Philosophers and theologians have been trying to explain the origins of good and evil for thousands of years. Several questions have plagued these debates: In a world created by a good and benevolent God (presuming this God exists) why does evil exist? Is there an ultimate or universal good (i.e. universal morals)? Is good defined as something that benefits the individual or the group? However, no matter where good and evil are perceived to have originated from, the fact remains that they are part of the human experience.
Every major religion, as well as every major society, has certain rules that are designed to guide individuals on what is "good." In ancient Judaism Moses was given the Ten Commandments to guide the Jews. Buddha presented the Eight-Fold Path, to guide his followers' way of life. Even in the modern United States, laws exist that are designed to keep people from doing certain things that are commonly regarded as evil. All of these are rooted in some sort of moral foundation.
One major debate concerning these moral foundations is the purpose that they serve. There are three major viewpoints that I would like to review in this project in regards to the purpose of morals:
1. Morals are genetically heritable and have evolved to promote the basic genetic interests of individuals-to successfully pass on ones genes into the next generation.
2. Morals are developed to further the interests of society-humans are social animals and without moral boundaries, societies would not be possible.
3. Morals are developed by group leaders to further the interests of that leader- groups are managed easier by a leader, when there are rules for that group to follow.
Morals as furthering evolution
It is in the genetic best interest of the individual to follow a moral code that allows them to pass on their genes in a safe environment. Sociobiologists would claim that morality is a result of natural selection. According to Jamie Estill, kin selection provokes other animals, not just humans, to make moral decisions. "There is no 'Golden Rule gene' per se, but Dawkin's menmetic theory would state that a meme such as 'that which you wish to be done to you, do not do to others" has survival value, much more than 'kill everyone around you, rape women, destroy stuff, take which is not yours." (Estill Re:Sociobiology, Evolution, and Morality) I plan to look at Richard Dawkin's book, The Selfish Gene and other sociobiology sources to better understand this claim.
Morals are developed to further the interest of society, not the individual
This idea can probably be best understood in the context of Utilitarianism. Chris Ashton defines Utilitarianism as "the moral theory that states that the definition of 'good' is 'that which brings the greatest happiness (or benefit) to the most people." (Ashton Utilitarianism vs Divine Command Theory) Under this theory, morals are placed on the individual by society, to uphold the greater, societal good. According to members of this camp, you can't have a society that functions with out some sort of moral code and morals have been developed pretty consistently across societies because societies in general are benefited by these morals (Ashton, http://www.infidels.org/electronic/discussion/evolution/messages/1256.html) .
Morals are formed by group leaders and are beneficial to that leader
This is a theory that Robert Wright addresses in his book, the Moral Animal. The possibility may exist that religious leaders "invent" morals that make their lives easier. For example "The Ten Commandments, with their bans on lying, stealing, and murder, made Moses' flock more manageable" (Wright 373). This theory has also been expressed in social science studies of "institutional power." Various authors and social scientist have claimed that social norms (morals) are put in place by the group of people in power, to help them maintain their power. Those who are in a position to define the standards, in this case morals, of a group, do so for their own betterment.
While there are many morals that seem to be universal and cut across cultures and religions, there is also a great deal in moral variance, over time and across cultures. Some religions push morals that are centered around the individual and do not give any consideration to the benefit of the group. Other religions place the greatest importance on group harmony in the group and social welfare. This could be attributed diffrences in lifestyle and the importance of the community. Considering these factors, with careful examination of the predominant moral guidelines, I think that the sociobiology model will best explain the purpose for morals. This model seems to synthesis group and individual importance. If one religious community relies heavily on community and their morals reflect this by promoting the interest of the group, then they will be at an evolutionary advantage if they follow the morals of that group. The inverse could also be true. Therefore I think that this experiment will find that morality can best be explained as a trait that promotes evolutionary success.
I plan on conducting a literature review of the moral guidelines of the five major world religions-Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This review will be done using the book Ethics of World Religions by Arnold D. Hunt and Robert B. Crotty. I will first categorized the morals based on the religion from which they originate. Next I will assess each one on the basis of whether or not they fulfil each of the hypothesized purposes of morals. Each moral will gain a point for every purpose it fulfils. Each moral that fulfils more than one purpose will be assessed two way: First, which purpose has the strongest case- this purpose will be noted as the most reasonable explanation. Second, all purposes that the moral fulfills will receive an equal point award.
It is important to note that religions are being tested, not because it is assumed that morals are only religious in nature, but because they present an easy method for identifying morals that large groups of people identify with. Also religiously based morals are easy to brake down into categories.
I would also like to conduct some kind of survey over the Internet, asking various questions about the purposes of morality. One of the main things that I will explore is whether people hold values that are good for them as individuals and disregard group success, or whether people hold values that promote the good of the group.
Analysis of the literature review will be preformed on Statview. I intend to award points to the three purposes for morals based on their correspondence to each individual moral. I will then see analyze the data by adding up the points awarded to each hypothesized purpose. This should give some indication of the purpose of morals if one purpose has an extremely great point advantage over the others. If the points are more evenly dispersed, the morals can be categorized by the religion from which they came to see if a particular religion has any specific purpose for their moral foundation.
The survey will be analyzed according to the ranking of certain morals. A strong tendency for people to identify with morals that serve a certain purpose would help indicate if one purpose is more correct than another.
A. Works cited in this proposal
Ashton, Chris "RE: Rich, will you STOP with the untruths and mere assertions!?" internet address http://www.infidels.org/electrinic/discussion/evolution/messages.1256.html. October 30, 1997
Ashton, Chris. "Utilitarianism vs, Divine Command Theory." Internet address http://www.u.arizona.edu/~cashton/asteism/dctutil.html
Estill, Jamie. "Reply to: Sociobiology, Evolution, and Morality" internet address http://www.infidels.org/electronic/discussion/evolution/messages/1407.html. November 22, 1997
Hunt, Arnold D. and Crotty, Robert B. Ethics of World Religions.
Copyright 1978 Greenhaven Press, inc. Minneapolis Minnesota.
Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal. Copyright 1994. Vintage Books. New York.
B. Other Works of Reference and/or Intended Works of Reference
Dawkin, Richard. The Selfish Gene.
Kropf, Richard W. Evil and Evolution. Copyright 1984. Associated University Resses, Inc. Canbury, N.J.
Vardy, Peter. The Puzzle of Evil. Copyright 1992. HarperCollins Religious. London.
Return to the Topic Menu
IMPORTANT: For each Research Response, make sure the title of the response is different than previous titles shown above!