I often hear people say that morality is evolved, especially those who are in the naturalist-humanist camp. But what would it mean for morality to be “evolved,” and is it true? Physical evolution by natural selection is a well established fact, but is the view of human moral theories and practices as products of evolution, in the same category?
To start to answer this, we need to clarify what we mean when we say that “morality is evolved.”
The first part of this statement is “morality.” What is morality? Ayn Rand defined morality as “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.” (1) So morality is a code or set of fundamental values accepted by choice, in order to guide particular choices toward some ultimate goal. Along with the basic, primary values in morality, come the basic types or modes of action by which the basic values are to be achieved. These basic modes of action are called “virtues.”
Thus, morality does not consist of isolated acts or of social rules, but the fundamental norms required to guide the choices of a conceptual being (human) toward a long-range goal. (For further explanation of this, see: Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life.)
Nor does morality apply to that which is unchosen. A rock is not immoral for having fallen on you; it is inanimate and could not have done otherwise in its circumstances. A plant is not moral for trapping a fly; it had no option, given its nature. A man’s vomit reflex on smelling something extremely foul is neither moral, nor immoral, since it was not chosen.
Now, what does it mean to say that something is “evolved?” It means that its presence in an organism is the necessary result of how its ancestors evolved, genetically. This something is the product of genes, and thus is not learned and cannot be chosen by the organism(s) in question.
So, what do people mean when they say that (human) “morality is evolved”? Given a correct definition of morality, I think that there are three possible meanings: 1) The human capacity for moral behavior is a product of genetic evolution. 2) The human need of moral behavior is a product of genetic evolution. 3) That there is, among humans, a universally followed moral framework that is the product of genetic evolution.
Objectivism does not deny the first two, so long as evolution is well-supported by evidence (and it is.) Indeed, Objectivism bases its morality on what man is as a living creature, so both 1) and 2) are entirely compatible with the philosophy. But 1) and 2) are the weaker claims and, I think, not what is dominantly meant when people say that “morality is evolved.” The claim that the remainder of this essay will deal with is 3). This is the stronger, characteristic claim of an “evolved morality”: a universal moral framework that is the product of evolution.
In my discussion of morality, I have already given an indication of why morality, properly understood, cannot be evolved. A morality is a code of values, accepted by choice, in order to guide choices. If something is a product of one’s choice, then it is not a necessary product of one’s genes, (not evolved).
Is There a Universal Moral Framework?
At this point, someone might affirm that morality is there to govern choices, and that morality is nonsensical if those governed by it have no choice whether to be good or evil. Yet one might still insist that people do not have a choice about whether or not to accept a certain core morality. They may say that, “whatever the society and time period, murder, stealing and injustice are still wrong.” And that prohibitions against actions such as these form the basis of a universally accepted morality.
Yet, when we look at what various cultures regard as “murder,” we find large differences. For those who live under tribal or primitive Islam, it is not considered murder for a man to kill a woman or girl who has “disgraced her family.” In medieval Japan, a (male) samurai could instantly kill a peasant for the slightest perceived disrespect, or just to test his sword, and it was perfectly legal and accepted.
To say that “all cultures consider murder wrong,” when one defines murder subjectively as “a killing that is considered wrong within a culture,” is circular and practically meaningless. All this would would indicate is that all cultures have some sort of circumstances in which killing some other person is considered wrong. This would not indicate a universal moral norm. If murder is defined objectively as, “the intentional or negligent killing of a human being who is not an imminent, physical threat to the lives of other people,” then not all murder was prohibited in feudal Japan. (2)
The variation is similar with stealing and injustice. The concept of “stealing” presupposes that someone rightfully owns what is being “stolen.” It thus presupposes an answer to the question: “Who can own something and how is ownership established?” “Injustice” presupposes at least an implicit definition of “justice.” Different cultures (and individuals) have different ideas of ownership and justice. The USSR was a country where no one could hold property by inalienable right, and anyone could be imprisoned or exiled to Siberia for political speech. The Bolsheviks expropriated (i.e. stole) the property of many business owners, and it was considered morally proper under Marxism, since it was the “inevitable progression of history.” Until recently, most cultures thought that people could own other people as slaves. Many cultures, including feudal Japan and Medieval to Renaissance Europe, considered dueling for the sake of honor to be a perfectly respectable activity. Many American Indian tribes had no concept of individual ownership, at all.
So, no, there is no universal set of innate moral ideas among human cultures, (or among human individuals.) There are many, fundamentally different moral systems and collections of ideas. There is Homeric Greek morality and Stoic morality and Epicurean morality; there is Confucian morality and medieval Japanese morality and modern Japanese morality; there is medieval Christian morality and modern Christian morality and secular Humanist morality; there is Aristotelian morality and there is Objectivist morality. Many of these moral systems have some things in common and not others. Some of them are diametrically opposite of each other. Often, they differ in the ultimate goal they serve. (3)
So, the point here is not that all these moral systems are equally complete or equally valid, but that morality is not innate. It is the result of definition and choice, rather than genetic inheritance.
“Defined and Chosen” or “Learned and Accepted”?
So, the argument against genetically inherited morality is complete. Yet my description of morality as “defined and chosen” may seem inapt when one looks at how most people deal with moral ideas. Most people, it would seem, don’t sit down, define the options in moral systems and choose one. Rather, they seem to learn or subconsciously absorb their moral ideas from others in their culture.
It is in fact true that most people within a culture don’t consciously choose among moral systems. Everyone does, however, exercise some choice in regard to moral ideas. Those who have become philosophically aware, through learning and/or conceptual innovation, can make explicit choices about what moral system to adhere to. From among these philosophically aware people, come the philosophical innovators. It is these innovators who actually define new ethical systems.
So the various moralities are defined by the philosophical innovators, and explicitly chosen by the philosophically aware. Those people who are not philosophically aware have a smaller range of control over their moral ideas, but they do still have some choice: They can choose to make the effort to think about what they are taught, or not. They can passively absorb whatever moral ideas others happen to push on them, or they can choose to question, to be critical of what they are taught and attempt to gain understanding.
So morality is, in origin, unequivocally defined and chosen. In propagation, some sort of choice is always involved, but this choice is only deliberate and explicit among the philosophically aware.
Those who think that they see morality in the natural behavior of non-human animals like chimpanzees, misunderstand what morality is. As I described above, morality requires as a prerequisite that one can live by the guidance of conceptual reasoning. Morality is not mere social behavior, whether genetically programmed or learned.
Morality is for the evaluation and control of chosen behavior with respect to whether the choice serves an ultimate goal. Behavior cannot be chosen and evaluated by moral concepts if the actor has no ability to conceptually project an ultimate goal and to understand conceptually how his behavior affects that goal.
Thus, one cannot say that chimpanzees who attack humans or other chimps without provocation are “evil.” Nor can one say that chimps that groom their troop-mates are being “good.” They are simply reacting to the emotion of the moment, and moral concepts do not apply, since they are not capable of choosing based on long-term considerations.
- Morality is not a set of social rules, but a set of fundamental values and virtues to guide human choices toward an ultimate goal.
- Evolved traits are ones that are the inevitable result of genetics. There can be no choice involved in something one calls “evolved.”
- The capacity for morality and the need of it are both products of human evolution. But an “evolved morality” is one in which the contents of morality–the moral norms themselves–are products of genetic evolution.
- If something is a fundamental product of human evolution, then we should see that it is universal among humans. But the content of morality is not universal: it varies greatly between the ancient Greeks, medieval Christians, medieval Japanese, modern, mainstream Americans and Objectivists.
- Thus, morality is chosen, not evolved. It is defined by philosophical innovators, explicitly chosen by those who are philosophically aware, and either accepted or questioned and/or fought by those who are not philosophically aware.
- Apes don’t have the capacity for morality, because they don’t live by the guidance of concepts. They can’t project the long-range consequences of actions using concepts and choose accordingly.
(1) Note that the dictionary definition of ethics is similarly general: “the branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of actions and the goodness and badness of motives and ends.” [Webster’s College Dictionary, 1996]
(2) Note that this definition of murder is intended to be a legal definition. As a legal term, it does not apply in places and times where there is no effective rule of law, such as in war zones.
(3) Genetic traits that are the products of evolution are not necessarily universal among humans. Things like skin color, hair color and eye color vary. But what one will necessarily see for evolved traits is that they are passed down by genetic inheritance in the family tree. To show that morality is a variably inherited trait, one would have to show that the moral ideas of individuals are not learned or chosen, but always follow from the mixture of the genes from the mother and father. This is clearly not the case. The early moral ideas of adopted children generally tend to mirror those of their adopted parents, rather than their biological parents. The moral ideas of most Americans in the 1970s were significantly different than those of their parents in the 1950s.