On the Role of Morality in the Modern World

To decide what role morality should play in our lives, it is more important to understand why it exists than to understand precisely what it is. I can discuss the sky with a five year old and be quite confident she knows what I’m talking about even if the chances that she understands the nature of the electromagnetic scattering phenomena that account for its blue color are vanishingly small. In the same way, I can be confident in discussing morality with any reasonably intelligent human being that they know what I’m talking about without being unduly concerned about whether they have read what Aristotle, Saint Augustine, and Freud had to say about it.

Morality exists because it evolved. It evolved because it improved the chances that we would survive, or, more precisely, that the genetic material we carry would survive. It has no purpose, any more than our eyes, ears or teeth have a purpose. “Purpose” implies an intelligent builder. There was no intelligent builder, and therefore no purpose. Eyes, ears and teeth exist because human beings are more likely to survive with them than without them. So it is with morality.

As a complex evolved trait, morality is likely to have a long evolutionary history. The human eye didn’t suddenly pop into existence thanks to some remarkable random mutation that resulted in an “eye gene.” Similarly, the evolutionary changes relevant to the expression of morality are not the result of a sudden mutation in anatomically modern humans that resulted in a “morality gene.” Just as many other animals are sensitive to light, many other animals exhibit behavior analogous to moral behavior in human beings, elicited by the same types of physical processes in the brain as occur in our own brains. Just as the eye didn’t evolve overnight, so morality has likely been a work in progress for a very long period of time – certainly tens of millions and more likely hundreds of millions of years.

One day in the not too distant future, we may discover the extent to which the physical processes in the brain responsible for human morality have evolved fairly recently in terms of evolutionary timescales; say, in the last three or four million years. The answer to that question should be very interesting. It may be that they have evolved very little, and that the complex moral systems we are so proud of are merely the result of our greatly expanded cognitive abilities attempting to analyze and rationalize emotional responses that are, perhaps, little changed from the time we shared a common ancestor with the apes.

Be that as it may, we can say with great confidence that the traits responsible for the expression of morality evolved long before the emergence of large nation states, whether ancient or modern. The most important recent changes likely took place during a time when we existed as small bands of hunter gatherers, all of whose members were genetically related to each other to some extent.

All this begs the question of what role a trait that evolved because it promoted our survival long ago should continue to play today in a world in which our modes of social organization, not to mention our ability to destroy each other, have undergone radical change in what amounts to, in terms of evolutionary time scales, the blink of an eye.

We certainly can’t abolish morality. We are moral creatures, and the emotional processes in the brain associated with morality will strongly influence our behavior in any case. Exactly how different individuals respond in similar situations will vary depending on factors such as culture, education, and rational analysis, but I suspect the function of the basic wiring in the brain responsible for eliciting the response, the “moral center” of the brain, if you will, will be similar from individual to individual. For example, “liberals” and “conservatives” will differ over such things as what types of behavior they consider good and evil, and who belongs in their “in-group” as opposed to their “out-group,” but look at a sample of the comments on a blog with either orientation, and you will see that the emotional nature of the responses to morally loaded situations is similar in either case. If a neuroscientist were to scan the brain of an individual from either side as it responded to the stimulus of some “hot button” issue of the day, I doubt whether he could tell the difference.

We behave morally in social situations because it is our nature to do so. We could not routinely substitute rational thought for moral emotions in deciding how to act or how to respond in our common day to day interactions with other human beings even if  we wanted to. Even if we could somehow disconnect ourselves from our emotional brain, we simply lack the mental power necessary for anything that intellectually demanding. Thus, the fear that people will become amoral if they don’t have some “reason” to act morally, in the form of a religion, or philosophy, or respect for tradition, is ill-founded. We act morally because it is our nature to act morally. Such “reasons” can have a limited influence on exactly how we act in given situations, but we will hardly become amoral in their absence.

That may be a comforting thought, but it has its drawbacks. Assuming the ultimate goal of the individual is still to survive, it is hardly clear that the best way to accomplish that goal is to respond blindly to emotions that evolved because they happened to promote survival under conditions that no longer exist. There is no compelling reason to expect that they will continue to promote our survival in the radically different world of today. For example, it is generally considered good to fight evil. However, mankind’s most notorious icons of evil thought they were doing just that. Name any one of them you choose; Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, you name the villain. None of them were deliberately doing things they considered evil just because they wanted to be evil. On the contrary, they thought they were doing good, eliminating evil threats to the welfare of whomever they considered the “chosen people.” There exists no objective reason for asserting that they were doing anything else.

Similarly, when it comes to behavior we associate with “doing good,” the reasons for the evolution of the positive emotional response we derive from such actions often no longer exist. In small groups of hunter-gatherers, sacrificing resources for the good of others in the group promoted the survival of genetically related individuals who were likely to return the favor. In modern nation states with populations of tens or hundreds of millions, sacrificing resources for the good of others can make us feel good in exactly the same way. However, the individuals who benefit from this behavior are much less likely to be related to us, and the chance that they may someday return the favor may be vanishingly small. When the governments of modern nation states force their citizens to engage in this sort of “good” behavior, it is reasonable for them to ask whether the state exists to serve the interests of the people who live in it, or the people exist to serve the interests of the state.

Many of our best thinkers have suggested that the best way out of these and similar dilemmas is to create a new morality, tailor made to accomplish whatever noble ends they have in mind in the modern world. The problem with this is that it is not possible to mold human emotional responses like so much clay. Human nature is not infinitely flexible. As the Communists recently discovered, it is not possible to arbitrarily create new goods and new evils and then simply “reeducate” human beings to accommodate them.

We must act morally in our day to day relationships with other individuals because, given our nature, there is no alternative. If we must have a “new morality,” then, let it apply to these relationships. Let us keep it as simple as possible, as much in harmony with our nature as possible, and with the general goal of promoting harmony and preventing individuals from harming their neighbors. When it comes to such things as the relations between modern states, however, I am not convinced that relying on a tool as ancient, blunt, and out of its proper element as morality is advisable. It may well be better to decide what goals we really want to accomplish in the long term, and then pursue those goals with our limited powers of reason, such as they are.

We face many fateful decisions about our future that have no easy answers. Our continued survival is anything but assured. For better or worse, though, we must make those decisions. If we want to get it right, we had best learn to understand ourselves.

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