The evolution of morals

I have a short piece up at Comment is Free at The Guardian, The origins of morality do not matter. Its flavor is a bit different from my typical blog posts because the format enforces more brevity, so I decided to try and leverage some analogies. I conclude:

... Our moral consensus is a river whose course shifts across the plain, constrained by the hills thrust upward by biology. Only history knows where the river will flow next, though evolution can hint at the range of possibilities.

On a note related to this piece, I will be posting a review of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness in a few months.

More like this

tags: Birdbooker Report, bird books, animal books, natural history books, ecology books Books to the ceiling, Books to the sky, My pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I'll have a long beard by the time I read them. ~ Arnold Lobel [1933-1987] author of many popular…
Years ago, when the Trophy Wife™ was a psychology grad student, she participated in research on what babies think. It was interesting stuff because it was methodologically tricky — they can't talk, they barely respond in comprehensible way to the world, but as it turns out you can get surprisingly…
Lots of people sent me a link to this essay in which David Hart declares "New" Atheism a passing fad, expecting me to take it apart. I didn't have the heart, and I'm busy right now, sorry. It's a horribly written and excessively long piece — I'd almost call it purple prose if the periphrastic…
People often assume I'm a "genetic determinist" because of my close attention to the interface of our species' biology and behavior. I'm also focused on evolutionary science, a discipline where noise, error, and diversity generated by a constellation of variables is assumed (and to some extent,…

The origins of morality do not matter.

The scientific fact that we come by morals naturally does matter because it doesn't come naturally to all of us equally; we aren't all equal genetically and our genes aren't all expressed in identical environments. We need to understand the basis for the moral deficiencies of sociopaths in order that we can more appropriately deal with them, such as using humane restraint rather than punitive measures. Whenever possible we need to attempt rehabilitation and avoid punishment and retribution for other kinds of criminal offenders.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

Razib, what about the fact that those who go the religion route don't understand science and are, therefore, dumber? Or are you only speaking to the idea that evolution is evolution and this includes religious/cultural pressures. For instance, I think it doesn't matter if people know that free will likely doesn't exist cuz they wouldn't change even if they believed you but that still makes them dumber than me.

i think free will, and its non-existence, which is held by a good number of materialists as well as religionists (many muslims, calvinists, etc.), is a decent analogy. though "morals" and "ethics" are a much bigger category, and i suspect there's a lot more room for debate on the margins than i had time to explore in this piece.

Good piece.

I'd steer away from some of the grander statements though being as people's beliefs regarding the basis of morality DOES matter among smarter/more serious people.

Folk who think about these things tend to act and feel quite differently based on their beliefs about morality's origins.

Furthermore, the culture of the mindless herd is often informed by the beliefs of those somber brainiacs. Consider: The abortion abattoir. Were it not for evolutionists taking seriously the (a)moral implications of our newfound wisdom, there's no way in hell that hundreds of millions of nominally Christian mothers would so regularly abort their children and be able to ever sleep soundly again.

On a day to day basis it may seem that the origins of morality don't matter but on a grand cultural scale (as well as within the day to day lives of people who take their beliefs seriously) they certainly do.


"Only history knows ...": God knows whether you're right.

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

For at least 2500 years some have understood that neither free will nor determinism is possible to think clearly about without running into contradictions, paradoxes, etc.

The "inherited moral intuitions" are part of the Natural Man. The fact that some of them are moral and altruistic fits with Mencius or Rousseau's idea of natural goodness and against the various ideas of original evil. At the same time, there are natural propensities which are harmful, amoral, and perhaps evil: greed, anger, selfishness, etc. So the rather banal does have an inborn nature (against the blank slate) but that this inborn nature is both "good" and "evil" (for and definition of these words), i.e. mixed.

Mencius probably taught mised human nature. His point was that there were natural "sprouts" of goodness and that care should be taken to tend and develop these sprouts and not the sprouts of evil.

Beyond that, however, some of the natural, inherent, intuitive sprouts of goodness have to be suppressed too. The best example: we think of revenge, feuding, and vigilantism as wrong because in our society they ARE wrong, destructive, and illegal, but during most of human history they were the only justice there was.

Gintis et al have argued that altruist sociieties can survive only if there is altruistic punishment of free riders -- societal enforcers who punish free riders even though they gain nothing personally from their act of justice. (In other words, altruism is not chumpishness.)

By John Emerson (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

Not to sound like phony flattering or anything, but your writing is damn eloquent for a science writer. It's amazing how not only how much you can elaborate about such disparate branches of social/life sciences in general but how you make it so poetic, for lack of a better word.

When stumbling across some of your older gnxp posts a few years back, I've noted that you used a lot of literary device especially in your long pieces. I don't know if my feelings are universal, but I have to think stylistic flourish/personal anecdote and other stuff, like you used, do play a role in hooking the public onto many science-heavy topics.

Sam Harris only hints at the evolution of morals at the beginning of this TED Talk, but at the end he does state a belief that studies of the brain will ultimately identify the source of empathy and so on.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

On a day to day basis it may seem that the origins of morality don't matter but on a grand cultural scale (as well as within the day to day lives of people who take their beliefs seriously) they certainly do.

you should do more than assert. why should i believe you? nothing you say is implausible, but you've basically done nothing to sway anyone in either direction as to the likelihood of this. simply stated what is assumed by many.

(abortion is an interesting case, but i think it has more to do with personhood, and there's already plenty of cross-cultural variation on this, long before evolution or science. there is also some recent data which *does* support what you're saying, and i might blog it soon)

The abortion issue is an example of how the moral reasonings of the Intelligent&Serious can get filtered down into the culture of the masses. As for the origins of morality making a difference in the day to day lives of smart, serious people, I can offer myself as an example. The extent to which my actions and feelings regarding "moral matters" changed on account of my changed views regarding the origins of morality is astounding. When I believed fully in the form of Judaism with which I was raised I acted and felt differently on an almost hourly basis than I do now. The reason I changed was because my understanding about the origins of morality changed.

Very well written. On a side note, I think a lot of people (probably not you) discuss religion as if it is ONLY or MAINLY about morality. But religion itself has evolved into many forms and some are more political than others. I would submit that Islam, for example, is highly political. While it CAN be modified to become just another "personal" religion in a secular society, its hard work to do so because it has such a strong political history...politics has been designed into its main sects. When Islamists organize, they do so mainly around political issues of power and statecraft, not around "personal" morality (though they make a show of being concerned with that, usually focused on sexual morality). This political aspect of religion overlaps with other political organizations (communist parties, nationalism, etc) and this river may flow around different hills from the ones that constrain personal morality. Am I making any sense? Maybe not, but I look forward to comments that will help to clarify my thoughts.

you [mnuez] should do more than assert. why should i believe you?

I think the evidence of an evolutionary basis for morals is amply covered in Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. To say that it doesn't matter seems akin to suggesting that science doesn't matter.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

disclaimer: social fMRI follows

I don't have time to look up the actual study and assess its results, but somewhere I heard about experiments with fMRI during "moral" decision making. One example was the classic MASH Finale problem (kill your baby to save the village?), and there was correlation with brain activity and choice (I think what you'd guess: frontal cortex = kill the baby / amygdala = save the baby). I wonder if our beliefs about the source and nature of morality influence the ability of our prefrontal to tell the rest of the brain to shut up (which seems to be its main job).

mnuez, i don't think judaism is really about morality in the way i'm talking about, insofar as it differs from christianity. iow, i don't count legalistic aspects of judaism, islam, or forms of hinduism, as fundamentally about deep human morality. to some extent abortion is the same too. as i said, the issue isn't about whether murder is ok or not, it is about personhood. as for change on the abortion issue, elite consensus hasn't shifted the masses much in the past 2 generations according to the social science data.

Razee, do you really save that much time by neglecting to capitalize? Your response doesn't seem to speak to mine and I'm trying to figure out of that's because of an automatic bias against what seems to be a throwaway comment based on its sloppy grammar or whether the sloppy grammar is a fellow side-symptom to the intellectual lakadaisicalness that characterizes the content of the comment. :-)

I read your reply on Less Wrong about five months ago when you had a tiff with some guys about the capitalization and claimed that it saved you time but it seems more likely that your lower-case comments are written on the same autopilot that speaks to a lower quality level than your other work.

your comment in hindsight had a lot less substance to it than i thought might have been behind it. i.e., i thought if i prodded you'd elaborate something more robust than you came up with. you should reconsider making authoritative statements like that which cross-generalize to humanity from personal experience if you want me to read your comments in the future. there's actual data to support some of what you're saying, i thought you knew more than i did.