Wednesday, 21 May 2008


There's an interesting discussion going on over at the "Religious Write" blog by The Age's Barney Zwartz.

He asks the question of whether morality is an evolved, absolute and/or God-given phenomenon.

My comment was this:

"I think what does knock out the God argument (assuming that argument is that God has hard-wired morality into our DNA), is that we see morality varies between cultures.

If it were hard-wired, all cultures would be the same. Why would God construct different moralities for different groups? And the "moving in mysterious ways" argument won't wash . . . sorry. :-)

The most likely explanation for all this is simply social evolution.

The practices that were of most benefit to a society, or fitted in best with a society's particular circumstances (demographical, geographical, environmental etc) become, over time, the accepted moral standard.

If there are morals that seem universal, it's just because they are somehow intrinsic to the health of all societies."

A couple of additional points occurred to me after leaving this comment.

This first was that the converse is also true: that if a practice is perceived as a threat to a particular society, then that practice becomes a moral taboo.

The second was that I find it interesting for any discussion on morality to be framed in terms of religion.

From my standpoint, the prevalence of religion in a culture acts to stymie moral development, not assist it.

Our three major religions dictate to their adherents a particular set of morals, determined centuries before and in a different country, and claim they are still wholly relevant and still must be followed.

A case in point is the Christian/Judaic/Islamic attitude towards sex.

In a small nomadic feudal community hemmed in by enemies, the family unit is obviously necessary for survival, as is the growth of the community by producing children.

Under these circumstances, it's no surprise that sex becomes primarily a means of increasing tribal numbers. It then follows that sex that does not lead to procreation becomes taboo.

The obvious outcomes of this are our major religions' attitudes towards homosexuality, and Catholicism's (in particular) rejection of contraception.

A related issue is the demonisation of extra-marital sex. Having children out of wedlock was taboo because (common to most societies) it causes complications when distributing inheritance, and so then extra-marital sex is taboo by association.

This kind of thinking also explains the apparent horror in the Islamic tradition of women who are menstruating, or who have recently given birth, when they are described as 'unclean'. They are unable, or unlikely, to conceive a child at that time, and hence have no usefulness.

Morality is clearly relative. But more importantly, it's prone to change as society and circumstances change.

And it must be allowed to change.

Any concepts of an absolute morality, which seems to be the favoured approach of all our religions, is anathema to the development and advancement of our society.