Monday, June 14, 2004

The Origin of Morals

In my last post I argued that our access to truth is authentic, however it is true that a dualism of perspectives -- the subjective and the (simulated) objective -- leads us to have two ways of interpreting what we learn. On the one hand, we discover facts; on the other hand, we form values. This is another dichotomy which I think we can and should resolve.

A theme of my posts has been that we can help bridge the hard division between the scientific and religious worldviews by placing our first person experience squarely into a revised picture of the natural world. When it comes to first person values and human morality, we come to one of the most challenging parts of this project. Most people think that the ability to distinguish good and bad is unique to humans and is a critical contribution of our great religious traditions to our lives.

However, an increasing body of work in the field of evolutionary psychology has begun to provide natural explanations for human feelings and behaviors which have a strong moral or ethical content. Love of family and altruistic behavior are grounded in our evolutionary heritage according to some of this work (and by the way aren’t unique to humans). Negative impulses and behaviors such as war making can be similarly studied in the context of how our species developed.

A big key to accepting these explanations as valid is to realize that a scientific (third-person) analysis doesn’t devalue what the first person experience really means to the person having it. To give an example: an evolutionary psychologist might say my feelings of love for my children are an outgrowth of our species’ need to “invest” in the rearing of offspring until they reach reproductive maturity in order to perpetuate genes. How cold and uninspiring is that? It takes some practice to learn to simultaneously accept such an explanation while rejoicing in the experience of that parental love. Understanding why we can explain altruism as a natural impulse (helping each other aided our survival in primitive societies) doesn’t mean I still shouldn’t view it as morally good thing to aid someone in need. Our first person perspective is authentic; it is not any less real or important for the fact that it is grounded in our evolutionary past.

Now, this field of evolutionary psychology is still young and there is a long way to go in providing a fuller picture of how it all works. Because the topic is so complex, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding and drawing incorrect conclusions. One of the best examples is the recent popularization of the idea that men are more naturally prone to promiscuity compared to women given their greater potential to spread their genes widely through this activity. Obviously, some might succumb to using this as a scientific rationalization for bad behavior: it turns out that an urge to be a faithful mate also has a strong natural grounding. At the end of the day, living a moral life remains a challenging and nuanced personal journey, and the fact that our mix of moral impulses was shaped by evolution doesn’t change this. However, understanding the evolutionary origin of our values and ethics in the natural world helps further close the gap in how we consider the most fundamental questions of being. We are moral beings and we are grounded in the most fundamental stuff of the universe: therefore, we live in a moral universe.

One other point I’d like to make is that the natural grounding of morals in evolution does not mean that our moral progress is frozen in the hunter-gatherer era when our physical make-up was primarily formed. Because we are social animals, evolution continues in societal and cultural domains. Obviously, we see cultural evolution in many areas such as the spreading of tools and technology or development of new artistic forms. But moral development can continue in the form of cultural evolution, too. I think one example of this is to consider the impact of the progressive enlarging of our societal units. Beginning with our naturally selected impulses to care for kin and to engage in altruistic behavior, we came to identify with the collective welfare of a kinship-based clan. Over time, people extended their group identity to encompass larger tribes, cities and nations. There is an optimistic idea which comes out of this trend. As we absorb more of humanity into what we think of as our societal group, there is progressively less room for viewing other humans as enemies. If this process could develop to the point where the whole species is viewed as part of our extended clan, war could diminish. More speculatively, one might imagine we can extend our empathy even beyond our species. Given that we are seamlessly integrated into the larger natural world, I believe we can think of our moral connections extending without limit.

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