This is a post I made in a closed forum dedicated to IT security (of all things), where a fairly civilized discussion about religion came up. The discussion went on and on about "what is the basis for ethics in the absence of religion?", seemingly on the assumption that if "the man" doesn't tell you what to do, how do you know what to do?
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Let's agree, first of all, that humans have the instinct to form social groups. We needed that on the savanna running from lions, in the cold nordic areas hunting mammoths, and on Facebook. I can't imagine you dispute that this is a survival trait for the species, so I take that as a given. But then, humans being interacting and reasoning animals, how do we implement that instinct? Let's go back a while in history, to the pre-biblical Palestine, with Moses and the gang, all jews. If you've ever been in a gang of jews, you'll know we can argue about *anything* forever. Take a dozen jews and you'll have two dozen opinions about everything.
So, you have these jews arguing about how to arrange the group to maximum benefit, how to establish rules of behaviour to maximize the survival chances of the group and allow maximum energy and ability to further materialistic ambitions. But you're not getting anywhere, every argument has a counterargument. Everything half the group agrees on is met by scorn by the other half, and it all resembles a severe form of Knesset and it goes on forever.
Then, a managerial talent of rare magnitude, Moses, gets a brilliant idea. He walks away from the group, brings some tools, and hammers out a few basic rules on two stone tablets. When he comes back to the group with the tablets, he spins a yarn about a really angry and powerful alien he met up on a mountain who gave him these tablets and told him real fierce to tell everyone else that this is what they're going to abide by, no argument, or he'll be doing some big time smiting. From then on, every "yeah, but..." was met by "you'd better STFU or you'll be smote so there's just a puff of smoke left of you! I've seen him and he's a real MoFo!". Since this was way before unions and the Discovery channel, people sort of fell for it. And since it worked so well, this management technique was picked up by any number of people with an agenda.
This was a very appropriate management stye for the time and the situation. What Moses could not have forseen is that this management style had a totally unexpected longevity and is still being applied to large swathes of humanity. Oh, well.
Fast forward to Sweden in the current millenium, where schools aren't allowed to take the easy way out and tell children there's this weirdo that can read your mind but you can't see and that is going to burn your ass if you so much as think something you shouldn't think. Put in another way, both parents and teachers are robbed of the most effective child control management technique in history and are forced to come up with something else that is not based on supernatural mumbo jumbo. Really forced, since the Man you *can* see is going to sentence your ass to jail if you try to drag up that old yarn in front of your class.
Basically, we now have the instinct to group behaviour and the need to come up with an approach to figuring out rules of interpersonal behaviour that preserves the group, while at the same time not suffocating individuals, since individuals are happier if left as free as possible, while their contributions to the group will be optimal if they are indeed free to invent, while being encouraged to share their inventions with the group, somehow.
On a large scale, this is done by laws, but in the more important individual interaction level, this is expressed as ethics. Now, these ethics cannot be beaten into the kids with threats of damnation, since we all have agreed there is no weird alien thing up there that can be bothered with that, if he ever existed. So these ethics have to be reasoned out to such an extent that the kids actually agree that they are necessary and the right solution. Oftentimes it happens that they aren't right anymore, and then they change. Which, btw, you can't say about the stone tablets.
Since I'm sure you'll still ask "yes, but what's the base?", I'll summarize in order of occurrance:
1. Instinct, genome: we form groups to survive
2. Reasoned management technique, one of two forms:
2a The Man says so or he'll kill your ass (mafia, religion, communism, whatever)
2b We agree on an evolving set of ethics to optimize the group dynamic
Am I done or am I done?