Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why do Morals exist?

In his book The God Delusion (Mariner, New York, 2008), Richard Dawkins devotes a chapter to morality (chapter 6 - The roots of morality: why are we good?). His premise is that morality is essentially something that evolved from pre-existing instincts. He states that a somewhat diluted form of morality (altruism) exists in animals for 4 reasons:
  • Genetic kinship and the unconscious desire for one's genes to pass to the next generation
  • Reciprocation: the expectation or anticipation that favours given will be repaid later
  • The benefit of acquiring a 'reputation' for generosity
  • The benefit of being able to identify oneself as dominant due to the ability to give favours without necessarily expecting payback

He gives examples to show that these desires exist in animals today. For example, cleaner wrasse earn the right to pick parasites and dead tissue from their larger fishy clients by acquiring a reputation for being good cleaners. Cheaters have been observed to lose their cleaning rights and hence their client base.

Actions of animals which seem to be pure acts of kindness with no apparent expectation of payback are somewhat difficult to explain, but Dawkins cites the example of the babbler birds of Australia and the Pacific Islands. Some individuals have been observed to assert their dominance by feeding subordinates, reacting violently if the subordinate bird tries to reverse these roles. Similarly, dominant birds will also actively compete for the dangerous role of sentinel - the right to sit on the highest branches to look out for predators.

He goes on to look at the reactions of humans when faced with moral dilemmas and discusses the question of whether morals are universal. I've added this part of the chapter below:

Dawkins - A Case Study in the Roots of Morality

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