Humanist Perspectives The evolution of morality

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Humanist Perspectives

The evolution of morality

‘I have never yet met the child – and I have met very few adults – to whom it has ever occurred to raise the question: ‘Why should I consider others?’ Most people are prepared to accept as a completely self-evident moral axiom that we must not be completely selfish, and if we base our moral training on that, we shall be building on firm enough foundations.’

Margaret Knight, humanist and psychologist (1903 – 1983)
When discussing what is right and wrong or making moral 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?
The most common 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 religions around them. Even some non-religious people believe this, and it can be a source of insecurity for them. Some people worry that a general move away from religious faith will bring about some kind of moral breakdown in society. But humanists believe that moral values are not dependent on religion and it is a potentially damaging idea in an increasingly secular society, to assert otherwise.
Others say that they trust their ‘conscience’ as a guide. This is the feeling that there is a something like a voice in our heads that helps us decide what to do and affects our mood after we have chosen, depending whether we did the right or wrong thing. Some people think that our conscience is a voice from God, but humanists believe that it is instead has a more natural source.
‘Why should I consider others?... Myself, I think the only possible answer 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, humanist and psychologist (1903 – 1983)

Humanists believe our conscience and our morality evolved naturally. We are social creatures with social instincts. Altruism has its roots in biology: it is built into our genes (our genes may be ‘selfish’ but that does not mean we are). Indeed, humans are not alone in displaying empathy and compassion for members of their own species. We see such behavior across the animal kingdom and perhaps most strongly in those animals most closely related to us. Our pro-social behaviour has evolved alongside us, through both our biological and social history. Recent anthropological studies, and the work of evolutionary biologists and psychologists, have brought home to us how much of our behaviour is both instinctive and universal, including our basic needs and values. Self-interest and survival may be the origins of our behavior and values, but genetic influences mean we also value our children and close relations, and culture and society can widen our moral circle beyond our immediate family. There are pragmatic justifications for our moral principles: they allow us to live in harmony, they facilitate cooperative activity, and they allow us to thrive. The communities in which we evolved would never have survived without empathy and cooperation, and across the world diverse populations display shared human vales (looking after the young and vulnerable, valuing truth and respecting promises, fair allocation of power and property, mutual assistance in defence and disasters, disapproval and punishment of wrongdoers, and restraints on violence and killing).

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