Backyard Morality

Why Morality?

Morality is one of the main modules within religion and their gods. See my post here on “Your Modular God“.

Morality is the agreed rules (implicit or explicit) that humans use to guide social behavior. “Morality” and “ethics” are just words we use to discuss our desires or agreements on behaviour. To add punch to the rules (and the words), religions add supernatural threats and promises while governments offer rewards and penalties. Religions and governments are social tools. Societies evolve and devolve depending on the success of her various rules in their given situations.

Many religious folks feel “morality” come from god(s) — and some go as far as to claim that good morality only come from their god(s). For those religious folks, nonbelievers are usually viewed as immoral, dirty, disgusting and need to be converted or else they are only worthy of avoidance, rejection, expulsion or murder.

So any discussion with religious folks eventually lands on morality. As a nonbeliever (though a former believer), I try to expose the artificial nature of god stories and/or show the real nature of morality so as to open the discussion on morality (our behavior preferences) to rational exploration and creative, flexible solutions.

One analogy I use to explain morality is games kids play in our backyard. I am quickly jotting out this post to get my ideas down so when discussing morality with blogging theists, I can link to this page and not clog their comment thread.

Backyard Games

When the neighborhood kids play a game in our 3-acre backyard, they either play an established game, make up new variants or occasionally, the hardest effort, make a new game from scratch. In all cases the games have rules. We live on top of a hill and have an small orchard, a large chicken pen, an old dilapidated shed, and woods all around our property — so games at our place get pretty creative. The best games are at night while the adults site around a big campfire and the kids create their fantastic worlds.

The rules change as the kids decide what works best for them. Some rule sets end up in too many fights and those games aren’t played again because the kids don’t want to fight or get together for those sorts of encounters. This process is how games evolve.

Organisms reproduce and multiply when they have mechanisms that work. Social organisms evolve methods of relating (games) that aid that successful survival and some of those methods end up in the organism’s genes.

Morality evolved similar to games. In the kids games, you don’t have to obey the rules, but no one will play with you. Rules trump rules only if there are a big movement of followers over to another yard to play another game.

So all actions are not of equal value — they are judged by game rules. The rules don’t evolve by blind chance, they evolve through the kids’ experiences and preferences played over the long haul.

Concerning “Evil”

Remember, we invented the word “evil” to label behavior (rule breaking) that we detest. To then try and go out and “discover” what “evil” is shows a misunderstanding of language. See my posts here on “The limitations of Abstractions”.

Consider “rape”: Violence and rape occurs in the behavior of other primates.  Chimps have fights and deaths over rape — just like humans. Humans and chimps share common ancestors.  As human cultures have evolved, they have often come to agreement that outlawing rape stabilized society — made for a better game to play. That is because violence, death and suffering are obvious things organisms will try to avoid — and as an organism, we have cultural memory to help us. There will always be rule breakers for lots of reasons.  And sometimes, societies become unstable as a whole and the rules are thrown to the wind as the culture tries to re-stabilize (or die).

Humans, being organisms, have natural limitations, thus there will be some natural sets of rules of engagement we see that co-evolve in otherwise unconnected cultures — rules against rape, for instance.

So we don’t “discover” evil, we label behavior as ‘evil’ that harms the type of society (games) we wish to participate in (play). We discover rules that are useful and fun.

Obstacles to discussing Morality

Even if I am wrong, I find it very difficult to explain my view of morality to people who:

    • don’t understand evolutionary biology and mathematics
    • lack of reading in ethnology and ethology
    • are too invested in their parochial interests or religious stories
    • don’t understand the nature of games
    • have lived in only one culture, who don’t have kids or who don’t have a backyard!  🙂

Note: HT to kid picture, HT for chimp pic.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

20 responses to “Backyard Morality

  1. Have you ever read “The Science of Good and Evil” by Michael Shermer?

  2. @ MichaelB,
    No, though I have read some of his other stuff. I have also not read Sam Harris, “Toward a Science of Morality”, nor the section on morality in Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”, nor Dennett’s book section on morality in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. Lots of good stuff out there. Atheists contradict each other on morality and ethics — as do theists. It is a fuzzy field. I was just posting how I view things in my own confused way.

    Care to share a point or two that you enjoyed from Shermer?

  3. Hi there. Sadly “violence and death” have not always been things that are obvious to avoid, certainly not to humans. But almost all of us recognise that they ought to be. Even the nazis. In fact I think it would be hard to find an age of humanity that didn’t think those were a good thing in quite a large measure. Our natural biological urge is not to cooperate on a large scale but to exploit and dominate – it’s the inexplicable oughtness of morality in the face of this other “biological” urge that presents the problem.
    Plus as far as I can tell evil does not only relate to the human social order. We consider it evil to inflict cruelty to animals even when they are destined to die anyway.
    Yes things we define as evil as usually bad for society – but it is more than that, we recognise they are bad for the perpetrator as well. We recognise that there are no winners in rape – it’s not simply a case of stopping an otherwise neutral behaviour – it’s a behaviour that destroys both parties.

  4. @clapham,
    True, individual people often don’t avoid violence and death — both for noble reasons (self-sacrifice), stupid and bad reasons.

    And even self-sacrifice is valued in different ways in different cultures. Everywhere death has negative value but trade offs are made differently between cultures and times.

    I am not sure how you use the phrase “our natural biological urge” as I think “urges” come different to different folks, different cultures and different times. But I agree that as group size grows, cooperation becomes more difficult (sort of common sense, eh). And this may be one of the reasons for cultural engines — to pass on info to large groups.

    Your phrase “inexplicable oughtness of morality” makes no sense to me. “inexplicable” is question begging. For we should certainly try to explain before coming up with explanations of fairies, demons, spooks and gods first and not give up so quickly. Second, “oughtness” is also question begging — in that you seem to be assuming some universal feelings to all people, all times, all conditions. And even if there were such things, running to “inexplicable” is not helpful.

    Moving on, when a chimp out of mere spite rips the testicals off another chimp on a raid and throws them into the woods, is that “evil”? I get that it is horrifying — but then it is suppose to be horrifying.

    I agree that many acts deemed socially wrong are also very harmful to the individual.

    So, in my view you didn’t offer anything to counter my backyard morality model. But perhaps you weren’t trying to.

  5. btw, Clapham, if you wish to keep discussing morals (and matching my second to last sentence above) and want to know how I view things, you can read this post:
    Why Should We Do Good: A Naturalist Perspective

    But I’ve got to tell ya. I ain’t no moral philosopher but am only showing you my intuitions and limited knowledge.

  6. @Sabio, Yes, it is a fuzzy field for sure, but I would rather be in that fuzzy place than the land of black-and-white certainty where I lived for so many years. As for the book, I’m only partway into it. The chapter I’m on now is entitled “Why We Are Immoral…” In it, he quotes Roy Baumeister, who suggests “You do not have to give people reasons to be violent. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.” The point, of course, is that although most of us are able to restrain ourselves most of the time, there is something common to the human condition that allows even the best of us to express extreme anger or violence in the right circumstances. I’m not sure I ever would have disagreed with that as a Xian, but I would probably have dismissed it as “sin nature” and left it at that, secure in my diagnosis. Unfortunately that diagnosis has zero explanatory or predictive power from a scientific perspective and doesn’t really get us any closer to figuring out how to improve upon our morality.

    Shermer’s overall thesis is that, despite the job that social structures or institutions (including religion) have done in helping us arrive at our current set moral beliefs, science can help us advance further by allowing us to better understand the complex motivations and variables that go into the moral decisions we make. There are no easy answers, to be sure, but moving past the religious oogity boogity is a start.

  7. @ MichaelB,
    I basically agree with all that.
    I don’t think humans as they stand are hopeful moral agents.
    The only cure is radical — changing humans into something else.
    For instance, I’ve wondered if we could make genetic changes that stopped males from bonding, societies may become much safer.
    But that is not an improvement on humans, it is the end of human (well, those of our species).

  8. @ Sabio. So much interseting stuff to read on your blog! Struggling to get to it all.
    Just to say that in all my dicsussions I am never suggesting atheists are not moral. Quite the contrary – I”m saying they are but that atheist / naturalistsic world view struggles (IMHO) to explain why. I know there is a strong claim that it has evovled but i find that hard to swallow on the evidence. I think there is not much to show taht we have become more moral over thousands of years of existence. We may have better rules, but i think intrinsically we still see the same traits – i.e. the need to domiante and exploit. Our tools amy have ebcome more refined but i don;t think we have.

    As for teh monkeys, indeed – who are we to say that it is wrong? On what basis do we say that it is wrong for a person to do that to another person? We may not like it, but if there is no oughtness, who are we to stop it? Our biological urge (i meant hsi be a naturalistic explanation of our urge to moralise, or say that somethings are “wrong”, and perhaps you will debat thee xistence of that?) to say it is wrong has no rational basis for saying that it *is* wrong, since the “wrongdoer” is just acting as the unvierse would have it.

    The problem with the backyard analogy (IMHO) is that we don’t just say “you can have your rules and I’ll have mine”. We say that is “wrong” and you should not do it. We would still find it “morally objectionable” if there was mass rape taking palce in an isolated corner that could not affect us.
    I don’t think you would look at the rape of a terminally ill serial kille on their last legs and say that’s ok because it doesn’t really imapct us. And yet if morality is based on socail usefulness then surely that must be the case?

    I also think the recognistion that wrong harms the wrongdoer suggests it is not just a matter of colourless acts taht we have differing degrees usefulness for.


  9. @Clapham,
    Your good — I realize that not all Christians feel Atheists are yucky and immoral. But tests show that even though people (Christians included) may say that nice stuff in blogs or at parties, they whisper different things to their kids and act very differently than their words say. So I will take your statement on as a yellow-light.

    Concerning “struggling to explain why”:
    As I noted on your blog, if you set up a moral question preloaded and begging the question, and the interrogated person can’t hear threw it, they may appear to be struggling. My experiences shows that exposing the begged questions makes both parties equally ignorant at “explaining” morality. We have to ask the questions right to get meaningful dialogue.

    Steven Pinker (an outspoken atheist) agrees with you that over the years we have become less violent (note, you use the word “moral” — I think doing away with that word and being direct about what we mean is more helpful. “Moral” or “Ethical” is loaded from the get-go). I am not sure if I agree with Pinker — but it is a very difficult question to settle objectively. I am convince that the “Myth of Progress” is a very tempting and often deceptive myth.

    When you said, we have the “same traits”, I’d disagree — well, it depends on your timespan (million years ago humans were very different). And the culture — then we have to tease out inborn vs. cultural traits — not an easy task.

    All to say, rushing to make big theories — either about gods or naturalistic when it comes to behavior (note, avoiding “moral”) is frought with challenges.

    Sure, we object to N. Korean stuff and behavior in many African countries but we really don’t do much because they don’t have resources we want. So — I disagree, we often ignore other people doing stuff we don’t like as long as they don’t interfere with us. Likewise, we wouldn’t care if kids down the street had their own games unless they came on our property and interfered with ours or stole our players. I think it still easily works.

    Some people, btw, would not be upset with rape. Thus you can’t say “We would still find it “morally objectionable” if there was mass rape taking palce in an isolated corner that could not affect us.” YOU may say it is horrible but some folks (those we’d never want to know, of course) would not care. There is not a universal sense on rape though it is prevalent.

    Your whole effort sounds like you are trying to find something ALL humans agree on and then say, “SEE! That is GOD! God put it there.” Even for prevalent traits, there are biological evolutionary ways to try and account for it too. Now then, the evolutionary psychologists involves a lot of speculation and is not anyway close to being science like physics is. It is a weak field of knowledge. But since plausible, unsurprising natural models exist, running to spooks, demons, fairies, gods and devils to explain human behavior a much worse jump.

    I may have you wrong, but tell me if I do.

    Otherwise, my backyard morality model seems to work just fine still.

    Concerning your last sentence, I did not understand it.


  10. @ sabio

    I understand your caution re atheists as moral given that Christians often make the immoral atheist claim. I’m not saying that atheists in fact act morally, although I suspect many do, I’m saying that you are a moral being. I say this partly because it’s what scripture says (Romans). Of course the teaching of the bible is that we are all sinners so I think you and I are I a similar if not the same boat when it comes to actual behaviour, but I would never suggest that you have no moral compass because you are an atheist.
    I wasn’t sure if there was a typo in your paragraph on pinker but I was saying that we haven’t progressed much if at all.
    There is of course a difference between doing something uct a wrong and recognising it is wrong. I agree with your indictment of the link between resources and action – it’s sad but I think true, and dare I say it, wrong?
    But I think therein lies the point – though we do nothing I still think we look on and say that it is wrong, eg mugabes destruction of zim. We don’t say that that’s ok because it’s somewhere else. We don’t say that the gang rape of the girl in India is ok because it took place elsewhere, even though it is largely culturally accepted there. We express a moral view. We don’t feel others can simply define things however they please. Even though we may do nothing about it we still have a view – we recognise a deviation from a standard.
    My last sentence meant to say that we don’t think peoples “wrong” action is a colourless act that we simply don’t like. We recognise that it does something to the person. The rapist also suffers in the rape, even though they are the wrong doer.
    I wasn’t sure I understood your point about loading and begging questions. Obviously I pose the question that I think most clearly illustrates the point I’m trying to make. I think we all do this?
    Best, cct

  11. @CCT, Since naturalistic theories are “hard to swallow”, what opposing theory do you hold to that explains morality better and what is the supporting evidence? How does it do a better job of explaing why? I think I have an idea what your answer might be and I may have a follow-up question, but let’s start here because I don’t want to assume too much. Thanks.

  12. i think that there is an objective metaphysical reality of good and evil. I’m not an expert on it so my phrasing might be a bit imprecise but i think its a bit like maths.

    When i draw a triangle, i create the triangle but the mathematical properties associated with it are fixed and unalterable by me, or anyone else. I may (e.g.) in a maths exam incorrectly label them, but they always exist as they are, and have always – if the same triangle had been drawn millennia ago they would have had the same properties.

    good and evil (IMHO) are similar – rape (for example) has always been and will always be evil. We may at times classify it as legal (e.g. for sometime it was so in a marriage) but that actually does nothing to the moral character of the act. We say (I’m sure) that the offending husband ought not to have forced himself on his wife, despite it begin lawful for him to do that.

    As far as evidence is concerned, this is almost always a problem when it comes to social sciences, but i would argue similarly to the way I have already, that this is observable from common human experience.

    Not sure if that suffices but let me know.

  13. @CCT, So you think that good and evil are things that exist in some metaphysical form “out there”? Separate from humans or other animals? And in what sense has rape “always been wrong”? How do you know that? The math example fails because it easily be tested and repeated. Put another way, it can be explained via naturalistic means.

    My point about evidence was that, generally speaking, theories can be modified or abandoned when better evidence is discovered. I assumed since you felt that the evidence for naturalistic explanations was “hard to swallow” that you had stronger evidence to refute specific theories. I’m not sure how observing human experience lads one to adopt a metaphysical explanation. Can you explain your thought process that helped you arrive at that conclusion?

  14. I’m yet to see anyone adduce evidence that is actually reputable on these sorts of topics. The so called evidence is usually based on loosely related patterns of behaviour and the widely extrapolated. So I don’t think that I’m in a significantly worse of position. I’d be keen to hear if you think differently or have seen differently.

    But my argument is one also based on reason not pure empiricism, although you and I can use ourselves as a small empirical set if you’d like to. We are as good a set of research tools as any other people, and in these things that is pretty much as good as it gets

  15. OK, clapham, we are talking past each other. You are not understanding me. And these moral talks are always unavoidably verbose. You are a Platonist == Platonism colored Western Christianity without them knowing it. I don’t agree with Platonic ideals existing out is space. But I certainly don’t want an abstract argument on it, as they are always a waste of time.

    You might enjoy this Christian’s view of Plato.
    It didn’t take much googling to find a Christian site agreeing with my Platonist thing. Not sure if you have heard of it.

    You imagine you have something to explain your moral sentiments, but you are mistaken. I don’t pretend to have an argument to ‘defend’ my moral sentiments — I think I can imagine how my sentiments evolved pretty easily without inventing gods to make me comfortable. And thus I can imagine also why others may have very different sentiments from me but why most people don’t for many issues. Actually, your god-stories make it way to complex, if you think about it.

    Understanding evolutionary biology helps — are you good with that stuff?

  16. What would count as reputable evidence? You seemed to prefer one theory over another so I assumed you would have some criteria that would be sufficient to swing you towards another one if it presented itself. I’m still not certain how you have arrived at your theory. If it’s too complex to explain, that’s fine. I just enjoy exploring these things.

  17. @ Clapham,
    As a blogging tip. On comment threads that do not use hierarchy, you should put an @ so-and-so sign at the beginning of your comment so that when they arrive in our emails, we know who the comment is addressed to.
    You mentioned this to me over on your blog, so I thought you’d like to know.

  18. @michaelb. I’d say every conversation is an exercise in evidence gathering. My view on the transcendent nature of good and evil is one formed from personal observation, discussion, reading, law studies some years back etc. I’m happy to consider any evidence anyone tenders, which is why I find blogging enjoyable. I also enjoy exploring them so very happy to discuss with you

  19. @ sabio. I’ll have a look but I don’t have a problem with your statements re Plato. Cs lewis claimed Christianity has the best of Greek and Jewish traditions so I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on evolutionary biology but have done some reading, so feel free to try me.
    It sounds like your own view is one of moral relativism? Which if so, how do explain (if you even attempt to) a “disapproving view” of atrocities committed in distant places that will never affect you (e.g. I assume a place like Liberia)?
    One of the reasons I don’t subscribe to relativism is that even if we do nothing about those sorts of things, almost none of us go, well it’s their business.

  20. @ Clapham,
    I use to be a big fan of Lewis — still love lots of his stuff.
    Concerning evolutionary biology — I was just curious.
    The label like “relativism” are problematic.
    I have strong preferences — I have want things played a certain way in my backyard, in my community, in the world. As you can see, I have a comment policy — I like things played a certain way on my blog. I avoid blogs and countries that don’t play the way I prefer — and for the large part, I use the word “wrong” to describe them. But I don’t have any outward, immutable standard to judge them, just as they don’t have any such thing to judge me. We can debate all we want — them and me. But in the end, it comes down to the ugly truth of preferences, negotiations, agreements, and much more. “Ethics”, “morals”, “right and wrong”, and such things are rhetoric we use to persuade and change our world into a playground or backyard game we value.

    I don’t feel all morals are equal — I detest many. But it is a preference for which I have lots of reasons, but they are based on preferences too. It can really end up an ugly self-referential soup. Such is the nature of things, I am afraid.

    Absolutism is a much more comforting idea to many. It just doesn’t match the reality I perceive, though it once did.

    Does that explain why “relativism” may not capture my position? In fact, due to my strong non-relativistic vocal preferences, many of my acquaintances later tell me that they thought I was a prudish conservative — but then after they get to know me, they get confused.

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