The Origin and Meaning of Human Ethics (part 1)

This is going to be a long and detailed post. I am breaking it into smaller sections which should stand on their own. Also included here will be plenty of links if you wish to follow them into the fascinating worlds to which they lead. This will be part one of what I expect to be a 3 or 4 part post.

Part 1

Morality is that topic that everyone wants a stab at and about which they will likely have a strong opinion. Religion claims the moral high ground based on this God or that while nihilists claim there is no right or wrong. Personally, I don’t adhere to either of these camps as I see no evidence of nor necessity for a God or gods to explain human behavior, yet I do not agree with the idea that nothing matters because we lack evidence of the mythos. I generally dislike the word ‘Moral’ as it tends to have too much baggage, both religious and cultural. Morality may be distilled into the following behaviors: Ethics, altruism, and reciprocity represent the bulk of the acts that are often collectively referred to as morality. I understand this will be a very contentious and potentially controversial post, so please try to allow yourself to take the ideas before painting them with preconceived notions. I welcome a discussion in the comments or on my twitter feed. Away we go.

What are Morals?

Ask any number of people this question, and you are likely to get as many answers as there are members of the group. The fact that there is no demonstrably ‘right’ answer to this question points directly to my purpose in writing this post. The definition is an ever-shifting mix of culture, emotion, and indoctrination. I’m taking an informal poll on Twitter, and I will highlight some of the answers in part 2 of this blog. Miriam Webster defines it as follows:

a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior: ethical

  • moral judgments

b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior

  • a moral poem

c: conforming to a standard of right behavior

  • took a moral position on the issue though it cost him the nomination

d: sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment

  • a moral obligation

e: capable of right and wrong action

  • a moral agent

As you can see the above definition addresses the effect or enforcement of morality but does not dare wade into the waters of what those right actions and behaviors are. On the page All about Philosophy, we find the following definition:

Morality Defined
Morality speaks of a system of behavior in regard to standards of right or wrong behavior. The word carries the concepts of (1) moral standards, with regard to behavior; (2) moral responsibility, referring to our conscience; and (3) a moral identity, or one who is capable of right or wrong action. Common synonyms include ethics, principles, virtue, and goodness.

They go on to make the (under)statement, “Morality has become a complicated issue in the multi-cultural world we live in today.” While I agree with the definition, I must say that I disagree with the conclusions from this site because they rely on a theistic worldview to which I do not subscribe. An important point here is the idea that we live, more so today than yesterday, in a multi-cultural world. While it is true that we are exposed to, and intermingled with, other cultures more often than in the past we have always had wildly diverse and opposing societal norms. The awareness and acknowledgment of these differences are one of the critical arguments against the idea of an objective and theistically derived morality. If there were only one God and it (not he) unilaterally gave humanity objective morals, we should not see the differences so easily uncovered.

Ethics vs. Morality

This is where the rubber meets the road. As much as I tend to dislike the trappings of overdressed words tossed out in an attempt to put lipstick on the proverbial pig, definitions matter. Agreeing on the definitions of words in an argument like this is critical to achieving a common ground to meet with our ideas. This site, Diffen has a good working list, along with comparison and subsequent discussion. I would recommend viewing the site before continuing. Having read the article, you should now be quite aware of the bumpy road ahead. From here forward I will argue as follows:

  • Ethics are general rules set forth by culture or society that may be enforced by legal penalties such as fines, jail, and even execution. These are passed on through cultural transmission and account for many of the differences in social norms found across the globe
  • Morals are of a more personal nature and are often enforced by negative feelings of guilt, remorse, or positive feelings of empathy or joy. This is not to say morality is not, at times, enforced punitively as well. Morals tend to have their roots in our evolutionary past as selected behaviors which increased our tribal strength and thus supported our viability as a species.

I would like to point out something that by now should be obvious: There are no cut and dried lines of demarcation here. I will make arguments for each side creating selective pressures on the other. They are not independent of one another, they are interdependent.

Breaking it down

The inimitable Frans de Waal gives us what he describes as the two pillars of morality, empathy, and reciprocity. He asserts, and I agree, that without these two fundamental behavioral tenants ethical/moral behavior would be highly improbable if not impossible. A clean and simple description of these two terms could be as follows:

Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Reciprocity: Understanding the concept of fairness and its effects on our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others.

These ideas can be further refined as two channels which affect our moral decision making:

  1. Emotional (body) channel: Synchrony, motor mimicry, emotional contagion, and the ability to provide consolation.
  2. Cognitive channel: The ability to distinguish between self and others and the ability to take the perspective of others.

These are essential concepts in the implementation and understanding of morality. As we look at our world, we can find examples from the extreme to the sublime in many varied cultures. While the differences may be interesting from a socio-psychological point of view, I would like to focus on the similarities because in those commonalities we can find the evolutionary roots of moral behavior. And it is not just our behavior; there are examples across the animal kingdom, of which, we are members. From the emotional side, we will look at cooperative helping (synchrony), providing comfort (consolation), mob mentality, both positive and negative (emotional contagion) and visual, adaptive learning (motor mimicry). For the cognitive channel, we will explore game theory, reciprocity and fairness (perspective taking) as they apply to both group and individual fitness.

On Fitness

I’d like to speak for a moment about fitness, as the term will come up quite frequently in the next few sections. I recommend studying J.B.S. Haldane, W. D. Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, and by extension Robert Trivers. These were/are all giants in the field of evolutionary biology, studying the effects of altruism and cooperation on genetic success. I will provide a recommended reading list at the end of this blog for anyone wishing to delve further into this fascinating area of study. The following link to Inclusive fitness is an excellent resource with links to authors and further reading.

Emotional Fitness

We are emotional animals. Those emotions are driven and modulated by a host of chemical neurotransmitters acting on our brains. Emotions are a biologically driven, reactionary responses to external stimuli, which serve nearly every aspect of our survival as a social species. Emotions serve as a method of communication within our species as well as others, and, are also a way of activating a variety of survival responses. It isn’t much of a leap to go from survival benefits to behaviors that we see in our society today. Social species like Homo sapiens communicate through a wide variety of emotional languages. Most of these emotions have grown to play a multipurpose role in communication within a tribe. I would like you to create in your mind a picture of someone who is scared. How about someone who is happy or sad? What you see is not nearly as important as the fact that you were able to generate an image of someone’s feelings. It almost certainly involves a facial expression and, whether you are conscious of it or not, a body language/posture. An emotional state is also likely to have an audible association. These are selected social-emotional cues. Other members of your group need to understand what you are communicating but notice; there is no verbal language required for this transmission from the feeler to the interpreter. That last sentence is a crucial bit of information as it points to our non-verbal ancestor’s ability to have empathy for tribal members without a ‘story’ being told. We have achieved understanding without advanced cognition. Our ability to assess (presume) the intentions of others is one of the building blocks of empathy. We know that someone with a sociopathic disorder shows a lack of empathy, meaning there is a high probability of a genetic component controlling empathic behavior. (i.e., this study ) Here, I am pointing out the genetic component to give an example supporting behavioral heritability. In short, those feelings you have when witnessing a perceived injustice? You may thank your great great^5 grandparents for that.

Cognitive Fitness

Cognitive fitness comes in a bit later in the evolutionary game. Hominids are likely to have taken great strides forward with the invention of language. Now we can tell a story to go with the emotional messages that we send and receive, communicate about potential dangers, or the location of food and water sources. With language comes the ability to expand the number of people who can share in our experience and, more importantly, the ability to gossip about the others in our tribe. This is a trait that is not found in other species of animals. Although, non-verbal hierarchies are established through a rich and complex series of grunts, growls, and body language. Cognitive awareness of fair-play is well-documented amongst primates, dogs and even birds as demonstrated in the clip below.

Sapiens simply added a new layer to the ethical landscape with cognition and language giving us the ability to invoke an entire gamut of emotions in tribe members using only words. We began to tell stories about the lion we saw out on the plain. Now we were not only able to tell each other where we saw it but invoke the desired feeling of dread by adopting a dramatic emotional facade as the story is told. This may seem a bit simplistic and possibly overplayed in its persuasive abilities but let’s jump ahead to modern times. We are sitting around a campfire telling stories, and it’s your turn. Are you going to tell a monotone tale painted with muted words or might you tell that really scary story about_____? We haven’t changed a bit, have we?

Babies, Bats, and Chimpanzees

The idea that humans are the only animal to posses cooperative and empathetic skills have been a pervasive and divisive trope for too long, and it’s time to give it the burial it deserves. As will be shown below there is significant documentation of these traits across a wide field of species and in human infants, establishing the heritability, and therefore the selectability, of these behaviors.

Watching this clip from the 1930’s Nissen and Crawford Study, Yerkes archives What we see here is apparently a cooperation, encouraged request for assistance, and what appears to be gratitude and/or thanking the other chimp for the help.

Also please investigate the site below for some of the most comprehensive research into primate behavior.

Chimpanzee Ai, Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University
Go to site

There have been some genuinely fascinating discoveries surrounding the non-kin cooperation in bats. If a female bat is unable to feed her young other female bats will step in and feed her babies. Vampire bats can starve to death if it fails to feed over the course of two nights which would seem to give a good reason for the selection of reciprocal behaviors due to the survival benefits. There are many interesting studies on the subject such as this one, published in the Royal Society and this video by Sir David Attenborough

Now, I hope you will agree that finding cooperative and empathetic behaviors in non-verbal animals clearly shows that our moral practices are not nearly as unique as our sometimes fragile ego would like us to be. Given our close genetic relationship to other animals, we should expect to find similar behaviors in our children well before they have been washed in a bath of cultural ideals and norms. And, this is precisely what we see. In the study ‘Social evaluation by preverbal infants’ (Hamlin, Wynn, Bloom 2007) it was shown that Infants 6-9 months of age, after viewing a puppet show where one of the agents showed prosocial behaviors and the other antisocial behaviors, consistently selected the prosocial puppet as the first choice to interact with. I realize this sounds simple but isn’t that the way it should be? Evolution selected a simple mechanism for bonding with and being attracted to an agent that is more likely to help ensure the survival of the selector. The original study was published in Nature and further studies, by the same team, were published in 2011 NCBI

Wrapping it up

As you can tell this will be a tree with many branches. My intention here was to point out some of the many areas of the animal kingdom in which we can see the roots of our moral and ethical behaviors. Where our animal cousins both distant to bats and much nearer to the chimpanzees use altruistic behavior to benefit themselves and the groups, they thrive in. In part 2 we will look more closely at our own practices, laws, and customs and how they served us from the African plains to agrarian societies, and the ever complex social structures of our modern world. Please feel free to ask questions and make suggestions in the comment section so I can add, subtract and edit this post as necessary.

4 Replies to “The Origin and Meaning of Human Ethics (part 1)”

  1. Given the huge effort you’ve put in here, and the little of it that I’ve read, this response is conveniently ignorable. I don’t see other comments here, so perhaps this will be welcome just on that account. Anyway, here goes: my take on ethics.
    It seems to me inescapable that if anything is “evil,” unnecessary suffering is evil. If that can be accepted, then the converse follows: If any thing is “good,” the relief or prevention of unnecessary suffering is good.
    These statements cannot be proved; I don’t care about that. Anyone who can’t accept these statements needs to make me see why she is worth listening to.
    Sorry I’m not wiling to read your long post…I’m 70 years old and have read a lot of stuff, and I’ve gotten a lot pickier than I used to be about how I spend my time.
    Keep up the good work, as you see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t disagree. My efforts on this topic are geared towards why we think it is “good, right, ethical, or moral” to prevent unnecessary suffering. What are the origins of those behaviors and beliefs in humans? I appreciate you taking the time to comment and read what you did.
      All the best to you,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rorty basically says that there’s no discussion when people are unwilling to take a contrary position–surely a misstatement of his position, but I’m feeling lazy…
        Seems to me you’ve put some effort in the right place to answer your question: biology, or maybe psychobiology–that is, “ethical behavior” by animals.
        I used to seek foundational beliefs to support whatever it is I believe; Richard Rorty cured me of that, specifically his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. I may have been sick of rationalism before I ever read him, he just made that feeling a bit more respectable. This is an poor response, but all I’m willing to do after riding the bus all day. I’ll try to come back to this thought later, if you’re interested in where I might go with it. (I have in mind mostly quotes from Rorty; no way to do philosophy, but doing philosophy is SO much work.)

        Sorry to give you such a poor return on your investment…but I’ll stop apologizing now. I know it’s tedious.



  2. Excellent work……did I say EXCELLENT yet? The chimpanzees cooperating and rhesus monkey throwing cucumbers back? Checking the rock before handing it to her the 2nd time? Fantastic stuff!
    That said- From the roots and definitions of ethics and morals, it would seem to follow that “ethics” should be more closely related to any Divine Commandments than morals are. This makes more sense when viewed from the fact that people align their personal lives along the morality they choose to focus on most in their texts, and rationalize away that which is distasteful. Or as in business ethics, this or that may be ok in business, they won’t operate that way as it isn’t “right” to them.
    I only ever needed to have pets as a child to learn that empathy, love, and goodness, weren’t ours alone.
    Looking forward to your next installments on this topic.


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