The evolution of morality

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.


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Good post. In particular ...

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.

This is the way it has struck me for a long while now - the societal role of religion postdates "moral behaviour" by a considerable time span.

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.

Always easier to pass the nasty jobs off to someone else. :-)

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 21 Jun 2008 #permalink

It's a bit misleading to describe the topic of the conference as the question "is God necessary for morality?" That's the title of the "public debate" which is just one of the conference events. And even here the title of the debate is sufficiently ambiguous that it is not clear whether your argument is relevant to the question.

There is an argument given by Kant that morality without faith in God involves a kind of irrationality. Very roughly: morality instructs us to live so as to be worthy of happiness -- and morality seems to make absolute demands. But we often observe in this life that those who most deserve happiness find only sorrow and misery as their lot -- the virtuous whistle-blower is punished, etc. Kant thinks that without faith in a God who will set things right and an afterlife in which things can be set right, the demands of morality will often conflict with the rational demands of prudence and self-interest -- yet for Kant the absolute demands of morality derive from the structure of practical reason itself, so the moral person without faith is caught in a genuine antinomy and can only live a truly moral life at the cost of what Kant calls an "absurdum practicum" or practical absurdity. You come closest to this argument when you write that "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." But in Kant's argument the emphasis isn't particularly on God's punishing you in the afterlife for being immoral, as your post suggests. The emphasis is rather on the observed fact that in this life virtue is often punished, and the role of God is to reward those who deserve to be happy with happiness.

This is not an argument that "God is necessary for morality" in the sense that there can be no morality without faith. It is rather an argument that "God is necessary for morality" in the sense that the reasonableness of morality depends on faith. This argument can be questioned, of course, but the points you're making about the evolution of morality don't really touch it. Morality can be explained evolutionarily but that doesn't show morality to be rational (anymore than an evolutionary explanation of religious belief shows religion to be rational -- indeed, writers like Dennett and Dawkins seem to think that the evolutionary explanation of religious belief itself can reveal such belief to be irrational).

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 21 Jun 2008 #permalink

I don't see courage as moral. It can perfectly be immoral, if it's oriented against the estabilishment. In that case cowardice and resignation are moral.

Morality (from Latin mores: custom) is just traditional social law. And in most cases it was historically or prehistorically developed to make sure people was resigned and submissive towards the status quo. In that sense, morality needs gods as mythical and magical sanctioners of laws and customs that otherwise would be easily percieved as pernitious for the common people.

In constrast, free people develope ethics. Ethics are not morals: they are not traditional (or at least not necesarily so) and are built on what is percieved as good for the abstract person and the community they form, not for the "god-blessed" elites. A good example are Human Rights, the ideological pillar of modern societies and certainly not a rule sanctioned by any god nor built on any clear tradition but born of the revolutionary struggles of the people and the debate they arose.

The "problem" with ethics is that only subjectivity and consensus can sanction them. This is "bad" in the sense that only social consensus (or equivalent paradigmatic ideology) can be alleged as their foundation but also "good" because they are more flexible and adaptative to sociological evolution.

There is also surely an instinctive core to ethics anyhow. We humans are social apes and do seem to have (at least most of us) some hard-wired social codes. Courage might be one of those social instincts, an has been observed in animals too (who are by defnition amoral).

I suppose any explanation of morals depends on your definition of the word, but in my view genuine morals derive from an innate sense of empathy, rather that being survival-based, although both can have evolutionary explanations. Helping others so you can be rewarded with a heavenly afterlife, or obeying a law that you suspect is somehow wrong, is not morality. And like anything else, empathy is shaped by life experience.

In what way might the existence of a God promote morality, compared to a situation where there is no God?

Because a God can tell us what to do?

But is it right to obey God?... that's a moral question that you can't answer in turn by reference to God's will.

Hence even theists must resort to a God-less morality. The existence of God changes nothing: you're still left facing a fundamental moral question on your own.

Michael Kremer (Comment #2):

Morality can be explained evolutionarily but that doesn't show morality to be rational

Depends what you mean by morality being "rational".

Morality is (or rather, can be) rational in the sense that moral reasoning is possible (i.e., we can draw valid moral conclusions from moral premises).

If by morality being "rational" you mean that morality is based solely (or primarily) on reason, then this doesn't appear to be the case. Rather, morality appears to be based on emotion and instinct, subsequently shaped by reason.

Or if you mean whether or not it is rational to be moral, then you'd need to specify with respect to what goal. Self-interest? Social stability?

By Iain Walker (not verified) on 22 Jun 2008 #permalink

Thony C: I believe I told you who. But just in case my previous post wasn't entirely clear: sez Immanuel Kant.

And no, I am not appealing to authority here, because I am not employing Kant's argument to prove its conclusion, but only providing it as an example. My point wasn't to present Kant's argument as conclusive (as I said, it can be questioned). My point was that it shows something one could mean by "God is necessary to morality" that isn't addressed by providing an evolutionary account of the origins of morality.

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 22 Jun 2008 #permalink

Iain Walker: I am not going to attempt a full-scale defense of Kant's argument here. That would be silly. Books have been written about that. But I will say this: by "rational" here I mean that acting in accordance with morality should not be contrary to reason.

For Kant, your question "rational with respect to what goal" is not a good one. Morality does not prescribe hypothetical imperatives (if you want X, do Y) it prescribes categorical imperatives (just do Y). At the same time morality does build in a goal -- my own happiness -- since (as I said above) to behave morally is to deserve to be happy. Now, you can ask what I (or Kant) mean by happiness. And if I attempt to answer that I will be on my way to doing what I said I would not attempt to do: attempt a full-scale defense of Kant's argument. Indeed, Kant's argument itself, and his conception of God, are topics of much interpretive debate.

So, instead, I will provide a couple of references to recent books: John Hare, The Moral Gap; Peter Byrne, Kant on God.

Again this is not an appeal to authority. I just don't have time for what would be involved in answering all such questions. And anyway (see my previous post) they all miss the point I was trying to make.

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 22 Jun 2008 #permalink

I don't see courage as moral. It can perfectly be immoral, if it's oriented against the estabilishment. In that case cowardice and resignation are moral.

Except that there's no context-free behavior that can be defined as "courage." If by "courage" we mean strength, resolve, and self-sacrifice, then when these actions are performed in service to the established order, we call that courageous. But those same acts, directed against the establishment, are called fanatical or self-destructive.

So, for example, when the 9/11 hijackers gave their lives in service to the Islamic Jihad, the American media referred to them as "cowards."

The difference between courage and cowardice lies not in the nature of specific actions, but in the relationship of those actions to the locally social order.

Thony C: I believe I told you who. But just in case my previous post wasn't entirely clear: sez Immanuel Kant.

I had actually understood that you were quoting Kant, the purpose of my facetious comment was to criticise Kant's argument. He starts off by stating a premise as if it were obviously and trivially true whereas it is in fact highly contentious. If you don't swallow Kant's premise (the statement I queried) then the whole of his argument falls flat. I find this an all too typical situation in moral philosophy and one of the reasons that I personally regard about ninety percent of it as unadulterated hogwash. Just for the record in case its not clear I definitely do not accept Kant's premise.

Thony C: I didn't quote Kant, I summarized (I said: "very roughly") what is actually a long and complex argument -- for which see among others the Critique of Practical Reason. Kant actually argues there for the premise that you say he starts off by stating as if it were obvious. (Again, I started my brief summary that way, not Kant.) But I certainly do not have time to attempt a defense of Kant's moral philosophy here.

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 22 Jun 2008 #permalink

Michael Kremer (#9):

For Kant, your question "rational with respect to what goal" is not a good one. Morality does not prescribe hypothetical imperatives (if you want X, do Y) it prescribes categorical imperatives (just do Y).

In which case, I'd suggest that this rules out morality as being purely rational, on the grounds that the rationality of an action is always relative to some goal or other. A reason for action that could only be stated as a categorical imperative would be a non-rational reason (not irrational, just non-rational).

So if an evolutionary explanation of morality fails to show how morality is rational, then perhaps the problem lies less in the evolutionary explanation than in the assumption that morality is rational.

In any case, to ask for a rational justification for morality would be to ask for an external (i.e., non-moral) justification - not because morality is non-rational, but simply to avoid circularity. So even if moral imperatives were categorical, this would be irrelevant to my question. The question "rational with respect to what goal" would still apply, since the justification being requested is not a moral one.

By Iain Walker (not verified) on 22 Jun 2008 #permalink

reasonableness of morality depends on faith

So the reasonableness of morality depends on something unreasonable?

It depends what you mean by reasonable, and I'm inclined to say that Kant doesn't get it. If I've been socialized to feel terrible about kicking an old lady in the shin and stealing her purse, then it's in my self interest NOT to do so rather than to do so. You can carry it further as well: it's in my self-interest NOT to live in a world where little old ladies get their purses stolen, so to create that world I choose not to do so.

I really don't get the whole "if morality is rational, then we should all be Mr. Burns" philosophical argument.

Not much to say, but I have to point to this essay on the subject, which posits a rational argument for how come atheists can live 'good' lives:

Closed the subject for me. No appeal to a higher Being is necessary for moral behavior.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 22 Jun 2008 #permalink

"It is rather an argument that "God is necessary for morality" in the sense that the reasonableness of morality depends on faith."

I'd say this statement ignores the golden rule entirely. Fairness is intuitively understood by all humans. It also ignores that humans are naturally equipped with empathy. We are also equipped with foresight and ability to understand that some actions may invite repraisals. This makes, I'm just going to go ahead and say all of the useful religious morals trivially reasonable without a god. People will still break them, of course, but it's not like a thief doesn't understand that it's wrong to steal.

Now, if you are talking about "morality" in the sense of following biblical or qur'anic commandments to stone adulterers, for example, then yes such things can only be reasonable in the light of faith.

Leaving to one side the question of what sort of connection there might be between god(s) and morality, I doubt that biological evolution provided more than a handful of behavioral dispositions and a rudimentary ability for rational deliberation, which our anscestors then used to cobble together "morality." For what it's worth, I think the ability for rational reflection is crucial to morality -- which is the main reason we don't treat babies, idiots and other animals as moral agents. I also think that rational reflection (i.e., "reason") must be the source of the tendency toward "universalism" in moral precepts.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 23 Jun 2008 #permalink

I tend to agree, Bob. Universalism is the outcome of deliberation and principles. But I think some dispositions get "traded up"into moral rules; not quite evolutionary morality but the making of a principle from what we want to do any way.

John - If I understand what you mean about dispositions getting "traded up" into moral rules, you are absolutely correct. Probably the clearest examples are found in so-called "sexual morality." For far too many people the most pressing "moral" issue is "who's doing who?" I understand very well the selective pressures behind this, but to elevate such concerns to the level of morality is absurd.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 23 Jun 2008 #permalink

A few years ago I was watching a TV documentary about the behaviour of the Nazi leadership and its traumatic effect on all of Europe and much of the rest of the world. When one of the participants in the discussion raised the question; "What is Evil?
The simple, but perhaps profound, response offered by another participant was: "Evil is the complete absence of empathy." Defining empathy, roughly, as the ability to imagine oneself as being in the place of another, then this simple ability could be used to account for the apparent altruism of various social animals, including man. No god or gods are required. Another way to define empathy might be: "do unto others as you would have them do to you". Perhaps all of our morality is, ultimately, simply the expression of our ability to empathise, an ability that we appear to share with many other animals.

Tim I agree with you, but there is one minor problem with the Golden Rule, specifically the phrase: " you would have them do to you." For example, I don't buy someone a Christmas present that I would like, but that I think they would like. Perhaps it would better to say, "do unto others as you think they would like to be treated, according to your ability". Since "others" includes everyone else, this also applies to conflicts, where treating one person favorably implies treating another person (including yourself) unfavorably. Rational reflection is required to resolve the conflict, if a resolution is possible.

Rational thought is necessary to morality, but not sufficient. On it's own, rationalization can be used to justify almost anything. Sometimes we just need to be taught by life experience. Without observation, rational thought is not sufficiently constrained.

There is minimal selfishness in empathy. In fact, it may be the best way we have of pretending that the self does not exist. But the self can never be completely removed from anything, even empathy.

What you are looking for is Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn".

While this is considered the fundamental principle of Judaism, it is easily transferable as a secular doctrine. I learned it growing up Jewish and continued to consider my grounding morality once I realized I was an atheist.

By Susan Silberstein (not verified) on 24 Jun 2008 #permalink

Following from #20 & #22 there is just one question: empathy for whom? (or who is "your fellow"). White slavers and Nazi's may even have considered themselves possessing empathy for their fellow, but not for the "other" - someone unlike them. Pinker writes of many religious habits (not eating certain things, enforced dress etc.) as enforcing a group's distinctiveness and identity, and therefore also enhancing the ability to shun those who are outside the group. Religious habits which may be construed as moral directions may reinforce a diminution of empathy between social or religious groups. Many of our perceived human rights advances and reductions in xenophobia have arisen from considering that "they" are like "us".

So while empathy at an individual level can contribute to evolutionary fitness (such that absence of empathy can indeed be "evil" as seen in the individual that is a psychopath), at a group level there is a spandrel arising from the point of view of who is it that we are empathetic too?

I agree that religion marks out who is in-group and who is out-group; in fact it is a primary tribal totem for that task. Generally moralities based upon religions tend to be less than universal: treat the stranger well but only if they are likely to be of the same faith or a potential convert. Otherwise, burn them. This is an outcome of the general human tendency to favour those who are most like ourselves (whether that is a spandrel or an adaptive feature is to be argued).

I actually saw this claim (that God is the only possible source of morality) as the concluding remark in a textbook I used in a 2nd year undergraduate philosophy course. The book is Richard Taylor's "Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law".…

It stroke me then, as it does today, as a very sloppy piece of thinking. As Taylor puts it, since we don't currently have a proper understanding of the sources of morality, it must therefor be beyond human comprehension all together.
This is plain and simple sloth.

This sloppiness goes back a long way. Locke held that without a God to threaten cheats with punishment, nobody would ever meet the terms of their contract, and so atheists, who have no such fear, are essentially impossible to make contracts with (and therefore ought not to be tolerated in society, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, ironically. I date the American dearth of ironical thinking to this influential essay.)

As a matter of fact, first cousin marriage is becoming much more common in London while it becomes less common in Louisiana. As demography shifts, morality tends to shift with it.

Fascinating topic. As recently as a hundred fifty years ago, many westerners believed that the very universe itself was dependent upon a god for its moment to moment existence.

Morality, like science, is based in agreement based on the evidence. Without all the brain-twisting or appeals to authority (jehovah's or kant's): it's the rules we agree to adhere to.

Now that we're past xenophobia, we can see that humans everywhere are very much alike. We can start by seeing what we can agree on, and continue by negotiating the rest.

We can all agree that being murdered is bad ... personally. We will disagree on how to punish a murderer. Rationally we can choose punishment that is beneficial to society, but we have to agree that we personally would accept such a punishment.

Or we can hire people to make these decisions. If we're too busy doing second-story jobs, ripping off retirees, whatever.

survival and reproduction - that's what all life and evolution is based on. we cooperate to enhance survival first and then to also enhance our prospects for reproduction.

cooperation is a biologically evolved intellectual instinct or ability - humans could not define where this instinct came from so it must have come from a 'god'

today's science is beginning to reveal the biological underpinnings of cooperation.

Morality is the evolutionary by-product when the weak of mind co-exist with the physically inadequate.
Clothing, for example...why do we have it?
Curiousity, the only trait given at birth, drove man to colder climates where they discovered other animals bearing fur. The hairless ape, jealous of the animals ability to survive in a cold climate and most likely hungry from the trek, decides to kill, eat and wear the skin of the slain animal. Another curious human crosses the path of the former, notices his/her ability to survive using the animal fur and discovers a way to acquire a fur of their own; force or cohersion?
Well, that depends on your assets.
The most simplistic hypothesis is one was smart and one was physically strong.
Which one had the fur and the fat belly is not important.
The three basic principles of curiousity, discovery and jealousy is important.
From that moment on, the conflict of intelligence versus strength arose.
Eventually, the intelligent man places a fear of the unknown into the mind of the brute to control him.
The fear of a god or gods.
[Insert morality here] "Do as we say", being gods or their messengers, "Or you will suffer for eternity."

Basically, morality is the marriage of evolution and society. It is a balancing equation.
There is a reaction to every action.
Doing good out of fear gave rise to doing good just to make some one else happy.

Punishing the flesh of people for doing harm to others proved to be inefficient.

In steps the fear of god and his/her/it's harsh punishment.
Eventually, the "god" reaction to negative action will phase out.

It will be in the natural progression of human existance when evolution will have balanced the scales to a point where morality is as common as breathing.
It will because it must. This planet is destined to become one large society or the human race will become extinct.

What I want to know is...will there be something after "god" but before the moral breath of air?

By G. Gamble (not verified) on 25 Sep 2008 #permalink

"Morality instructs us to live so as to be worthy of happiness"

You know Kant was wrong about a lot of things but he hit dead on here. In my class I teach the true understanding of morality and the goal is not happiness but the greater good. I never comptemplated the evolutionary origins of right and wrong, but I don't think it matters. If you need some more schooling on morality visit -