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Morality and Behaviour: Part 1

by John Richards

Some theists claim to own ‘morality’. They often assert that ‘morality’ is objective or absolute and that nobody else’s god can dispense it.

There’s a number of difficulties with those assertions. There’s the fact that humans worship many different gods, leading to religions which have different ‘moralities’. There’s the Euthyphro problem: does God declare things ‘moral’ himself, or is he referring to some ungodly authority? There’s the evidence that what is considered ‘moral’ keeps changing, yet scriptures have fossilised versions of ‘morality’ that may have been acceptable centuries ago. And there’s the glaring inadequacy of the Commandments or Hadiths as rules to live by today.

This blog will focus on the alternative – what form our standards take and where socially adapted behaviour (‘morality’) actually comes from.

Many people will accept that physical characteristics are genetic but they may have more difficulty understanding that behaviours can also be passed on: they should try herding sheep with a wolfhound!

Once you grasp that heredity is responsible for the foundation of our behaviour you can see that we are programmed to respond by acting in certain ways to incidents of various sorts. That’s the innate aspect of ‘morality’ but, being intelligent creatures, we can modify the degree to which we follow our ancestral tendencies: there’s a sliding scale between knee-jerk and carefully considered responses.

So, it’s a two stage process: the basic automatic reaction, and the contingent tweaking of that response. As an example, killing is taboo in general principle, but may be acceptable to save one’s own life or the life of a loved one or vulnerable person – i.e. under specific conditions. It may even be ethical, as in the case of mercy killing.

I would contend that ‘morality’ is about actions and everything we do has a cause. Some stimulus initiates a behaviour, whether it’s a thought or feeling of envy, anger, grief or love.

Therefore, responses to stimuli are certainly not absolute, nor are they completely ‘objective’ – there’s always a mind involved. Stage one can be thought of as subconscious, and we may operate in that way most of the time, but stage two is definitely subjective – we engage deliberate mental consideration to decide how to deal with a complex incident on an individual basis by modifying our inherited programme.

[to be continued]

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