New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.” According to Boehm,
In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.
Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.
All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.
Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.
However, something has gone terribly wrong. International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it. As Boehm puts it,
What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.
I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior. My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system? There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them. Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way. However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous. If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system. However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.
Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.
It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy. The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous. Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism? Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences? Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation. However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place. Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality. And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup. There is no Good without Evil. Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us. Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation? Hardly! One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.
I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions. I am, after all, human too. However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it. What’s that you say? It can’t happen here? You have a very short historical memory! By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful. However, let’s leave morality out of it. Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.” Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.