how morality came into the world

In the beginning, there was matter, arrayed in space and time and subject to forces. Morality was irrelevant. If a star blew itself to bits or a whole galaxy vanished, that was neither good nor bad. Whether the universe even existed was a matter of moral indifference, except that it was the basis of what developed thereafter.

One tendency was toward entropy, but that was not the only trend, because complex systems developed and overcame their own fragility by beginning to replicate themselves. On our own little planet, organic chemicals, organisms, organizations composed of organisms (ant hills, cities), and whole ecosystems replicate.

A replicating carbon molecule still has no moral significance. But some organisms—and perhaps some larger systems of organisms—also developed the capacity to sense their environment and react. Plants do that, turning toward light. So do machines, and it is not clear that this capacity creates moral significance. Even a great tree is arguably just a configuration of matter, like a rock but more complicated. What animals developed was an internal sensation of pleasure in response to beneficial aspects of their environment and pain or fear at bad aspects. They developed this capacity because of random mutations, and it only persisted as one factor that might encourage survival and replication. To this day, insentient grasses are more prevalent than sentient mammals. But the sentient animals persisted because of their sensitivity, their suffering.

To us, another creature’s subjective or internal feelings of happiness, pain, and fear are not matters of indifference. A distant star’s collapse is of no direct consequence, but a dying sparrow counts. David Hume said that our compassion was an “arbitrary and original instinct implanted in our nature.” He lacked a Darwinian explanation for why it would be implanted, but he already saw that we care about “the happiness or misery of others” just because we do care—we are designed that way. (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, sec. vii., “Of Compassion.”)

One can easily imagine a powerful and intelligent being that did not care at all. We would call that being amoral or even evil. These are our terms, rooted perhaps in our biology. And yet we have choices. We can care more or less. We can also change our societies so that they care more or less. Ashoka assembled a great empire by ruthlessly killing people and then repented, deciding that it was wrong to have caused or countenanced suffering. He constructed a regime that depended as little as possible upon force and fear. The turning point supposedly came when he toured the battlefield after his own victory, crying, “What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women?”

H.G. Wells wrote,

In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves “Their Highnesses”, “Their Majesties” and “Their Exalted Majesties” and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.

Wells may have been right or wrong about Ashoka, but we understand the nature of his assertion. It is better to be Ashoka after his conversion than before.

The problem, of course, is that all sentient beings–and collectivities of sentient beings –suffer and then die. Knowing this, and caring about ourselves and others, we cannot be happy in a simple or straightforward way. The late theologian and philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote (in an essay recently translated and published in The New York Review):

Since being truly human involves the ability to feel compassion, to participate in the pain and joy of others, the young Siddhartha could have been happy, or rather could have enjoyed his illusion of happiness, only as a result of his ignorance. In our world that kind of happiness is possible only for children, and then only for some children: for a child under five, say, in a loving family, with no experience of great pain or death among those close to him. Perhaps such a child can be happy in the sense that I am considering here. Above the age of five we are probably too old for happiness.. …. Happiness is something we can imagine but not experience.

Kolakowski even argued that the God and the other denizens of heaven must be unhappy because they remember the world—or else they are free from unhappiness in some way that we cannot grasp.

The philosophical traditions that originated in Greece and in India offer several responses. Live as much as possible in the present, because the past and the future contain unhappiness. Reduce one’s own will or attachment to oneself in order to be less a hostage to fortune. Care as much as possible about doing the right thing, because that is under your control.

Leading philosophers of ancient India and the Hellenistic world insisted that death and suffering are inevitable. Consider, for example, the elaborate health-care system of an advanced nation, served by physicians and nurses, scientists, administrators, technicians and cleaners, and many more. This system does not ultimately prevent the death or suffering of any human being. To pour one’s will into it is to court disappointment and defeat. But there is a different reason to devote oneself to collaboration in the service of a common good or to help maintain an elaborate system that supports life. It is not the ultimate end of this system that counts but the absorbing activity of sustaining and improving it.

See also: Three Truths and a Question about Happiness; The Tree and the Rock; and Must You be Good to be Happy?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.