Despite the dry as dust title, I hope to make this article as fun as it is informative.
But first, a bit of reminding. Morals give an individual a personal sense of what makes conduct right or wrong. Ethics give society its standards of right and wrong. And since what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong - there can be no conflict between the two. Right? Wrong.
Let us take a simplistic example. Suppose 10 years ago I signed a pledge with a lobbyist to oppose certain political initiatives. And suppose 10 years later, supporting that political initiative was in the country's best interests, what are the moral and ethical issues? Well, having taken campaign funding from that lobbyist for 10 years, to support the initiative would be amoral, but being in the country's best interests, be very ethical. Selling the country short for campaign contributions would be very unethical, but totally moral.
How did modern man get into this mess?
Nowadays, morality is often seen as a set of rules, not a differentiation between virtue and non-virtue. Largely as a result of Abrahamic religions on the ethics of society, most neutral observers would observe.
Let me explain. Ethics largely evolved from the golden rule - do unto others what you would want them to do unto you - and is not only seen in every society throughout history, has been observed in higher order mammals. Its twin - altruism - has apparently been seen in insects, but that tends to suggest there is a genetic reward for societal animals to evolve altruistic behaviors to improve the chances of the longevity of the tribe.
But even so - Koalas spank their young, and alpha wolves nip the ears of pack members as punishment: so the idea of making members of the pack conform to what is "best" is not exclusively a human trait.
The concept of the golden rule turns up in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran - so it is the one thing that all three Abrahamic religions agree on.
The problem is, that ideal was transcribed into a set of rules of proper conduct: a set that applied to the life style of desert nomads two thousand years or more ago. Hence, in Old Testament ethics for example, owning slaves is OK, treating women in some way as being inferior to men is OK and so on. On the other hand, killing people and stealing is not OK.
To make ironclad what was a good set of ethics for desert nomads, they were elevated to be the word of God - and, as we all been taught, to disobey God's law is a Sin. Admittedly, if you repented properly, God would forgive you, which suggests that a rehabilitation style of penal code would be in order.
The widespread influence of the Abrahamic religions led to the formation of laws of various countries to be based, at least in part, on scripture. For while waiting for God's forgiveness was a good idea in theory, waiting for it to happen could be a lengthy process, and sinners were getting off scot-free. Hence fines, prisons, and executions for breaking God's law became the norm for the associated secular rules.
Incidentally, we have gotten to rely on penal codes to such an extent, most American DA's will tell you the only consideration when considering whether to take an accused to trial is the probability of getting a conviction. Whether a person possibly committed a crime or not is not a question for the DA - that is the job for the judge and jury. An innocent man gets executed as a consequence? Well - he did get due process, so that makes it acceptable.
Back to our main theme - the evolution of ethics.
Science points to evidence that the human practice of living in ever larger groups started with bands of 10 -100 individuals about 100,000 years ago. The members of those small bands would have higher personal survival rates if they also had the traits of bonding, empathy, compassion and other similar traits that tend to make groups cohere. Even now, the most effective "hunting" group of humans is between 5 and 8 members in the pack.
When bands merged to make tribes in excess of 200, about 10,000 years ago, a simple genetic trait of man would have gotten in the way. Which is that the average human can only handle about 200 members in a social structure: more than that number, and the individual cannot cope with any degree if ease. Which requires something more than basic morality to hold very large groups together.
We can only surmise, but for a tribe of 1,000 to remain intact, that tribe must have had some rules which would help to hold it together. Those tribes with rules would tend to prosper, and those without would tend to fall apart. Those collective rules we now call ethics.
The natural instincts of a societal member to have morality to survive in a small group grew into accepting similar, but slightly different standards, in order that a large group could stay together.
The success of this evolutionary strategy was so effective, that chiefdoms, with 10,000 members or more arrived on the scene 4,000 years ago. And, by chance or design, the surviving relics suggest that moral based ethics were elevated to religious dogma at that time. Such a stratefy would make these extra large bands pliant, controllable and self sustaining.
Down through the ages, to modern man, who, as a young child, learns the ethics of his/her society by whatever reinforcement system is in place during the formative years. And since almost all reinforcement systems are based on reward/punishment mechanisms, it comes across as "if I do this, I get a reward but if I do that, I get a time out". Ethics tends to be taught as a set of rules at the secular level.
If the child is a member of one of the Abrahamic religions, the simple punishment/reward cycle of secular morality is replaced by the rule based ethics imposed by the religion. It matters not if an individual feels compassion to homosexuals, if a Muslim, then death for the sin of homosexuality is God's edict, and must be accepted without question.
As a consequence of rules based ethics, we can reach a situation where if everyone cheats on their taxes, it ceases to be unethical to cheat on one's taxes. Provided, of course, that you do not complain if an audit saddles you with penalty charges. However, there are those who take their faith more literally than others and would never cheat on their taxes: anything that invokes a guilt feeling must be a sin and therefore avoided.
Surprising to to most people, some atheists and agnostics also do not cheat on their taxes, and not because of a fear of getting caught. How can this be?
The agnostic and the atheist, for different reasons, renounce all existing worldly religions. Doesn't that not make them become instantly totally amoral? No. The built in traits of societal animals do not go away with a simple rejection of churches.
Some non-theists simply accept the morality they have inherited from society, and continue to live in society in a rule based way. And the secular have some say on public morality -even on the theist who lapses - steal enough cash and you will serve time. The punishment side of the equation has some effect on controlling citizens at large.
Those atheists and agnostics who do not accept inherited morality do something quite profound. From first principles, consciously or unconsciously, they construct a personal morality based on virtue and non-virtue. When the notion of "sin" is taken out of the equation, they gain a morality that is deeply personal, but has a rigor that would make a Jesuit nod in approval. If you sin against god, do his penance and you are forgiven. Lapses in one's personal code has no similar easy way out.
When I was a young man, I carried a homophobia that society endorsed and the military enforced. Only by becoming an agnostic was I able to get rid of that childish morality, and replace it with a true live-and-let-live philosophy. Having been taught for 20 years that the first aim of the gay was to seduce all heterosexuals into their life style, it took a lot to shake off that propaganda as being simply not true.
It might seem counter-intuitive that agnostics and atheists often have sounder morality than theists. But it seems to me that, average against average, the non-theists hold the high ground. Funny sort of world, don't you think?