Morality as survival need 
By Walter Sorochan Emeritus Professor San Diego State University

Posted: December 30, 2018; Disclaimer 

The author perceives morality as a survival need that over thousands of years was fine tuned as ancient humans evolved cultures for survival.  Ancient Egyptians and Greeks had their codes of morality in the form of  religious codes, to help their societies survive.  Romans created the Roman law to control behavior that became the basis of English law as practiced today. 

 What you should garner from this brief history is that early morality was originally intertwined as religion and law. Morality of one society or racial group may be similar but would be different from that of another racial group. There may be similar moral codes or values, but no universal world morality.  Societies and raced adopted morality that was unique to them and helped them to survive. This article attempts to elaborate about this observation.

A single definition of morality is not applicable to all moral discussions. One reason for this is that “morality” seems to be used in two distinct broad senses: a descriptive sense and a normative sense. Morality can be used:  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

    1. descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior, or
    2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons [as in a society]

On any definition of “morality”, whether descriptive or normative, it is a code of conduct. We run into a problem of defining morality when a person uses personal judgment or biased opinion as morality. This is observable when someone from a different culture migrates into another culture with different value codes; and has difficulty behaving in the new culture. 

morality moses Interpreting morality and values by the general public seems an easy way to explain how people behave and perceive values as right-wrong, good-bad, beautiful-ugly and so on. We assume wrongfully that there is universal morality amongst all races and people in the world. We fail to realize that morality can be a mix of values expressed as religious virtues, legal law and even biased opinion. Interpreting these inter-relationships becomes very complex and controversial.

For example, etiquette is sometimes included as a part of morality. The rules of etiquette are relative to a society or group, as “decency of behavior, as how one man should greet another, or how a man should wash his mouth or pick his teeth before company”, and distinguish these from those qualities of mankind that concern their living together in peace and unity.” Moreover, there are no plausible conditions under which we could pick out the “correct” rules of etiquette that would be accepted by all rational beings.  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

Another issue related to morality is the ethical egotism of acting in one’s own self-interest even when this requires harming innocent people. All morality prohibits harming others, including ethical egoism [mentally sick leaders]. All moralities prohibit  harming others, including all rational persons endorsing such prohibition.  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016 This supports the concept that morality is part of the good life of natural survival. Morality protects the larger group.

Claims have been made that there is a core of central core values and also lesser values in society. This approach muddies the waters so to speak. For as one examines morality in detail, one discovers this and other explanations to be more complex than they appear. This article attempts to unravel this complexity and point out that morality has been used by all societies as an instrument for survival.

We need to define morality and values in simple fashion.

What Is Morality? Psychology Today defined morality simply as "ethics consist of the moral code, or philosophy, that guides a person’s choices and behaviors throughout their life. The idea of a moral philosophy extends beyond the individual to include what is right (and what is wrong) for the community and society at large. Ethics is concerned with rights, responsibilities, use of language, what it means to live an ethical life and how people make moral decisions".  Psychology Today: Morality

People certainly have strong and stubborn beliefs about what's right and wrong that can be in direct contrast to the moral beliefs of others. Yet even though morals can vary from person to person, religion to religion, and culture to culture, many are universal, as they stem from basic human emotions. We may think of moralizing as an intellectual exercise, but more frequently it's an attempt to make sense of our gut instincts.  Psychology Today: Morality

Although most persons assume that only humans have the ability to moralize, you may be startled to find out that most animals also have codes of behavior. Recently, some comparative and evolutionary psychologists (Haidt 2006; Hauser 2006; De Waal 1996) have taken morality, or a close anticipation of it, to be present among groups of non-human animals: primarily, but not exclusively, lower organisms like ants and bees and other primates.  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016  Although not definitive, if primates have rules for group social behavior, then morality in humans may be as yet an undiscovered programmed genetic code. Such moral behavioral speculation in mother nature is easy to find.  Animals in the wild have behavioral instincts of knowing which foods are safe to eat and which foods make them sick; many birds like crows, social animals like chimpanzees and lions protect their territories, animals like wolves and elephants have a pecking order for who is boss and many birds have mating rituals. Animals display behaviors and habits that have moral survivor instincts.

The rest of this article focuses on providing information about humans and understanding morality as it can exist in religion, law and moral public system; and how such forms tend to help a society and individuals to survival.

There have been claims that there is universal morality among all world cultures. This is just not so. "Ethical relativists such as Harman (1975), Westermarck (1960), Prinz (2007), and Wong (1984, 2006) deny that there is any universal normative morality and claim that the actual moralities of societies or individuals are the only moralities there are. These relativists hold that only when the term “morality” is used in this descriptive sense then “morality” actually refers to: a code of conduct put forward by a society or accepted by an individual. They claim that it is a mistake to take “morality” to refer to a universal code of conduct that, under certain conditions, would be endorsed by all rational persons."  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

Morality is what we can refer to as a public system:

"Moral realists do not claim that any actual society has or has ever had morality as its actual guide to conduct. However, “natural law” theories of morality claim that any rational person in any society, even one that has a defective morality, can know the general kinds of actions that morality prohibits, requires, discourages, encourages, and allows. In the theological version of natural law theories, such as that put forward by Aquinas, this is because God implanted this knowledge in the reason of all persons."  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

" Baier (1958), Rawls (1971) and contrarians deny that there can be an esoteric morality: one that judges people even though they cannot know what it prohibits, requires, etc. For all of the above theorists, morality is what we can call a public system: a system of norms (1) that is knowable by all those to whom it applies and (2) that is not irrational for any of those to whom it applies to follow (Gert 2005: 10). Moral judgments of blame thus differ from legal or religious judgments of blame in that they cannot be made about persons who are legitimately ignorant of what they are required to do."  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

Law and Morality: "The ideal situation for a legal system would be that it be a public or universal system. But in any large society this is not possible. As a result, sometimes people are held legally responsible for violating rules about which they were legitimately ignorant, and even when it would have been irrational for them to have followed those rules.

Games are closer to being public systems than moral laws; for most adults playing a game know its rules, or they know that there are judges whose interpretation determines what behavior the game prohibits, requires, etc. Although a game is often a public system, its rules apply only to those playing the game. If a person does not care enough about the game to abide by the rules, she/he can usually quit.

Morality differs from games. Morality is the one public system that no rational person can quit. The rules of a club spell out behavior for its members even though one can escape them by quitting the club.  Morality applies to people simply by virtue of their being rational persons who know what morality prohibits, requires, etc., and being able to guide their behavior accordingly.   Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

Morality as a public system: "Public systems can be formal or informal. To say a public system is informal is to say that it has no authoritative judges and no decision procedure that provides a unique guide to action in all situations, or that resolves all disagreements. To say that a public system is formal is to say that it has one or both of these things (Gert 2005: 9). Professional basketball is a formal public system as all the players know that what the referees call a foul ... determines what is a foul, while pickup basketball is an informal public system.

The existence of persistent moral disagreements shows that morality is most plausibly regarded as an informal public system. When persistent moral disagreement is recognized, those who understand that morality is an informal public system admit that how one should act is morally un-resolvable, and if some resolution is required, the political or legal system can be used to resolve it. These formal systems have the means to provide unique guides, but they do not provide the uniquely correct moral guide to the action that should be performed. "  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

On any definition of “morality”, whether descriptive or normative, it is a code of conduct.

"Morality prohibits actions such as killing, causing pain, deceiving, and breaking promises. For some, morality also requires charitable actions, but failure to act charitably on every possible occasion does not require justification in the same way that any act of killing, causing pain, deceiving, and breaking promises requires justification."  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016

Adding validity to morality is the research done by Lawrence Kohlberg and his associates. They studied five different world cultures about morality and how morals developed. Their conclusions were that the more education people have as well as more interactions with others, the higher level their moral reasoning. Author Sorochan summarized Kohlberg's classification of moral development  Sorochan: Kohlberg's stages or moral development below.

Kohlberg envisioned six stages of development, with stage four also possibly having stage 4.5.  Sorochan: Kohlberg moral stages

Click on image to view features of a stage:

Stage 1
Click to view Stage 1
Stage 2
Click to view Stage 2
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 3
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 4
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 4.5
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 5
Stage 3
Click to view Stage 6

Although plasticity had not be recognized during the time of Kohlberg's research [1970-1980], it can now, as a more recent discovery, be interrelated with moral stages of development. Plasticity is about brain stimulation and not about biological physical development. It happens as natural growth and development and is an extension of high level morality. The brain wants to be stimulated all the time or else it goes into a state of hibernation. When this happens, such persons can live normal but deprived lives .... in that they are stuck in a level where they live with routines boring to the mind-brain, think of reasoning one level higher.

In applying plasticity to Kohlberg's stages of moral development, children are constantly discovering and learning new things that stimulate the brain to continue growing and developing. This is also usually true during the stages of adolescence and early adulthood. However, the brains of many physically mature adults can become arrested when they fall into routine life behaviors. Living routine habits does not excite the brain. Further brain-moral development temporarily stops, although it can be revived with new experiences like experiencing social interactions with others in solving moral dilemmas [debates] to be able to move to a higher stage of reasoning. Persons can change their existing values and reasoning when they are challenged by others. Plasticity, when viewed with moral development, helps to explain why people have different levels of morality. Some have better judgments than others and can think on a higher level. Yes, although this is a controversial and very sensitive issue, we cannot ignore the truth.

Morality needs to be perceived as a human survival need.

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Gert, Bernard and Gert, Joshua, "The Definition of Morality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),  Gert: Stanford definition of morality 2017.

"Ethics and Morality," Psychology Today.  Psychology Today: Morality

Kohlberg, Lawrence, Stages of Moral Development, 1971. (October 18, 2001).

Kohlberg, Lawrence, The meaning and measurement of moral development, [book[, Massachusetts: Clark University Press, 1981.

Sorochan Walter, "Kohlberg's stages of moral development."  Sorochan: Kohlberg moral stages

Sorochan Walter, "Stages of moral development in humans."  Sorochan: Kohlberg's stages or moral development

Stanford University, "The Definition of Morality," First published Wed Apr 17, 2002; substantive revision Mon Feb 8, 2016.  Stanford University: Morality defined 2016