Is morality on the wane?

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 15 Sep 2020

Simply put, man knows right from wrong and has a moral conscience

If you adhere to the Darwinian hypothesis that morality is what distinguishes man from the lower species, you must become quite sceptical nowadays. Morality as we know it has all but disappeared.

Man’s erect position and his huge brain are minor compared to his ability to anticipate the consequences of his actions, his ability to make value judgements and his ability to choose between alternative causes of action.

Simply put, man knows right from wrong and has a moral conscience.

Darwin subscribed to this over two centuries ago in The Descent of Man (1859). Were he to examine the subject today, how would he rate man’s morality?

We are inundated daily with images of immoral behaviour by the superior human species.

According to the UN’s Department of Drug and Crime, an estimated half a million murders were committed in 2012 and the numbers have been rising rapidly since then. Murders are committed by terrorists, racists, religious extremists, criminals and more. What about “the empathy for others” that Darwin claims is a human quality?

Admittedly, psychologists, sociologists, analysts and men of religion have different theories about the present loss of morality. After all, it is the domain of philosophers rather than biologists.

In earlier societies laws and morals originally came from the Ten Commandments of the Abrahamic religions. Remember “Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not give false witness against you neighbour”? Why do all these happen every day, every minute? Are the commandments obsolete?

As society has moved into the modern era the earlier system of laws has eroded and almost become extinct, although it has kept our societies glued for centuries.

Many religious doctrines are unacceptable today because they do not coincide with the contemporary moral possibilities. Religion does not determine our morality.

Atheists can be moral too. They do not score differently from religious people when given moral dilemmas. Basically, people take or leave morality according to some internal compass they already have. In fact, we are free to choose the religion that feels right to us.

Despite all the “Islamophobia”, and criminal acts by religious extremists, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. Why convert at all?

Experimental evidence suggests that people’s opinion of what God thinks is wrong or right tracks with what they believe is wrong or right. They accept only what feels right to them.

We redefine the meaning of morality in order to justify self-indulgence and hedonistic behaviour.

“They just updated their opinion on what God thinks,” says social psychologist Nicholas Epley. Pushing God out of our lives we swing our doors open to hatred, violence, corruption and crime. It is reminiscent of the “Fall of the Roman Empire”, breakdown of family, insatiable craving for pleasure and decay of religion.

If religion does not determine our morality, where do our morals come from?

Some of the things we see or hear now we never heard before. Things have greatly changed in this generation, with technology growing at such a rapid pace, immorality has gone amuck.

Parental abandonment is one reason. While nannies or baby-sitters may have tended to children before, they did not have access to the technological devices of entertainment that is violent, vulgar and corrupt. What is ironic is that they are given to the child by the parents.

Unprocessed information in the hands of a child, videos of people in public quickly go viral. Folks bicker and bully on social media, many, including celebrities, think nothing of posting naked photos for the world to see.

Selfish parents have their excuses, too tired, too little time they contribute greatly to the decline of moral values.

We are constantly evolving, so is our society and even our brain. The frontal lobes which are part of the brain that puts things in perspective “allow you to be empathetic and are constantly evolving”, say neuro-scientists. What was shocking yesterday is not so shocking today and may be the norm tomorrow.

How about morals and politics? Can this ever be a happy marriage?

Lying and more lying in a free press is not democracy. It is immoral. A few tech companies control our digital life owned by a few billionaires with their own political agenda. These are businessmen interested in the return of their investment. Do we trust them?

The assumption of truth, which existed less than half a century ago, is lost.

We humans have ignored the principles that advance fairness, justice, conscience, empathy and all of the Darwinism distinctions that put us on a higher level than animals.

Primatologists now believe animals that our closest kin, the bonobos and chimpanzees have empathy, compassion and self-sacrifice. Macaque monkeys that are far more distinct from us will not take food if this causes harm to another monkey.

Even rats faced with a choice of eating chocolate chips in one container or rescuing a trapped rat in another container choose to rescue the rat.

In his book The Bonobos and the Atheists, Priamatologist, Franz de Vaal, concluded that dogs, chimps, among others are quite capable of affection, sympathy and altruism.

Are we born blank as a slate and learn morality from our civilisation or is it hard-wired in us as well as chimps who lack the tools of civilization?

Would Darwin observe today that humans are not that superior?

Animals can teach them about morality.

“We have two kinds of morality side by side: One which we preach but do not practise and the other which we practise but seldom preach.”

  Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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