Prehistoric Ethics Not Religious

Because most modern religions are constructed around — and concern themselves with — moral or ethical behavior, the common (and mistaken) assumption is that morality and religion are inextricably linked and have always been linked.  This simply is not the case.  As I discussed in this post, there are many societies — past and present — where spiritual-religious practices have little or nothing to do with morals or ethics.  In these societies, moral and ethical behavior has an independent basis outside of spiritual practices or religious beliefs.

I mention this because Sam Harris (the neuroscientist) is engaged in a debate with Sean Carroll (the physicist) and PZ Myers (the biologist) over whether there can be a science of morality.  This debate has been joined by Phillip Goldberg (the ecumenical minister), who asserts:

Sam Harris describes his plan to formulate a science-based morality. It is an intriguing enterprise, and I wish him well. A rigorous enquiry could shed light on questions such as what constitutes the common good and which behaviors ought to be encouraged or discouraged. It might give secularists something to hang their ethical hats on, providing an evidence-based critique of precepts that have come down to us from old religious codes.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if Harris’ enterprise derives moral maxims that sound like the dos and don’ts of religions? Obviously, many religion-based tenets — those related to sex, the draconian punishments, etc. — will not make the cut, but they’re pretty much dead already except among a fanatical minority. But other principles, not just from the West, but from Buddhist precepts and the Hindu yamas and niyamas — don’t steal, don’t lie, be kind, help others, etc. — are likely to stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Goldberg obviously is not an anthropologist or an historian, or he would know that moral-ethical precepts did not “come down to us from old religious codes.”  The basic tenets that Goldberg mentions (and which are common to most morally-based religions) — “don’t steal, don’t lie, be kind, help others, etc.” — have been around for a long, long time.  These precepts pre-date the rise of the first city-states (~4,500 BC), and are commonly found in hunter-gatherer societies.  In all likelihood, these precepts have been present in such societies for at least 50,000 years.

In historic times, one can find this idea among the Lakota or Sioux Indians.  In Land of the Spotted Eagle and My People the Sioux, Luther Standing Bear describes in detail what is known as “the Lakota way,” which encapsulates Lakota understandings of what constitutes moral or ethical behavior.  These understandings are little different from (and in several ways superior to) the basic moral injunctions contained in ethical world religions.  There is however one major difference, as Standing Bear states: “But this arrangement was not assigned to divine instruction nor given a religious hue; it was wholly and solely an adjustment with the social plans of the tribe.”

As for Goldberg’s contention that “which behaviors ought to be encouraged or discouraged” spring from the “do’s and don’ts of religion,” this completely ignores the fact that the earliest legal codes — which specifically described behaviors to be encouraged-discouraged in the form of do’s and don’ts, pre-date the rise of the oldest world religions.  While the Ten Commandments (Jewish) and the maxims of the Rig Veda (Hindu) are respectably old, both dating from around 1,500 BC, the Sumerians had a legal code (which addressed moral and ethical issues) more than a thousand years earlier.  The Sumerian code makes no reference to religion and is not based on religion.  By the same token, the Babylonian King Hammurabi formulated his famous law code (based on moral and ethical behavior) hundreds of years before the Ten Commandments or Rig Veda were conceived or written.  Hammurabi’s code was neither based on nor grounded in religion.

There is, therefore, no historical evidence to support the idea that moral and ethical precepts originate with — or are dependent on — religion.  The conflation of morality with religion is a relatively recent development in human history, and it is limited to certain peoples in certain places who practice certain religions.

All this aside, there already is a substantial body of scientific research which demonstrates that moral and prosocial behavior has a long evolutionary history and that such behavior is biologically rooted.  Some primates, untutored children, and adults in all cultures appear to possess basic concepts of altruism, cooperation, fairness, sharing, and tend to treat others in a manner that could easily be described as “the golden rule.” Primates and humans are intensely social, so these findings should come as no surprise.

There are of course exceptions to moral and proscial behavior, given that cultural patterning will significantly impact moral valuations, judgments, and actions.  Moreover,  individual pathologies — which may result from either brain defects or experiential trauma — can derail the basic moral-ethical tool-kit which all of us possess at birth.

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