Do fundamental human morals actually exist?

I am derived from a society with Judao-Christian morals, and these are what I consider the worst possible things that humans can perpetrate:[ul][li]Genocide[]Murder[]Paedophilia[]Rape[]Incest[/ul]However, it seems that not all societies have the above as taboo. Infanticide, genocide and murder have all been recorded as acceptable in some Papua New Guineau tribes by Jared Diamond. Tutelage of children in sexual practice by their relatives has been recorded as having been acceptable in some South Pacific island societies by Captain Cook and Captain Bligh during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Incest has been recorded as both common and acceptable in Egyptian and Roman (imperial) societies. There are many examples in our societies in previous centuries where rape was not considered a terrible crime.[/li]
My questions are: is condemning practitioners of the above ‘outrages’ (as I personally would) merely cultural arrogance? Are there actually any morals that are fundamental to humanity? If so, what are they?

Interesting question. Even more interesting when you consider that some of the taboos you list aren’t really taboo at all, or have only recently become taboo in our society. Here are my thoughts:

Murder – Not so much a taboo as “bad form”, I think. Any reasonably civilized society frowns on the unmitigated killing of other society members because, well, the society wouldn’t exist otherwise. Even the most anarchial societies, such as the Old West and, more recently, the gangs of South Central L.A., have their own special “unwritten laws” regarding murder. (Meeting in the street at high noon, for instance.) Random, senseless killings seem to be universally despised, and were in fact very rare until the 20th Century.

Incest – Probably one of the most universal taboos, and for good reason, because of all the congenital risks involved. I’d chalk this one up to Darwinism, and say that the human societies that embraced incest didn’t last very long…although the West Virginia strain seems to have remarkable tenacity. :smiley:

Cannibalism – You didn’t list this one, but it’s certainly one of the big ones, and for some reason, even more universally despised than incest. (I say “for some reason” because cannibalism is quite common in the animal kingdom, whereas incest is not.) Again, cannibal societies, such as the Anasazi Indians of Colorado, tend to not last very long.

Pedophilia – certainly one of the hottest taboos in 21st Century Western society, to the extent that most people refuse to believe that many early cultures had no problem with it, and even made it part of their economy (selling off their six-year-old daughters to the local slave caravan, for instance.) What’s interesting is that a much bigger taboo, historically, has been Homosexuality, which was widely despised by many, many cultures, without respect to local religion or sexual norms. Our current age of “acceptance” is actually an anomaly.

Genocide – again, this is a very recent taboo that’s only really been in vogue since, oh, the Holocaust. It used to be a very efficient tool used to wipe out that pesky neighboring tribe, be it the Celts, Kurds, or American Indians. For some cultures, it still is.

Rape – haha…this has only really been taboo since 1970 or so.

Infanticide/Euthanasia – Now this one just pisses me off. What used to be an efficient way of getting rid of society members who can no longer contribute to that society is now viewed as something heartless and unthinkable, much to our economic detriment. In fact, infanticide was very common and hardly a taboo at all until the last few centuries; as for euthanasia, most invalid people died off too fast for it to become an issue.

So it would seem that the really big taboos (Murder, Incest, Cannibalism) are universally detrimental to civilized society, while the lesser ones (Pedophilia, Rape, Genocide) appear to be at the whim of whatever the culture deems important at the time.

At least, that’s what my sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled brain has been able to conclude in the last several minutes.

Jjimm that is a very interesting question and one that many have pondered. I know I have and I don’t have an simple answer.
Looking at specific practices of cultural groups you do fine many differences but are these really morals? What belief is the underpinning of this conduct? Is a habit or cultural practice the same as a moral principle?

I would agree that there are no such things as objective moral values but I am not convined that this proposition can be either confirmed or refuted by examining the actual moral beliefs of human societies. Intersubjectivity is not objectivity.

Let us start with the postulate that it is fundamentally, intrinsically “immoral” to extinguish the species. The species that evolves in such a way as to harbor no such barrier to such behaviors is presumably less likely to survive, so basic Darwinian principles favor the species that does so.

It would not matter much whether those principles were biologically instilled in each person’s neural structure as an “instinct” or socially maintained and preserved within each society’s individuals through the ongoing process of socialization, by which the individuals learn it along with their potty training and whatnot.

From this postulate you could derive a lot of moral laws, including not only the obvious ones like “thou shalt not kill” but even “love thy neighbor; do good to those who hate you; forgive those who hurt you; to one who would take your coat, give him your coat as well, with no thought of getting it back; etc”.

I’m afraid I can’t see this. Any amount of killing on my part is compatible with your initial postulate, as long as it falls short of endangering the viability of the entire species.
In any case, questions about the desirability and economy ( measured by the number of axioms required) of alternative moral codes are not the same as questions about their claim to objectivity. No doubt if some moral principles can be shown to be objectively true then we would consider it desirable to follow them. The converse need not be true.

I am proud to be a living embodiment of the answer to jjimm’s OP, which is “No.” I, for one, am completely amoral: all my actions have a clear, selfish motive behind them. I do not rape, pillage and plunder because I wish to avoid jail time, and I don’t pinch pennies off of blind beggars because it’s not worth the effort. Plus I don’t know very many blind beggars. My morality is essentially self-interest. OTOH, many cultures claim to decry self-interest as a vice. Since our moralities are mutually exclusive, no similarities exist QED.
P.S. Assuming that both parties consent and no offspring are produced, why is incest immoral? Are we confusing immorality with yuckiness?

I am afraid, robert that I find your answer uninformative. I am aware, objectively, that d/dx {e[sup]x[/sup]}=e[sup]x[/sup]. However I choose to live my life as if this were not the case. Similarly, do you choose to reject a code which you regard as being objectively true or do you instead deny that any objective morality exists.


Yes, but evolutionary processes will support the species or the society in which social organization is arranged in accordance with these principles. Societies that organize in ways that encourage people to kill each other, or social species (I daresay) in which the individuals are rather inclined to do so, would be at an evolutionary disadvantage – at the worst these tendencies could lead to doomsday scenarios in which all members of the species are killed, or in which its various societies are shattered and ruined to the point that the surviving individuals are “bombed back to the stone age”, to use a common phrase.

Aside from which, these laws apply to societies themselves as well as to individuals within them. Societies that embrace violence and high-stakes serious competition and coercion and punishment as the principles of social organization tend to be very destructive and ultimately unstable, and in the long run the species is more likely to encounter the beforementioned doomsday scenario if its various societies embrace violence and coercion, and its goods are distributed in a non-sharing fashion encouraging high-stakes winner-take-all competition, and order is imposed through coercion and punitive law enforcement. Societies like that are destructive of their own individuals and don’t play nicely with other societies either.

In contrast, societies in which individual freedom is maximized, forms of government are chosen in ways that maximize individual input, and collective activity is attained through attaining cooperation much more than through coercion should be better geared towards survival (if they can avoid being destroyed by the more violent destabilizing societies around them), and, more to the point, the species as a whole stands a better chance of surviving in the long run if its societies in general follow this course.

Maybe it is just late, but this thread is very hard for me to follow what is being said. In fact it is the worst I’ve ever tried to follow.

What about the moral questions of stealing and adultery? It seems to me that adultery is taking on a different role in our society, because it is now possible to know if a particular man is the father of a child and we are getting away from the idea that women are property. Or maybe if it remains immoral then that would show that the old reasons given for considering adultery as wrong are in fact not the true reasons.

I guess stealing would not be immoral in a socialist society where there is no private property. American Indians are said to have had such a society. However I cannot imagine taking the favorite bow from a hunter/warrior and not having any consequences.

I also wonder in the case of incest, rape and pedophilia being high on our list, today, is because we now know that there are mental consequences suffered by the victims. In the past, they knew little if anything about this.

Also, genocide has taken on a different role, because we can see it happen. Everyone talks about the Holocaust, but the fact is Stalin was committing even worse genocide at approximately the same time and no one knew it, until much later. Hitler got the bad press.

In New Guinea research found that a disease similar to alzheimer’s was passed along thru eating a person that had the disease (especially eating the brains).

It seems to me that all morals have some underlying reason for their existence, besides just not being the things to do.

That’s all I have from the peanut gallery. :wink:

all together now…

Especially for the first.

Even if we can find a tribe somewhere that says incest is OK, does that mean incest cannot be a universal no-no?

Psychologists look at the mental structures of individuals and deduce universal structures; things like self-preservation instinct are regarded as universal norms; and yet people still commit suicide.

I submit as a possibility that cultures that allow or encourage the taboos in the OP could be considered psychopathic and/or suicidal.
This is of course not an argument that universal values exist; I’m only pointing out that referencing one tribe in one place that is different from all the rest of humanity does not by itself negate the possibility of universal human values (from whatever source).

If this policy statement is true, then shouldn’t homosexual incest and/or incest using birth control, and non-exclusive incest be socially accepted? The societal rule prohibiting incest, based upon this policy statement, seems overbroad.

How do you feel about torturing babies for fun? Is this fundamentally, universally wrong, or is it only wrong if your culture says so?

Cites (not online):

Captain Bligh’s Portable Nighmare - John Toohey (‘corruption’ of the Bounty’s crew by young girls in Otaheiti).

The rise and fall of the Third Chimpanzee - Jared Diamond (goes into Papua New Guinean society in depth; also mentions widescale incest amongst bonobo chimpanzees, though this doesn’t specifically relate to the OP, though it does have some bearing on species survival).

As for ancient society, there are lots and lots of cites.

From The Offspring of Aeolus - On the Incest Taboo by Dr. Sam Vaknin. Also try Nefertiti and Akhnaten, or Caligula and Agrippina. Or even canon law, which, while not condoning it, acknowledges its existence.

Oh yeah, forgot that taboo.

The fact that there is one tribe negates its universality. Furthermore, it’s not just one tribe: it’s been happening on and off in ‘mainstream’ societies for centuries.

It seems that most of the speculation so far goes towards the evolutionary psychology route: these taboos are here for our protection and the furtherance of our species. Is this a reasonable supposition?

To me, this is the most profound thing I’ve read so far: if we agree that true objectivity is unachievable, can we conclude that there are no objective moral fundamentals?

(In my experience, this is the Godwyn’s Law of this particular discussion ;)). How do I feel? I personally feel that it’s absolutely heinous, and believe it to be fundamentally wrong. But I’m sure the Aztecs and the Incas weren’t too kind to the virgins they sacrificed. Does my belief that this is wrong simply mean that I am a product of the morals of my own society? That, indeed, is what this thread is about.

Well, homosexuality was already a very common taboo, and birth control is a recent invention, so our moral evolution hasn’t had time to “catch up” with these developments.

Also, I notice that traditional taboos tend to be very basic in nature, and adding such complications as “it’s okay in such-and-such situation” don’t go over very well. For example, people who have had resorted to cannibalism for survival (such as the Andean plane crash detailed in the movie Alive!) must deal with the social stigma years later. Some of them even chose starvation over eating the dead.

It’s difficult to intellectualize a concept that preys on our deepest fears and instincts.



Jabba: Sorry for not being clearer. I’ll try to do better this time. (What, you think sociopaths can’t be polite?)
Morality simply is the ethical norms of your culture. People raised sans culture, are sans morals. I have chosen to reject the morals of my culture, and I think that they are not fundamentally correct. Some morals , like a proscription against incest or murder, make sense from an evoloutionary standpoint. My personal belief is that no act is fundamentally right or wrong. Some, such as torturing babies, are not very nice, but a situation may come up in which more harm would be done by not torturing babies than by torturing them.

Robert: We agree, then, that there are no objective morals.
As to your personal behaviour, do you mean that you acknowledge no moral constraints on your actions or that you have a moral code which differs from that of your society. I had assumed that you meant the former but the final sentence of your last post seems to make sense only in the context of some moral framework ( presumably a utilitarian one).

Non-hypocracy = morality

Your ability to process these recursive calls = your degree of morality.

The actions you take = the degree to which you can process and stack these calls.

We already have a huge logical barrier in AZ’s postulate:

“Let us start with the postulate that it is fundamentally, intrinsically “immoral” to extinguish the species.”

If we have to accept this postulate; then morality is more of a role-playing game, then anything logically consistent. It may very well prove that morality yeilds species termination. In that sense, we can consider this postulate the essense of immorality.