What do you think when you think of morality? When the world seems full of war and violence and senseless acts of terror or murder – what to make of it all?

Are we a moral species or are we just violent aggressive apes with a sprinkling of culture on top? How to make sense of it all?

A start would be some facts. Our nearest ancestors are actually quite moral. Bonobos, chimpanzees and apes all show empathy, kindness and respect. They show violence, selfishness and aggression too, but they also show an ability to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others.

That’s what being moral means.

Have you ever watched someone drop their shopping without an urge to help? If you came across someone hurt on the ground what would your natural instinct be?

The modern world may breed greed and anxiety and selfishness that corrupt an unfortunate few. Jealousies or circumstance may turn some to crime or murder. And modern life isn’t conducive to mental health. But most of us find ways to stay sane and moral. Most of us are moral through and through.

This is easy to forget sometimes. The twentieth century calamities cast a long shadow. History teaches us there was hope and progress from the 15th Century onwards. The hopes of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment dashed in the trenches of the First World War. Buried in the gas chambers in the second. And danced upon in all the massacres and murder since.

The scale and horrificness of these events makes it hard to be positive about human nature. It’s a long, dark shadow. One we all sit under.

There’s also the science of evolutionary psychology. Although its writers pay heed to nuance they encourage the darkest spin. While the details say that our ancestors are not always violent. Nor are humans condemned to be savages at their core. That is not what the public hears. What enters public discourse is the worst versions of all. We are a selfish, violent species with a thin cultural coating on top masking our true nature. War and violence are to be expected and will always lurk beneath the surface. Ready to explode when the time is right. When culture breaks down.

To top it all the media encourages this spin. Without any malicious intention they amplify and distort our society.

Think about the daily news. Where an alien to know only this it would collude we are a mad violent species with only wars and murders and suffering.

In fact humans have never been more peaceful. That’s a trend that started some time ago and looks set to continue. Violence has been decreasing since we walked out of the forest. And even then all the evidence shows we may not have been that bad. Even chimpanzees and apes have the basic building blocks of morality.

The twentieth century may hold the record for absolute numbers, but that’s just population growth. Throughout history rape, pillage and torture were common. Now we ban such things. Whole cities and villages could be exterminated, now we have the Human Rights conventions. Just two hundred years ago you could watch someone hanged in the streets. Now we feel sick at the thought.

Our circle of moral sensibility keeps expanding and should keep expanding still.

This doesn’t lead to complacency. These changes are real but not irreversible. All the more reason the cherish them and make their conditions clear. This is something we believe in because….

Why do we always believe the worst? One view is that of Eva Illouz. She studied training manuals and self-help books from the early twentieth century and concluded that psychologists, acting as professionals and as producers of culture, codified emotional conduct inside the workplace. To fit the needs of corporate capitalism they made self-interest and efficiency into acceptable societal behaviour.

Throughout the twentieth century, under the aegis of therapeutic discourse, emotional life became filled with images of how to succeed, even at the expense of others. We are encouraged to be pessimistic about human’s behaviour. Encouraged to see ourselves as selfish. Encouraged for particular reasons, serving particular interests.

 

If selfishness is normal you’ll be happy to work hard and do anything to get ahead. Buying bigger and better houses is a selfish person right. When purchasing power is all that matters, giving is devalued. In this world the moral person fills their life with things. Giving  little is mildly encouraged.

There are many keys to happiness, but self-sacrifice isn’t one were taught. It’s not one we’re told to admire. Society pay lips service to noble souls. Or those whose wealth can afford them to do good. What it admires, however, is wealth and success. For all the touching words and pity a self sacrificing nurse gets, they’re viewed as a little mad. Why work hard and be good for so little personal reward?

 

As long as someone wants a Ferrari we all want one. As long as someone has money we all want more. And we’re encouraged to think we can have it all. But in a world of so much poverty and pain can you own a Ferrari’s and still is good. Can you do so without damaging your soul? Pity those who succumb to temptations and admire the noble nurse.

 

Society is neither as bad nor corrupt as it is portrayed to be. Humans are a moral species. Capitalism and the media distort and don’t always bring out the best. But millions of people everyday make their way with grace and charm. They laugh and joke and support each other. They sacrifice. They care. There is a moral law within you that should make you wake up every day and feel proud. Proud of the goodness, warmth and kindness of being you. Proud of the courage you have to read and learn and share.

Assignment

  • How did reading the above make you feel?
  • Do you think we a re a moral species?
  • Do you believe in progress?

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