A court murmurs in anticipation of the verdict of the jury. The person in question is accused of committing murder. Although the prosecution has produced a good argument, the case can go either way. Finally, after much deliberation, the jury enters the court room. A juror stands up and says to the court, “we find the defendant…’not guilty.’” She realizes, if proven guilty, she would have been put to death, leaving her children without any parents. This burden finally is lifted off of her shoulders and she is glad to know the fate of her children is as good as hers. The defendant cries, smiles, and thanks her lawyers.
Throughout time, man has judged one another whether it is through courts or through gossip. This judgment was never without any reasoning. The person was being judged due to their breaking of morality or being accused of breaking the law. These deserters break the moral code of their society, but what actually justifies the ‘moral code’?
Although laws are in place, people still have little true understanding of where the idea of morality comes from. In order to know where morality comes from, a few questions must be answered: What is morality? How is it useful? Where does it come from? Probably the most important question in dealing with morality is whether or not humanity is inherently good, or inherently bad. These questions will not be easy to answer and the answers I arrive at may lead to even more difficult questions. I believe I can present valid arguments that, if not answer the questions, will give momentum to others trying to answer these thought provoking questions.
In order to move on, what morality is must be understood. Morality is essentially what one understands to be right and wrong. But what are “right” and “wrong?” Morality affects our conscience when making decisions, actions, or thoughts. Morality affects society too. In an immoral society, if the woman was guilty, she wouldn’t have faced any punishment for her crime, nor would she have a standard to which judge whether her action was wrong, and feel any guilt. The fact Is, she might have committed the crime again.
But why would she need morality? Any actions she made would completely benefit her: if she stole, she could get food; if she cheated, she could have passed the test easily; if she had murdered, she would win every argument. She would essentially live in a self-centered world and wouldn’t have to worry about feeling guilt, or facing consequences. Everything would work in her favor, but there is a problem. She isn’t the only one committing these acts; in a lawless land, everyone is. The person she stole from would try and kill her. She might have missed some essential knowledge such as which side of the road you are supposed to drive on, if she cheated on the driving test. Anything she can do, others can do back. She would have to worry about people stealing from her, killing her, and an endless amount of other things. Morality is supposed to help with efficiency in society. This lady gets piece of mind, just like everyone else because there is some sort of unspoken code of morality. This code is written down into law which punishes those who commit the crimes and stops people from thinking about committing them. Morality makes humanity play fair with each other and live together peacefully.
Where does our morality come from? Some argue the law. Although once people discovered morality, they wrote it down into laws to punish those who broke their moral code. There are some problems with law though. People who write the laws for a society can become corrupt, and thus, write corrupt and unjust laws. Martin Luther King Jr. proved that racism in its entirety was unjust. You had the Jim Crow Laws and the Black Codes which treated the blacks as sub-humans. Women fought against laws against them to gain equality also. These unjust laws were followed by many people, but these laws were not moral or even the basis of morality.
Some believe that morality comes from religion. If people believe they will be punished after death, they will be more likely to be moral. Religion also writes down ‘laws’ that its people should follow such as “thou shall not kill.” Buddhists believe that if they don’t do just things, they will be punished later in life through Karma and have ‘laws’ that determine what acts are just and not just. .” There are people who aren’t religious; does that mean they are immoral? No. Atheists don’t believe in god but they don’t murder, steal, and do every act of evil. Most are moral people. All of these doctrines have something in common: all have a sort of punishment for doing bad things.
Punishment: don’t do anything bad, and nothing bad will happen to you. Is this belief where morality comes from? A person who commits a crime will go to jail depending on the severity of their crime. Even as kids people are taught right and wrong. If you steal your sibling’s candy, you will get spanked. This isn’t where morality comes from; punishment is how people are taught morality. The kid who got spanked will now associate the punishment with the act of stealing. The kid won’t steal anymore because of their fear of the punishment, not because they feel any moral obligation to not steal. This is how morality is enforced. Subconsciously this is planted into the kids mind. They associate stealing with ‘bad’ as they grow up. This subconscious idea is also planted through the opposite of punishment: rewards. The kid gives his sibling some of their candy and next time their sibling may share. Now the kid has the idea of sharing tied with the idea of ‘good’. Although reward and punishment enforce morality, they don’t create it.
Law, religion, punishment, and rewards don’t create morality, but all share something in common: they are created by society and culture. Law is determined by officials who, based on the society they live, create punishments based off of what society deems bad. When a society deems stealing bad, they may impose a law stating: “anyone who steals will lose their arm.” Religion helps guide people similarly like the law does: tells of punishments and rewards for those who do right and wrong. If you murder during life, you will be damned eternally after death; if you live charitably during life, you will go to a paradise after death. If you live in a society that believes that when you consume another human being, you are performing a ritual, then you won’t feel bad when you perform cannibalism. This is true of most tribal people. On the other hand, people who believe cannibalism is wrong, will feel guilty when they enter a dire situation in which they must eat another person to survive. Taboos and social norms are all created by the majority of society’s beliefs. In a society that views murder as something necessary, for example, to control a skyrocketing population, would not give a life sentence to the woman stated earlier. Even simple gestures such as kissing in public could go against a social norm in certain societies, and cause the ‘offenders’ to either face judgment or feel embarrassment.
Culture is another aspect that creates one’s sense of morality. A person who has a horrible home life in which they are beaten may feel as if they are always doing something wrong. If the child from earlier was beaten after giving their sibling candy, they would associate sharing with ‘bad’ because of the punishment. They would grow up not understanding the difference between right and wrong. Any action, good or bad, they made would probably evoke feelings of guilt. Being rewarded for an incorrect action can also harm one’s development. If the kid stole the candy and was rewarded for doing so, his moral compass could be messed up. Those who are taught incorrectly could grow up to have serious problems causing harm to others or becoming thieves because they were never taught that it is wrong.
People completely void of social interaction such as “Genie” could suffer too (Schaefer 92). She was isolated until age 14, when she was discovered. She never knew what “human speech sounded like” and had the grammar of an “18-month-old”, after therapy (Schaefer 92). Her inability to comprehend human speech left her unable to recognize and learn human morality so she was put in a “home for disabled adults” (Schaefer 92).
Milgram’s experiment proved that humans have the potential to be evil if society teaches them to be so. Essentially he put the ‘teacher’ in a room with controls that would shock the ‘learner’ if they got a question wrong, they would get shocked. The teacher didn’t know that they weren’t really getting shocked and thought they were actually feeling pain. A man in a lab coat, who represented authority in society, would tell the teacher to increase the voltage. The teacher could refuse, but the ‘lab coat’ would ask the teacher to continue and the teacher listened. Most of the teachers in the experiment went past the lethal voltage and could have killed the learner if the experiment was real. Milgram used this to explain why the dominant Nazism in German society, caused those who didn’t want to, kill innocents. This shows that although morality is created in society, in isn’t necessarily ‘good’ morality.
Are humans inherently good? No, laws exist because humans aren’t good in their natural state. The only reason people obey laws is so they don’t get punished and hope others don’t break the laws so they don’t get harmed. Humans in an anarchy would be too chaotic, that’s why we have laws. Humans can be selfish, greedy, and evil. Law and morality were created by man as a way to bring forth peace. As stated earlier: “laws make humans play fair with one another”. It started out an eye for an eye: if you take somebody’s eye, we will take yours. Law evolved into what we see today: fines, tickets, and prison sentences.
Just like the evolution of law, man’s morality has evolved. Darwin’s theory of evolution says that humans have become altruistic as an evolutionary trait. If one member of the tribe has to sacrifice himself, that saves the rest of a tribe. Those tribes without any altruistic members ended up dyeing off. This makes the only tribes left being the ones who are more altruistic. This also makes their tribes more able to produce offspring that are more genetically predisposition to be altruistic. Another proof of man’s moral evolution is that of guilt versus shame. Shame is a “’primitive,’ self-centered emotion associated with anger, aggression, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, family violence and suicide” (Clark). Shame puts all the focus on one’s self but tries to defend itself from it. Shame leads to one hurting others, usually because the individual wants to escape the emotion. A good example of this is a bully who bullies because they are ashamed of their weight. Although there is evidence of shame now, the emotion of guilt is more prevalent. Guilt is an “’adaptive’ emotion” that is action-based (Clark). Kid who steals their sibling’s candy feels guilty, not because they feel they are a bad person, but because the act of stealing is bad. Guilt is also very “other-oriented and empathetic: ‘modern morality centers on the ability to acknowledge one’s wrongdoing, accept responsibility, and take reparative action’” (Clark). Guilt can lead to the entire disappearance of law. Society might evolve to the extent in which individuals feel guilt and punish themselves instead of having a need for law.
The development of empathy has also evolved with man. Humans are the only creature capable of understanding what other humans are feeling without having the other’s direct perspective. This emotion is a branch of imagination. This development of the ability to imagine what others are feeling, if it continues to evolve, may also lead to the law being dissolved. If everyone understands how everyone else feels exactly when something is done then the world would be a peaceful place. A person who has their house broken into will be less likely to break into another’s house since they understand what it feels like. Unfortunately there are some without the ability to empathize and others who just don’t care what others feel. This apathy is what causes a lot of the world’s ills in modern society.
Humans may have been born with a primitive and apathetic moral code. People started out beating brother down for territory. There is hope though: humanity is growing to be morally good. With the development of stable societies, laws, religion, empathy, and guilt, humanity has shown great change. These changes may eventually develop into a lawless, but peaceful society in which individuals take responsibility for their actions, or stop their wrong-doings all together. Humanity’s growth is in a morally poisitive direction.
Clark, Hilary. “Metapsychology Online Reviews.” Metapsychology Online Reviews. N.p., 2003. Web. 07 Apr. 2013.
Schaefer, Richard. “The Roles of Socialization” Sociology in Modules.
Ed. Michael Ryan. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. 2011, 90-92.