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On the origin of morals

Note: the following is entirely my own opinion. There has been endless philosophical and religious debate on the origin of morals. All their answers have been wrong because they all presuppose morals are about what we do. The fact is morals are about what we don’t do.

Darwin, in “The Descent of Man,” said that humans have been social creatures from their earliest days, banding together to increase individual physical security and food certainty. This point established group fitness – the gene pool – rather than individual fitness as the standard, and natural selection made it the norm.

But what is it that allows people to live together in peace and cooperation? Why hasn’t there been a continual struggle to dominate everyone else? It’s because they have agreed: do no harm to their fellow tribe members. It’s universal, and it’s completely logical. It would be self-defeating to harm a person or persons who have agreed to help protect you. And it is the “not doing” that is morality. As early mankind’s mental powers grew, they saw that the notion of “tribe” was a concept that continually evolved, from family to extended family and to ever-larger groups.

What constitutes harm can be broken down into major categories: physical/mental, financial, etc. Just look at the U.S. penal code. It lists all the “thou shall nots” and the penalty for doing each one. It’s what we have jointly agreed not to do. Unfortunately, it appears that there will always be 3-5% of the population who will not, or cannot, abide by the pact. On the positive side, it means more than 90% of Americans are moral, law-abiding citizens.

Side note: What’s almost comical, is that the origin of morals has been hiding in plain sight. From the beginning, mankind was taught to do no harm to our siblings or playmates – by our mothers.

John H. Terrell


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