We tell ourselves, and others, one reason for why we do things, but our choices often betray other, more convincing reasons. Sometimes the secondary reason helps us see morality as survival.
This is a serialization from my book, Happiness: A Physician/Biologist Looks at Life. To see the Table of Contents and the dust jacket blurb, click here; to start from the beginning, click here; to read the previous post, click here.
In addition to practicing medicine, I pursue research in animal behavior. Studying animals and why they make the choices they make can tell us many surprising things about ourselves, and all of humanity. From observing animals, biologists have begun to suspect that maybe the real reasons for our choices are not always the reasons we tell ourselves. In this chapter I hope to provide a better understanding of the conflict between why we think we do certain things, and why—perhaps—we really do them.
Understanding our real motivations will be crucial to happiness. You can’t fix it if you don’t know where it’s broken. And you can’t understand how to fix it if you don’t understand the way it works now, the way it used to work, and the way it could work with some modification.
Morality as Survival
As I noted in the last chapter, our bodies, in tandem with our culture, manipulate us in making choices to help us survive. Correction: they manipulate us in making choices that helped our ancestors survive. And just as with colors and pain, it doesn’t matter if the reasons are “true”; it’s only important that the resulting actions improve (or improved) our survival.
As an introduction, I want to examine a few unlikely collaborations between religion and biology, to show how a belief can be helpful, whether or not it is also “true.”
Jewish Dietary Law
Consider Jewish dietary law. Probably the best-known restriction in Judaism is a proscription against eating pork. Today, we know that pork can carry parasites that are extremely dangerous, even deadly. Some modern Jewish scholars have suggested that these parasites may be the real reason for the dietary injunction: whether or not avoiding pork enlists God’s favor and protection, it probably provided direct health benefits that assisted Jews in surviving.
I am certainly not trying to offend anyone by contesting religious beliefs, but there are many Jews today who eat pork, who are also highly moral, highly prosperous, and most importantly, devoutly religious nevertheless. So perhaps this one part of Judaic law solved a very mundane problem, whether or not it also solved spiritual one. If so, then we have an illustration of how the reasons for our choices may not always be important, so long as we end up doing the “right” thing. And the “right” thing, we will find again and again, concerns survival.
For further illustrations, consider sex. Some of our strongest taboos, and largest confusions, involve sex.
Throughout the history of humanity, for instance, a high premium has been put on virginity. Historically, the reputation of entire families could be ruined by a daughter who engaged in extramarital sex. Even today, at the cusp of a new millennium, cultures still exist where a family is expected to murder a daughter who engages in sex outside of marriage.
But after many millennia of extraordinary social and religious attention on these topics, in just thirty years—a little more than one generation—those mores have been spun topsy-turvy. Thousands of years of inflexible social demands have largely disappeared, almost instantly. We find that here in the west, parents who were absolutely chaste before their marriages have become resigned to seeing their unmarried daughters sexually active, sometimes with a series of partners. The parents are rarely happy about the situation, but they make the best they can of the situation when confronted by new rules.
And rules changed in those 30 years because of one product: the pill. We now have more control over pregnancy. We have centuries of religious and cultural injunctions against extra-marital sex, but those prohibitions have quickly become discarded in the face of sex without risk of pregnancy.
Again, I am not challenging anyone’s religious beliefs; what God expects from us is for each of us to decide. But at least the cultural side of some of our sexual taboos appears to have addressed animal concerns of pregnancy (as well as disease) and not sex per se.
To continue reading, click here.
Birth Control Pills courtesy of Wikipedia.