Morality and ethics are concerned with
right and wrong ways to behave. One
such way is to, always, above all else, look out for one's self
interest. Its opposite,
altruism, places the interests,
welfare, happiness, and perhaps even survival of other people or living
things above one’s own interests. Michael Shermer, in his 2004 book The
Science of Good and Evil, characterizes religion as "a social
institution that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to
encourage altruism and reciprocal altruism, to discourage selfishness
and greed, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and
reciprocate among members of the community."
Generally present in some form in all major religions and in
cultural heritages throughout the world, is a behavioral recipe known as
"The Golden Rule." (See Figure #16a.)
English philosopher John Locke described
this (in 1690) as an "unshaken rule of morality, and foundation of
all social virtue." The
positive version, stated in the above worldview theme description in one
variation, was part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
Confucius, in the 6th
century BCE, is generally credited with the negative version of this
universal principle: "Do not do unto others what thou wouldst not
they should do unto you." The
Jewish sage Hillel provided a slightly different version in 30 BCE:
"What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor."
In comparing both versions,
ethicists generally prefer the negative formulation, for, as philosophy
professor Steven M. Cahn puts it, "It does not imply that we have
innumerable duties toward everyone else." About that negative formulation Cahn goes on to say,
"[it] is not the supreme moral principle since it does not prohibit
actions that ought to be prohibited."
He suggests that, by following it, a masochist might inflict pain
on others. In similarly
finding fault with the Golden Rule, another asked, "How would you
feel if a million Soviet troops stormed your Reich capital?" While not perfect, in the search for a concise, easily
understood supreme moral principle, the Golden Rule is one of the best
choices. (See worldview
theme #42 "Ethical Orientation" for some other ones.)
Why do some people often behave altruistically, while others
rarely or never do? In analyzing research on the evolution of moral behavior by
anthropologist Donald E. Brown, Shermer
identified twenty-nine traits that "contribute to a behavioral
expression of the Golden Rule." Included in this list are fairness, cooperation,
co-operative labor, food sharing, hospitality, promise, reciprocal
exchanges, turn taking, and
feeling" or imagining that you are in the other person’s shoes
and experiencing his or her feelings, struggles, etc.—is one of the
more important pre-requisite traits in this list.
Emotionally immature people, in particular those who after
experiencing so much pain as children have learned
how to block it, may not feel compassion for
Many believe childhood experience and genetic endowment basically
wire neural connections in the brain and play a key role in one's
ability to empathize. After
studying mirror neurons, some neuroscientists believe empathy can
specifically be traced to neural networks with mirror properties.
The Golden Rule is a simple recipe for human behavior. Another
equally recognizable one from human history is embodied in "an eye
for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
Together these provide the following prescription for moral
behavior: "You should cooperate first.
If others cooperate continue to do so. If someone defects, you
should defect in similar fashion. But if they start cooperating again,
you should also." Interestingly
enough, this is basically the TIT
for TAT strategy—a computer program of interest to political
scientists, those studying human nature, and the evolution of ethical
behavior. This program achieved such success in tournaments involving
non-zero sum "cooperate/defect" games, that some speculate its
mental equivalent was important in the evolution of cooperation.
A winning strategy is defecting on the last move: if
you plan on never seeing someone again, you cheat or behave badly!
Human nature may require distinguishing "insiders and
outsiders"—those you treat right and those you don't.
As a 2007 Time article "What Makes Us Moral"
reports, "This kind of brutal line between insiders and outsiders
is evident everywhere." Its
existence is no surprise—sociologists
made a similar community vs. society distinction in the late 19th
distinguishing "insiders and outsiders" and ethical behavior
evolved in humans over a long period of time can be described using a
pyramid. (See Figure #16c.)
When people were little more than animals their behavior was dictated by
self interest in meeting basic survival needs—shown at the pyramid's
pre-civilization humans, ethical behavior extended to include family and
biological relatives. As
culture developed and survival pressures eased, ethical behavior was
extended greatly, moving up the pyramid, to eventually include
community, tribe, regional neighbors, ethnic group, and nation. Today, at the top of the pyramid, are those who feel a
sense of belonging to the whole human species and behave accordingly.
Use of the phrase "all human beings" in the opening
sentence of the statement of this "Golden Rule..." worldview
theme connects those who value it with those at the pyramid's top.
For many a "Village Ethic of Mutual
Help" is logically part of the Golden Rule—it
was for David Starr Jordan. In
his 1894 book The Factors in Organic Evolution, he saw a weaker
ethic "Live and Let Live" being strengthened with a "Law
of Mutual Help" to become "Live and Help Live."
For Jordan, this was a simple way of describing the jump from the
Silver Rule to the Golden Rule. Besides
mutual help, inherent to worldview theme #16 is Good Samaritan type
behavior (Figure #16b). Behaving this way requires extending trust to
Figure #16b Parable of the Good Samaritan
said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied,
"A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to
Jericho. They stripped and
beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.
A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw
him, he passed by on the opposite side.
Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he
passed by on the opposite side. But
a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the
sight. He approached the
victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them.
Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and
cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to
the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay
you on my way back.' Which
of these three, in
opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?"
He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy."
Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
the Bible, book of Luke 10: 29--37
Behavior Evolutionary Pyramid