theory, one could say that these are actions that directly hurt a tribe (and thus each member’s) ability to survive and thrive.
The morality arising out of this can be labelled Original Sins morality, as a homage to their ancient & evolutionary nature. The fact that these actions are vilified across different religions during different time periods doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sacred; rather that humans across different geographies and time are more or less the same.
Keeping this evolutionary context in mind, it seems very odd that if an objective morality exists in the universe, it is not independently woven, but rather inextricably linked to evolution of a particular species on planet Earth.
A fun thought experiment — if you still believe in some sort of inherent morality: what would have happened if humans were immortal? Going even further, is there an “anything goes” type of environment in heaven — where all the actions that weren’t allowed on Earth are not looked down on heaven?
A new type of morality — inclusive morality
Is an evolutionary-backed morality all that is there? The answer is not a simple yes. If it were, we wouldn’t be able to explain moral outrage that seems to evolve over time, with newer ideas gaining currency (e.g., slavery abolishment, women empowerment etc.)
Some of these are still rooted in evolution but there’s a twist. Let me explain.
At its core, original sin morality is based on surviving and thriving. And those urges themselves need a object that should survive/thrive. Often this object has a natural boundary — e.g., a boundary that separates you from the rest of the world.
The boundary’s composition is not just defined by physical characteristics but also intellectual and emotional. Basically, a boundary is anything unique that can be used to identify oneself as separate from the wider environment.
Furthermore, there’s isn’t just a single boundary within intellectual & emotional domains. Rather there are a bunch of them (like waves that usually become smaller in size/importance the further away you move from the shore) — you, your immediate family, your extended family, your tribe, your race/sex etc…. each boundary helps you identify and separate “you and yours” from “them and theirs” at different levels of “closeness” to you.
The specific boundary you prioritize to survive/thrive depends on the context of the situation you’re facing. There can be times where you must prioritize your tribe vs times where you must prioritize your family — it just depends on what is happening at that exact moment.
In other words, the boundaries that separate oneself from “the other” are malleable & dependent on context. It is this malleability that gives rise to the second set of morals that we see. I.e., the gradual expansion of tribal identity to include “others” within the in-group concept. This usually happens to societies as survival and thrival becomes easier — perhaps due to technology.
In essence, the Original Sins cover harmful actions against obvious members of one’s tribe, while this new set of sins covers harmful actions against non-obvious or non-mainstream members of one’s tribe. I call this Inclusive morality.
To illustrate this let’s take the example of slavery. It has (unfortunately) been around for a long time and under different societies. No one would claim that it is conducive to the slave’s ability to survive or thrive. However, it was not considered morally reprehensible for a long time as only “others” (prisoners of war, destitute, rivals, different races etc.) were subjected to this treatment — not innocent citizens of one’s own tribe.
However, as empathy increases in a society, there seems to be a greater tendency to expand the definition of what is “us” (i.e., the boundary). In other words, when people feel secure, it’s easier to see themselves in others (this self-identification can even expand to non-humans)
In fact, this tendency to expand the boundary of your own tribe & see yourself in the suffering of others will likely continue. It is also what gives me confidence in making the prediction that in a few decades eating animal meat will become viewed as a morally reprehensible activity (similar to how eating human meat is now).