Posted by: Becoming Gaia | May 28, 2010

The Science of Morality, Part III: The Evolution of Morality, Part 1

[Note:  For those of you who come down on either side in the battle of religion vs. evolution, I highly recommend the book Thank God For Evolution by ordained United Church of Christ minister Michael Dowd.]

Morality is critically dependent upon two things: an entity’s abilities and it’s circumstances.  Being “moral” as most people perceive it whilst among a bunch of cutthroats and thieves doesn’t get one anything except abused and/or dead.  Conversely, not being “moral” in “civilized society” can get one shunned and incarcerated.

Both Kedaw and GTChristie have objections based upon the existence of societies/cultures that appear not to pursue what I call the “universal sub-goals“.  I would like to draw the critical distinction that I am not claiming that these sub-goals are universal across cultures but that they are universal across goals (or desires or “things to be satisfied” as GTChristie puts it).  Obviously, there is always a prioritization of these subgoals and when a critical one (say, survival) plus the circumstances precludes all the rest, it does not mean that the rest are not normally valid paths to the goal.  It simply means that the entity is “in the specific circumstances where pursuing them directly conflicts with the primary goal” of surviving to achieve the maximum goals/desires/satisfactions (GDSs).

What I’m attempting to describe here is an “absolute/platonic” morality which is an/the optimal morality for everyone to get their own way (their own GDSs) simply because it’s goal is to maximize the satisfaction of GDSs.  The problem is that goals and individuals do not exist in a vacuum but are embedded in circumstances and societies.  And, while all the evidence appears to indicate that we (as individuals and societies) are evolving towards this “optimal” morality, we certainly aren’t there yet.

Due to differing circumstances, there are a wide variety of paths towards this absolute/platonic/optimal (APO-GDS) morality that are currently being confusing with the endpoint.  Jonathan Haidt and claim that there are (currently) five “innate and universally available psychological systems” which are the foundations of “intuitive ethics” and that “each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.”  They identify these five foundations (or dimensions) as harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity with a possible sixth of liberty/constraint.  Similarly, Marc Hauser‘s book Moral Minds shows how different circumstances give rise to different moral cultures (for example, the culture of honor).  I claim that, in each case, this is because “rules of thumb” have evolved from assuming a given ordering of the “universal” subgoals and their frequent “incorrect” promotion above what I would call the “proper” top-level goal of morality (“incorrect” because it does not properly handle all circumstances and does not realize nor provide guidance when it doesn’t).

The problem with these sub-goal-based approaches is that, when presented with changed circumstances, they quickly become sub-optimal for “what we really want”, our GDSs.  Further, they provide no path for the resolution of differences between cultures.  Instead of insisting that among different cultures some of them *must* be wrong, it is fair more effective (optimal) to begin with the starting point that they are all in the best place that they could be given their past (and present) circumstances and to proceed from there.  Note, however, that I am not arguing that “cultural relativism” is the best eventual  answer.  The best answer is to continue moving towards the APO  morality because it is the best way to fulfill all of our GDSs (simply because that is it’s sole goal).

Note:  Yes, this is definitely a morality of “enlightened self-interest“.



  1. Here is one of my, probably misjudged, problems with morality:
    It is my contention that a moral act, like a brave act, consists of doing what is not (necessarily) in one’s own best interests but is in the best interests of others.

    e.g. I cannot see a profit maximizing shop-keeper as a moral entity even though they maximize the well-being of the local community – because they are doing it to maximize their own well-being.

    Now this may be a fundamental error on my part, I am more than willing to accept that and re-evaluate the meaning of ‘moral’, but I would like some feedback on it first…

  2. My feedback is that losing sight of the ultimate goal of morality is causing you to cut off your face to spite your nose. 😉

    As long as the shop-keeper is maximizing the well-being of the local community, you should support that effort.

    What is causing your error is an aversion to selfishness which is a rational/correct impulse except that you are mistaking (conflating) selfishness and self-interest.

    I’ll be doing a post on just that subject sometime this week.

  3. I completely disagree with your first sentence, but the rest is more fitting.

    I just feel that an act we consider praiseworthy should not be the default act of a rational actor in that situation. A rational act is not exactly praiseworthy, although the alternative may be worthy of scorn or ridicule.

    For example if a psychopath joins the army and commits an outstanding act of heroism but it turns out he had no self preservation instincts and simply wanted to kill as many of them as possible, that is not praiseworthy.

    I think we have to be aware of what moral is (acts worthy of praise) and why we should consider acts worthy of praise (we want to give them an added benefit that encourages others to do similar). If an act rewards itself (e.g. shopkeeper) then it requires no additional social praise, however if it is no obviously rewarding (e.g. doctors without borders) then it requires society to give some additional benefit to people who do that, which is why we laud it publicly.

    To my mind the only moral acts are those that are praiseworthy; and the only acts that are praiseworthy are those that are not self-evidently in your own self-interest.

    I could be wrong and I’ll look out for your post to see why I am.

  4. […] and c) selfishness is furthering self-interest at the expense of morality.  Kedaw has the slightly different take that morality is limited to “acts that deserve praise” — meaning acts that […]

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