First posted 31 Oct 2003. I seem to have forgotten one of the most obvious sources - of moral behaviour if not morality itself - fear of sanction / punishment. My sense remains that right and wrong, like good and bad, are man-made and therefore only 'natural' in the sense that man is part of nature.
I said in Right and wrong that right and wrong do not exist anywhere outside of human minds, that they are created by us and grounded in a number of bases: 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others. Let me go into a bit more detail on these bases.
Knowledge of our own mortality
Although I think we need to realise much more clearly that we are animals, more like our other two, four, six, eight and thousand legged friends than we would like to admit, I'll focus for a bit on one important way in which I think we differ from them: we are able to contemplate our own death. This brings a new dimension to our life, an overlay to the strong survival instinct that we share with non-human animals. We can conceptualise a world carrying on after we are gone. We puzzle and wonder at what happens to us after earthly death. We construct elaborate plans and form long-term expectations for how to get the most of our time. In some ways, this gets in the way of just plain living. But it also makes us realise (a cognitive operation only we have) what death brings an end to.
Empathy for others
We can also empathise with the feelings of others. I'm not sure to what extent other animals share this ability, but when it is combined in us with the point above, it becomes quite powerful as an emotional barrier to taking the lives of those we are close enough with to share empathetic bonds. Empathy also makes us want to help others avoid pain (other things being equal). But empathy, unfortunately, resembles gravity in that its strength diminishes rapidly with distance. The 'further' another is from us, in terms of geography, relationship or similarity of appearance or belief, the less empathetically we feel towards them.
We tend to feel the plight of a starving child in our street more than one in Africa. We care more for members of our family than we do others. The same holds, albeit less strongly, for citizens of our country or members of our church. We empathise less with those who espouse views with which we disagree strongly. Even as regards animals, we cannot bring ourselves to kill a fluffy warm rabbit, but we squash spiders and insects without a second thought.
Call me on this if I am wrong. I don't want to ascribe to mankind that which I feel myself. As a matter of fact, that has been one of the main problems with using empathy as a foundation for ethical behaviour, as some have tried. These well-meaning, kind, generous writers assumed that everyone was as nice as they were and said, 'Can't we all just get along?' I don't want to assume that everyone is as much a bastard as I am (but I have a hard time avoiding it). This is not to say that I or others do not care for people far away or unlike us. I'm just claiming that empathy is not universal in its strength.
Generalising from our own interests to those of others (Universalisation)
Can't we appeal to our reason, as that which most separates us from other animals, as a foundation for ethics? Kant thought so, that pure reason could show us how to behave. I don't see this as possible, mainly because I see reason as morally inert. It could tell us how to best achieve a certain end, but morality largely concerns settling on what those ends should be. Reason can give a map to the objective, but it can't pick the objective on its own. But that doesn't mean we can't put it to good use.
We know that we have fundamental interests in life. Many involve keeping others, including governments, from interfering with our lives - by killing us, hurting us, stealing from us, or telling us what we can and can't think and do. Some require positive action from others - like giving us food or medical help when we can't gain access to them ourselves. If these interests are legitimate for us, then they must also be legitimate for others who, let's face it, are pretty much like us in most important aspects. We can generalise from our own interests to those of others, thereby providing a basis for respecting their needs.
Too bad, though, that our reason is at least as good at finding differences as it is at finding similarities. Having identified the differences between ourselves and others, we are then all too good at using them as justification for different moral standing, different treatment, different rights. This shows unsurprising intellectual parallels with the emotion of empathy mentioned above. 'He doesn't even pay taxes. Why should my hard-earned money go to supporting him?'
Seeing the non-zero-sum game
One reason for us to subscribe to laws that restrict our behaviour is that we see we are better off under the protection of those laws than we would be in the freer but more dangerous world that would exist without them. We pay taxes because they give us public goods and services that might not be provided under a pure profit motive. We accept income redistribution because it reduces the plight of a group of people who might otherwise feel left behind by 'the sytem' and turn to crime to get by. We lock ourselves into contracts because those legal documents provide a framework for cooperation, without which neither we nor our partners could achieve the goals toward which we strive. Perhaps I would not be reaching too far if I said that we behave ethically, at least in part, because we expect it to increase the likelihood that others will behave ethically toward us.
This works most of the time for most people. But like empathy and universalisation, it is not foolproof. The fly in the ointment is that not everyone plays by the rules. It pays to cheat if you can do so without getting caught. A fair chunk of our most advanced evolution is explained by an 'arms race' among brains (and the genes that build them) that could cheat in seemingly reciprocal altruistic exchanges and brains (often in the same head!) that could detect and punish cheaters. This may go a long way toward explaining our sense of moral outrage, our heightened senses of perception in situations with moral overtones, and our big brains in general. It also provides the most compelling justification for punishment, which has nothing to do with exacting revenge on or attempting to rehabilitate the cheater who has been caught and everything to do with publicly demonstrating what happens to cheaters so as to deter others from trying it themselves. While detection and punishment can maintain a degree of trust in the integrity of 'the system', they are imperfect. Hence cheaters are still plentiful today.
Since none of these human answers provides an air-tight ethical system, a guarantee that people will behave 'well' toward one another, leaders have often turned to manipulation. One of the simplest ways has been to piggyback on some other basic human needs (largely tied to the recognition of our own mortality mentioned above) via religion. I say piggyback because I believe that religious belief would flourish irrespective of its value to church and government leaders as an ultimate grounding for ethics and law. People want to know where they are from, how they fit into the big picture, where they will go when they die on Earth.
But what an opportunity it gave to the powerful! 'Do this.' 'Why?' 'Because God, your maker, your father, your ultimate judge and jury, says so!' Can't afford enough policemen to keep a watch on all the potential cheats and subversives? Hire God! He's watching all the time. His punishment is not confined to earthly dimensions - it is infinite and eternal! You can't beat that. Am I saying that all leaders who cite God are acting manipulatively? No. Do I suspect most? Yes.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying manipulation is 100% bad. For instance, if without it we would have an anarchic society with no foundations, then it might be justified. Because I don't believe in any non-human basis for morality and because I don't think everyone will ever agree to a given ethical code, I do see governments (to the extent that they are representative, and there is much we can do, even in Western democracies, to improve that) as the ultimate underwriters of right and wrong. Over time, we can hopefully see greater cooperation and convergence among state governments - and ideally (but I'm a pessimist) fusion of them into a world governing body.
Wait, I need to be careful here. I see individuals, not governments as the true creators of right and wrong. If an individual disagrees vehemently with a law under which he lives, he should 1) do everything he can to convince his countrymen and his government to change that law and, if necessary 2) act according to his conscience in disobeying that law. However, if (1) fails and an individual moves on to (2), then that person needs to accept the punishment meted out to him (by a representative government via the due process of law).
I have moved from a discussion of ethics and morality into one about law and civil disobedience. That is a direct result of my beliefs that we are the creators, definers of right and wrong and that there is no possible pure, irreducible and irrefutable ethical system. We have to work with the best we have.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.