The unfolding of the cosmos does not appear to have any moral direction. Natural events seem to occur in arbitrary ways, unconcerned with human implications, or any other life forms for that matter. For example, in a period of drought, a timely rainfall can save vital crops and prevent hunger or even starvation in some parts of the world. Hence, the suffering of thousands or even millions of people will be averted. On other occasions the rain does not come, crops fail, and widespread suffering ensues. Sometimes the rain is so relentless that flooding causes as much suffering as a drought would. Where and how much precipitation falls is just one example of the indifference of nature.
There seems to be no rhyme or reason to natural events. Some events are relatively harmless as their effects on the population are minimal. In other cases, these events can be devastating to human life. Take, for example, natural disasters, such as the tsunamis that struck Thailand in 2004 and Japan in 2011, or the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. Had they occurred in unpopulated areas they would have been afterthoughts. Natural spectacles with no human casualties, they would have been easily forgotten. We all remember the events, because of where they occurred, and how it affected the population. Nevertheless, we don’t attach a moral component to any of these events. We live in a geologically active planet, and that’s the only explanation that makes sense.
In ancient times, natural events were probably interpreted much differently. The ancients may have questioned why nature favored some people, while others were devastated by it. Possessing little understanding of meteorology, geology or the precise workings of nature in general, they would have turned elsewhere for explanations. Nature was closely associated with the Gods, and pleasing the Gods was of paramount importance. The idea being that Gods could intervene to show their approval or displeasure. From their level of reasoning, there was a human behavioral component attached to nature’s consequences.
Today, no clear-thinking person would attach a moral component to any natural event. Everything I know about science and nature, as well as my life experience suggests that nature is morally neutral. Nature does not act morally. Most of the time nature is helpful, but sometimes it’s destructive. Either way, it doesn’t care. Also, nature doesn’t care whether human beings act morally. It’s not in the business of handing out rewards or punishments based on moral grounds. In terms of morality, the universe is also on equal footing. The universe is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong—it just is.
Are we innately moral beings, or is morality primarily learned? As to where morality comes from, it may be a question of nature versus nurture. It is difficult to quantify if or how many innately moral characteristics we possess. I suppose there is a case to be made for evolutionary reasons for moral behavior. For the continuation of our genes it is necessary to love and care for our kin. As for the species, there are plenty of reasons to consider the well-being of our social group. The better we act towards one another, the more we increase our chances for survival. By pooling resources, collectively we gain a survival advantage. “I scratch your back and you scratch mine” is the basic idea. Then there is altruistic behavior to consider. When we act selflessly towards strangers with little chance of having the favor reciprocated, where does that kind of behavior come from? There is little doubt that altruism creates a better society and ultimately a better world. The benefits to the individual acting selflessly may be intangible, but in the end, all of humanity gains, both socially and evolutionary.
The other side of the same coin is that immoral behavior could also have evolutionary advantages. At times in our evolutionary past resources would have been scarce (mainly food or shelter). It was probably necessary for survival to steal from or even kill off rival tribes. The farther back in time one envisions, the closer humanity would have resembled the animal kingdom. In fact, in the wild, selfishness is often a virtue; many animals must kill and eat other animals in order to survive—there is no other choice. Therefore, moral behavior as we would generally describe it is closely linked to cooperation, and immoral behavior is closely linked to competition—both necessary survival skills. For modern societies to thrive we must get beyond primal evolutionary drives. For the most part, humankind has gradually progressed from tribalism to organized societies, where the common good of larger groups needs to be considered.
Apart from survival instincts, morality can also be learned. The wide range of moral norms present in diverse cultures is clear evidence of this. Although some people adhere to moral absolutes, such as, “do not steal” or “do not kill,” a good deal of morality appears to be cultural. Right behavior in one culture can be wrong behavior in another. For example, in some cultures women are expected to cover their faces or heads in public. By many in those cultures it would be considered immoral behavior if women disobeyed this rule. In other cultures, it is seen as absurd and degrading that women are subjected to covering their faces in public.
Morality can also be historical or circumstantial. What is acceptable moral behavior at a given time and place can be deplorable elsewhere. For example, slavery was the norm for long periods of human history. Many of the ancient empires were built on the backs of slave labor. Today, one could not make a case for slavery as an acceptable moral practice. Circumstances can also muddy the waters when it comes to moral absolutes. A clear example of this is wartime activity. There is perhaps no stronger moral rule than “do not kill.” Yet in warfare killing is not only accepted, in some cases it is celebrated. Even the killing of innocent civilians is considered acceptable at times. Collateral damage is the term often used by military leaders. This makes it sound more palatable to the general public. Granted there is a self-defense component to some war activity, but here also, there is an eroding of moral absolutes. My point is that there are fewer moral absolutes than some of us would like to think or are comfortable with. It may be comforting to believe that certain actions are clearly right while others are clearly wrong, but such is not always the case.
By-products of morality are the concepts of rewards and punishments. This leveling of the score is perhaps as old as civilization itself. These concepts are ingrained in most of us in childhood. As we grow up we learn that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is frowned upon. In society at large, judicial systems hand out punishments in an attempt to administer justice. When a crime is committed there is a feeling by the public that if the criminal is punished, then justice is served. I suppose it is necessary for practical purposes to hand out punishments when certain laws are broken. For one thing, punishment can prevent the guilty from re-offending, and also be a deterrent towards other potential violators. However, in many cases a criminal act is the last domino to fall in a long series of events. If we were to trace back the lives of many criminals we would find that a number of factors likely played a part in the criminal behavior. For instance, parenting, social environments, poverty, lack of education or opportunity, mental illness and more. From a practicable point of view, not much can be done about these circumstances—after the fact. But one should keep in mind that the offender is not solely at fault.
Now I would like to shift my attention towards a much deeper level of justice. Is there such a thing as justice aside from human applications? I can recall a conversation with a group of friends at a dinner party when the idea of justice arose. Several opinions were exchanged, but there is one in particular that I would like to share. One fellow pointed out that he could see no adequate justice in this life for evil deeds. He stated that if there was no retribution for atrocities committed by men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, then there was no real justice. What he was suggesting was that only in some kind of afterlife scenario could these men, and others like them be properly punished for their actions. I responded to his comment by posing a simple question, which may have changed his view on the matter of justice. My question to him was this: “As appalling as the actions of Hitler and Stalin were, would any of the suffering they inflicted be alleviated in any way by their punishment in an afterlife?” He paused for a moment, and then he simply replied, “No.”
You see, punishment in many cases is nothing other than revenge, it doesn’t right the wrongs. The reverse can also be true. Take for instance someone who has made a positive contribution in the world. Will a reward in an afterlife enhance their good deeds in any way? The good that was experienced is set and unchangeable. Furthermore, to expect a reward in exchange for good deeds feels more like a contract than morality. Rewards and punishments are essentially incentives and deterrents respectively. They are practical human concepts, implemented to create a civil society. But, is it sensible to carry the concept of justice beyond this life? Would after the fact adjustments that are handed out in an afterlife correct anything? Unfortunately a lifetime can not be adjusted. As with good and bad deeds, “what is done is done.”
In the absence of clear moral absolutes, in an apparently morally neutral universe, how do we differentiate right from wrong? What makes an action morally right or wrong? Some people adhere to certain rules of conduct that they acquire from some form of authority. I suppose that some rules can be helpful, but I don’t subscribe to simply following rules blindly. Actually this can sometimes lead to destructive behavior, by shielding the consequences of one’s actions. What’s more, firm rules provide little flexibility to deal with real life situations, which are not always as clear cut as rules may emphatically imply.
As far as moral rules are concerned, the Golden Rule is hard to beat. It has been expressed in different ways, but what it basically says is this. “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” It is also sometimes expressed in the negative form, such as “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.” Either way, it’s as good a rule as you’re going to find, and it’s not all that complicated.
In the final analysis, morality is about acts and consequences. By consequences, I mean for all the people affected, and also for the person whose actions are in question. If an action has good or benign consequences, then it may be regarded as moral. On the other hand, if an action has bad consequences, then it may be regarded as immoral. Now I know that it is not always possible to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we act with good intentions in mind, and it still ends up badly. That’s another instance where morality falls into a grey area, because moral behavior is as much about intent as it is about the act itself. “It’s the thought that counts,” as the saying goes. Once again, absolutes don’t always work well as a moral compass. No matter what guidelines are used, there are always exceptions; seldom are actions morally black or white.
I think that a life of high moral character goes hand in hand with some level of insight. How can we consistently act morally, unless we can foresee the consequences of our actions? Moral behavior involves some sensitivity towards the common good, which also includes oneself as part of the common good. Of course, no one gets it right all of the time. We are bound to miss the mark once in a while. Although rules, codes or creeds are helpful and probably necessary, there is no one size fits all that will address morality. In the absence of a universal moral code, moral behavior is at its best when individuals are able to contemplate the consequences of their actions, and act accordingly. Not because we fear punishment or hope for rewards, but simply because it’s the best way to act for everyone concerned.