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Culture, God, Life, origins

Biological Morals

I had a recent discussion with some people about the origin/basis for morality.  They believed that morality is of biological origin.  That it is a genetic thing.

They presented two pieces of information to back up this claim.  The first was a group of elephants huddling around one elephant who was giving birth.  There was a pack of hyenas in the area and they were protecting her from them while birthing.

The second was a picture of a young boy, probably in the neighborhood of 18 months old, trying in vain to help a bronze rabbit statue that was trying to crawl up to where the other rabbit statues were.  It is a very cute picture and the boy is clearly trying to help.

Before I discuss whether these two things are examples of morals being biologically programmed first we must decide what morals are.  This is a tricky subject.  Particularly because in many cases we as people can’t even decide what behaviors are moral and which aren’t in large part.  There are some basic overlap but even they are subject to differences in different cultures.  But first and foremost for an action to have the ability to be moral or immoral a choice must be involved.  It is not moral or immoral to become frightened for example.  It may be immoral to allow that fear to keep you from acting (or acting in a particular way though).

This is why the elephant example, in my opinion, is not an example of moral behavior.  Your dog might bark at strangers who come to the door.  He is not making a moral decision but is acting on instinct to warn the rest of his pack an intruder is near and to warn the intruder that he/she is not wanted.  A male lion is not being immoral when he forces another male lion from the pride because he wants the female lions to himself.  That is an instinctual move.  The elephants in question aren’t huddling around the other elephant because they discussed it and decided that it’s the right thing to do.  They are acting on instinct.  It isn’t a moral choice.

The boy is, however, did see the situation presented in the statue and wanted to help.  He made the choice that it is better to help than to not help.  The problem with this being an example of biology determining morality is that the boy had about 18 months of his parents modeling moral behavior for him.  They were empathetic and nurturing to this boy for over a year.  He did not pop out of the womb and then walk over to the rabbit statue.  He knows moral behavior because he’s seen moral behavior.  This is why we stress the need for positive male role models for young boys.  So they can learn ways to be good men.  I’ll use a personal example here (I’m aware it’s anecdotal, so take it as you will).  I was walking through a strip mall with my younger son.  He was maybe 3 at the time.  As we walked past a home goods type store (don’t remember which one) there was a potted plant for sale that had been knocked over.  I stopped and stood the plant up to get it out of the way.  My son immediately looked for something to get out of the way and then moved it.  I didn’t tell him he should pick up stuff knocked over so people could walk, he saw me do it so he did likewise (potential sermon about keeping your eyes on Jesus there).  That’s what the boy in the picture did.

Secondly there is a kind of racism built into this speculation.  There are whole people groups that devalue women for example.  Did they evolve to not value women as much as other cultures did?  I know there are members of the Alt Right that believe this (I’ve had discussions with them).  I don’t believe they did.  They are in a culture that teaches that those norms are moral.  Are German’s predisposed to genocide (more so than any other people group)?  I don’t think so.  But the culture at large seemed to be ok with that idea only 70 years ago.  Beating your wife is immoral because the person makes the choice to do so and we find that choice to be immoral.  That’s why we have a legal precedent for not finding people guilty of crimes if they were mentally incapable of understanding the ramifications of their choices.  It’s not an immoral choice if the person doesn’t understand the choice.

And in the end that’s the main point.  For an action to be moral there has to be a choice to do otherwise.  If it’s immoral to lie the option has to exist to tell the truth.  If your biology compels you to tell the truth then there is no ability to lie and therefore no moral choice.

On the other hand, if morals are just the working out of our biology, then to bash your neighbor’s head in so you can have his <insert whatever here> is not immoral as it was likely your biology driving you to do that.  If biology is the engine of morals, then whatever your biology tells you to do is moral.  Of course none of us believe that.  In fact in many cases we believe exactly the opposite.  It’s immoral for a husband to sleep around, even though it’s likely his biology that’s telling him to do it.

Clearly morals are not a biological construct.

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