Where does morality come from?
‘Why should I consider others? These ultimate moral questions, like all ultimate questions, can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy student knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the humanist one – because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful.’
Margaret Knight, Morals without Religion
When discussing what is right and wrong or making decisions, we often don’t worry about where our moral values came from. We are more concerned with what they are and how to apply them in a given situation. This is where the real work of morality is done: in living life. However, if we do stop to consider where they came from, we tend to credit our upbringing or our education. But where did the moral values of our parents and teachers, and their parents and teachers, come from?
One answer to this is that moral values come from religions, transmitted through sacred texts and religious authorities, and that even the values of non-religious people have been absorbed from the religious history around them. Some people worry that a general move away from religious faith will bring about some kind of moral breakdown in society. But a humanist will argue that moral values are not dependent on religion and it is a potentially damaging idea, in an increasingly secular society, to assert that they are.
Some people say that they trust their ‘conscience’ as a guide: the feeling that there is something like a voice in our heads that both helps us decide what to do and affects our mood after we have chosen, depending upon whether we feel we did the right or wrong thing. Some people think that our conscience has a divine source, but a humanist might respond that such instincts and emotions have a more natural origin.
For humanists, our moral instincts and values don’t come from somewhere outside of humanity. The origins of morality lie inside human beings. Morality is a product of our biological and cultural evolution. In exploring the origins of morality, we won’t discover the answers to questions about how we should act, nor whether, or to whom, we have moral responsibilities (we’ll address that later in the week). However, we will find an explanation for how our moral intuitions and our sense of moral obligation came to be.