Life in the Pack: Of Dogfights and Social Moralities

Article excerpt

THIS PAST SUMMER two sociologists from the University of California at San Diego wrote in the Washington Post that public schools could, in effect, compromise on the issue of teaching science versus intelligent design by holding that human morality is separate from evolution and that we are, in fact, separate from the animals in that regard.

The concept that we are "above the creatures of the field" comes from the Old Testament, and in the nineteenth century it (pardon the pun) evolved into social Darwinism. This came at a time when racism and social bias were rife, and people spoke without irony of how the millennia-old cultures of India and China were "savage" and that they were obliged to take up the "white man's burden" Darwinism was seen as a justification of competition that came at a time when Western society was both vile and exploitative, and compensated for it with a stifling blend of rank hypocrisy, suffocating self-righteousness, and prudery masquerading as morality. The notion that humans were above the "law of the jungle" (while benefitting from it) was a comforting one to the movers and shakers of Victorian culture.

The notion that if humans came from animals they must be immoral (held most often by people who believe they came from dust) is based on the premise that without a god or gods to guide us, we would be capricious and amoral. That gods tend to be capricious and amoral themselves totally escapes the notice of their proponents. Jehovah, with his foreskin collections and great floods, wasn't even the most erratic; Zeus, Kali, Shiva, Coyote, and Loki are even worse. Gods are above and beyond human morality--it's very nearly one of the prerequisites for being a god--and the result produces great campfire stories but little in the way of moral instruction.

If human morality doesn't rest on the solid bedrock of usually invisible and silent cosmic sky beings telling us, "Do as we say and not as we do" where does it stem from? "Societal norms" and "consensus" are the answers most often given, but like "God magicked it" these are only partial answers, ones that suggest an underlying and unexamined cause.

Morality is societal, and is most often local. In fundamentalist Muslim countries, a woman is required to cover her face; imposing such an imposition on women is considered immoral in Western countries. A lot of what is judged as "moral" consists of nothing more than local hicks concluding that their bad habits constitute natural laws of the universe.

But some moralities extend across all cultures, albeit subject to local variation. All cultures have prohibitions against murder, although the definition of "murder" varies. All have some form of what we call "marriage" although that can vary even more (consider how differently the majority of the citizens of Massachusetts and California view it). Cultures have laws containing cannibalism, usually sublimating it into rituals so it doesn't become a social problem. All societies have sanctions regarding theft, violence, and dishonesty in dealing with others.

Morality forms around hierarchal patterns as well. Those in power are expected to furnish justice and fairness to those below. Those below are expected to offer fealty and work. A great deal of morality--and the relatively recent development of combining it with religion--exists mainly for the purpose of keeping the plebes in line.

What transsocietal moralities have in common is that they make it possible for larger numbers of humans to function as a society. They are social imperatives. Individual morality? That's best defined as "how you behave when you think nobody's looking." And while it varies wildly among individuals, it exists in most individuals, and makes a society possible. …