A strongly Christian person posed to me this the other day. It to him is evidence that there must be a God, and it is this: that all humans have the same inborn moral law, the same perception of what is good/right, and what is bad/wrong. He says that no person kills for enjoyment, no person steals for enjoyment, no person lies for enjoyment. All people know that killing is bad, stealing is bad, lying is bad, and only do so out of necessity or some reason besides enjoyment. His point does seem convincing. But as a not-very-religious person, it seems to me there must be some other, more biological or anthropological (or in any case, less divine) reason for the basically universal concept of good and evil. My guess is that it all stems from an original culture, which populated the rest of the world, and whose elements are still present today? I don’t know, so I’m wondering if there may be a GQ answer. Perhaps there will only be a GD answer, and I would not be surprised to see this thread moved. Any ideas?
(I guess in GQ form, the question is: Is there a physical, historical, or biological basis for the near universality of the concept of good and evil?)
I tend to agree that there is an inborn knowledge of good/evil but I can’t see how this is any sort of proof of a sentient diety. From an evolutionary perspective, a species with this sort of instinct towards members of it’s own species would have a greater chance of survival. As humans formed communities, it was beneficial to isolate those who were “evil” and therefore those individuals didn’t get the chance to reproduce.
It’s important to point out that there are people that kill, steal, or lie for enjoyment (or at least due to personal compulsion). These people are usually known as psychopaths. Also, as Haj tangentially points out, these qualities are only considered “evil” when directed towards other humans; and actually not always even then. Historically it has often been acceptable, if not universally approved, to kill and steal from cultures considered ‘inferior’ to ones own. Just look at the way English colonists found ways to rob the natives of their land in New England, the European colonial policies in much of Africa, or the Spanish in South America. Stealing and killing galore.
I don’t think we’re far from the mark if from this we take the idea that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are fundamentally created and relevant only to individual societies or human communities; and therefore not biological but social.
I’d like to see evidence of an inborn morality, especially with such wildly divergent cultures as Mideval Europe and the Northwest Indians. If morality was inborn, why aren’t all cultures the same?
And, as has been mentioned, some people do like to lie, cheat, steal, and kill. Another strike against the inborn morality hypothesis.
So I haven’t seen any evidence at all that morality is biological. We are, by biology, social animals, but that does not dictate morality specifically. It merely dictates that we live together long enough to create and raise the next generation well enough to continue the cycle.
Perhaps because it’s not 100% inborn? Perhaps people can differ on their perception of the fine points of morality, while agreeing on certain common points. One such example was already given – it is considered universally abhorrent to kill people for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Some individuals do take pleasure in such, but these people are considered to be evil.
I whole heartedly disagree that there is an inborn sense of moraliy. Morality is learned. Why did it appear? Because it was necessary. When people went from groups of hunter gatherers (where killing was perfectly acceptable, just not killing within your tribe, and even then there would be exceptions) to agrarian cultures this necessitated rules of societal behaviors. One of the first things that would have to go off limits was causing injury or harm to others. Even with the rules this still happens. So if anything it would indicate an inborn lack of morality, since even with laws and strictures they still exist.
Of course if you believe in a guiding spiritual force you can make a converse argument of the existence of good and evil, but the data suggest that they have the causal relationship reversed.
When did it become evil to feel hatred? I realize that this may be an unpopular thing to say, but it certainly that labling such a common human emotion unequivocally ‘evil’ is an easy way to sanitize our feelings. Let’s face it: people feel baseless fear and hatred, and that doesn’t make them evil people.
Furthermore, there have been societies (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and even during the Red scares in the US) where irrational hatred has been tolerated, if not universally accepted. That in and of itself makes a good argument for the idea that individual value systems are heavily influenced by the societies in which they are formed, and, since feelings have changed in all of these cases, that they are flexible.
So, is it universally abohrrent to kill Jews? Explain the Russian pogroms, where townsfolk would kill Jews without the guidance of any government or army. Is it universally abhorrent to kill Chinese? Explain the Rape of Nanking. No, your example withers under the weight of the evidence.
A better explanation is that morality evolved from a universal need for humans to survive in groups. Those groups that did not adopt certain precepts, like not killing those within your group, died out and thus are not heard from these days. The groups that did survived. But there is a wide range of moralities that a culture can use to survive, just as there are a wide range of physical forms genes can use to survive, so wildly different moralities could, and did, evolove and survive. ShibbOleth made just this argument, looking over the thread.
To begin with good and evil are completely relative thus there is not now nor will there ever be an answer to this question. Secondly I would point out that good and evil exist in all of us relative to our own sense of the words. Our actions on the good and evil in us is provoked by any and every influence and action that surrounds us.
I think you’re oversimpifying. Even though there have been societies which condoned genocide, this is not the same as killing “for the sheer pleasure of doing so.” As I said, societies may differ in the details of morality (e.g. who to kill, and when), but that does not mean that there are no fundamentals which they acknowledge.
For example, many Westerners point to Hinduism and proclaim, “Look, they say it is sinful to kill a rat! There is no common morality between us!” However, we must delve more closely into the matter. Hindus don’t just say that it’s wrong to kill a rat; rather, they believe that the rat could be a reincarnated somebody – perhaps even that person’s grandmother. We may not agree on reincarnation, but we CAN agree that it is wrong (under normal circumstances) to kill your own grandmother.
The OP’s description sounds a lot like the first part of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Pick it up at your library, and read the first 10-20 pages. He exaplains the idea rather well. You may not agree with it, but at least it will have been presented well.
It may very well be “universally abhorrent” to kill “for the sheer pleasure of doing so”, but this says nothing about the nature of morality or whether it is inborn. There is, however, a biological explaination: If you indiscriminately kill members of your own species it would be difficult to reproduce; and thus you would have an abnormally small number of offspring. Assuming the offspring inherit this trait, it’s easy to see why it would dwindle, and eventually disappear. So yes, ‘morality’ of this sort is inborn, but it has nothing to do with the ideas of good and evil.
The “abhorrence” results from a social perception. It is impossible, I would say, to have an organized society if the members kill each other whenever they feel like it; so it would be reasonable to suppose that all societies therefore regard wanton killing as undesirable or “evil”. Note that this says nothing about the innate nature of humanity, just that some behavior is intolerable in a social setting.
I meant to say ‘It may very well be “universally abhorrent” to kill “for the sheer pleasure of doing so”, but that says nothing about the nature of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ or whether they are inborn. There is, however, a biological explaination for why this behavior is abberant:’