The conventionally religious have historically believed that morality is handed down as a prescription by God. They think that Mankind is so debauched they could not possibly develop a moral code that got beyond individual benefit.
Plato had a higher opinion of Mankind and believed that human beings were imbued with ideals that were innate and that as a result basic human morality would assert itself in most communities.
But seventeenth and eighteenth century European philosophers largely argued government enforcement of religious orthodoxy was the only thing that prevented society from falling into chaos. Sinful humans could never be relied upon to promote anything other than their selfish interests.
The Catholic Church, largely since its inception, had argued the inherent sinfulness of Mankind such that if it were left unchecked would lead to all sorts of unsocial and aberrant behaviours. This ignored the fact that many societies that lay outside the influence of Christian doctrine conducted themselves at least as well as those subjugated to the yoke of the Christian church.
Surprisingly one of the philosophers who took an early contrarian view to the necessity of the church to provide moral guidance was Adam Smith who is better known for his influence on the emerging discipline of economics through his book The Wealth of Nations. Well before the publication of that influential tome, Smith had published a book which he titled The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Popular science author Matt Ridley writes:
He thought that morality owed little to teaching and nothing to reason, but evolved by a sort of reciprocal exchange within in each person’s mind as he or she grew from childhood and within society. Morality emerged therefore as a consequence of certain aspects of human nature in response to social conditions.
In this way Smith believed that morality is a spontaneous phenomenon in the sense that people’s moral codes are generated by the individual. They are largely driven by Mankind’s social needs for approval and empathy.
If indeed we create our own moral codes it is then a corollary that our moral tenets are likely to change along with our experience and knowledge.
In my short lifetime I have seen many examples of this.
One significant part of our moral code which has changed significantly in my lifetime is our attitude to homosexuality. In my youth homosexuals were punished by law and made pariahs and shunned by society. Now people openly display their homosexuality and our laws have changed to ensure they are not vilified. I am pleased with such an outcome because I have homosexual friends who are marvellous people.
Once upon a time society more or less turned a blind eye to paedophilia. I guess many of us had heard of such people without seeking some protection for the affected children. But now thankfully our children are better protected from such predators and paedophilia is treated as an abhorrent crime.
Similarly we have seen different stances being taken on a range of issues like abortion, euthanasia, drugs etc.
Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the development of moral codes was an evolutionary response to humans living in larger and larger conglomerates. In the small groups that lived together in most hunter gatherer societies, the behaviour of other members of the group was generally obvious to all and as such the tribe as a whole could deal with the negative ramifications. As group sizes increased it was necessary to try and regulate behaviour by the development of moral codes to guide behaviour for the betterment of the extended group.
Inevitably those moral codes were devised to suit the social and physical environment that the group was exposed to. They were responses to deal with issues of a particular time and in particular circumstances.
As an example one might look at the kinship groups and the significance of totems to the Australian Aboriginals. In small societies these were designed to protect genetics by ensuring family intermarriages were limited and to protect the native fauna to ensure overexploitation didn’t occur. It would be very difficult and largely ineffectual to try and duplicate those processes in modern Australia.
We have the same problems with the world’s major religions. They developed their moral codes at particular points of history. Perpetuating such codes in a modern world is also problematic. One has only to look at the gross injustices and irrelevancies that pursuing Sharia Law entails.
But then you might legitimately ask, are their no common principles that should prevail in moral codes? Are all the mores circumstantially determined? No – of course not!
Virtually every moral code forbids killing except in extreme situations. Most moral codes will denigrate stealing, cheating and selfishness. The coherence of all societies requires such prohibitions. But, interestingly, we don’t need to be told this by priests, rabbis or other religious leaders. Evolution has taught us that the survival of our societies and the well-being of their citizens depend on such moral precepts. And we can come to these conclusions without any religious input whatsoever!
Adam Smith had a point!