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The source of our morals

By John Ness - posted Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Religious belief has been declining at about 3 per cent per decade in Australia for the past century.

Prima facie this should cause significant changes in the moral attributes of a society. Indeed many parents worry if their children will develop a sound moral or ethical basis for life in the absence of religious instruction and there is always the on going debate about the decline in moral standards of society in general.

These concerns are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the origin of morals and the role that religion has played in propagating these moral values. Religion arose from inherent moral "values" not the other way around, even though religious leaders have throughout the centuries claimed to be the guardians and interpreters of the moral code - which they have presumed was delivered exogenously from a superior being.


The good news is that this is all nonsense and just another myth that becomes culturally embedded and takes many generations to remove.

Morals arise primarily from the human species being a mildly sexually dimorphic one that prefers to live in social groups defending a common territory and with a diluted genetic commonality.

The opposite extremes in the animal world are the very sexually dimorphic elephant seals where the largest dominant male does the breeding and determines the moral code for the colony and ants that live in large social groups are all virtually identical in each defined caste and very closely related genetically.

The moral characteristics of these two extremes are of course quite different but in each case the primary moral attributes are those that maximise the survival of the species. This survival will not happen in elephant seals if the dominant male hands over his breeding rights to the defeated ones as an ethical gesture. Similarly, if social ants start to act as individuals or to change thier caste,the colony will fall apart.

Morals, then are essentially the elements of that code of behaviour that ensures the survival of the species and, in complex social animals such as humans, this requires certain considerations for the welfare of others.

The claim by religions to be the carriers of the moral meme is clearly fraudulent as all rely on a system of extrinsic rewards or punishments either in this world or the next.


Morals are intrinsic to humans and represent one of our most outstanding genetic endowments. This also explains why moral behaviour is common to all human societies but the actual implementation and expression of this moral code may vary widely depending on cultural and environmental factors.

The decline of religion therefore actually opens up the possibility of a more moral society as first of all it will permit a more truthful analysis and understanding of the origin of morals.

With this knowledge and understanding will come the recognition that morals, like our physical characteristics, can be developed and improved both for individuals and for society in general. The limitations and constraints on moral behaviour and why sometimes humans can act in appalling ways can then be much better understood.

Our moral behaviour is constrained by the inertia of our genetic endowment but this, like the human brain, is very flexible and so capable of being best adapted.

For example, it is known that "mirror" genes form the basis of emphatic behaviour and feeling and that people who ignore such feelings will tend to be miserable. A true psychopath may have no expression of these genes either due to absence at birth or a failure to develop their function and so may suffer no intrinsic punishment. In either case, the recognition of the origin of morals provides possibilities for dealing with such complex issues rather than passing the responsibility to the superior being or taking vindictive actions.

The transition period from a society that largely accepts religion as the source of morals to one that understands the true nature of moral behaviour will be slow and difficult but it is one that offers the possibility to a much more moral future.

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John Ness

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