Morality for the unbeliever  

We have laws that require us to behave in a particular way and sanctions for when we don't. We accept this because if the rule of law were to break down, then our lives would be much more difficult. We could not assume, for example, that mostly we can walk down the street without being attacked, buy things which are what they purport to be or pay premiums to insurance companies in the expectation that claims will be met. It makes sense that we should live our lives as part of a matrix of people who can trust each other at this level.

But acting morally includes behaviour which would not be the subject of any normal legal system. So why do we act in this way? If you believe in a god, then it is simple - it is an absolute requirement. It is God's law. Without the benefit of God, though, there is still, in most of us, a wish to act morally in some sense. Why? Well, in my view, morality has come about through evolutionary pressure - essentially it is the behaviour required to allow you to be a part of the society you live in and of the groups of people with whom you want to mix - and to have the benefits which come from that It is the sort of behaviour which allows of the smoother functioning of society at all levels. And we like to belong.

So if I am regarded as someone who doesn't keep my promises or as too likely to covet my neighbour's wife or his ox or his ass, I shall find it difficult to make friends. In England, at least, if I don't queue, then people will get very annoyed with me because it's seen as fairer to queue and that's what we expect to do. Then there are ‘rules' specific to particular groups: for example, as a member of a twinning group, you need to have an internationalist outlook. On the other hand, some groups require the commission of what the rest of us would regard as immoral or even illegal actions for acceptance. If I am on a sink estate, then I am likely to find that stealing cars is regarded as necessary behaviour if I wish to belong to a gang. I shall be expected to lie to the police for my mates. If I am a Pashtun, I shall be expected to exact vengeance - an eye for an eye - for wrongs done to my honour.

To become part of a group of friends, though I need to do more than not contravene the rules. If I want really to be accepted as an integral part of the of the group, I need not only broadly to sign up to the group's standards, but also listen to their concerns and also help them out when they need it. I need to act in an altruistic way. But as a member of that group, I would quite reasonably expect the others to act similarly towards me. My altruism is not therefore altruism in the purest sense. If I fall out with the group, the likelihood of further acts of altruism by me towards any of them will diminish substantially. Even if not normally intended to have an immediate or equal pay-back my altruism is nonetheless ‘altruism with a purpose'.

But isn't this hypocritical? Yes, in a way it is. But the very fact that the question has such resonance must mean that we have evolved to dislike artificiality in our relationships and this means in turn that there has to be a reason for it. So do we in fact usually calculate what may be the payback when we act for the benefit of another member of the group? No. If we needed to do this, most of our time would be spent very inefficiently in doing those calculations. In practice, we seem to have evolved not to be actors consciously playing a part, but rather to adopt the Stanislavsky approach. We simply don't have the time for hypocrisy in the hurry and bustle everyday life. It's more efficient to live the role in the subconscious expectation that it will balance out overall. And so if asked why we acted in the way we did, we will simply say, quite correctly, that it seemed the right thing to do.
Pressure to act as my peers act in the group, to adopt their moral code, is very important in life. For some, who have difficulty seeing things for what they are, this pressure is a just as strong as any ‘absolutist' religious morality - although it may be relevant here to point out that religions are simply large groups of people, groups which have sometimes, with success, asked their members to act immorally. But if I am able to see morality for what it is and not assume it to be God-given, then it is possible for me to make a critical assessment of it and change when I see that the result of applying my moral code is to make things worse and not better.
Maybe the major religions could learn from the non-believers ...

10 January 2008

For other essays on related topics see -

Little brown monkeys
Little brown monkeys revisited
Blessed are the rich
A large black galleon sailed by

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