Morality: Divine Spark or Evolutionary Trick?
A good deal of my reading this week has been on human moral intuitions and the role they are playing in the jeremiads against God and religion served up by the “new atheists.” I’ve read enough over the years to be roughly familiar with the typical evolutionary story told about the origins of morality: morality has evolved because it enhanced our evolutionary fitness. Whether the story told is one of group selection, preserving social cohesion, or reciprocal altruism, at the end of the day, the scientists tell us, we are moral creatures because this is the best way to get our genes into the next generation.
The story is familiar enough, but many, including yours truly, find it to be an incomplete and unsatisfactory tale on its own. Consequently I was interested to see if the well-known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker had any light to shed on the matter in his article in today’s New York Times. One of the more interesting sections of the article is where Pinker, relying on the research of anthropologists Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske, identifies five broad moral themes which appear to be virtually universal:
- The idea that it is bad to harm others and good to help them
- A sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters
- The value of loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms
- The belief that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status
- The exaltation of purity, cleanliness and sanctity and the corresponding loathing of defilement, contamination and carnality
According to Pinker, these five themes represent the universal raw moral material upon which socio-cultural factors operate, which accounts for the moral diversity we see cross-culturally. Some cultures will elevate the importance of purity at the expense of fairness or the injunction not to harm, others will accord more respect to authority than they will to group loyalty. The moral universals remain firmly in the picture, but they are emphasized to varying degrees depending upon the cultural context.
This makes sense, and seems to be a compelling affirmation of, for example, C.S. Lewis‘s concept of “The Tao”—a universal moral law that admits of development from within, and can be modified over time and in different cultural contexts, but whose fundamental nature we are no more free to change than we are to “imagine a new primary colour” or create “a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.” Far from advocating a form of ethical relativism based primary on utility, Pinker seems to recommend a (heavily) qualified version of moral realism which is interesting, coming from a hard-boiled scientist such as himself.
But is it consistent? Later in the article Pinker attempts to find a way out of the familiar problem posed by all purely naturalistic accounts of the origins of morality. If, at rock bottom, what we consider to be objective morality is simply the result of an amoral process whose sole “goal” is the survival of this or that organism’s genetic material, how can we claim that morality is in any sense “objective?” Perhaps more worryingly, what is to prevent our abandonment of what we naively thought was “objective morality” now that we know it is just our genes tricking us about what is, inherently, nothing more than a survival technique? Pinker explains the problem well:
The attempt to dissect our moral intuitions can look like an attempt to debunk them. Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested—to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes. The explanation of how different cultures appeal to different spheres could lead to a spineless relativism, in which we would never have grounds to criticize the practice of another culture, no matter how barbaric, because “we have our kind of morality and they have theirs.” And the whole enterprise seems to be dragging us to an amoral nihilism, in which morality itself would be demoted from a transcendent principle to a figment of our neural circuitry.
Of course Pinker doesn’t believe any of this, and he has his reasons for this. First, he claims, we need to be careful about “anthropomorphizing” our discussion of evolutionary science. Just because genes seek to get themselves replicated doesn’t mean that the organisms of which they are a part are behaving “selfishly.” Genes do not have motives after all, and the only reason we describe them in terms of agency is because this is how we understand it best. According to Pinker, “‘Selfish’ genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, because a gene’s metaphorical goal of selfishly replicating itself can be implemented by wiring up the brain of the organism to do unselfish things, like being nice to relatives or doing good deeds for needy strangers.” No matter what’s going on beneath the surface, he seems to be saying, human beings really are behaving morally when they do these kinds of things.
In addition, Pinker appeals to Robert Trivers to show how the evolutionary strategy of reciprocal altruism – you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours—can produce genuinely selfless creatures by continually raising the stakes, rewarding those who do the best job of appearing to be generous in a kind of benevolence arms race:
The most effective way to seem generous and fair, under harsh scrutiny, is to be generous and fair. In the long run, then, reputation can be secured only by commitment. At least some agents evolve to be genuinely high-minded and self-sacrificing—they are moral not because of what it brings them but because that’s the kind of people they are.
But what has caused them to be “the kind of people they are?” And once this cause is understood, what justification do they have for continuing to act in this way? At the end of the day, Pinker’s argument here seems to amount to little more than saying that evolution has done a really, really, really, really good job in tricking us into being moral. It’s done such a good job that human beings have reached a point where not only do we (mistakenly) believe that objective morality exists and that we have an obligation to behave according to its dictates , but we also have an apparent need to attach objective value to the results of this entire process.
When we push this view to its logical conclusions, however, the whole thing—the behaviour that counts as moral and our curious ability/requirement to label it as such and attribute to it objective value—is nothing more than an elaborate survival strategy. No matter how desperately scientists like Pinker, who seem unwilling to admit that morality might have some kind of a divine cause, might want science to yield the picture of a genuinely moral being who behaves morally for its own sake, rather than for the benefits it can secure, it simply doesn’t work.
The big picture is still of an essentially amoral world which, through an impersonal, mechanistic, and thoroughly amoral (if not immoral—think of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw”) process has managed to produce a creature who thinks and acts in terms of values and morals, and who believes these to make demands upon him which go beyond the kind of selfish behaviour that would seem sensible on a naturalistic picture of the world. The lengths to which we we will go to avoid the distasteful ethical conclusions of the process which has led to our arrival on the scene provides, in my opinion, a powerful testimony to the universality, inviolability, and beauty of our strongest moral intuitions.