Shaking off tribal views: Shared morality a tool to beat global challenges

As ‘sole agents of evolution’, we must maximise destiny of Earth and humanity

We must act at a supranational, global level and develop a moral perspective that encompasses the whole planet and all humans – and indeed all living beings – on this Earth.

We must act at a supranational, global level and develop a moral perspective that encompasses the whole planet and all humans – and indeed all living beings – on this Earth.

 

Non-religious people are frequently irked by the question from those who profess a faith: “How can you be moral without religion?”

While this betrays a lack of awareness of the basis of morality, it also points to the need for non-religious people to argue for a consistent ethical basis for morality which all can share. It may also show the way to solve some of the larger problems that face us in our global world.

Any secular morality must be based on the real world as we experience it and a real assessment of what we humans are. Two features stand out. First, we are social animals and, second, we have highly developed language skills and so have the technical ability to preserve and transmit ideas.

The fact that we, like other primates, are social beings means that within our social group our behaviour is being continually monitored, judged and responded to. In this way we learn as individuals to conform to the norms of society.

It is not hard to imagine that individuals whose behaviour falls outside the range of the acceptable will be actively discriminated against and – to take a crude “Darwinian” view – have less opportunity to produce offspring.

Ideas vs genetics

Humans’ communication skills leads to a further important conclusion. The ability to rapidly and effectively transmit ideas, including technical skills and methods of organisation etc, means that in humans the principal means of evolution is cultural. We can change our ideas and institutions far more quickly that we can acquire new genetic traits.

It is much easier to behave well to our immediate, family, tribe or acquaintance, than it is to be empathetic and generous to groups who are more remote

As Julian Huxley pointed out in his seminal Essays of A Humanist (1964), this novel and unique “cultural evolution” means that humans are the “sole agents of evolution”. That is, we and we alone are capable of influencing the destiny of the Earth and its inhabitants.

In fact, the destiny of the Earth is determined independently of anything we do – it will be burned to a crisp or vaporised by the death of the sun. All we can do is try to preserve the delicate biosphere, that skin less than one kilometre thick around the Earth in which we live.

The model of socially conditioned morality outlined above is essentially based on small communities of family or tribe. It is much easier to behave well to our immediate, family, tribe or acquaintance, than it is to be empathetic and generous to groups who are more remote.

Hierocles, a second-century Stoic philosopher, pointed this out with his diagram of the circles of “cosmopolitanism”. The smallest circle is oneself and the circles gradually get bigger to include family, fellow-citizens, fellow nationals and, finally, all humankind.

Web of life

Hierocles considered it the individual’s duty to draw people into the inner circles so that our concern is for all humankind. At the same time we now recognise our kinship with all other living things in the web of life and may wish to add one more circle to include them.

Steven Pinker, in his Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), has reviewed the systems of morality which have evolved from those based on tight kinship relations (communal sharing) up to the highest legal-rational system.

We must act at a supranational, global level and develop a moral perspective that encompasses the whole planet and all humans

He argues that this comes about because of the increasing use of abstract (rational) thinking and so the legal-rational system incorporates and transcends the more narrowly based systems of morality and enables us to take a higher-perspective view of our problems.

Crucially, this system of thought, just like any other, can be learned through thought, practice and discussion.

In today’s globally connected world we have to shake off our tribal views. We are faced with problems on a global scale, such as destructive, unregulated capitalism, major conflicts, increasing scarcity of resources due to overpopulation, destruction of the web of life and climate change.

This means that we must act at a supranational, global level and develop a moral perspective that encompasses the whole planet and all humans – and indeed all living beings – on this Earth.

I suggest that the recognition of our unique characteristics, our role as Huxley’s “sole agents of evolution” and of the need to develop a shared global morality will be critical to this process.

Alan Tuffery is a humanist and a former university lecturer in biology

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