Friday, July 07, 2006

On morality

With the political thunderstorms around the questions of morality or lack of it, let us consider that question for a moment. Those who would assert that morality exists only from an outside figure, such as a God, obviously have not take a very good look at what morality is. If we look at the last eight of the 10 Commandments, for instance, we get a clue, particularly when we compare them with similar rules from other religions. (I'll come back to the first two in a moment.) Jesus is reputed to have said, in essence, that morality is treating others as you would want to be treated. And in that statement, I assert, lies the birth of morality among humans.

Humans are a gregarious people, as are most of the primates. If we look at the primates to which we are related, we see that they have various rules that organize their groups. I won't call them morals, exactly, but they do enable the group to live in relative peace. Humans descended from the same ancestors as other primates. We have, from all the paleontological findings, existed in groups of various sizes since our earliest times, unlike animals such as big cats who are solitary except when mating. To enable us to live together, we adopted a set of rules. Originally, I'm sure, they developed much like the rules of other primates: a power struggled where the strongest dominated the weakest and the weakest curried favor with the strongest (we see that in government and group action even today).

Originally, humans lived in small groups where the leaders kept the members of the group in line and fought or negotiated with the leaders of other groups. The rules that deposed unsuccessful rulers were based on strength and human activity. Although the groups propitiated the spirits of the storms, the volcanoes, the falling trees, the rocks rolling down the hills and the dangerous animals, they did not worship them or believe that death and disease were necessarily tied to anything but, in some cases, the spirits that each object carried. Those spirits were not worshipped. Only when groups became much larger and settled in larger units such as towns and, later, cities, did it become necessary to develop an enforcer. I suggest that the morality of the gods arose from this need. That morality was what was necessary to enable us to live together without killing each other, to live together successfully. The first gods we see in history were often animals, such as the cat Bast and the bull. Then they developed with the heads of humans and the body of animals, or the reverse, as in Egypt, and only toward the beginning of the first millennium BCE did they become fully human. And gods became the source of morality.

I suggest that if we look long and hard at this origin of god-centered morality, we can find ways to return to the basic premise: Morality consists of those actions which enable us to live together successfully, not just those postulated by some real or imagined enforcer who follows a hard-line. Morality should be based on the real-world, not a fantasy world.


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