A conference is being held in Sydney soon about whether God is necessary for morality. I find that an almost incomprehensible question. Of course humans are moral without gods to back up their moral systems. They can’t help it. It’s what humans do. We are social apes that follow rules. Sometimes the sanctions for following rules (which turn out to be sanctions for potential defectors rather than the majority, who will tend to follow rules with or without promises of reward or punishment) rely on a god. Mostly, they don’t. The famous Euthyphro Dilemma (whether something is good because God says so, or whether God does it because it is inherently good) is answerable thus: whether or not a god backs it up, some rules are just to be followed by ordinary human beings, and thus we imply they are inherently good. Unfortunately for moral realists, we can’t agree on what things are inherently good. But we all hold that most of the things we think are good are good inherently.
But think instead about why humans are moral rule followers.
Why have we evolved the capacity to be moral? In a way this is a bit like the question I previously asked, whether religion is adaptive. We can ask several questions here: why has this particular morality evolved (if it is in conflict with individual fitness, which is the question asked here as well, by Will Wilkinson and Geoffrey Sayre-McCord at Bloggingheads.TV); we can ask why moral rule following evolved (when hitchhikers or defectors who enjoy the privileges without the costs of conformity are fitter than those who are reciprocally altruistic); and we can ask why humans (and apes) have rules based on sociality and what they are.
For the first: T. H. Huxley wrote, in the Prolegomena to Evolution and Ethics,
Every forward step of social progress brings men into closer relations with their fellows, and increases the importance of the pleasures and pains derived from sympathy. We judge the acts of others by our own sympathies, and we judge our own acts by the sympathies of others, every day and all day long, from childhood upwards, until associations, as indissoluble as those of language, are formed between certain acts and the feelings of approbation or disapprobation. It becomes impossible to imagine some acts without disapprobation, or others without approbation of the actor, whether he be one’s self, or any one else. We come to think in the acquired dialect of morals. An artificial personality, the “man within,” as Adam Smith calls conscience, is built up beside the natural personality. He is the watchman of society, charged to restrain the anti-social tendencies of the natural man within the limits required by social welfare.
Morality is an “acquired dialect”, which is a very useful metaphor. Like a dialect, it is conventional, and varies by geography. It is not inborn (although the capacity to acquire it, like that of language, is), and it doesn’t correlate with biology (a Sicilian raised in Japan would speak Japanese, not Sicilian). This is what Sayre-McCord refers to as social conventions. And these things evolve at the social level, not (in general) at the biological. So to explain why, for example, it is regarded as moral to marry a first cousin in Louisiana, but not in London, while marrying within “seven degrees of kinship” in Orthodox society, or marrying anyone with the same family name in Korea (but a first cousin of a different name is acceptable) are considered taboo; these things are best explained in terms of the historical process at the level of social institutions, conventions, economic and cultural factors, rather than biology.
But explaining why it is that humans are disposed to learn and accommodate themselves to these cultural rules is another matter. Moreover, it may be that some moral rules are in fact biologically based, or biased, or at least agreeable. For example it is regarded in almost every society that supporting one’s family is a duty, especially parents. It may be that societies that have what we might call biomoral rules are on average more viable, healthier (in the sense of less liable to perturbation and disruption), or less liable to systemic corruption or exploitation than those that have moral rules that are contrary to the biological dispositions. To be silly for a second, consider a society that thinks it is OK not to feed one’s children. Clearly that would not be a viable society. Now think of a disposition to favour one’s family when one has the opportunity to employ or distribute goods preferentially. Is that a viable society? It had better be, because nepotism is ubiquitous in time and social space. But some societies deviate from that, punishing nepotism (or do they? Is this honoured more in the breach?). Are they viable societies? If so, why is it that they get away with being abiomoral? Why, for example, do liberal democracies exist?
Arguably they will not continue to do so, but I for one prefer living in liberal democracies to paternalistic conservative oligarchies. Call me foolhardy. Societies that are based on something like Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance (where the rules are set as if nobody knew where in the social hierarchy they and their children will reside) are freer and more righteous than those based on nepotism and force. And this too is something that Huxley said: we are free to work contrary to our biological nature for a society that is fair and free. We are more like gardeners than an all-in struggle for existence. The so-called social Darwinism is a “pigeon fancier’s polity”, he said.
So one way to explain what Huxley referred to as the cosmic process, the development of ethics, is to see it as the outcome of a social evolution based not on survival but on empathy and enjoyment. Apes have empathy, and enjoy the fruits of sharing, but lacking a cultural tradition of any elaboration their rules are in effect reinvented each generation from biological dispositions such as social dominance behaviours. Humans have all this, of course, but we also have symbolic transmission, and so our cultures evolve, including our ethical cultures. And societies that happen upon ways to make their structure flexible enough to deal with new technologies and conditions of social existence will tend to transmit their ethics more effectively than those that are hidebound, on average.
So to answer the question why we are moral, it is because our ancestors, who were apes and shared the common ape heritage of being social animals of a certain kind, were rule followers, and had to cooperate to survive and gain mating opportunities. And then we evolved language.
But is that the result of individual selection or of group selection? Darwin thought that villages that had a higher proportion of moral to nonmoral individuals would do better in the social struggle than the reverse, and so moral traits like courage and contract keeping would be favoured. This view, which is promoted by David Sloan Wilson and his colleagues as the “haystack model” of group selection, assumes that there could be no reason why moral behaviour would evolve individually, because it would always be vulnerable to invasion by selfish strategies. But this does not follow, especially if moral behaviour is scaffolded by prior mechanisms that evolved for social dominance behaviours (making alliances, seeing when cheating is detected, etc.). Morality can be a spandrel of sorts, immediately subjected to its own selection regime, of this prior shared ape (indeed, primate) behaviour. But once introduced into a population, under the right conditions it can spread solely for individual benefit. If two moral individuals meet, they are more assured of reciprocal altruism than if one of them is a defector, or both are.
And one of the ways we can ensure that people are moral is to sanction immoral behaviour, which is why gods are so often called into duty to enforce morality. If you think you are being watched, you tend to be more moral. In other words, to return to the original issue, Gods are not necessary for morality, but like fines and tar and feathering, they can play a role in enforcement.
As Huxley wrote:
That which lies before the human race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve, in opposition to the State of Nature, the State of Art of an organized polity; in which, and by which, man may develop a worthy civilization, capable of maintaining and constantly improving itself, until the evolution of our globe shall have entered so far upon its downward course that the cosmic process resumes its sway; and, once more, the State of Nature prevails over the surface of our planet.