Where Does Morality Come From?

by Phillip Brown


           Probably the most discussed question among moral philosophers is that of the origins of morality. It is not a simple question to answer and theories abound. Even the definition of morality is not quite so simple because the place from which morality comes has an impact on what exactly it is. In this article, my ultimate intent is to show that a divine source best fits the observable evidence for how we make moral judgments and as such is the case, it is most rational to follow the moral precepts laid out by and understood in light of Christian teachings. I will begin by defining morality, I will then discuss a few of the theories which have attempted to show where morality comes from, finally I will present a brief defense of the notion for a divine source and for Christian morality being rational.

Defining Morality

           For the sake of this article, and for the sake of having some kind of fixed goalpost to which we can anchor the concept, let us define morality as simply being the fundamental set of principles which an individual uses to guide their decision making process, and their actions and behaviours, in the event they encounter a situation where they are required to judge what would be right, that is moral, or wrong, that is, immoral. This definition is reasonable enough to use in that it works well in context with most well known moral systems, for example various forms of consequentialism and deontological systems like Kantianism and systems rooted in religion. It is, one might say, a classical definition. For clarification, deontological systems are ethically normative and such systems subscribe to the notion that some actions are right and wrong in themselves according to the guiding rules of the system.

           The above mentioned moral systems rest on the notion that morality is either a universal set of principles which, typically, stem from a divine source, or some set of principles for moral judgment making which people create and employ in their daily lives. Either way, a somewhat defined set of rules is at play. What makes my definition of morality problematic is that some philosophers and social psychologists in particular, have posed ideas, which strongly suggest that morality is actually evolved. Others have posited that our morality is primarily emotion-driven and that social pressures shape our morality. Still others have suggested that our morals are learned diachronically. If these theories, in their various incarnations are true, then clearly morality cannot just be a set of guiding principles either divine, or of human invention.

Moral Origin Theories

           I would now like to, very briefly, address the above mentioned moral origin theories and see if we can come to some preliminary conclusions about their validity. Two of the three theories that I will address focus primarily on how moral judgments are made. But they also provide us with explanations for the origins of morality and this makes those theories useful for our study. The first idea that I want to discuss is the notion that is morality a product of evolution. In the interest of being charitable, I should clarify that, usually, when people speak of morals being a product of evolution, they do not mean so in the biological sense. That is, they do not tend to claim that there is some morality gene that has evolved in humans and animals, which has changed and adapted over time. Typically, what anthropologists, social psychologists, and moral philosophers mean when they claim that morality is evolved, they are referring to the idea that as humans began to form communities and other groups, like hunting parties for example, for the sake of survival and behavioral norms began to naturally arise out of necessity. They also observe that these norms differ from group to group according to their specific circumstances and that these norms change over time. We can call this the moral, social evolution theory, or MSET for short.

           I question whether, or not this is a satisfactory explanation of morality. On the surface, it fits the Darwinian model of survival of the fittest, in a social sense anyway. And it does explain why moral norms may differ from group to group. But it does not explain the feelings one gets when they encounter certain moral predicaments. For example, when we hear about sex trafficking cases where women, often very young women, are sold into what is effectively slavery, and are abused in horrifying ways, all but those involved in causing these women to suffer seem to feel some combination of repulsion, sadness, and anger. Simple group survival can explain why we don’t approve of that behaviour, but it cannot explain our visceral responses to it. This theory also poses a problem for anyone who wants to make a claim that a particular behaviour, or action is absolutely immoral. This is so because if a particular set of morals arise as a result of a particular group’s need to survive in their particular circumstances, then it makes sense to say that those principles would not necessarily apply to a group in a different situation. This would mean that morality is relative. And if it is relative, then no one, anywhere, at any time can reasonably make universal moral claims. But we all seem to recognize, in some universal sense, that sex trafficking is immoral. So clearly there is some universal quality to morality that cannot be explained by the MSET.

           The next idea is that morality is primarily emotion-driven and it arises from some deeper cause. This is more complex than a simple social evolution theory. This idea is often called the social intuition model of morality, or SIM for short. It has been championed by people like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt and colleagues are sometimes referred to as social institutionists. They claim that their research has shown that people’s moral judgments are mostly irrational. That is to say that our moral judgments are not the result of an effortful, timely, deliberative process wherein, when someone encounters a situation where a moral decision must be made, they weigh the factors at hand and make their decision based on any set of principles, or calculations like a math problem. Instead, on the SIM, people’s reactions to moral problems seem to be quick, effortless, and non-deliberative. This suggests, the social intuitionists say, that our moral judgments stem from our intuitions, and are not rational, but emotional. They back this up with brain imaging studies which have shown that when moral judgments are made and someone is not trying to adhere to something like a consequentialist pattern of reasoning, that is there is no effortful deliberation, areas of the brain associated with emotions are shown to be very active. Finally, and very briefly, the intuitionists seem to think that we have some kind innate moral framework in which our morality develops and that this, in combination with our interactions with others in our society (hence the social part of the SIM) gives rise to our emotion-driven morals.

           This would seem to explain the emotional responses to certain moral issues that the MSET could not account for. But it has faced challenges of its own. And one of those challenges has to do with the fact that we can explain why someone’s moral judgments seem to be intuitive without needing an innate moral framework which gives rise to emotion-driven responses. In a 2012 paper, Hanno Sauer responds to Haidt’s work and suggests that while emotions are certainly a large part of our moral judgments, those moral judgments are not really irrational. Sauer suggests that our seemingly intuitive moral judgments are developed, or learned in much the same way that habits are formed. For example just the same as when someone develops a morning routine where they get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee and have a bagel while reading the news, our moral judgments are kinds of routines. Briefly put, Sauer argues that, after having faced various moral issues many times over, and deliberating between the relevant factors in many of those cases, we develop reasons for holding our respective positions. This development happens over time. So as mature people, when we face the same, or similar issues, because we have already done the effortful work of deliberation, similar to the way that we figure out and develop our daily routines we already have our moral judgments on hand. And this makes it seem as if those judgments are wholly intuitive, though really because a given moral problem might be familiar to us, we have simply already done the hard reflective and deliberative work. And this drastically reduces our response times. It also means that our moral judgments are not really irrational.

           Like the SIM, Sauer’s theory, call it the moral education theory or MET, accounts for the quick and effortless responses that we tend to give in moral situations. But none of the above mentioned theories seem to recognize the possibility that deontological moral principles are a legitimate source of morality. They all point to some kind of evolution, or development. And in that case, my definition of morality does not really work because there are no universal, or defined principles being followed. Just evolved, or learned responses. The MSET clearly points to very ancient and necessary reasons for morals to have developed for a given group, the SIM implies that there is something innate in us that works in conjunction with our social environment and the MET implies that the environment in combination with our own moral reasoning over time gives rise to our individual morality. They all ignore the possibility that morality could be universal and derived from a source other than ourselves.

The Argument for a Divine Source

           The question that concerns the believer is where does this leave religion based morality? Religious morals are prescriptive and deontological. They are not thought of as being evolved out of necessity and they do not come from us, but from a divine, or at least very overarching and powerful source. I submit that not only is there room for a religious moral theory, but that it accounts for all of what we observe better than the theories that I have discussed so far. The theorists mentioned above, perhaps unwittingly, have done much of the hard work for us. They have shown that there is a strong emotional element to morality that plays a role at the time a judgment is made. They have also shown that although seemingly emotion-driven, for adults at least, there is a reasoning process that has happened prior to encountering moral problems that allows us to respond to those problems intuitively. What accounts for these characteristics of moral judgment better than a deep belief in a God who has given us clear moral standards to follow? Standards, which over time, as we have grown, we have, learned about, investigated, and continued to study. Believers have an emotional commitment to God and an emotional commitment to His morality. It takes time to learn and study His moral law, thus our morality developed in us over time. This accounts for both the emotional and developmental components of morality. And because of the divine source it is universal. And it’s universality allows for believers to make objective moral claims. As such it avoids the subjectivity issues associated with the other theories.

           There are a couple of objections that come to mind, which should be addressed before concluding. The first objection is that religious people like Christians, just blindly and irrationally follow what their religious books, or their religious leaders say. That is why they just spit out their moral judgments so quickly. Sauer’s MET suggests that morality is learned over time and that because we have already done the reasoning work, by the time we are mature people, although our moral judgments may appear to be just regurgitated, knee jerk responses, in truth, they are likely well thought out and quite reasonable.

           The second objection is that it does not make sense to talk about divine morality if we cannot prove that the Divine even exists. As I have discussed in one way or another in previous articles and as many brilliant philosophers, historians and scientists have claimed and continue to claim, there is very good evidence to support the notion that there is a God. And further to that, the historical evidence for Jesus is quite good. There are a multitude of good reasons to believe in God and that Christ is who he claimed to be. And if this is true, then it logically follows that we should subscribe to God’s moral law. Not doing so would in fact be irrational.

           So where a moral system like Christianity is concerned, it cannot simply be said that Christians are blindly and irrationally following what the Bible says. The evidence shows that belief in God’s moral law is quite rational. While it is certainly true that there are people who blindly follow the words of their religious leaders and of their religious books without further investigation, for most Christian adults especially, this is likely not the case. They have done the hard work already and have good reasons to make the moral judgments that they do in accordance with Scripture.