From whence do morals arise? The exponents of some kinds of morality propose a supernatural basis: God tells us to do this and what God instructs is good by definition. This may be fine if you accept the existence of God or gods. But many of us cannot be sure of such things. We can be sure however that these allegedly God-inspired morals themselves exist. But what origin other than God do they have? Many advocates of religious morality refer to 'nature' as the source of moral behaviour.
Thomas Moore states in Utopia (1516) that good behaviour arises from following ones natural inclinations. A quick consideration of this comment suggests many shortcomings with it - surely some very bad behaviour arises from following such urges. Moore was prepared for this by saying that in some of us natural inclinations are distorted so that we "confuse the bitter with the sweet" (even if you accept this answer you still have to find a way of determining exactly what urges are in accord with nature and which are distorted). For Moore 'nature' is God by proxy but we can take it more literally and that is a matter I will return to shortly.
If we move onto secular morality we find that reason is frequently the proposed basis of moral behaviour. And just as religious persons can give God a mundane face as 'Nature' so too some advocates of 'Reason' with a capital R have a tendency to deify what is just a method of processing and assessing information (I have some of those heroes of the Enlightenment like Newton and Jefferson in mind here). Reason is an incredibly useful tool which can very effectively help us to decide the best course of action in arriving at an objective. But methods and aims are distinct things. Reason can tell me how to get something but it cannot tell me what it is I desire. For that I need to refer to something more basic and many forms of secular morality do just that.
Possibly the most well-known and successful form of secular morality is Utilitarianism which uses reason to assess the morality of alternate courses of action but draws on the human capacity to feel both pleasure and pain as its metric of what is right or wrong. Utilitarianism has huge shortcomings in that pleasure and pain can be both interpreted and assessed in different ways (indeed I would argue that wildly divergent forms of modern secular politics all draw on Utilitarianism but interpret ways of maximising utility differently).
How much of a problem are such shortcomings? I personally think that our desire to have some code of conduct which tells us exactly what to do in all cases may be the problem. Nobody as yet has devised a form of morality free from valid criticism. All we have in practice is a mishmash of decision-making methods drawn on in different ways depending on circumstance and personal preference. We get by somehow.
I want to get back to the notion of nature with a modern understanding of human behaviour as something that is grounded in human biology. I am surprised at how much this aspect of ourselves is overlooked in moral philosophy but it is hinted at in both religious (e.g. 'nature') and secular (e.g. pleasure and pain) forms of morality. Our sense of what is right and wrong maybe shaped by culture but its raw fabric comes from who and what we are. What are we? We are animals which have powerful urges to preserve our selves and (by extention) our genetic heritage. More specifically we are mammals whose progeny must be cared for while they are young. More specifically still we are a kind of mammal that lives in packs and who instinctively help others within the group whether they are children or adults. Also we are the product of sexual reproduction and therefore every one of us is unique.
As humans we have extended these behaviours in new and intersting ways. Our genetic uniqueness can have a respect for personal autonomy extrapolated from it. The instinct to care for an infant can become the call for the strong to protect the weak. The pack we serve has been extended bit-by-bit over history and can now be recognised as the whole species rather than ones extended family. The heritage we wish to preserve can be cultural as well as natural and so things like historic records and artifacts can become an important part of what we are. The territory we defend can become as big as a planet.
This basis for morality will be flawed like any. One can very quickly cite many cases in which mammalian insticts produce bad as well as good behaviour. If I can think of an answer to that it may well be as flimsy as that of Moore on 'distorted' nature. We shall see how we go if there are any comments forthcoming to this entry.
One thing I will say for it is this: To follow 'mammalian morality' all you have to do is be human and do what comes naturally (keeping in mind that culture is just a product of our nature). Nobody has to study and master any complex philosophy to feel empathy for another person and then act on that motivation. Just be yourself.
For a long time I have considered 'enlightened self-interest' to be the morality for me. One acts in a good manner because one understands ones small part in an interconnected world and holds to notions of "what comes around goes around". However I have recently felt (and it has been a case of feeling more than thinking) that I need to go further than that. Enlightened self interest is missing something: Compassion. If all we ever did was for apparent personal benefit (however remote or abstract) then I think we would have a much more clinical and sterile world than we do. There would be fewer instances of kindness and affection and there would be plenty of taking care of oneself but less taking care of others.
I saw a total stranger on public transport lately and they were visibly weeping. My inclination was to go and comfort them and it had nothing to do with me sitting there and calculating how the happiness of that person may in the short or long term come back to benefitting me by some complex causal process. My desire to help was instant and emotive. Did my culture put this desire in me? You may well think that but I could also say that it was my culture that made me resist my feelings and sit still and do nothing to comfort the person. It may be just as well that I did let them take care of things themselves but at the same time the feeling to help was there nonetheless and in some other circumstance may have been much more appropriate.
I cannot think of any nice clever way of bringing this post to a close. So a long rambling entry ends with a fizz rather than a bang. I suppose what I want to say is that how we behave and how we should behave comes from more than just thinking hard at a problem in the hope that that will make it go away. We sometimes have to go with what we feel as much as what we think. Course in saying that I hope that you will feel something akin to what I feel...