The speaker at church this last Sunday was talking about moral evolution – the idea that morality is an adaptation that made some groups of early humans more likely to survive and pass on their genetic material than others, which makes right good sense. You got a group of hunter-gatherers stealing from each other, fucking each others’ wives and murdering each other, they’re less likely to make it than another group that respects each others’ personal property, relationships and right to life. Some degree of what we now call decency makes people more likely to live long enough to produce offspring and every religion on God’s green Earth prohibits the same basic bad behaviors: don’t do murder; don’t steal; don’t engage in sexual behaviors that are going to cause problems; observe familial obligations. Most religions add a few specific things to that list. The Biblical Ten Commandments throw in some bits about worshiping no other gods (the Judeo-Christian tradition is technically not monotheistic – Yahweh isn’t the only god, just the only one His people are allowed to worship). The Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha says don’t eat meat or get drunk. There are others and there are reasons for them which are determined or influenced by the context in which the moral code was created. The basic prohibitions are universal.
I should note here that that part about not doing murder means you shouldn’t murder people of your own group. And “murder” is what it’s about. There’s no early moral code that prohibits killing in general because that’s just fucking crazy. If somebody comes at you with a sword or sharp stick, you’re going to kill them. Murder is generally looked down on, but only among your own people are you forbidden from doing it. Moses murdered a guy, but that guy wasn’t a Jew. I don’t know if Sitting Bull ever murdered a Crow or white devil, but it wouldn’t have been a particularly bad thing to his people if he had, just not as glorious as killing them in open combat, which he did a hell of a lot of. And good for him. I’m a pacifist in the same way Sitting Bull was a pacifist – you don’t fuck with me or mine and there won’t be a problem.
As I may’ve said before in this space, the basic moral code of any society is not unlike the basic rules at any elementary school – don’t hit; don’t take other kids’ stuff, raise your hand if ya gotta pee. They’re good rules. They create order, which is necessary if you’re gonna learn the wee’uns their readin’, writin’ and numbers. But I don’t send my rotten kid to school so she can be forbidden from chewing gum for six hours a day. I send her there to learn the things she’s going to need to know to be able to thrive in the world she’s going to live in. People who get all hung up on the Ten Commandments are flat-out missing the point. People have to be somewhat secure in their persons, property and relationships in order to be able to learn the shit that really matters.
Now, about that sex thing. The Semites, and many others, made marriage the ground on which sex was to occur. That’s one way of preventing the hassles that happen when people go around fucking everybody and getting pissed off ‘cause I wanted to fuck her and you were in the way and then they start killing each other. If everybody is monogamous, then you don’t have those troubles and everybody knows who’s responsible for feeding what kids. There are other perfectly good ways of avoiding those problems, which I may go into some other time. Monogamy works – it prevents some issues that could be socially disruptive. Fine.
Forbidding homosexuality is also a fairly common practice, though it seldom makes it into the top ten list. Heterosexuality leads to procreation and it’s more common. Those two factors made our moral forbears conclude that heterosexuality was “natural” and/or “right” as opposed to homosexuality. We now know that homosexual sex happens in many species and we now value sex for more than just procreation. We are therefore now able to say “well, forbidding homosexuality was fine for those early peoples, but we know better now”. Same goes for most other forbidden sex acts. You wanna have bloody sex? Hey, so do I. Of course, it certainly makes sense to keep the “safe, sane, consensual” standard, which isn’t in the Bible but we’re a tad more civilized so let’s have it.
And if you’re a practicing Jew, don’t worship any other gods than Yahweh. If you’s a Buddhist, stay off the booze. I expect you Sikh men to have turbans on. As I’m none of the above, I’m exempt, though I am off the booze for other reasons.
So I agree with the guy at church that morality is a trait that was/is naturally selected for. It should be obvious that I see no conflict between religion and evolution and that I attend a church which feels the same way, which is the Unitarian-Universalist, if you’re curious. Yes, they’re a bunch of white, milquetoast liberals and I’m sure I’ve snorted more meth than the entire rest of the congregation put together, but they’re decent enough people.
Branching out a bit, I’m also fairly confident that we’re devolving morally as we speak. Not because queers can get married. My wee grrrl has been to a few same-sex weddings in her short span and I’m fine with that. I mean, we’re rapidly losing respect for life and for sexual relationships, though we continue to be pretty adamantly in favor of keeping what we got and getting more. Decadent sex, violence and antisocial behavior are Oscar-winning entertainments, which is pretty fooked up. From where I sit, it’s looking like the end of the Roman Empire. Shit, one of the leading contenders in the current election cycle looks a lot like Caligula to me, though Malcolm McDowell had better hair. I know everybody acts like every election is the make/break and hand-wringing about the deterioration of the social order is the pastime of the old and infirm, but it sure looks like some ugly shit waits around the bend, or slouches toward Bethlehem. We’ll see.
In the meanwhile, keep both feet on the wheel and try not covet your neighbor’s ass.