On the Origins of Morality

The Origin of Religion

The numerous religions of mankind may have a more primitive origin than we realize. They may have an origin directly linked to an instinctual primal emotional state, specifically, fear. Many have proposed that religion arose out of fear, and I assert that they are correct. However, the results of this origin may have had more side-effects than some realize.

I propose that all of our emotions, fear, empathy, and a sense of fairness (justice”) are all of instinctual origin. I think humans have given the primitive centers of our brain too little credit, and too little credit to the ability of other species to share these traits.

Other species have shown to some degree the awareness of fairness and empathy. Food sharing is common in groups of animals. If one animal receives food from another, when that animal has food it will share that food with the animal that shared it’s food with it previously, a demonstration of fairness. A research study with rats has shown that if a group of rats are given a means to obtain food by pushing a button or lever while another group receives a shock every time the button or lever is depressed the group which has the food lever will refrain from eating rather than inflict the suffering on the other group, a demonstration of empathy. This demonstrates that empathy and fairness may not be the product of an intellectual mind, but a primitive instinctual one.

Fear is another basic instinct, this emotion enables the fight or flee reaction in animals. Primitive man experienced this emotion daily as a result of the natural forces around him. In an attempt to suppress this fear, this anxiety, the emerging intellect of the human mind needed a means. This means was his imagination. Explanations were needed for the events occurring and so explanations were invented. Nature was beyond mankind’s control, yet, some means of control, of tempering the catastrophic effects of nature, were needed. Some force had to be controlling such events. Primitive humans, having limited means at their disposal,  came to  reason, that unknown forces, supernatural forces were at work. If only they could placate those forces perhaps tragedy could be avoided. Gods were invented and the emotion of fear was repressed.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in experiments, there were side-effects. Religion, used as a means to control fear, over-stepped and suppressed to some degree other emotions as well. Groups of individuals with disparate belief systems were present. Empathy and justice (fairness) was suppressed in each group for all others outside their group. Religion had effected more than the simple emotion of fear, it had reduced the ability of each group to have empathy and a sense of justice for other groups.

Just as many humans today belittle the capacities of animals to experience what are considered high level emotional states, so each group considered any other group inferior. A sense of superiority arose in each group in relation to another. Each group grew to resent the other. Soon each group made the claim that the other’s belief system was false, and anathema to the other. Each group began to believe that the other threatened them and their survival. There arose the thought that either the other group must convert to their way of thinking, or the other group must perish. Within each group, religion, their belief systems played a vital role contributing to the welfare and cohesion of the group. As long as the area the group was in remained homogenous peace and tranquility prevailed. If another group with differing views came within the proximity however, aggressive behavior, antagonistic behavior between the two groups developed. War, was invented.

For those of us today with no belief system, we who embrace reason and science instead of unsupported belief, those groups with belief systems are a source of unrelenting grief. We are seen as simply another group with a differing belief system, rather than a group with no belief system. As such we are viewed as a threat to their well-being and existence. To simply speak up and address these inequities is seen as an attack upon these groups. After all, these groups believe themselves superior to all other groups, believing themselves to be the only ones embracing the truth. Those with the truth of course do not view themselves as exercising intolerance. They view their particular belief system as simply the way things should be, and woe unto any party who takes exception. Like a strident bully they go about, dictating to others how they should behave, and trouncing, if not by force, with abusive criticism any who resist. This is why no particular group with specific mindsets should ever have total power in government, any government.

Evidence of Morality in Animals

Scientific studies carried out by observing animal behavior have convinced a number of researchers that morality may have arisen much earlier than previously thought, not just within humanity, but also could be widespread within the animal kingdom. Empathy, the power to feel what another feels, is thought to have been observed in multiple animal species. Other moral judgment  values may also have been observed.


  • Wolves demonstrate fairness… during play dominant wolves will “handicap” themselves, engaging in a sort of role-reversal, behaving submissively to lower ranking wolves, allowing them to bite, but not too hard.
  • Research has found evidence that elephants help ill members of the herd. Elephants have even displayed empathy with other species. The matriarch, dominant female elephant, of a herd in a preserve in South Africa actually unfastened a gate allowing antelope escape from an enclosure.

Monkeys, Chimpanzees, rodents, whales,  and even bats have demonstrated behavior which, if they were human, would be considered morality decisions.

A few years ago researchers which were studying the areas involved in hand movement discovered that those areas were activated not only when the subject actually made these movements, but also when the subject saw someone else make those movements. Certain neurons in the brains of monkeys fired when they saw another making hand movements, in the same way they fired when they themselves made the movements. Humans too, were found to have these “mirror” neurons. These “mirror” neurons allow us to understand another individual’s behavior. These are the neurons which allow humans to understand the emotions of others. Mirror neurons have also been observed in birds, and would also explain behavior of empathic mice and monkeys. A lack of or deficiency of mirror cells may be responsible for the mental disorder autism in humans. Such humans are unable to understand the feelings of others, are unable to put themselves in another’s shoes. Spindle cells, another feature of the brain of many species, are also involved in rapid emotional judgments. Initially it was thought such cells existed only in humans and other primates, but they have subsequently been found in many whale species.

How is this possible that animals share such structures, such behavioral abilities, with human beings?! This is the question that  can be supposed that went through Charles Darwin’s mind when he was in the initial stages of forming his theories on evolution. How can it be that such traits, such similarities were evident, since humans were created by God separately from the animals? It didn’t make sense then, and now nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolutionary theory. Ultimately, evolution is responsible for the coming into being of morality as well.

I propose that the simplistic behavior instilled by evolutionary forces upon human as well as animal species is the primal basis for all morality exhibited by both human and animal species today. Each species developing their own primal bases. Humans have taken their specific primary moral instillations and altered them using their human intellect into the varied rules of behavior that we label morality today. (See the above dissertation on religion as to how differing belief systems have taken the basic primal  morals and tragically distorted them) 

Origin of Biblical Morals

Actually the preceding segment, “Evidence of Morality in Animals” should probably have been first, before the segment “The Origin of Religion”. A progression from the primitive to the more advanced human levels would be more appropriate. The Origin of the Biblical Morals follows more naturally the segment on Religion, as the Bible would have to exist to discuss it’s contents.

Ultimately, all morality, I suggest, originates in the primal base morality of animals.

The origin of the moralities, in the form of laws, and rules of conduct, in the Bible, written down upon mans acquisition of greater intellect, were not original to the Bible. They existed centuries before the Torah, Judaism’s original tome, was ever written. The Torah came into being around 3,300 years ago, around 1300 B.C.E.. Hashem is said to have given the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai around that time, when Moses and Joshua lived. The Torah contained the five books of  Moses, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Ruth, Kings, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastics. Many of the books were rejected by the Ten Tribes, eventually all that were left were the five books of Moses, and Joshua.

This is as old as the origins of the Christian Bible get, and remember, this isn’t even the Bible known today.

Many of the laws and moral judgments within the pages of the Bible originated of much greater antiquity than even the Torah. The writers of the books of the Bible picked many from the writings of a king named Hammurabi, who reigned in the 1700’s B.C.E.. Many of the laws and rules of conduct within the Bible appear identical to The Code of Hammurabi, a set of laws of the Amorite Dynasty of Old Babylon.

However, this isn’t the end of the trip back in time, as there was even an older set of laws written perhaps a century earlier than Hammurabi’s time on Earth.

A recent find of fragments of tablets containing excerpts of Sumerian law code show that credit for earliest development of a system of law now goes to Lipit-Ishtar King of Isin.

In Summary:

Civilizations, cities, existed and carried on commerce, conducted civil society with laws, long before the Bible was a glint in someone’s eye. The Bible, far from being an original compilation, took many of it’s laws, morals, from previous civilizations including Hammurabi and Lipit-Ishtar. 


Cultural Moral Relativism Exists (Whether Anyone Likes it or Not)

Differing standards of morality exist in different Societal Cultures. Acceptable behavior in one culture may be taboo in another. When visiting another culture an accepted behavior of that culture must be tolerated by a visitor regardless of it’s repugnant nature. To react in any other fashion such as taking physical measures to eliminate the behavior may elicit undesirable diplomatic problems or physical retributions in return. This does not mean that the visitor must engage in what is unacceptable behavior  considered of pernicious nature in their culture, only that toleration for customs and perhaps rituals should be afforded.

There are some cultural morals which, existent in most societies, may be missing in a few. In some Islamic cultures if the female offspring are not married and then defiled  it is considered the duty of the father to murder them, of course they do not call it murder, but instead refer to the action as actually being of benefit to the deceased. It is called an “Honor Killing”. More and more these days this activity is discouraged due to worldwide outcry against it. There seems to be universal acclaim that murder is unacceptable within a civilized society.

There are universal morals. Prohibition of murder, theft, and violence, to name a few,  are present in most any culture. There are however, other customs, rituals, endemic to specific cultures, which are not covered by universal morality, and it is these which must be tolerated. Those customs which do no harm to other cultures, and that do not ignite universal moral outcry should be given the blanket term cultural relativism, and should be tolerated, at least within the confines of that culture, by all other cultures. Alternatively, respective cultures should respect the customs and rituals of other cultures and refrain from activities, normal in it’s own society, but repugnant in another which they are visiting. This is mutual toleration.

However there are intolerant societies. Islam such as that practiced in Iran is totally intolerant of cultural differences and has a stated goal of conquering the world. This brand of Islam issues an edict: All other cultures and peoples will either convert or are to be destroyed.  



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