[DISCUSS] The Origins of Moral Standards: Part 2


A DISCLAIMER: I have been working on this post for weeks now, and I still can’t seem to get a proper order of thought here. There are a lot of things to address, and although at first I thought the order would be paramount, it seems there is no ideal order on how to address everything in this topic. So please bear with me and read through the ENTIRE post before commenting, just in case I address your concerns in a different section. I’ve taken the liberty of trying to make subtitles for the sections as well, so if you get confused, check those subtitles out and see if you can find what you’re missing in a different section. Thanks and enjoy!


Introduction: In Part 1 of this discussion, I addressed the issues with entity-based morality, the idea that a higher power is the source of moral standards. Regardless of the possibility that a higher power could be the source of morality, I have illustrated why such a morality is not reliable on a societal basis, at the very least in a society of multiple religions and belief factions, which is becoming more and more prevalent and practically expected in our world. So with entity-based morality eliminated as an option, what does this leave us as far as answers to the question – What is the origin of morality?

evolution_of_manWell, if the source is not outside of us, or ‘above’ us, we can look at the opposing alternative, that morality comes from man itself. Now, man is certainly a free-thinking and individualistically-thinking being. How do we attribute universal moral constructs to such a manipulative-minded creature? We must remember that man is also animal, that we too have animalistic instincts and intuitions which shape us as social and individual beings. It can be proposed that these instincts are the central source of core moral constructs for humanity. In order to analyze how a moral construct can come from instinctual reaction, let us use an example of a universal moral standard and explain where that moral standard comes from in terms of instincts.

Morals and Instincts: First, we must identify a universal moral standard, some line of moral conduct amongst man which has always had some defining factor which cannot be crossed. One of the most universally accepted moral restrictions that man puts upon its societies is that murder is wrong. I will define murder here as the purposeful killing of another human being. In all societies in recorded history (at least all the ones I’ve ever heard of), from a flogging to banishment to death itself, there has always been some punishment for killing another human being in cold-blood upheld by the social order, or the government, of that society.  Even among other species, it can be observed that most animals can distinguish their own species from others, and make a point not to kill their own kind.

This parallel between both animals and humans finding murder to be a taboo suggests that the core morals of man are not just morals, but instincts, specifically instincts of survival. The threat to the survival of either the individual, the community/society, or the species as a whole creates the need for certain acts to be either avoided or forbidden. Murder is the threat of the survival of the individual, mass murder is a threat to a particular community or society, and societal murder – which we know as war – threatens the _give_me_that_book___nezumi_and_shion__no_6_by_mel_arcobaleno-d5z5jebentire species of man. In this, murder is a wrongdoing against the instinct of survival, and so is avoided by animals and forbidden and punished by man. The same can be said of theft. If an animal has the mentality of ownership (either ownership over other animals such as an alpha in a pack species like wolves, or ownership of property such as a wolf’s den or hunting grounds), that thing which said animal owns is necessary for that animal’s survival. For an animal to lose its territory is to possibly lose the ability to hunt safely, or loss of that animal’s status in its communal group could cause a loss in food consumption or permission to mate. Man has the same mentality, even if the thing which is owned is not necessary for the human’s survival (like a video game console or a book). The core instinct, the foundation of this moral standard, is that what one owns, one must protect as one’s own from being forcefully taken, in order to survive.

Morals and Emotions: The separation of man and animal in terms of instinctual constructs versus morals is that of emotions. Humans, with emotional projections and a sense of pure self, can project these founding moral constructs onto situations and objects which are not essential to survival. Emotional attachments to non-essential objects (again, such as a video game console or a book) allows man to project the instinct of theft as wrong onto non-survival related situations and items. This is not to suggest that non-survival situations of theft are not wrong, but merely to show that, just because morals are based on animalistic instinct does not make our morals the same as animal instincts. Emotion is the basis of the evolution of instincts into morality. This makes morality a new stage of instinct, a natural phenomenon that, like emotions, can be specific to the individual. Although two people can agree that murder is wrong, they can argue about whether capital punishment is wrong. Why is this? The reason is two-fold.

First, such exceptions to the rule may exist because such situations have survival of the individual, society, or species trump the moral standard itself. Although murder is wrong according to instinctual morality of survival, there are situations of man killing man which are justified by man himself. That does not make the act itself moral as opposed to immoral, but allows for less severe retaliation and punishment for the act. Self-defense is a prime example. If someone comes to murder you, you cannot escape, cannot reason with the assailant, and have no known hope of a third party intervening, what do you do? You protect yourself to the utmost in order to survive. At times, this want for survival against someone wanting to kill you in cold-blood may result in you killing the assailant. Is it wrong that you killed? Under instinctual morality, yes it is. However, the conditions under which you killed not only were for your survival, but are emotionally empathetic to other human beings, and so the moral implications of you killing that other person are lessened. The same can be said of capital punishment, which permanently removes a threat to society from the species as a whole. Abortion can also be justified as a survival method of the mother in some instances, and can also be seen as a culling mechanism to avoid overpopulation, and therefore starvation and death within the species.

Second, each person has their own emotional ideals regarding murder, as well as different premises on which to logically deduce when murder is justifiable. This is what I call the personal facet of morality, and where the facets of morality come into play in the human realm.


Morals and Facets: I have already slightly outlined my premise of facets of morality in a poem by the same name (which you can read by clicking the image above). Here I will attempt to give more context and explanation to these facets and what they mean on the whole construct of morality. First to list the facets:

  1. Personal morality: one’s individual ideal of the core values of moral conduct, and when, where, and how to implement that core value on specific situations. This standard is both influenced and directly determines through compilation of all the other facets.
  2. Familial morality: the moral values upheld by the small family community, a combination of agreed upon social and personal moral standards within the family.
  3. Spiritual morality: morality based solely on emotional input, and typically also influenced by religious affiliation. This facet is very hard to influence, but has great influence on the other moralities, especially familial and personal.
  4. Social morality: the moral standards which a society is bound to follow. This is enforced through laws, and is directly influenced by the majority consensus of the personal morals of the population of that society, or by the personal moral standards of the few of the population who rule over the society (depending on the established governmental system of that society).

Let’s return back to the idea of murder and put it into the perspective of the facets, beginning with personal. An individual’s experiences in life can and will always influence how that person thinks, feels, and reacts to given situations. This creates the emotional stimulus each person feels toward a moral construct and the specific situations that construct can be interpreted in. There can be a person who has had multiple abortions, but who is against capital punishment, or a person for capital punishment but who is adamantly against any form of war. These influenced mindsets are also a product of the other moralities. Individuals can have positive or negative experiences with their society, their family, and their spiritual lives, which can determine if they agree or disagree with the other moral facets on any given issue. Personal morality is very much based on the influence of the other facets on any individual. But that is not where personal morality ends.

family-guyFamilial and social moralities are built from the framework of individual moral standards, just as personal morality is built upon familial, spiritual and social. Spiritual is a difficult morality to incorporate into this give-and-take, and typically spiritual morality is based on entity-based moral constructs (as discussed in part 1). It is possibly the only moral facet which essentially stands alone in terms of influence, and instead is its own influence on the other facets. But for familial and social, they are far more fluid and dependent on each other as well as personal morality. Family in particular is highly influential, as it changes and adjusts in each generation, depending not only on the social morality of the times, but also on the prior familial moralities of both people coming into a new family through marriage. The moral standards that both parents agree with to teach their children may not be what they individually agree with completely, but compromises are sometimes made, or contradictions are accepted by one or both parents.

Social morality is essentially the same thing as familial, but on a societal scale. Some societies function with the government as the parents, making all the rules without the input of the children being influenced. Other societies function with the government as only a part of the whole parental unit that is the people of the society itself, and all those in that society work together to compromise (and sometimes contradict) the moral standards decided to rule the household of the society, the agreed upon personal moralities of each individual in that society. In the end, however, social morality is what determines how one can act within that society itself, and solidifies the moral code of that society through laws. Social morality is what governs the people and punishes the people in terms of a moral standard.

However, this is not the end-all, be-all. Because social morality is specifically influenced by the majority determination of the people of that society, or by the specific moral standards of a few over the people (a theocracy or monarchy), the people still have the power to either influence the change of that social morality or overthrow the power which determines the social morality in order to balance the social morality into something more acceptable to the people.

Morality – Static or Fluid?: In the end, morality is not a concrete, or static, topic. Even with a universal moral standard (like murder is wrong) established by instincts, the fluid nature of man and man’s emotions demand that we as a species recognize and understand morality as fluid also, because morality is partially influenced by our emotions, as individuals, as social groups, as societies. There is a line that can be crossed by people, which is worthy of punishment, but WE are the ones who determine where the most specific of those lines fall. We are the ones who must determine as individuals, as families, and as societies, if murder can be justifiable in any way (self-defense, war, capital punishment, abortion, etc.). It is up to us, and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can address it for what it is, and find the most acceptable balance for all people.


Don’t judge me for the lame-ass ‘fin’ ending. I didn’t know what else to close with. XD Please share your views below. Let me know what you think of my deductions here, especially about the moral facets and the fluidity of morality itself. Thanks for reading! Cheers!


9 thoughts on “[DISCUSS] The Origins of Moral Standards: Part 2

  1. Pingback: [DISCUSS] The Origins of Moral Standards: Part 1 | Virginia the Viruliferous
  2. As always Rana, I find your writing enjoyable and thought provoking. Like me I understand you are trying to explore ideas in your head in your writing so please don’t take my challenges here as me claiming to necessarily know the answers myself, but have studies some psychology and how the mind works and find some of what you say here not fitting in with what I have read.

    The first thing I would like to address is your four different facets. While I can understand why you chose these four, the separation between them is even less clear to me, even though you do admit yourself that they can be affected by the other. First, from a biological level, it is important to recognize that our genetic structure impacts brain chemistry and influences the way our brain develops, such that there is a level of morality to which in some way we have no control over. There are people who are sociopathic genetically and simply have no ability to be empathic and thus simply cannot develop morality in a way that most of us do. In regards to individual morality it is unclear to me that such a thing exists. One could say survival is an instinctual drive we all have, but given our utter helplessness at birth there is no way we could practice this drive on our own from the day we are born. Survival itself is not our morality, but “how we survive is”. We are born dependent and we are born into at least some sort of social setting. Whether it is only familial or larger than that it is through outside influence that we gain our sense of morality. In Freud’s model of the ego, superego, and id, the superego is where our moral center is located. It is nature that our superego should develop, but how it develops is all nurture. In fact Freud’s theory, which is now supported by fMRI data demonstrate that as newborns we are only id and ego (and mostly id). Through our lifetime the proportion of which our brain is occupied by these 3 areas changes.

    The second facet I would like to challenge is the spiritual morality one. To me, and perhaps this is not what you are saying, implies that we have a spirit. While I think ‘spirit’ is a help way to describe feelings of heightened awareness/joy/things-we –can’t-quite put-into-words. I do not think there is no spirit in a biological sense. It occupies no specific area of the body, and it has no physical properties. It is a human invention. So any morality derived from spirituality is thus given by society or by family. In your definition you cite that it is a morality by emotional influence. What morality is not governed by emotional influence? The reason why might not kill is because of an emotional influence, as our empathy for other human beings would prevent us from doing such an act. The joy we get from helping others, the sadness we would feel hurting others. All are influenced by emotion. If we take a look at religious influences, where do such religious influences come from? Family? Society? This morality would still be given to us. Ingrained into us as something that is truth as a result of belief, such that acting outside of the boundaries of those belief would actually make us physically ill. This is how beliefs work. As we form beliefs, neural pathways in our brain get forged, and the more those beliefs are reinforced, our brains release dopamine causing us pleasure. Changing our beliefs thus becomes unpleasant and difficult. So the “feeling” of spiritual happiness is actually an illusion. We are told something is true, and once we accept it, living that truth makes us feel good. As an example I remember a woman who cut my hair when I was an undergrad. She was a greek woman, loved to cook, loved to eat; loved her meat, especially lamb. She described her Good Friday celebration and she said she didn’t eat meat (or maybe it was the only meat she was allowed was fish). She wasn’t particularly religious and so I asked her, why does she still follow the custom? She said, while she knew it didn’t really make sense to not eat meat on that one day, it made her feel closer to God. She felt spiritually fulfilled. But is this something she just decided to try and had a spiritual experience? Of course not, her family had always done. She had been raised that was as a child. She probably has fond memories of family celebrations. It probably reminded her of her parents who had passed on. There was a whole host of emotions wrapped up in that tradition, but perhaps no single reason that she could put her finger on and so she said it made her feel closer to God. My point is that the roots of that feeling are familial. If you believe there is a spirit then I can respect that, but I think that would have to be established with more certainty before we can definitely say that it is a facet of morality.

    Well this response has already become quite long so I will write another one concerning the topic of murder. Lol I wish we could have a conversation and a pint about all this instead! :)

    • SWARN!!!! I swear, I’m not ignoring your comments. The first is VERY helpful, and the second I believe is actually a very well-done reiteration of my point regarding this post. I just simply have NOT had the time to properly respond. I will get a response to you for both comments as soon as I can. Until then, thank you so much for the kind, thoughtful, and thorough comments. It’s always great to hear from you! 🙂

      • Thank you for this Rana. 🙂 I did not think you were ignoring my necessarily, but rather it was just another case of my responses being too long such that no, normal human being has enough time to respond to them. LOL I still prefer to blame it on the blog initially for being thought provoking, rather than my inability to be concise. LOL I look forward to your reply when you have the time. 🙂

      • I just had to look back to see if I somehow accidentally had stopped following you because I haven’t seen you post anything for some time. I am sure you must be busy, just as I am with the new baby, but I wanted to say hi and let you know I miss your writing! And I also miss somehow the ridiculous rants of RT. LOL

        • Hahaha!! I know, it’s been a while, hasn’t it! Congrats on the new baby btw! 🙂 Planning for the wedding and moving after has been taking up everything, but I do have some ideas for poats when I come back.into the swing of things. 🙂 Stand by!

  3. You use the example of murder a lot in your post and I find myself not agreeing even though I kind of want to!

    First of all your definition says “the purposeful killing of another human being”. This is not the dictionary definition of murder, because in addition to premeditation, you must also include “unlawful”. This immediately distinguishes murder from killing. It is an important distinction. I consider an abortion killing, I do not consider it murder. Of course even if it was against the law to have an abortion, I would still feel the same way. Conversely, I also consider capital punishment as state sanctioned murder. But that is just my opinion and is beside the point. The main point is that murder by definition must have some element of law to it, which means that it is something that is decided by society, a dictator, democracy, or whatever.

    “Murder is the threat of the survival of the individual, mass murder is a threat to a particular community or society, and societal murder – which we know as war – threatens the entire species of man. In this, murder is a wrongdoing against the instinct of survival, and so is avoided by animals and forbidden and punished by man.”

    A book you might be interested in reading is called The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. There he looks at things that we think our uniquely human (both positive and negative) and shows examples of them in the animal world. When it comes to murder and genocide we need look no further than our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee. They murder, and in fact they also murder in organized fashion, sometimes against an individual sometimes against an entire group of chimpanzees. There is no punishment for chimpanzees and it is quite natural for chimpanzees to do this. Why do they do it? Other groups represent rivals for resources, thus one group may feel that it is in their best interest to kill the other group. Resources are in fact finite, and some species simply don’t have the intellect to come up with alternate solutions to killing. We might be able to, but we are probably more capable now in our current state of knowledge than we were in our past. Murder can be rationalized in many ways of course:

    1. Self-defense as you already pointed out
    2. War. Sometimes other groups are all actual threatens. Sometimes there seems to be no way to reason with them. While it might impact your individual survival, you may increase the survival of your group. To override the empathy “chip” techniques are often used to demonize the enemy such that killing them becomes much easier. This is in common practice today by governments and terrorist groups alike.
    3. Capital Punishment. One your own becomes so dangerous that leaving him/her alive is much more of a threat to our survival then letting them live.
    4. Abortion. I don’t think abortion is murder, but perhaps that is my own rationalizing. A 15 week old fetus is not a human, thus killing it is justified.

    In all these instance survival is the root. Our morality comes into play both in terms of thinking about how best to survive, but also many of these situations involve conflict. Freud said that we are always in moral conflict. It seems morality is not a fixed line, but one that is constantly moving within us. We quite often choose the lesser of two evils. “I don’t want to kill people, but I don’t want more of my own people to get killed”. “If I don’t kill this person, they are going to kill me”. “If I don’t abort this baby, my survival then is in jeopardy”.

    Now this next bit is going to make me sound like a horrible person, but in direct challenge to your statement that “murder is wrong according to instinctual morality of survival”. If as a woman my survival is truly at stake that I must have an abortion (anthropological evidence shows that babies used to have to be abandoned before abortion was possible) then you are actually increasing the likelihood not only of your own survival, but of the groups survival. Given how helpless babies are, you and your child need enough nourishment to survive. You are actually better off having an abortion, and having a kid when resources are more plentiful for your survival. Many groups in our history have been completely eliminated by war and genocide. How has that impacted our survival as a species? As sad as it is, it really hasn’t. In fact if you are going to go to war with someone you might actually be better of getting rid of all of them so they don’t seek retribution. Keep in mind I am not advocating this behavior simply saying that given that we have a group mentality, by killing other groups, what remains can still thrive and be productive. Maybe we killed the tribe that figured out how to make iron…but oh well, someone will figure out eventually. There is no question that we do better when we cooperate peacefully, combine strengths, etc. It is not a requirement of man to get to the moon by a certain year, or invent the computer chip, or even really discover the laws of physics. We simply have to survive. Provide we come up with some ground rules for what killing is allowed and what isn’t (law) and provided that law isn’t “go around kill anybody you see” we will survive and that all that matters. You can work together and learn best how to maximize resources, or you can get rid of people and have more resources for your community. Both solutions work and both philosophies have been considered moral by various groups throughout history.

    The next stage that mankind must reach is one in which empathy is felt towards all humanity. To recognize that we have much more in common than we have differences. Our desire to survive and care for our families and loved ones is shared and we can do this together. I truly feel the interconnectivity of the world now will slowly push us in that direction. That in the future we will become less fearful of “other groups” because we will have knowledge and understanding of our differences and similarities.

    • I think, long story short, not that I mind your posts SG, is that morality is societal. It stems from the group you tend to identify with. Be it religious, criminal, political, corporate, or just plain Joe.

      Many acts we would find atrocious, are common practice in other parts of the world, and vice versa. As in religious views it is the luck of the draw, what part of the world were you born to?

      Morality is also a personal insight. One may or may not agree with their peer group. We have that ability to think independently. This is what gives us those moments of doubt. This is what raises the questions, the issues. This capacity for independent thought. We, like it or not are a part of society, we also have the ability to question, to investigate, to learn. (well some of us anyway, some people are so locked into an ideology they have no clear path to rationality) I believe these personal insights are what eventually define us, depending on our choices.

      Assuming we have choices, I am still having trouble with the free will argument. lol.

*Insert your thought here*

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