Evolving Morality

Posted by on January 20, 2014 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments

EvolvingMorality2Image from “Beyond the paleo”, Aeon magazine.

Aeon Magazine recently published this very interesting article by and , titled “Beyond the paleo”, which explores the ideas that not only has morality evolved with humanity and changed over time, but that it’s continually changing depending upon which pressures are applied to a given community or culture. The idea of an “evolving morality”, though hotly debated particularly in circles which claim that morality is a fixed “god-given” constant, is elegantly argued in this piece, and points to some examples of how a morality can not only change, but that people can change their “natural states” in order for morality to change with their culture. From the article:

“For centuries now, conservative thinkers have argued that significant social reform is impossible, because human nature is inherently limited. The argument goes something like this: sure, it would be great to change the world, but it will never work, because people are too flawed, lacking the ability to see beyond their own interests and those of the groups to which they belong.

“It’s tempting to nod along at this, and think humans are irredeemable, or at best, permanently flawed. But it’s not clear that such a view stands up to empirical scrutiny. For the conservative argument to prevail, it is not enough that humans exhibit tendencies toward selfishness, group-mindedness, partiality toward kin and kith, apathy toward strangers, and the like.”

The article identifies what it calls “evo-conservatives”, who claim that, while morality an evolved and necessary part of society, we have no power over changing morality because of the overriding natures of our beings. The argument goes on to say that evolutionary morality, one that helps to preserve the bonds between kin and countrymen, is only the beginning of the puzzle, as we know for a fact that some behaviours which stem from evolution can be overridden by our ability to identify these behaviours, and then proceed to change them. As the article says:

“But in the end, evo-conservatism fails for largely the same reasons that its predecessor failed: it overestimates the ‘natural’ (read: biological) constraints on human moral capacities. As a consequence, it underestimates the potential that we humans have for moral progress.”

I posted the Aeon article to Twitter and an interesting conversation ensued. It was pointed out to me that sex is a good example where we have overridden our naturally evolved urges of procreation for the sake of reproduction, yet we also enjoy the act of sex because it pleases us physically. In a way, we are lucky as a species that the act of sex is pleasurable, and doesn’t involve the death of one or more of the partners, and that it doesn’t always lead to conception. Yet it remains one of our strongest urges and, it could be said, is the purpose of our lives, to pass on our genes to the next generation. Being as it is, an imperative for most to have sexual relations, the morality of today still sees the act of sex as taboo, one to be avoided in polite conversations. Sex and sexuality is seen as taboo in most cultures, and is something that people only celebrate, participate in, or talk about behind closed doors, and though we recognise this aspect of our nature, we have changed the relative moralities to suit the prudishness of those who have a vested interest in controlling what people do with their bodies. This prudishness causes many people to be harmed, shamed and even killed for sexual activity, or ostracised for the way in which they express their sexuality. This is what I would call a “negative” change in moral standards, as it seems to cause more harm than it aids or “protects” a culture.

Also pointed out to me was that, even though we are at the whim of our natural tendencies, once we identify them and become openly aware of them, we can work to change the way we think about them. There is a social phenomenon called “in-group/out-group”, where one identifies with a group in which they feel they belong, and distances themselves from any group that doesn’t fit within the boundaries of their group. This tendency evolved over time to help with group cohesion, such as cooperating to bring down large game, tending families, working in the fields. These tasks would prove quite costly or impossible if attempted by a single individual. The fear of the outsider was helpful in protecting ones own family group, thus increasing the chances of continuing ones own bloodline. Even when the groups arbitrarily assigned, this psychology shows itself, and can affect the way people think about others, even going so far as to think of the outsiders as “lesser”. I see this in myself, as did the person who pointed this out to me, but the secret to overcoming something like this which once served an evolutionary purpose, is to identify it, be on the lookout for it, and change it when we see it rearing its head. This is an attitudinal change, but we can all change out attitudes. Eventually it may make a difference in the world around us in a positive way. We are seeing, however, that the in-group/out-group morality becomes a burdensome prospect, especially in a world where many physical barriers have been removed. It causes much of the conflict within the world, and makes way for xenophobic attitudes toward others.

Despite all this, as the article points out, the human animal does show a striking capacity for altruism, empathy and compassion, even to those in outside groups. In other words, the evo-conservative idea that we are hard-wired to be aggressive and dismissive of the outsiders from any given group is simply not true, for if it were our social contract and a modern society would be all but impossible. We do not attack strangers in the street, simply for being there. We don’t kill people for getting too near us. We don’t fight constantly, because if we did that every time someone got near to us, we would do nothing else. We have to, because of our proximity to each other, be more tolerant of others, whether they are in-group or out-group. and this goes against our evolved morality to protect our in-group.

… if the human capacity for altruism, solidarity, and mutual identification beyond an immediate group were as limited as evo-conservatives say, the very existence of the modern state would be inexplicable.”

What this all points to is that morality is malleable, and controlled by what best suits a given society. It helps to preserve cultures, but when a culture is found to have practices that are harmful to others, it changes the morality to better suit its ongoing existence. This is not to say that any changes within a given morality will be helpful to individuals, in many cases the changes stand to only help a small group of leaders or a government to maintain its power over others. But it does change, and what we see as morally acceptable now may have once been taboo.

While I have only touched on some of the subject matter of the original article, I think it is worth noting that a morality that evolves through natural selection, when put into the hands of self-aware beings that are capable of making massive changes to the world they live in, is also capable of making wholesale changes made within the society and cultures it develops in.

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  1. In all seriousness I hate all things that use the “paleo” prefix. That said, another fantastic article.

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  2. The prospect of nuclear war / global environmental catastrophe / realisation of the waste / uselessness of war should force as to overcome the conservative view

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  3. An example of the evolution of morality is the development of a nearly universal rejection of human slavery.  We are capable of more than our evolutionary heritage – we can choose to not yield to the negative aspects of tribalism.

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