Morality is the expression, moderated by culture, of predispositions that are hardwired in our brains. Like everything else about us, they evolved because, at the time they evolved, they increased our chances of survival. One could cite many plausible reasons that may have contributed to the evolution of moral brains. Given limited resources, an unconstrained battle of all against all to secure a maximum share for each individual would likely have been a poor survival strategy, particularly at a time when our rapidly evolving brains were giving us the capacity to develop increasingly lethal weapons.
Morality is what it is. It is an expression of a reality that will not change because we think we need it to be something else. It is an evolved survival mechanism. As such, it can have no intrinsic legitimacy, yet we are wired to perceive morality as having a real, objective existence, outside our brains. In a word, we perceive it as an absolute. We perceive it in that way because, presumably, that’s the way it has been most effective in promoting our survival.
The evolutionary origins of morality, as of the rest of our intrinsic nature as a species, are becoming increasingly difficult to deny. We can now pinpoint the very neurons that fire in response to situations that have a strong moral context. Books accepting this fundamental premise are beginning to appear in increasing numbers. For example, “How we Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, which I discussed in an earlier post, has an excellent chapter entitled, “The Moral Mind.” Some of the most interesting works are emanating from the corner of the philosophers.
One of the great goals of the philosophers has always been to establish reasons for the legitimacy of morality, to give it “clout,” in the form a a claim to the right to demand universal compliance with its rules. To the extent that this remains one of their goals, the philosophers have been like dead men walking ever since the days of Darwin, hit between the eyes by his Theory, but charging ahead, nevertheless, on shear momentum. Should you care to read an account of some of their more recent intellectual contortions, allow me to suggest “The Evolution of Morality,” by Richard Joyce. You should find it fascinating.
Joyce is an intelligent and thoughtful writer who, unfortunately, shares some of the philosophers’ penchant for obscure language and hair splitting ratiocination. His book is, neverthess, a great deal more comprehensible than, say, one of Kant’s tomes, and should be intelligible to the layman. It exposes some of the more childish rationalizations of moral legitimacy by the author’s colleagues. Unfortunately, however, Joyce can’t quite bring himself to give up the great quest himself. Philosophers have always been in love with the idea that our superior reasoning abilities make us not only quantitatively, but qualitatively different from the other animals, and Joyce is no exception. I have no doubt that, assuming that research can continue as freely as it has in the past, numerous similarities will be found between the processes associated with morality in our own brains and in other intelligent animals. Joyce overcomes this difficulty by carefully defining morality in such a way that it becomes impossible for creatures lacking the capacity for speech to be moral beings, as if the structures and phenomena in the brain responsible for morality cared one way or the other about his definitions.
Once he has safely removed the rest of the animal kingdom to the other side of the language divide, Joyce frees himself to consider morality as a “belief,” similar to the belief in a God. He examines the case for granting morality the status of an object, of a thing in itself, independent of any evolutionary origins. Running through several of the arguments in favor of such a transcendental morality, he rejects them all in turn. In his final chapter, he reveals himself to us as what he refers to as a moral skeptic of the “agnostic,” as opposed to the “atheistic” variety. By this, he means that he can find no epistemically justified basis for moral judgments, but does not, therefore, conclude that such a basis for claiming that moral judgments are “true” does not exist. Here, it seems to me, Prof. Joyce is allowing himself a bit of silliness.
I say that for two reasons. In the first place, the author has done an excellent job of demolishing the basis for any remaining agnosticism regarding moral “beliefs” in his book. In the second, I meant what I said above about him being intelligent. I did not mean to condescend by making that claim, but simply to state my opinion. It seems to me he is too smart to be a moral agnostic. There is ample basis for that conclusion in his final chapter, where we find nuggets such as,
If biological natural selection is responsible for giving us a moral sensibility in the first place, then without it we would be in no position to give consideration to “the ethical progress of society.” (with reference to some remarks by Thomas Huxley).
But acknowledging beliefs under the influence of natural selection raises epistemological concerns, for the faithful representation of reality is of only contingent instrumental value when reproductive success is the touchstone, forcing us to acknowledge that if in certain domains false beliefs will bring more offspring then that is the route natural selection will take every time. Moral thinking could very well be such a domain.
Thus, that moral skepticism may seem to many obviously false and pernicious is exactly what the moral skeptic predicts, and therefore cannot be employed as a consideration against the view. To do nothing more than point with a sense of appalled outrage at the conclusions of the moral skeptic is merely to beg the question, and thus is no argumentative consideration at all.
and the last sentence in his book;
If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults, rather than eschewing open-minded inquiry or fabricating philosophical theories whose only virtue is the promise of providing the soothing news that all our heartfelt beliefs are true.
I won’t go into the reasons why I think that comments like those above are evidence of an unusually perceptive mind. Suffice it to say that I do. They also make it clear that Joyce is much closer to being a moral “atheist” than he would have us believe. If he wants to go on maintaining that he can’t exclude the equivalent of the fairies in Richard Dawkins garden, than so be it. What he has written above makes it clear that, nevertheless, he sees the handwriting on the wall when it comes to “objective morality.”
I suspect the reason that Joyce can’t quite free himself of his agnosticism may well have something to do with his own “human nature.” Like all the rest of us, including, by the way, such atheist worthies as Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris, he experiences morality as a real, absolute thing. From an evolutionary point of view, that was the most efficient way for nature to “design” it. That Joyce’ rational mind has not quite freed itself from the grip of this perceived absolute is evident from comments such as,
Natural selection doesn’t deserve the bad rap given it by Huxley and Williams. It is a process that has made us sociable, able to enter into cooperative exchanges, capable of love, empathy, and altruism – granting us the capacity to take a direct interest in the welfare of others with no thought of reciprocation. (With the implication that all these things are “really” good.)
But even if this is not so, the only honest and dignified course is to acknowledge what the evidence and our best theorizing indicate… (A senseless statement unless honesty and dignity are objective moral goods).
and so on. In fact, we are moral beings. None of us can live outside of our own moral skins, myself included. Our brains are wired to perceive moral rules as absolutes. Assuming, however, that we wish to survive (and that, after all, is the one and only reason morality exists in the first place), it would behoove us to understand its real nature, in order to moderate our “moral” behavior with reason.