Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Are Morals Exclusive to Religious People?

Do we really need religious texts to justify our moral code of conduct?

More often than not, Christians and other theists purport that religion provides a platform, or a moral standard, if you will, by which humans can behave in a decent manner. Without religious values, morals, as we understand, will decay, and social decay and utter rottenness would fester and erode society and civilization away, starting from the fringes.

Scary thought indeed, but on what basis do they justify such scary, fear-mongering predictions?

According to religious authorities, Man, it seems, is the only divine creature who has been bestowed with a conscience; a kind of a gauge, if you will, to associate with morals, the rights and the wrongs of every thought-provoking issue. Animals, they claim, cannot conform to moral quotes because of this rather mysterious instrument.

The virtuous chimp???

Science, however, is beginning to unravel the mysteries behind animal behavior. According to recent scientific studies, primates, too may well have developed a sense of morals too, and you bet they aren't worshipping any Roman or Hellenistic deity (Or maybe they do, but these chimps aren't telling. Tsk Tsk).

The Evolution of Morals

In scientific lingo, morality is defined not within the confines of some absolute values; rather, it is a set of rules, codified or otherwise, for which animals or man within a certain community live by, to breed harmony as well as avoid fighting amongst fellow members of a community. In short, species living together in groups have rules to restrain themselves for the better good of the group. Dr. de Waal, director of the Emory University, contends that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.

This is not to say that chimps are law abiding creatures in a human sort of way; the morality that apes abide by are simply unwritten laws passed down from generation to generation to keep their groups intact, reducing conflict and unnecessary squabbles that may threaten or break up their groups.

In many ways, primate morals, especially chimpanzees, share a startling similarity with its homo sapient counterparts.
For example, when two chimpanzees fight, the rest of the family members would invariably console the loser, indicating that some form of compassion must have been rendered on the part of the consolers. This type of humanoid behavior requires a certain empathy and self-awareness which may far surplus anything we know with regards to the animal kingdom.

Primates have also been observed to exercise a sense of reciprocity and fairness. They remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them. The adage "one good turn deserves another", it seems, is not merely exclusive to Man alone.

This ability to gauge certain patterns of behavior, and the propensity to reciprocate to kindness, is indicative of the type of moral values that primates may have, and that we are only beginning to apprehend primate behavior from a wholly scientific point of view.

Social Order: Law of the Apes

Besides providing guidelines, adhering to moral standards goes a long way in ensuring social order. Humans enforce this form of moral-induced social order either through customs and traditions, or written, codified law.

While primates may not be as advanced, research into primate behavior reveals certain traits mirroring this phenomenon.
Macaques and chimpanzees, for example, have a sense of social order and rules of expected behavior, mostly to do with the hierarchical natures of their societies, in which each member knows its own place. Young rhesus monkeys learn quickly how to behave, and occasionally get a finger or toe bitten off as punishment.

Maybe some humans just can't behave with or without religions........

While science is beginning to compare and comprehend human concepts with animals, it is important to know that what may seem to be moralistic concepts exhibited by animals may be inherited survival instincts intended for the sole purpose of bettering their chances of survival in their respective communities.

Nonetheless, studies into animal morality seem to indicate that morals need not exist within the realms of religion and dogma. Rather, it is a compliance within a strict, patriachial social order that will bring about some form of a greater good within a community.

In the case of Man, we may have taken it a step too far (Or maybe we are too smart for our own good): Morality, it seems, has become synonymous with invisible deities and alpha males, which really isn't necessarily the case.
If apes can behave without the need to cook up some non-existent, ridiculous deities, then we should look at ourselves in the mirror and seriously wonder whether we really are a higher order of species than mere apes.

1 comment:

L>T said...

Hi there! I'm been working on a morality post too. I like your scientific veiw, its an excellent post on esp. social morality. I'm taking mine from a philosophical bent. But, would you mind if I put a link to yours when i do my post on morality?

With me it's the Christians always claiming to have the monopoly on morals that bothers me. I see it as a real problem, in that their attitude does humankind a huge diservice. Anyway, I'll have mine up in a day or so.