Moral evolution in today’s society

This post is the last in a series on human morality (see, Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers, Subjective morality – not what it seems? and Drifting moral values). These are not meant as an academic treatment of the subject (as one commenter (OS) seemed to think). As I said in my first post, I am responding to ideas presented by Zach Weinersmith and Sean Carroll  about subjective and objective morality on their blogs (see Pankration Ethics and Morality and Basketball) and taking the opportunity to clarify my own ideas about physical laws and moral laws. That’s what blogs are for aren’t they?

So I welcome comments and genuine criticisms.

The camera metaphor for human morality describes an “auto mode” were we react unconsciously to situation and make our moral judgements and decisions without rational consideration (see Subjective morality – not what it seems?). We may attempt to explain later the reasoning behind those decisions, but psychologists like Jonathan Haidt point out these are actually rationalisations, not description of actual reasons. While this is the mode we use most of the time, there is also the “manual mode” — where we do attempt to reason through moral situations (see Drifting moral values). We may be rehearsing our rationalisations. But we also may be participating in public discussion. The current discussion on the marriage equality bill is an example.

But these two modes are not mechanically separated as in a camera. It’s not a matter of flipping a switch or making a choice of modes. And as I said before even when someone is consciously reasoning they are still influenced by their unconscious feelings and emotions. But I think it’s also important to realise our “auto” moral mode is not static. It is over time influenced by what goes on in our conscious mind (the activity of our “manual” moral mode) – and in our surrounding environment.


The normal learning process usually involves a transfer of consciously rehearsed reasoning or action into our subconscious. What we initially learn to do consciously, and therefore requires concentration and mental effort, eventually becomes embedded in our subconscious and we do it without thinking. Consider how you learned to ride a bike or drive a car and how this eventually became an unconscious skill.

Cordelia Fine describes how during the learning process our conscious mind eventually delegates responsibility to our unconscious mind in her book A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives.

“Everyday activities like walking and driving perfectly illustrate the importance of being able to delegate responsibility to the unconscious mind. This point was vividly brought home to me as I observed my small son learning how to walk. When he was twelve months old it was an activity requiring the utmost concentration. No other business—receiving a proffered toy, taking a sip of water, even surveying the pathway ahead for obstacles—could be conducted at the same time. Imagine if this carried on throughout life, with passersby on the street plopping clumsily to their bottoms should you distract them for an instant by asking for directions. But fortunately, the unconscious gradually takes over. The previously tricky aspects of walking—balancing upright, moving forward, the whole left-foot-right-foot routine— become automatic and mentally effortless. And once a skill moves into the domain of the unconscious mind, we free up conscious thought for other matters. The learning driver is a poor conversationalist because his conscious mind is fully taken up with the complexities of steering, changing gears, and indicating. As driving becomes automatic, we can offer something a little more fulfilling to our front seat companion than a series of fractured mutterings and muffled cries of “Sorry!” Precious conscious thought becomes available again.”

Just imagine if every skill your “learned” had to be performed consciously. We just could not operate that way, and its the same with our day-to-day social interactions and moral judgements. We just could not have survived as a species if all that we learned required deliberate engagement of the conscious process every time we used it. We wouldn’t just be “plopping clumsily on bottoms” when distracted while we were walking. We just wouldn’t react quickly enough to life threatening situations. And we would find life in a society of people impossible.

So I think that our conscious deliberation on moral issues, as might occur when we are taught by parents or other adults, or when we take part in discussions and decisions, does make changes in our subconscious mind. The exercise of our “manual mode” then leads to changes in our “auto mode.” For example, learning about, or discussing, the consciousness of other animals, their ability to feel pain and emotions, may eventually lead to someone who was originally a meat eater to automatically feel repelled by meat dishes.

Mind you, teaching by an adult does not necessarily lead to an “auto” moral mode which produces the right result from the perspective of a modern humane person. Consider, for example, the sort of learning that goes on in families belonging to inhumane religious sects. Many children from these families grow up to automatically associate strong women, racial minorities or homosexuals with a feeling of disgust.

Even mainline Christian denominations and sects tend to continually argue for the status quo or return to previous moral norms. They seem to particularly react against political and social pressure to update laws and moral codes on the basis of reasoned and collective discussion and evidence. This results in such organisations continually being seen as backward and conservative.

Cultural learning

A tremendous amount of our learning occurs involuntarily, and not in formal lessons, lectures and sermons. For many adults this may be the only way we continue to learn. We may not be aware of it, but we are continually learning while being entertained. And I don’t mean via advertisements – more through “product placement.”

Entertainment it’s a relatively painless way of learning. Of course, as many people comment, we may be learning a load of rubbish. Not just about foods and fashions, but also about social attitudes – which eventually end up influencing our “auto” moral mode.

But, because our entertainment reflects features of our society it also often reflects good changes in our society. Or at least helps to make acceptable things and people we may have otherwise had negative feelings about. Today it is relatively common to see homosexuals and homosexual relationships presented in a positive way in TV drama, films and soap operas. Similarly we have developed a more accepting attitude towards single parent families, to women working. Even to strong professional women because we have become used to seeing them day-to-day in these dramas and soap operas.

Positive presentation in fictional drama also enables positive presentation in real life. Homosexuals have been “coming out” – we all become aware that our friends and acquaintances may be homosexual. These a real people and this breaks down those old negative associations we may have previously learned.  In recent years a similar thing has happened with atheists, especially in the USA. The word is losing its negative connotations.

TV may be particularly effect in this cultural learning but it is a relatively new phenomena. I think literature and art have also provided an important medium for cultural learning over the years, and well before modern methods of communication. Many timeless moral situations and dilemmas, as well as topical issues, have been covered by literature and drama. Possibly one of the most important things parents can do to ensure the moral education of their children is to encourage reading, and allow access to a variety of genre.

Swings and roundabouts

I have conceded that cultural layering may be promoting some acceptance of rubbish as well as negative moral attitudes. That’s an inevitable downside. But as long as there are some people in society who engage their “manual” moral mode and take part in society-wide discussion of topical moral issues there is scope for the passive cultural learning by the rest of society. I have argued that there is an objective basis for human moral values in human nature.  The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, social and empathetic species. These discussions offer an arena for the objectively based human moral values to exert their influence.  In effect it is the manual moral mode of society’s leaders and thinkers, of our writers, artists and actors, who have enabled a reasoned consideration based on positive moral value to influence the “auto” moral mode of the rest of society.

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16 responses to “Moral evolution in today’s society

  1. Thank you for the links to your reference points . I shall read them avidly, and since I love your camera metaphor and its auto vs manual mode corollary ( or rather the ability to switch between the two functions), my auto response system leads me to ask this:

    I have accepted that modern day soap operas have a role in translating complicated and controversial shifts in social morality and, as you have now made me think, helping busy people acquire new automatic responses to situations that evoked once fashionable yet questionable automatic reflexes.. The dangers implied being that this use of public imagery from The Heiroglyphics to Hitler and Hollywood has also been manipulated to instil and reinforce questionable and fashionable social morality.

    My question goes something like this … There seems to be an acceptance that our morality can and should be manipulated by an external force . I would not need to weaned onto the idea of homosexuality being ‘okay’ had i not been subliminally taught that it was ‘not okay’ at some point in my earlier life. This is where the media have a monopoly and are constantly selling controversial contradictions to their own premises giving the audiences a false sense of the media’s impartiality and revolution. The soaps indeed are selling more than morality as you know…

    What concerns me is that if I accept an ever evolving objective morality as essential and normal , that my subjective morality codes are withering and devolving as I pass on the responsibility of educating myself to a small number of people who just so happen to be able to wield a camera and distribute a product that appeals to the fashionably technologically adept audience. By acknowledging an objective morality am I opening pathways for external control and passing over my responsibility of personal development to an unseen all knowing ‘mother’ ( or father or BBC) ?.

    If there is an objective morality I feel (subjectively) morally bound to search for it myself, notwithstanding the use of various guides and much leaning on the masters of past philosophies, and that any moral buck passing to be immoral . I am fighting off the presumption that we are all born innately bad ( I think original sin is the expression) and that morality is something delivered by a higher entity or a messenger of said entity, which will absolve us of alleged sin and of thinking freely. .


  2. Ken, I enjoyed reading your morality posts, and also like the camera metaphor.

    Somewhere in this series, you said something like: “There is an objective basis for morality. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, social and empathetic species.”

    Being a “sentient, intelligent, social and empathetic species” is necessary for human morality, but it is not clear to me that this translates, of itself, into a robustly objective human morality.

    However, you might consider looking up (or down?) a level or two in causality. Specifically, to look at the science behind why we are a social, empathetic species.

    What might the science of morality tell us that could be culturally useful about an objective morality when science can only provide descriptive knowledge?

    It seems to me that it is uncontroversial in the field of evolutionary morality that morality is a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation selected for by the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups. So moral standards such as “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, “Preserve life!”, “Do not steal or lie in court!”, and our moral intuitions are not moral imperatives, but only fallible cultural and biological heuristics for increasing the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups. For example, “Do not steal or lie in court!” advocates altruistically resisting our urges to steal or lie in court even when we really want to and think doing so would be beneficial. This descriptive knowledge from science could be useful in resolving what is moral when there are contradictory moral standards. It also is useful for telling us things such as when it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule, such as when dealing with criminals and in time of war.

    Also, moral standards chosen (as an instrumental choice in pursuit of group goals) to be consistent with increasing the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups should fit people like a key in a well-oiled lock. This is because this key, morality understood as an evolutionary adaptation, is largely what shaped this lock, our social psychology and experience of well-being that evolved to make us social animals.


  3. Thanks for the questions Lorraine.

    First – I am not saying there is an “objective morality”. Just that our morality has an objective basis in the facts of situations and in our evolved human nature. Not that “right” and “wrong” somehow exists out there in the universe but that there are objective facts underlying situations which determine their moral character. That just means that on some issues there are “correct” and “incorrect” moral answers. In making those decisions we use the evidence and our values implicit in human nature. We effectively agree on values of not harming and of care and hence can often agree on what solutions are “correct.”

    Sure the media is powerful and we do get a lot of rubbish beamed at us. But the media is not independent of the people – you and I, as well as experts. We can all have an influence. Looking back into the threat of short range nuclear weapons in the 1980s I think the media did a lot to educate people about the danger and express our opposition to it. So it’s not all bad.

    In no way am I suggesting handing over moral control to external forces like the media or the church. Just pointing out that we all are influenced passively by our entertainment and culture. But obviously I advocate frequent conscious rehearsal and deliberation on moral issues – using our manual mode. Only a minority of us actually bother to do that but we influence others directly and through their passive learning.

    It’s by some people using their manual mode, and inserting new ideas into our culture that we get a moral evolution. Personal devopment comes with moral reflection and consideration. Access to good literature and drama helps this.

    No way does acknowledging an objective basis to human morality and the role of intelligent reflection on moral issues imply handing over power to others, or even a diminishing of our auto mode. This later mode is the only way we can operate day-to-day – but it is updated by our occasional conscious reflections in a manual mode.


  4. Thanks for your comments Mark.

    Can I clear up this issue of “objective morality”? It’s one that I find people misunderstand, perhaps because I don’t explain it well but perhaps also because readers may have preconceived ideas.

    I don’t claim there is an objective morality (somehow out there in the universe) and have tried to explain how both that and the term “subjective morality” can be used in misleading ways.

    My claim instead is that our morality is objectively based – derived from our evolved biological nature expressed as values, and from the objective facts of moral situations.

    I try to give an objective basis to our values because some advocates of subjective morality argue these are arbitrary. That’s why I raised Antionio Damasio’s concept of biological value. The idea that even very early organisms must have had sensors to detect food and environmental gradients and automatic mechanisms to react to these. With the evolution of neuronal structures, brains, awareness and self awareness these automatic mechanisms became feelings and emotions. And sentience developed further into intelligence and empathy with social evolution.

    I think we basically agree with the evolutionary description of morality. Where I seem to create confusion is in my use of the term “objectively based.” Hopefully I have made clear that this is not the same as what is often called “objective morality” by philosophers of religion.


  5. It is a shame I have come so late to this posting … but maybe I am beginning to understand. Do you mean ‘objectively based’ as in experientially based ? A Science of Morality perhaps.

    Thank you so much for your explanations to my question. It has made me realise that art and writing IS important . Even if it is produced by a few and understood by even fewer ( joke) , Even if the artists are lonely and considered by many to be anti social nuisances.

    I was beginning to wonder about the meaning of it all ! I should do some work .ha ha


  6. Lorraine, I think I defined subjective as “existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective).” And objective as “existing independently of the individual mind or perception.”

    So there are the facts of a situation – danger, harm, care, etc., and there are the facts of our biology (and brain) (Treating these as objective from the perspective of an external individual mind.)

    We are hard wired to perform in social groups, as well as to care and avoid harm. We are hardwired to be empathetic. (We are also hard wired to be tribal – them vs us).

    These are all objective features of humans and their environment. As they in the end feed into our feelings and emotions, and values. We can see our values (which appear subjective and arbitrary) as actually objectively based and not completely arbitrary.

    Isn’t the meaning of it all 42?


  7. Ken, I should have been clear I did not interpret your claim as defining an objective, universal, normative morality, which, in my view, is moral philosophy’s equivalent of a magical unicorn.

    With this starting miscommunication, I am not sure I got across my suggestion that there is an objective, universal, descriptive moral principle based on the universal function morality, the primary reason morality exists in cultures. The philosopher Phillip Kitcher proposes this function to be “to overcome altruism failures”. I think it is more accurately described as “to increase the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups”.

    In any case, descriptive moral principles can be fully objective and are as “out there” and universal as the mathematics of altruistic cooperation strategies behind “Do to others what you would have them do to you” and “Do not eat pigs”.

    Of course, being as “out there” and objective as the mathematics of game theory does not provide such descriptive moral principles with any inherent normative (binding) power. But lacking inherent normative power does not necessarily prevent them from being highly instrumentally useful in defining enforced moral standards aimed at achieving a group’s goals.


  8. Loraine and Ken, I think at least Ken and I are agreeing(?) that, yes the science of morality can be culturally useful. That science of morality reveals, among other useful things, the origins and function of our values, moral intuitions and emotions, and (I would add) cultural moral standards to be “objectively based and not completely arbitrary”.

    What people find most confusing about the idea of a science of morality is that science is only about descriptive facts and is powerless to tell us what our ultimate goals ought to be. So what use is science regarding, say, designing enforced cultural norms?

    Fortunately, people are natural born goal and purpose generators. With defined goals and purposes, groups are logically free to consult the science of morality to help them figure out what moral standards to enforce that will best meet their goals. And traditional moral philosophy could be a big help in deciding what those ultimate goals morally ought to be if the group cannot otherwise reach agreement.


  9. Mark, the positioning of the words “science” and “morality” close to each other in a paragraph does tend to cause all sorts of assumptions and criticisms “Scientism” is a common charge.

    With many people it may just be “that science is only about descriptive facts and is powerless to tell us what our ultimate goals ought to be.” On the other hand there are the theologically inclined who appear to just be afraid if this word science. They feel they have territory to protect.

    Galileo had to argue for the right to rely on evidence and interrogation of reality to discover truths about the natural world but he was happy to concede that one should rely on scripture for morality. But today we have extended our interrogation of reality to include considerations of things like morality and consciousness. It’s another example of the continual loss of territory by religion.

    So I think some of those who strongly criticise the concept of a science of morality are protecting territory. And in the process setting up the straw man idea that scientists are claiming that science can determine “right” and “wrong.” In fact that argument is rarely, if ever, made. Sam Harris may have suggested a future scenario but no-one has really supported him on this.


  10. Ken, cool, I see no daylight between the position you just stated and mine.


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  12. Enjoyed reading your posts – I’m very much in favour of a scientifically informed approach to morality, but I’ve got some unease about your subjective/objective classification.
    Put bluntly, an ‘objectively-based morality’, as you describe it, could still well be subjective. In fact, ‘objectively-based’ is really a sleight of hand that attempts to hold onto the concept of objectivity without actually doing so. The objective basis of morality you identify is causal explanations of human moral behaviour, such as the benefits of heritable cooperative dispositions for inter-group competition. The problem is that even if we accept that these innate moral dispositions are real phenomena (I do, incidentally), they nevertheless massively underdetermine morality, providing only a few basic moral inclinations, but lack the detail or coherence of a fully fledged moral system. Gay marriage, for instance, is not something we have an evolved opinion about, even though heritable dispositions appear to play some role in our eventual position. (See this experiment on the role of disgust sensitivity and views on gay marriage: Moreover, providing an objective explanation for things we believe is not a justification for believing in those things. After all, it might be argued along the same lines that religious belief is equally ‘objectively-based’, because we can create evolutionary explanations for religion also; but providing an evolutionary genealogy for a ‘God concept’ does not mean we should believe or act accordingly. And on these grounds, I don’t see how you can say that you believe in objective moral progress on the grounds of an objective moral basis, because that evolved moral basis is too vague and too contradictory to do the job. In regards to gay marriage, some people might feel empathy, some might feel disgust, so we need a normative standard to determine between which of these evolved emotional attitudes is worth acting upon (in our case, that moral standard is liberalism, but of course the person who feels disgust will want to use that disgust as the normative standard to justify their conservatism). Incidentally, Joshua Greene escapes this problem by being a card-carrying moral objectivist, in the sense of mind-independent moral truths; he endorses consequentialism, a la Peter Singer. So for him, the objective basis is not in our evolved psychology at all, but in rational truths that ought to override our evolved moral basis.
    Another way to describe the objectivity of morality (which you almost mention) is through descriptions of behaviour, from a social science perspective. So, just like humans (usually) have two eyes, two legs, etc., it is an ‘objective fact’ that people (usually) do not kill one another in cold blood. (And exceptions to the latter norm in wartime are tragically a common way to create exceptions to the former…) If humankind perished, these objective facts would no longer hold, although (as you say) ‘that does not make them subjective’, only historical. However, this also does not make the normative standards by which these actions are guided objective either. ‘Murder is wrong’ could still be a subjective normative standard, which involves some combination of feelings and context-specific norms (ie. capital punishment is/isn’t immoral). This subjective norm then shapes objective reality, producing describable facts of contemporary society, statistical (but not general) laws that can be measured over time (as did Steve Pinker in The Better Angels…). Whether we describe variations in murder rates as ‘progress’, however, depends on the normative standard we happen to hold, including our view on what does and does not count as murder. Fortunately, we live in a society where that norm is well-established, but there are times and places where norms of honour and vengeance (which also have evolutionary genealogies) have promoted different attitudes toward killing, where the refusal to commit murder might involve a kind of moral laxity. To sum up, just because ‘murder is wrong’ is an objectively measurable norm, that does not mean it is an objective standard of moral conduct (‘wrong then and wrong now’), no more than God is objectively real just because millions of people act in accordance with his wishes in objectively measurable ways.
    To sum up, then, I would ask: Why be afraid of subjectivity in moral normativity? Subjective ideas can be widely, even universally, held, so moral subjectivity doesn’t entail a moral anarchism of ‘each to their own’. And my own hunch is that the objective dimensions of morality (that is, the causal explanations of moral attitudes and the objectively measurable outcomes that these attitudes produce) are important because they constrain rather than determine morality. On this account, our moral norms are inevitably subjective, shaped by culture and circumstance, but objective facts of our psychology or game-theoretical outcomes mean that not all norms could be moral (at least not for long). In this sense, morality is subjective but not arbitrary.


  13. David, I can’t resist the opportunity to engage with you on the ethical implications of understanding morality as an evolutionary adaptation. My position is perhaps more extreme than Ken’s, but perhaps more directly addresses your sensible concerns about specifically what kind of moral objectively science provides and the cultural utility of understanding morality as an evolutionary adaptation.

    Over the last 35 years, it has been becoming progressively clearer that social morality, morality dealing with other people and as defined by past and present enforced moral standards, is a biological and cultural adaptation selected for by increased benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups (but not necessarily between groups). This claim is defendable as objective truth in the normal provisional truth sense of descriptive science. This science describes instrumental moral ‘means’ for achieving human ‘ends’ (the benefits of morality and the morality of between group interactions).

    Reiterating, morality as an evolutionary adaptation only reveals morality’s ‘means’. It is silent concerning the ultimate ‘ends’ of moral behavior (its benefits and goals). Also, morality as an evolutionary adaptation provides no objective truth regarding an external source of imperativeness (external justification for accepting the burdens of morality). However, morality as an evolutionary adaptation does reveal an ultimate source for moral ‘means’, altruistic cooperation strategies, that are as mind-and-language-independent and cross-species universal as the mathematics of game theory.

    Consider the morality of homosexuality in a group that is deciding what cultural norms to enforce (moral standards) to achieve a shared goal, for example, increased durable well-being. An emotion of disgust concerning homosexuality can be experienced by straight people either because of biologically or culturally molded inclinations. However, based on history, cultural acceptance of homosexuality appears to be able to overcome such involuntary emotions and remove homosexuality from the category of intuitively immoral.

    The science of morality (morality understood as an evolutionary adaptation) offers the revelation that our moral intuitions (molded by our moral biology and experiences) and our cultural moral standards, such as “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, are not absolute moral principles, but only necessarily fallible heuristics for the evolutionary function of morality, increasing the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups.

    It seems to me this revelation could be immensely culturally useful in resolving conflicts about what moral standards ought to be enforced. There would still be disputes, but at least the disputes would be about the right subject, how to best achieve shared group ends, such as increased durable well-being. For example, understanding that classifying homosexuality as immoral is only a necessarily flawed biological or cultural heuristic for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups makes us logically free to abandon it (over-rule it in the case of a biological heuristic) in favor of a more effective heuristic.

    Science cannot imperatively define what our ultimate group goals ought to be. So it needs a little help to define a fully-fledged objective moral system. The science of morality’s contribution is a universal mind-and-language-independent moral principle describing moral means: “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral”.

    But consider groups whose ultimate goals are defined – perhaps as increased durable well-being for all people or some other Utilitarian goals. Those goals plus this evolutionary moral principle do define a fully-fledged moral system.


  14. Great to have the discussion, but forgive me if I focus on clarifying positions. Such a slippery topic!

    First, I completely agree that social morality is a phenomenon that yields to objective analysis, as well as any other human behaviour, albeit with some extra complications that stem from its relatively high proportion of cultural content. Of course, Boyd and Richerson’s theory of gene-culture co-evolution is immensely helpful on this front and I’m excited to see where it will go.

    Second, I also completely agree that moral principles are best treated as heuristics, and philosophical attempts to systematize these principles into consistent theories that answer all ethical questions are doomed to failure (as many philosophers have long noted, Bernard Williams most eloquently).

    But the moral means argument (3rd paragraph) I am not quite sure if I grasp properly. You are saying that only our moral means (our psychological dispositions) can be studied objectively. Yet the scientific study of social morality is a functionalist account of a certain repertoire of human behaviour that we call ‘moral’, explained in terms of fitness maximization. So surely science is not silent on ultimate on moral ends, making an objective claim about our (genes’) ultimate goals, claiming that our moral means (our psychological dispositions) were adaptations that secured the ends of fitness maximization, via social cooperation. Science can (and ought to) remain neutral about whether this is the morally right goal for human action, but surely science can (and does) claim that this is the end that shaped the means that define our moral senses.

    As you imply in the last paragraph, though, we do have different ultimate goals available to us, and we have the capacity to strive towards those if we wish. And certainly in this day and age, when our natural inclinations (and even some of our our moral inclinations) drive us toward overpopulation and resource depletion, we should very much hope that we can override the ultimate goal of fitness maximization that has taken our species this far. No doubt our ‘moral means’ will help, especially in promoting altruism for future generations. But this requires switching into a different mindset, a mindset which I would think can and must be subjective. (If we can switch between ultimate goals, surely that is a sign of moral subjectivity, no matter how constrained this subjectivity is by our evolved dispositions.) And this will require switching out of a functionalist mindset and into a normative mindset, asking, ‘What ought I to do?’, instead of the functionalist question: ‘Why do I think I ought to do this?’ ‘Fitness maximization’ surely answers the latter question, but it isn’t necessarily a good answer to the normative question, at least not without some good justificatory reasons. And in this sense, evolutionary theory often simply delivers us back to old moral philosophical debates about which means and ends we should prioritize, among the many contradictory means and ends we have to choose from.

    I’m not the kind of person who thinks the gap between functional/descriptive and normative questions is unbridgeable, or that science has nothing to contribute to normative questions, but these two frames of mind are distinct and a great deal of confusion arises when we move between them in discussion (I struggle with this constantly!!). In this vein, I would make some clarifications to your penultimate paragraph: I suspect you don’t mean it, but the use of the word ‘moral’ here makes it sound like a normative claim. Maybe I would write that the science of morality has discovered ‘a universal mind-and-language-independent functional principle’, because a ‘moral principle’ sounds like something I ought to do, and no self-reflective person ought to do anything inherent in nature without first hearing some good justificatory reasons (those reasons may well exist, but one question is: Is it a scientist’s job to supply them?).

    Then the principle itself: “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral”. But what is ‘evolutionarily moral’? Surely the classification of ‘moral’ is determined not by evolution, but by evolutionary theorists who look around them, see a certain set of norms and dispositions that they and their friends call ‘moral’, then set out to provide evolutionary explanations for. (These designations of moral are, of course, prone to change, like murder norms change to include or exclude honour killings, mob justice, euthanasia, lynchings, collateral damage in war, cannibalism, infanticide, Predator drone strikes…). But the social cooperation can’t be sufficient for an act to be regarded as moral, because there are plenty of norms and dispositions that contribute to social cooperation that we don’t usually call ‘moral’, such as driving on the left, formal etiquette, shopping hours, and so on. Social morality is really just a subset of behaviours that belong to a wider class of prosocial behaviours, and the designation of moral is driven at least partly by culture, in addition to innate affective dispositions. Also, I don’t think that altruism will cut the mustard either, because there are plenty of moral acts that are not altruistic acts, like honouring promises (reciprocity), favouring one’s children, etc. And it’s in light of this permanently evolving conception of what morality is and what morality demands that I lean toward some form of subjectivism, albeit constrained by objective facts of our psychology. After all, from an evolutionary perspective, won’t our moral sense keep evolving to keep up with our ever-changing social and natural environments? In that sense, our morals can always be studied objectively from a functionalist perspective. But, from a normative perspective, objective moral truths, in the sense of timeless, general, mind-independent truths, would hardly be up to the job.


  15. D. “…Second, I also completely agree that moral principles are best treated as heuristics, and philosophical attempts to systematize these principles into consistent theories that answer all ethical questions are doomed to failure (as many philosophers have long noted, Bernard Williams most eloquently).”

    David, I find much to agree with in at least Wikipedia’s description of William’s work. Though I think his indignation is overstated when he says “the thing that irritates me is smugness, particularly scientistic smugness.” Smugness is usually unattractive, but I read an implication that science has nothing to say about morality (which was perhaps not his position?). I am glad we share the understanding of past and present cultural moral standards as heuristics (diverse, contradictory, and bizarre as they may be). Where we may be parting company is that I argue these cultural heuristics can, using the normal means of descriptive science, be systematized into a principle that describes evolutionarily “moral means”. These are “moral means” to a proximate end (increasing the benefits of social living) but, since science is only descriptive, cannot prescriptively define ultimate moral ends (what benefits will be sought to achieve what ultimate moral ends). More in a moment.

    D. “…Yet the scientific study of social morality is a functionalist account of a certain repertoire of human behaviour that we call ‘moral’, explained in terms of fitness maximization….”

    First, evolution understood as an evolutionary adaptation is about both biological evolution (which selected for our moral emotions such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, and indignation) and cultural evolution which selected for all past and present enforced moral standards. (“Enforced” means common moral intuitions in the group judge violators deserve punishment.)

    Our moral biology was selected for only by increased reproductive fitness. But moral standards can be selected for promotion and enforcement by whatever benefits people find attractive; reproductive fitness may or may not be one of them. The emergence of culture unhitched social morality, long ago and forever, from being only about reproductive fitness. But with or without the existence of culture, descriptive science must be silent about prescriptive ultimate moral ends. At best, science can define instrumental evolutionarily moral means of achieving goals, not what those goals imperatively ought to be.

    Yes, “science can (and does) claim that (reproductive fitness) is the end that shaped the means that define our moral senses”. However, morality is also defined by past and present enforced moral standards which may not have anything to do with increased biological fitness. So we have to add “science can also show that (whatever benefits of cooperation in groups that people find attractive) is the end that shaped the means that define our enforced moral standards”.

    D. : “… ‘Fitness maximization’ surely answers the latter question, but it isn’t necessarily a good answer to the normative question, at least not without some good justificatory reasons. …”

    Again, since the emergence of culture, biological fitness maximization has not always been the most important selection force for morality. There is nothing inherently contradictory about people deciding it is evolutionarily morally wrong to have lots of children due to moral consideration for the rest of life on our planet. The key to making sense of this claim is understanding that evolutionarily moral behavior is not just about what increases biological fitness.

    D, “… I suspect you don’t mean it, but the use of the word ‘moral’ here makes it sound like a normative claim. Maybe I would write that the science of morality has discovered ‘a universal mind-and-language-independent functional principle’, because a ‘moral principle’ sounds like something I ought to do, and no self-reflective person ought to do anything inherent in nature without first hearing some good justificatory reasons …”

    Yes, I am beginning to understand that the intellectual framework of mainstream moral philosophy strongly pulls any phrase with the word “moral” in it into the domain of normative claims, despite all protestations that the principle is descriptive, not normative. From the standpoint of science, all principles, including moral ones, are descriptive not prescriptive. Thus, this apparent “Jedi mind trick” that automatically converts descriptive statements into prescriptive ones is completely unexpected, illogical, and appears to be an unjustifiable, perverse, infuriating, insistence on misinterpreting the obvious. (Of course, this does not refer to the present company and conversation which I find quite congenial.) Until this difference in intellectual frameworks is commonly better appreciated, I expect communication between science and moral philosophy will remain often frustrating for both sides.

    In the meantime, thanks for your useful suggestion to describe it as “a universal mind-and-language-independent functional principle”. That may help to circumvent the perverse “Jedi mind trick” I am so frustrated about.

    D. “… But the social cooperation can’t be sufficient for an act to be regarded as moral, because there are plenty of norms and dispositions that contribute to social cooperation that we don’t usually call ‘moral’, such as driving on the left, formal etiquette, shopping hours, and so on….”

    Yes, social cooperation has many means such as coordination (driving on the left) and economic cooperation whose specifics I agree are not inherently moral or immoral. So where should we start searching for underlying principles of evolutionarily moral behavior, if any exist?

    We could start with our moral emotions such as altruism, loyalty, guilt, and indignation and look for common underlying principles that would explain the biological evolution of all of them. A lot of work has been done on this subject in understanding the biological evolution of altruism and cooperation in social animals. But human emotions are inherently difficult to search for underlying principles because 1) they are personal experiences and 2) they provide too few data points about what is moral to be able to robustly determine underlying principles.

    On the other hand, past and present enforced moral standards are shared public knowledge with wonderfully rich diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness. They also are the products of cultural evolution. A universal moral principle such as “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral” that explains all of them is inherently robustly defined. It is then trivial to see that this principle also underlies our biologically determined moral emotions.

    D, “… After all, from an evolutionary perspective, won’t our moral sense keep evolving to keep up with our ever-changing social and natural environments? …”

    I expect people’s moral sense will continue to evolve, and hope it does so In ways that I think are moral. Showing there is a universal functional moral principle does not contradict that at all. Neither does the universal functional moral principle contradict favoring one’s children, friends, community, and nation over people who are not in those groups. We are all members of many groups up to all people, all conscious animals, and even ecosystems, with different levels of commitment to each.

    Actually, the claimed descriptive, universal functional moral principle is as cross species and timeless as the mathematics of game theory. Here I have talked about its cultural utility. But by explaining the origins and function of our moral intuitions and much of experience of durable well-being, this descriptive principle may also have important implications for traditional moral philosophy.

    I just noticed you commented on the relevant post on my blog I essentially agree with all your comments there, I’ll try to think how to usefully reply.

    I suspect there could be good philosophical arguments that might come to prescriptive conclusions based on descriptive truth from the science of morality, but I don’t yet have any clear idea what those arguments might be.


  16. Thanks for your comments. I think you have thought through the implications of cultural evolution more thoroughly than I have, so this is a real reminder of the depth of complexity that culture adds, something that I have clearly let slip since I was so impressed by ‘Not by Genes Alone’ some five years ago…. Clearly it’s time to reread!!

    As for your other remarks, I think we are broadly in agreement. The language problem is a major one: I work in political theory, so my default mechanism is to slip into that usage, to conceive of the ‘moral’ tag as inescapably a mind and culture dependent construction, applied from the perspective of an existing moral system. A case in point is Haidt’s recent attempts to widen the moral domain studied by psychology, to say that liberal psychologists only study what they think is ‘moral’, whereas conservatives regard other kinds of acts of ‘moral’ also. From a scientific perspective, it seems there is no way to differentiate a moral act from a non-moral act. Even a criterion like ‘Advances social cooperation’ only works insofar as all acts that an evolutionary theorist calls ‘moral’ appear to have that goal in common, the problem being of course that other kinds of acts might also possess that goal. Hence, I’ve recently been finding functionalism a useful way of stepping outside that problem altogether, avoiding the nomenclature of morality when speaking descriptively.

    As for Williams, he really despised all kinds of smugness. I haven’t read his work on science and truth, mostly his moral/political philosophy. In that regard he is dismissive of neo-Kantian moral scientism, treating the moral domain as if it were a mathematical problem, to be solved by the application of one or some general and universal moral principles. He was more a Humean and in that sense he thought the idea of universal values was dangerous, that it was better to focus on the reality of moral life as inescapably conflictual and work from there, avoiding worst case scenarios rather than trying to discover and implement the chimerical best.


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