So What Does Evolved Morality have to do with Banks?

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.

Boehm continues,

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.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “So What Does Evolved Morality have to do with Banks?”

  1. re: “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.”

    I take issue with the assumption that the shift to “centralised control” was a voluntary response to new emergent needs. Far more plausible is that it was a violent process made possible by the spread of agriculture. Whatever the egalitarian ethos within paleolithic and early neolithic communities, inter-tribal warfare is a given throughout the whole history of man. What was distinctive about agriculture is that it tied people to a place, where they tended and stored their crops, thus making it feasible for one tribe to overpower another and, instead of killing or driving it away, subduing it and putting it to work. In other words conquest became a feasible human institution.

    Once this happens, even one time, the example is electrifying and has a destabilizing effect. Neighboring peoples who see it happen or hear about it happening in the next valley over think to themselves, “if we don’t do it to them [them being our neighbors] they will do it to us.” And the first to act gains the advantage: the more farmers you control, the bigger the surplus food supply you can extort, the bigger the army you can put into the field.

    This was an evil revelation if ever there was one because even peaceful peoples would be forced into defensive alliances which, over time, become indistinguishable in structure from the aggressor states against which they are designed to defend.. There is an ineluctable logic in these developments which is why you see the same scenario played out over and over again in the various “pristine” civilizations that have arisen around the world: Sumer, Egypt, China, Mexico, Peru, etc..

    The logic is all mapped out in a great little book called The Parable of the Tribes written decades ago. I forget the author’s name but you can get it on Amazon.

  2. Your scenario certainly sounds plausible. While early tribes may have been a great deal more egalitarian than any of the early empires, I suspect human beings have always had a pecking order in their societies. Join any little club or society, and you’ll always find jockeying for status and position going on. Napoleon Chagnon has some interesting thoughts on the subject in his “Noble Savages,” which is, IMHO, a very important book.

  3. The pecking order in hunter/gatherer societies is nothing like so extreme as the one in pre-modern civilized societies based on domination and submission. For that you have to go back to gorilla bands.

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