The Origins of morality

Thought experiment:

Imagine your world was made up of only all the people in your community. Not so small as to be a tiny tribe, but not a town either. Imagine a group of say 200 people. Further imagine you and your group routinely faced two options:

Dilemma #1:

A). Everyone in our group can survive.


B). Not everyone can survive.

Which is the most moral choice?

Clearly, if this is all we knew, we’d surmise that “A” was the most moral choice. When everyone can survive everyone certainly should. Feeling this, and then acting in this manner when under these circumstances has been best for humanity. This has been most moral. Morality is acting rightly in the situation that faces us.

In one form or another, the scenario described above has been the great moral dilemma in all human existence. Either there was enough food, shelter, and protection for everyone to survive (and so we have to believe everyone should) or there was not enough food, shelter, and protection for everyone in the group to make it, and so decisions had to be made on how to best distribute resources to ensure most of us might make it. And by make it we mean surviving in a strong enough position to successfully carry on.

These are the fundamental starting points of our dual morality. When everyone can survive, as with option “A” it is imperative that we do the things which insure they will. This is right. When our environment is safe and our supplies plentiful, or in other words, when everyone can make it, than we should feel it right that we act so that everyone will make it. We share, we look to give to those who have less, and we distribute goods and protection in such as way so that everyone will be taken care of. This is morality in this condition of plenty and security.

But what happens when we are facing option “B?

Dilemma #2, we all cannot make it, and our choices become something like:

A). 10% of our group will die.


B). 5% of our group will die.

Which of these outcomes should be preferred? Which is the moral choice? We have no trouble picking out “B” as the best option. Those who chose “B” are moral; choosing “A” makes us less moral.  Human existence depends on feeling properly so that we choose and act appropriately. For most of human history, Dilemma #2 has been far more common than dilemma #1.

But our choice has not really been this easy.  To make sure only 5% perish instead of 10% we have had to make some other very hard choices.

The harsh reality of most of human history; dilemma #3:

A). Our group has limited resources, limited territory, limited game, limited medicines, limited firewood, limited manpower for fighting or farming. These facts will not change anytime soon. More babies will be born this year than our group can feed, house, and protect.  If we share our food, water, shelter and everything else equally everyone must get less than what they need to be healthy. If we share everything equally, we all start to suffer.

If we begin by sharing things equally, we all soon begin to starve. Eventually the younger, older, and weaker, fail. As soon as 5% die, their portion can be distributed to the others, leaving enough for all remaining to live. But doing things this way all have been weakened. By doing things this way an additional 5% will go on to die from having to suffer for so long – or unable to fight their enemies, the group may be eliminated.  In all, beginning from the position of an equal distribution of resources as many as 10% of your group will die still leaving the other 90% who survived depleted and weakened. Five percent die soonest, another five percent die later from their weakened condition. Ten percent die eventually.

If we distribute resources equally, 10 percent or more may die.

Our other option,

B). With an uneven distribution of food, water, and shelter, right from the start, only 5% of your group will die. Being deprived of an equal share from the beginning, the 5% will die sooner than they would in scenario “A.” But only this 5% need die overall and the remainder will not be weakened.  With the remaining 95% getting enough from the start they never pass through this challenging and recurring situation.

In other words, in tough conditions, an unequal distribution of resources right from the start is the most morally correct position.

Something like this difficult moral scenario is probably close to the condition most large groups have lived in throughout history. More people are born than can easily survive with the resources available. If we always felt and believed the equal distribution of goods was best, we would cause the greater harm much of the time. Believing only in this way would likely have resulted in the early extinction of human beings or any herding creature which felt so. Many herding animals distribute safety, security, and food unevenly; usually by the fittest and strongest holding the most productive and safest territory or position in the herd. Creatures which do this survive better than those which do not.

In times of trouble, morality rested on finding the best way to be unequal. When there is simply not enough to go around culture has to be set up to distribute goods and protection to some more than others. In doing this, not only do most survive, but it is possible that things can be arranged so that the more vital segments of the group can be better guaranteed to make it. Equality and inequality can each sometimes be right and best.

When we all can survive, it is morally imperative that we all do so. On these occasions we need to see things another way. In good times we need to be more equal. In times of plenty we need to feel that goods and protection should be distributed to all. Even to stand ready to take from those who have more and give it to those who have less. We must be ready to feel that this is right so that we can act to influence the others in our group to make it so. 

These are descriptions of our two moral modes in action. In the good times of security and plenty we needed to feel and act in terms of equality and sharing. In lean times of danger and insufficiency we have to be ready to feel and act sacrificially, and in ways which distribute scarce goods to some more than others. To struggle to be part of the group which gets more, and to often acquiesce and accept it when we are relegated to the part which will get less. Both systems seek to be moral. Both systems are moral. Both systems do as much for us as they can in the circumstances they address.

Neither system agrees completely with the other. In one moral system, our code of plenty, our Mind 1 as I’ve called it, society is seen in a horizontal fashion. In this moral mode we feel it right to stress equality and sharing. Everyone is as good as anyone else. The needs of one are equal to the needs of any. If anyone makes it, everyone makes it.

Feeling in our other moral method, our Mind 2, we must be vertical. This is the moral outlook of danger, want, and suffering. These feelings promote an outlook that the people and things around us which are more necessary to the group should be so recognized, and best protected and prided for. Their vital skills or position in the group means they must survive even if others may need to be sacrificed. When not everyone can survive, the imperative must be that the best, brightest, bravest, most knowledgeable, or most experienced do so.

In a survival situation where 5% or more must die, the 5% who die cannot simply be random. After all, any group which developed ways to ensure that their best and brightest were never part of the 5% competed more successfully with groups who could make no such provision to their superior performers. When some have to die, we cannot allow it to be the most vital leaders, doctors, or the wise who know their way to the watering holes. The groups which prioritized their people and resources did better than the groups who could not.  

In a situation where the moral imperative is that some must get less than others, those less important to the group should be the ones to be put off. If we have no choice, and some will have to die, it is only right it be those least valuable to the rest.  In one moral mind, our mindset of plenty - we are all equal. And since there is enough to go-round we can relax. If someone acts a little differently we can shrug it off, times are easy. Everyone is as valuable as any other one.

In our second system, the mindset of scarcity and danger - some must be seen as more expendable than others. People and things are prioritized. Since we all sit at the edge of a precipice, there is little toleration for new and untried ways, risk needs to be minimized. In tough times, we cannot afford to show weakness to others and chance being seen by the group as one of the expendables. We must show others that we are in some way better than or more valuable than some around us.

Both ways of seeing right have been necessary for our survival. Nature advances no guarantees. We don't know if next year we'll be facing hardship or plenty. We must be ready to act rightly in either case. The survival of the human species continues to depend upon it.