Most people adhere to some moral code, which abjures, for example (under most circumstances), killing, injuring, stealing from, lying to, cheating and enslaving other people. To a larger extent we all agree on the rules. Where do these rules come from, and how do we each learn them? Many words have been spilled over these questions.
Religion — Bibles, the Golden Rule etc. — is one possible source of morality. God-fearing people believe this, and we all know devout individuals who really feel that they must do good because God wants them to. However, it is questionable how many follow this path. I know many people who profess deep sanctity within their church or synagogue, but then go out and daily deal falsely and even worse in business and personal relationships. The Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, the Holocaust, Israel vs. the Palestinians, the Sunni-Shiite enmity, the Buddhist-Muslim hatred and many other events show us brutal mass killings incited by sometimes even tiny religious differences. So it is questionable whether religion inspires good or evil on the whole.
One school of philosophers holds that our ethical principles arise because we are genetically programmed in that direction. They say that natural selection favors goodness rather than the rule of tooth and claw because in the long run that’s what leads to better adaptability, the criterion of evolutionary success. Numerous studies provide examples of ethical behavior in animals and very young children, which are taken to mean that since the behavior could not have been learned, it must have been inborn. No doubt there’s some truth in this, but it seems to me inadequate to be the main story.
In the NY Review of Books, July 10, 2014, there is a review by Samuel Freeman of Bernard Williams’ book “Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002,” which probes deeply into the roots of moral behavior. Williams criticizes our culture’s morality system as a “powerful misconception of life.” We think we are “free, autonomous, morally responsible agents” and that morality is “a separate domain of unconditional principles that override all other considerations.” He derides “our notion of developed morality” as a myth, and says that “the daily experience of choice” is where morality should begin. I think he’s right, but he fails to identify exactly where our moral sense arises.
I believe that what the daily experience of choice fundamentally means is that our moral sense arises from putting ourselves into another person’s place. How often have we heard, “How would you feel if you were in that situation”? Most of us learn to instinctively ask ourselves that question, and from that flows our sense of right and wrong.
This is akin to the Golden Rule, but not identical with it. “Do unto others…” tells us what to do. This sounds good but often leads to immoral behavior, for sometimes others do not want to be treated as you like to be treated. We don’t feed someone else something we like but he dislikes. Missionaries used to force native women to wear bras, which we now recognize as presumptuous behavior. A better rule is Hillel’s Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.” The negatives protect others from overzealous do-gooders. That’s the real root of moral behavior.