Where do morals come from? It is a question I have pondered often, though I now feel relatively confident about the answer. No, if you’re channeling C.S. Lewis, our “moral law” does not come from a supernatural dictum. Before I share more, however, I’d like to employ an example that shows how cultural norms and definitions of morality might be born, and how arbitrary—and wrong—they can be. You guessed it; I’ve found yet another way to use my own errors in reasoning as an example.

FORMATION OF A LAWN ETHIC

For reasons we should try to understand, I long believed that moral people “maintain fine lawns, cut them in beautiful straight lines, and leave standing not a single blade of grass on the property—particularly by creeks or bodies of water.”

The relevant back-story begins with the fact that I live with my family in the home in which I was raised as a boy. We are the third and fourth generations to occupy at least one of two neighboring houses on large, grassy lots that overlook a pair of spring-fed creeks.

Back in the day, my grandfather and my father poured vast amounts of energy and money into taming and manicuring these lots. They even won a landscaping award from our local newspaper in the 1970s. I have fond memories of learning the value of hard, sweaty work while helping my father care for the land. The two winding streams were a visual treat, but created one of the worst jobs: mowing the banks of the creeks. This was accomplished by pushing a gas powered mower over the bank, following the contour of the bank to the water, and then heaving it upward to wearily repeat on the succeeding swath of grass.

Nothing looked as nice or provided as much satisfaction of a job well done as did that lawn, when all the banks were perfectly manicured down to the water, the trees were all trimmed, and the flat acreage had been mown in perfect rows by the International Harvester. Truthfully, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for people to stop and picnic; they thought it was a park.

To this day I can still hear my late father’s constructively critical voice if a task in the yard isn’t completed to perfection. There was never room for half efforts—a valuable lesson in many ways.

To further cement the ethic with which I was raised, that lawn served as the basis for a bond I shared with my father, who died when I was just seventeen. And ironically, my dear friend and neighbor—whom I was remembering fondly in a recent BLOG post about life after death—also shared our cultural values and norms about lawn care. We shared that common language—that metaphor—that caring for our yards had became; it was a metaphor for decency, taking pride in the appearance of one’s home, hard work, maintaining the bounty God had bestowed upon us, and for the unity and bond forged by shared labor.

In short, we always had seen our lawn maintenance as a part of our morality, our self definition, and as a metaphor for what it meant to be upstanding and good. It was, I think, right up there with church attendance.

OUT-OF-DATE METAPHORS

Jump ahead a couple decades, to a dispute with a local drain commissioner who said we could no longer mow our creek banks down to the water. Say what? Are you kidding me? Turns out our pristine creeks fall under the Michigan Drain Code, which gives purview over them to a local government authority, extending fifteen feet either side of the creek. While ultimately no such actual edict was ever formally issue, the threat was enough to freak out the entire neighborhood; she could force us to—in our eyes anyway—stop being moral!

Think about that. In my mind, and in the mind of our neighbors, the drain commissioner was asking us to violate our deeply-rooted cultural norms—essentially our morals—when she asked us to stop trimming the grass fifteen feet either side of our creek! What were we to do, let our yards look like crap? Hell, the whole world will fall apart when we start letting things go wild. Next thing you know society might just accept long hair and tattoos too! Very frightening.

It was nothing short of an outrage—except for one important thing: the drain commissioner was essentially right! Our “morals” were misguided; they were bad for the environment. It turns out that by any objective standard, the creek and environment are benefited by natural grasses and plants on the banks—from lower water temperatures for trout, to improved habitat for wildlife, and better filtration of runoff.

My experiences and culture had shaped my definition of morality to the point where I was not very “open” to this new way of the viewing the world. As is the story of my adult life, it seems, I was wrong again. (For the record, the drain commissioner was wrong about something substantial too—namely trying to force an unlawful assessment. For that she was rightly defeated in court and voted out of office.)

The bigger point is that we had developed a local set of moral codes, and codes that had evolved in such a way as to no longer be applicable and helpful given contemporary knowledge about how the world worked. It turns out that I was raised to equate a lawn-care hobby—perhaps once a symbol of prestige or leisure time, or a vestige of a farming ethic once useful in keeping the crops flowing—with whether someone was an upstanding person, knew how to work, or was a good neighbor. Fascinating.

Morals shift over time, which is why a great Christian was defined by norms quite different in, let’s say, the year 128 C.E., as in 225, or 444, or 1765, or 2009. That which is defined as “moral” is constantly changing by mechanisms not unlike those that our little tribe evolved regarding mowing our grass to the water’s edge.

Why do we no longer kill children for disobeying their parents, or for committing adultery, or find eating shellfish an abamination? Because the definitions of morality are the product of these human beliefs and changing norms, as are our gods themselves. (See Sister Karen Armstrong, Bart Ehrman, or Robert Wright.) Today could we even accept the New Testament “morality” of killing one man for the transgressions of others? Would that be a moral metaphor likely to take root today? That’s called vicarious, substitutionary atonement, and once outside a world of animal sacrifices and ancient dying-and-rising god myths, the notion is nothing short of abhorrent.

I suspect the real explanation of the origins of morals and ethics can get long and complicated, and involves fancy terms like self-organizing systems, evolutionary psychology, altruism, game theory, emergent properties, self-organizing systems, and perhaps even complexity theory. What? How can order come from disorder, without the whole system being designed by a top-down intelligence? Examples abound of bottom-up, emergent order and systems that are not designed by a top-down intelligence: the way Saturn’s rings formed as spinning mass and gravity flattened the outer matter into rings; the origin of human language—in all it’s variations that come from geographical isolation; or the creation of complex economic systems—just to name a few. Of course the best example of bottom-up organization is evolution itself—Darwinian evolution: decent with modification via natural selection. Not dissimilarly, morals and ethics evolve, and are always shifting and evolving as the world and our knowledge about it change.

Webster defines “zeitgeist” as “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era,” and indeed it constantly changes. That’s the point. Morals can change and take root very quickly in a culture; and like my lawn-mowing “morality,” they can be memes or ideas very resistant to change or outside interference, even when the ethic is wrong or misguided.

QUESTIONING OUR ACTIONS

Still, you can take the lawn care example even a step further. It’s starting to be less clear to me why we work so hard to kill the native grasses by our homes, so we can plant new grass, so we can pour chemicals to keep it growing—and kill any old grass that’s still around, so that we can water the new grass and make it grow, so that we can cut it when it gets too tall…ad infinitum. Don’t even get me started about collecting grass clippings and leaves. There are many psychological reasons we might engage in such behaviors, and certainly some practical ones too, but on whole it is a ponderous and costly routine on which to define an ethic.

While morality myths give us great narratives through which to view and understand the importance of morals, it’s important to understand that good and bad lie in each of us. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, natural selection may have given us this dualistic moral nature: altruism—say for farming and more urban environments, and hostility and aggressiveness—say to fight off enemies or kill meat. Perhaps someday we’ll develop new ethics and myths that ask us to judge less, and look inward more.

Still, I’m glad I’ve never claimed to be a great or perfect truth-driven thinker, because—as I often admit—I’m merely a recovering emotion-driven thinker. I still behave rather irrationally most of the time. I continue to have obvious cognitive dissonance over eating meat, which seems a little barbaric and wasteful of life—not to mention potentially not so healthy (but it tastes damn good, so I still do it). I also still play the very occasional lottery ticket for the fun of the dreaming, which is not at all a rational investment. And yes, truth-be-told, I’m still “morally mowing” in straight lines, and pouring chemicals onto my lawn. Oh, and well, yes, still mowing about 70% of the creek banks.

Shame on me. If nothing else, that should tell us just how hard it is to abandon a meme that is placed in our head by a critical parent—even if it is an unproductive or harmful one.

What do you believe, because of how you’ve been raised, that might not be constructive or relevant to the world as we know it today?

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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