Monday, April 28, 2008

The Origins of Human Morality (Such As It Is)

From: Enlightenment 2.0

Someone recently asked about my view on the origin of human morality, so I am re-posting this old blog.

"In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." [Steven Pinker – "The History of Violence"]

The Nobler Savage

Morality is not an exact science. The line between moral and immoral behavior is often hazy and curved, as illustrated by the utter lack of agreement among humans on many moral issues. Why are we unsure of whether abortion is acceptable? Why is embryonic stem cell research not a crystal clear issue? We have no consensus on homosexuality or pre-marital sex. Why are we not in universal agreement on all (some would ask ANY) moral questions?

The answer is simple: our sense of morality, like every other evolutionary trait, is a work in progress. And it always will be.

But the good news is: it's improving.

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and former professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, summarizes his lecture entitled "The History of Violence" with evidence that the morality of our behavior is evolving for the better, and that we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth:

Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.

The idea that we are indeed living in the most peaceful age of human history may be hard to swallow if you watch the news. But now that social scientists have started to count the bodies from different historical periods, they have discovered a somewhat unintuitive fact: we are becoming nobler. The proportion of prehistoric skeletons with ax marks and embedded arrowheads, and the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men, suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.

"According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million." [Steven Pinker – "The History of Violence"]

Conventional history further demonstrates the fact that our sense of morality is not only increasing – it is widening beyond our species. Today in the largely secular West, we have far more humane societies and animal shelters than cat-burning arenas. (Geez – I hope we don't have ANY cat-burning arenas, but I don't want to assume.) And our growing number of vegans, vegetarians and animal rights organizations is heartening during a time that the religious right is telling us that modernity has somehow corrupted the noble savage.

Unfortunately, human history has been rife with one huge obstacle that has constantly riddled the otherwise straightish line of moral progress with zigzags and spikes of horrible atrocities. That obstacle, of course, is religion.

Bertrand Russell briefly explains "Why I am Not a Christian":

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress of humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or ever mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

Man has often invented gods who spoke for him, who confirmed all his opinions and prejudices. Before the dawn of the Age of Reason in the early 17th century, our theretofore improving evolutionary sense of morality in the West had been regularly circumvented by the belief that gods wanted us to kill each other, and that they appreciated human and animal sacrifices. Even today, we have gods who hate homosexuals and apostates. In the East, we still see crusades between warring sects.

But once again, empathy and reason seem to be prevailing, as god stories are facing extinction. And the few religions that remain in the western world have been forced by secular modernity to evolve to be more in line with human morality. The age-old axiom holds true: religion improves as people believe it less.

"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that [evolving morality] -- for lack of a better word -- is good. [Evolving morality] is right. [Evolving morality] works. [Evolving morality] clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit." {Michael Douglas – "Wall Street"}

Is it perfect? Heck no. What is? But it's the best we've got, and it's gotten us this far. Our evolutionary spirit is based on random mutations – how perfectly on-target should we expect our moral aim to be? If morals are based on evolution – both biological and cultural – our lack of timeless universal agreement on so many moral issues makes perfect sense, and our agreement increases over time.

God as the Source of Our Morality

But what would we expect if God gave us our sense of morality? Wouldn't we expect the answers to all moral questions to be timeless and innately clear to us? If God has specific rules of right and wrong for all our behaviors, and if our knowledge of those rules depends on an innate understanding implanted in us by God, and if our behavior is important enough to God that He may damn us for eternity for our actions, I think we should all expect a universal sense of right and wrong that could not be confused or improved. There should be no place for reason, philosophy or evolution. With free will, we would still have the ability to do the selfish/wrong thing, but we should never have any doubt of an action's inherent morality in any situation. Otherwise, how unfair to judge us by our actions, much less our thoughts!

The Bible as the Source of Our Morality

And what about The Bible? At best, The Bible is a perfect example of how our morals evolve. Christians, how often have you had to excuse the atrocities of the Old Testament with "Well, that was a different time" or "That was before Jesus."? There was clear evolution of morality between the writing and compiling of the Old Testament and of the New. Even at the time the Christian Bible was compiled, slavery and subjugation of women were still culturally common, and they are both sanctioned in The New Testament. But today, our two leading candidates for the next presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth are a woman and a black man! I'd call that moral progress. And I'd call it evolution.

At worst, The Bible's moral messages are extremely confusing. When we consider the simple and undeniable fact that The Bible has been used to sanction – AND TO CONDEMN – just about every questionable action since its compilation, it seems quite clear that it is not a reliable – or even a coherent – guide to moral behavior. Enough said.

Then what IS the source of our sense of morality? The following historical narrative is my simple model answer that question. (really boring)

The Origin of Morality in Social Species

Among Earth's earliest advanced life forms, we see the first signs of a genetic sense of empathy, as mothers with the genetic instinct to nurture their young were the only to survive and evolve. In these primitive species, this form of empathy was directed exclusively toward immediate offspring, and no empathy was expressed toward mates or toward any other individuals.

But as competition for territory and food grew, survival depended on banding together in small groups. Like today, the earliest primary tribal unit was likely the family of blood relatives, but blood relation was not imperative at that point. A sense of cooperation and justice became intrinsic to family life as members were forced to defend territory and to fight for food together. Thus, the genetic sense of empathy in individuals of successful families had to widen to cover each other. In families with individuals with less empathetic genes, the more selfish individuals dominated, the selfish genes spread, cooperation and trust evolved away, soon followed by the family itself. The vast majority of families fell into this category. Conversely, the few families with individuals with the most empathetic genes nurtured and protected each other and shared food, thus ensuring their territorial dominance and survival advantage.

With time and inbreeding, a strong genetic sense of empathy necessarily became a common – though not necessarily a dominant – trait. And within these genetically empathetic families, the first altruistic memes spread as family members passed cooperative habits of sharing and justice to each other and to their offspring. Certainly, there were selfish traits within the families, and those selfish traits surely expressed themselves in selfish behavior – probably much more often than in altruistic behavior – but the underlying greater and widened sense of empathy and cooperation than in the competition was necessarily the single most important deciding survival factor.

This trend continued as tribes grew and wrestled with their competing and conflicting genes and memes; the most altruistic tribes with the strongest and widest genetic sense of empathy and cultural sense of cooperation were always the ones to survive and evolve; the rest died out.

This simple scenario is not only a plausible description of the genetic and cultural rise of morality in our tribal ancestors – it was naturally inevitable, as it was surely required for survival and evolution. We see this cooperative tendency continue throughout all social species today, from ant to human. Occam would approve.

The Evolution of Human Morality

But if empathy has become a strong trait in humans over many millions of years of evolution, why do people do rotten things? When we ask that question, it shows that we really expect too much of evolution; evidence shows that we are improving, but perfection is impossible. Many maladaptive traits – dyslexia, high blood pressure, selfishness, etc. – survive evolution in packets. As long as strong advantageous genetic traits like empathy are enough to keep the tribe thriving, negative and neutral traits will be inevitable. Maladaptive traits tend to evolve away through time, but there are always new negative mutations to figuratively replace the old.

And it's often more complicated than even that. Moral issues are not always a simple matter of our selfish genes and memes battling with our empathetic genes and memes. When new moral questions – embryonic stem cell research, for example – arise, there's not always a simple right/wrong answer. This is where our philosophical sense of reason plays a part, and this is why morality is often such a struggle for us. We have to weigh all the potential advantages and all the potential suffering that could be caused by a specific action, for ourselves and for those for whom we feel empathy. (See early Greek philosophy for lessons on how to think, re-think and over-think the morality of our decisions and not come to any agreement.)

Our decisions become behaviors. As we grow, we judge our own actions and those of others by that same combination of empathy and reason, and patterns gradually emerge. The more clearly a specific behavior relates to our genetic sense of empathy, the more widely the rightness or wrongness of the behavior will spread memetically, and the more widely we will have agreement on its morality.

Our "moral imperatives" – specific actions that are almost universally considered to be absolutely good or absolutely bad in all situations – are the easiest for us to judge. Murder and theft are good examples of universally forbidden moral imperative memes that have likely been with us for millions of years. Rape and adultery, forbidden moral imperatives that have arisen with the evolution of cultural memes like romance and the committed relationship, are much newer memes. (In other species – and surely in our ancestors – romance and committed relationships are rare or non-existent, so rape and adultery are non-issues; in fact, they favor survivability and have for hundreds of millions of years!)

For every other issue, it's a slow process as we reason through our decisions and judge the results of our actions. Many philosophical issues – like intent versus result, for example – are not settled to our universal satisfaction even today, but like every other aspect of our morality, they are evolving toward universal agreement.

The Future of Human Morality

What's next in our moral evolution? I suspect that the way we treat many animals will change. In particular, I think that the way we raise chickens and veal calves will be among the first to evolve into something more humane as our sense of empathy widens to include animals that taste good to us but are not traditionally kept as pets. Eventually, I suspect that we may stop eating other animals altogether.

I think that we will continue to be more tolerant of different races, of different sexual orientations and of different beliefs. And I suspect that we will abandon divisive mythology. (Daniel Dennett proposed that within 25 years, the Vatican may be known as the European Museum of Roman Catholicism and Mecca could become Disney's Magical Kingdom of Allah!)


Our ever-improving but always imperfect sense of morality is exactly what we would expect if it is a natural, evolving genetic/memetic trait – a product of empathy and reason. But is far from what we would expect if planted in us by God. And finally, our current sense of morality has surpassed that demonstrated by The Bible, which perfectly exemplifies the less evolved sense of morality of its time and place.


DB said...

Well put. The argument is often made that morality doesn't have it's origins in religion, but never have I read an essay so eloquently written using great examples from history. Thanks for the great read. :-)

Michael L. Gooch said...

Organizations such as XXX, have negative results because the people on board cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Due to scope, these consequences usually take longer to materialize, but is the result the same? You can find a ton of articles and books about business ethics about businesses “losing their way,” e.g., WorldCom, Tyco, Enron. You can also sign up for seminars where they preach to “do the right thing.” They paint the world in stark black and white. These resources ask one-dimensional ethical questions, such as, “Should you take kickbacks from suppliers?” For me, ethics in the workplace is varying shades of gray. You have to rely on moral law, that is, does it ‘feel’ wrong? It’s easy to say, “There is right, and there is wrong.” In my management book, Wingtips with Spurs, I address these issue in detail. All major corporations have their written code of conduct. Each one is pretty much just a copy of the others and is a major dust bunny. The next time you walk into someone’s office, ask to see the company code of conduct. Good luck on finding someone who will produce it within five minutes. The moral law is much easier to find and digest. It resides in each of us. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR