On the Origins of Morality

In his book, The Territorial Imperative, that greatest and most ignored of “evolutionary psychologists,” Robert Ardrey, wrote,

To account for man’s undoubted moral nature, a variety of suppositions have been advanced:  that man is at constant war with the evolutionary process; that his mind has delivered him exemption from evolutionary law, and that natural selection takes place now only in the field of ideas; that intervention, divine or cultural, has created a gap between man and other animals.  All or some of these suppositions, to a degree you cannot guess, combine to provide your children with their education and to provide you, in your daily life, with dubious solutions to the problems which surround you.

All, of course, are false.  What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly (Sir Arthur) Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.

The Territorial Imperative was published in 1966.  Today, Ardrey’s assertion about the existence of morality in animals does not seem nearly as far fetched as it did then.  See, for example, Wild Justice, by Bekoff and Pierce.  As for Ardrey’s assertion about “a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years,” it sounded even more far fetched in 1966, but he was probably right about that, too.

After all, the predispositions that give rise to the subset of our behavioral traits we associate with morality are just that; a subset of the whole.  They are not necessarily any substantial differences in kind or mechanism between them and any of the rest of the grab bag of mental traits that contribute to what is commonly referred to as “human nature.”  Not having a will or purpose of its own, the process of evolution didn’t somehow decide along the way to create a separate, distinct category for moral behavior, and then completely neglect it until finally deciding to tack it on as an afterthought in modern humans.  The distinction between the behavioral traits associated with morality and the rest is more artificial than natural.

Consider, for example, the ability to distinguish friend from foe, behaving in one way towards the former, and in a starkly different way towards the latter.  It is an ability possessed even by insects.  Presumably, such behavior appeared on the scene before the advent of self-awareness.  Obviously, it persisted thereafter.  It seems plausible that the emotions and other mental machinery responsible for recognizing and favoring friends, already in existence for countless millions of years, eventually became part of the behavioral baggage of intelligent, self-aware creatures.  In such creatures, capable of recalling and examining their own emotions, it is plausible that the “sentiments,” as David Hume put it, associated with this emotional response to friends were conceptualized as “good.”  Conversely, the “sentiments” produced by the mental machinery responsible for recognizing and promoting negative responses towards enemies would have  been conceptualized as “evil.”  I am not claiming that the emergence of what the average philosopher would agree to call “morality” happened in exactly this way.  However, I am suggesting that it may well have emerged as a result of the conscious regard by intelligent creatures of emotions that had already existed for a very long time.

Moral judgments have always been, at bottom emotional.  These emotions are experienced with such force in human beings that the categories they give rise to in our perception, namely, “good” and “evil,” tend to appear to us as objects, or things-in-themselves.  Indeed, only when these categories transcend their emotional origins in the imaginations of individuals to become independent things can one speak of a rational justification for insisting that they apply, not just to the individual who experiences the emotions, but to others as well.  This illusion has obviously worked well enough in the context of small groups of hunter-gatherers, promoting their survival, else I should not be around to write this.  In our own day, however, it shows every sign of becoming a disastrous liability.

Assuming we value the survival of our species, it is high time we recognized the illusion for what it is.  We should stop, once and for all, cobbling together “scientific” moral systems.  No science can be based on the identification and elaboration of objects that don’t exist.  Recognizing human morality for what it is, including the ultimate evolutionary origins of everything we understand as moral behavior, does not entail any radical change in the “moral landscape.”  We are moral creatures.  We will not jettison moral standards or begin to act amorally because we happen to finally perceive the truth about what morality actually is.  We will not all become “moral relativists,” nor will moral restraints on our behavior suddenly disappear, causing us all to become “bad.”  We are moral animals and will continue to be moral animals.  We will not suddenly stop acting according to our nature any more than a leopard can suddenly shed its spots.  All I am suggesting is that we keep morality within its proper sphere, and recognize it for what it is.  It may be necessary for us to lean on our flimsy powers of reason to regulate our collective actions in spheres where morality doesn’t belong.  However, that is better than leaning on an illusion.


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.

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