|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'.
10 January 2008