The evolutionary origins of morality and the reasons for its existence have been obvious for over a century. They were no secret to Edvard Westermarck when he published The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906, and many others had written books and papers on the subject before his book appeared. However, our species has a prodigious talent for ignoring inconvenient truths, and we have been studiously ignoring that particular truth ever since.
Why is it inconvenient? Let me count the ways! To begin, the philosophers who have taken it upon themselves to “educate” us about the difference between good and evil would be unemployed if they were forced to admit that those categories are purely subjective, and have no independent existence of their own. All of their carefully cultivated jargon on the subject would be exposed as gibberish. Social Justice Warriors and activists the world over, those whom H. L. Mencken referred to collectively as the “Uplift,” would be exposed as so many charlatans. We would begin to realize that the legions of pious prigs we live with are not only an inconvenience, but absurd as well. Gaining traction would be a great deal more difficult for political and religious cults that derive their raison d’être from the fabrication and bottling of novel moralities. And so on, and so on.
Just as they do today, those who experienced these “inconveniences” in one form or another pointed to the drawbacks of reality in Westermarck’s time. For example, from his book,
Ethical subjectivism is commonly held to be a dangerous doctrine, destructive to morality, opening the door to all sorts of libertinism. If that which appears to each man as right or good, stands for that which is right or good; if he is allowed to make his own law, or to make no law at all; then, it is said, everybody has the natural right to follow his caprice and inclinations, and to hinder him from doing so is an infringement on his rights, a constraint with which no one is bound to comply provided that he has the power to evade it. This inference was long ago drawn from the teaching of the Sophists, and it will no doubt be still repeated as an argument against any theorist who dares to assert that nothing can be said to be truly right or wrong. To this argument may, first, be objected that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief. The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true. another question is whether any scientific truth really is mischievous on the whole, although it may cause much discomfort to certain people. I venture to believe that this, at any rate, is not the case with that form of ethical subjectivism which I am here advocating.
I venture to believe it as well. In the first place, when we accept the truth about morality we make life a great deal more difficult for people of the type described above. Their exploitation of our ignorance about morality has always been an irritant, but has often been a great deal more damaging than that. In the 20th century alone, for example, the Communist and Nazi movements, whose followers imagined themselves at the forefront of great moral awakenings that would lead to the triumph of Good over Evil, resulted in the needless death of tens of millions of people. The victims were drawn disproportionately from among the most intelligent and productive members of society.
Still, just as Westermarck predicted more than a century ago, the bugaboo of “moral relativism” continues to be “repeated as an argument” in our own day. Apparently we are to believe that if the philosophers and theologians all step out from behind the curtain after all these years and reveal that everything they’ve taught us about morality is so much bunk, civilized society will suddenly dissolve in an orgy of rape and plunder.
Such notions are best left behind with the rest of the impedimenta of the Blank Slate. Nothing could be more absurd than the notion that unbridled license and amorality are our “default” state. One can quickly disabuse ones self of that fear by simply reading the comment thread of any popular news website. There one will typically find a gaudy exhibition of moralistic posing and pious one-upmanship. I encourage those who shudder at the thought of such an unpleasant reading assignment to instead have a look at Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. As he puts it in the introduction to his book,
I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings. But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental… I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.
Haidt also alludes to a potential reason that some of the people already mentioned above continue to evoke the scary mirage of moral relativism:
Webster’s Third New World Dictionary defines delusion as “a false conception and persistent belief in something that has no existence in fact.” As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists). The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature. It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.
Human beings are not by nature moral relativists, and they are in no danger of becoming moral relativists merely by virtue of the fact that they have finally grasped what morality actually is. It is their nature to perceive Good and Evil as real, independent things, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them, and they will continue to do so even if their reason informs them that what they perceive is a mirage. They will always tend to behave as if these categories were absolute, rather than relative, even if all the theologians and philosophers among them shout at the top of their lungs that they are not being “rational.”
That does not mean that we should leave reason completely in the dust. Far from it! Now that we can finally understand what morality is, and account for the evolutionary origins of the behavioral predispositions that are its root cause, it is within our power to avoid some of the most destructive manifestations of moral behavior. Our moral behavior is anything but infinitely malleable, but we know from the many variations in the way it is manifested in different human societies and cultures, as well as its continuous and gradual change in any single society, that within limits it can be shaped to best suit our needs. Unfortunately, the only way we will be able to come up with an “optimum” morality is by leaning on the weak reed of our ability to reason.
My personal preferences are obvious enough, even if they aren’t set in stone. I would prefer to limit the scope of morality to those spheres in which it is indispensable for lack of a viable alternative. I would prefer a system that reacts to the “Uplift” and unbridled priggishness and self-righteousness with scorn and contempt. I would prefer an educational system that teaches the young the truth about what morality actually is, and why, in spite of its humble origins, we can’t get along without it if we really want our societies to “flourish.” I know; the legions of those whose whole “purpose of life” is dependent on cultivating the illusion that their own versions of Good and Evil are the “real” ones stands in the way of the realization of these whims of mine. Still, one can dream.