There is a lot of fascinating scholarship going on in science and philosophy concerning how human morality relates to evolution. Scientists report altruistic behavior in animal communities, and high correlations between specific parts of the brain and moral action; philosophers explore the moral implications of human evolution; and both groups do much, much more. Still, the debate is ongoing about whether morality is an objective, universal, literally existing thing or a set of parameters which do not exist in any relevant sense of the word. Much like the compatibilists who illustrate how free will and determinism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I would like to explore how morality could be both objective and not objective.
The purpose of really good philosophy, and really good philosophical education, is to encourage logical, careful, clear thinking. So, in the interest of at least attempting to do philosophy well, I will try to trace an intuitive explanation of these ideas. Such an explanation, while less scholarly, seems more likely to fuel thought and discussion (much like this instructor teaching Plato with sandwiches) than exhaustive argumentation for the position.
Morality as a Necessary Condition for Communal Existence:
Two of the loudest objections levied against a person who claims that morals evolved in humans are that morality would not be evolutionarily beneficial, and that any account of how morals might be evolutionarily beneficial still fails to provide an explanation for humankind’s apparent sense of moral obligation. Now, that first claim is so demonstrably false that it would hardly need to be refuted (and there is ample information in the first article linked above to refute that claim), but in responding at greater length to that first objection, a response to the second will become clear as well.
In order to see this, one must step back from evolution as the natural selection of individuals by their environment, and look at the emergence of an entire species evolving as a community of individuals. From this perspective, one will be able to observe that although morality, both for the individual and for society, might not be literally objective, this does not mean that it must be purely subjective; it may be functionally objective. Certain basic moral strictures, as twentieth century moral philosopher James Rachels points out, are necessary for a society to go on existing:
Suppose people were free to kill other people at will, and no one thought there was anything wrong with it. In such a “society,” no one could feel secure. Everyone would have to be constantly on guard. People who wanted to survive would have to avoid other people as much as possible. This would inevitably result in individuals trying to become as self-sufficient as possible—after all, associating with others would be dangerous. Society on any large scale would collapse. Of course, people might band together in smaller groups with others that they could trust not to harm them. But notice what this means: they would be forming smaller societies that did acknowledge a rule against murder. The prohibition of murder, then, is a necessary feature of all societies.
There is a general theoretical point here, namely, that there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. (Rachels 157)
One could attempt to imagine such a community of only murderers, or else a society of only dishonest individuals or only thieves, but that society would inevitably self-destruct. For any individual and community of individuals to exist now and to go on existing, they must behave in a way that is conducive to the existence of a society.
Moreover, one can go further than that particular article of Rachels (although his other works, like the one linked above, do deal at length with human evolution) and notice that humans must not only behave in that way, but must be genetically and cognitively hard-wired to feel as though they ought to behave that way. The two go hand-in-hand. Barring coercion, an organism will not commit an action that it does not feel it ought to commit (with the obvious exception of organisms so rudimentary as to have nothing approximating emotion or inclination, who would and do act altruistically with no complications from cognition).
Morality as an Obligation due to Competing Evolutionary Interests:
This notion (that a sense of moral obligation is a part of the hard-wired, evolved structure of cognition that results in moral behavior) is the crucial point missed by the objection of moral realists who insist that moral action does not imply any sense of moral obligation or moral accountability, and that humans would act in their own immediate self-interest above all other considerations as soon as it seems that morality is not objective. As both a necessary condition for communal existence and a literal part of the mind, such drives are inescapable—functionally objective.
An egregious moral wrongdoer would be destined for isolation, and therefore their genetic structure destined for extinction. (Otherwise—if a society consistently failed to identify such wrongdoing—that society would be well on its way to the genetic spread of such traits, and thus the societal self-destruction sketched above.) One could even imagine a sort of mathematically pedantic version of Kant’s categorical imperative, where a person recognizes that any moral wrongdoing on their part makes the statistical likelihood of moral wrongdoing happening to them slightly higher. But that’s a digression; the key here is that this behavior is being enforced by the very structure of the brain, and only to a lesser degree by conscious decision-making. Further, the decision-making process is itself shaped and brought into being by the aforementioned structure.
That exact misunderstanding regarding obligation is everywhere, and underlies C.S. Lewis’ famous discussion of morality in Book 1 of Mere Christianity when he says that the notion that “feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not” (Lewis 9) is a sufficient observation to suppose that there must be multiple sources of such distinct drives—one natural source and one supernatural source, for instance. Most of the errors in this aspect of Lewis’ argument stem from his misunderstandings and apparently superficial experience with evolutionary biology. In this particular case, someone should have recommended that Lewis research humanity’s many unconscious drives (for a brief modern account of this subject, see this paper).
Why, after all, do we perceive moral action as obligatory? Well, humans must experience drives that are a result of being naturally selected for individual survival at the same time as drives that are a result of being naturally selected for group survival. In both cases the source of the drive is the brain, at varying levels of its cognition and control. The navigation and interplay of these mental forces is not at all straightforward or simple; the communal-ethical choice to be taken in any given scenario may possibly reach the level of cognizance as a feeling of desire, a feeling of obligation, both, or neither.
As part of the brain, life-sustaining and fair morality could not possibly be successfully dismissed by the human species. Rachels would have contended that this approach is really just a different way of coming to the conclusion that morality is objective (i.e. not relative), but there is some difficulty to being so absolute with the categories. It is objective, in the sense that it is universal, but it is also not objective, in the sense that it is not the immutable force described by moral realists. This also provides an account of human altruism. Whether an individual’s genes are selected in the communal sense detailed above, or via the individual’s reciprocal self-interest (‘If I scratch your back, you scratch mine’), the result is the same: more individuals inclined toward altruistic behavior.
Functionally objective morality would explain not only human moral inclinations, but also the feeling of moral obligation. Both are necessary aspects of the minds of a community if that community is to have any chance of continuing to exist.
So, that is how morality could be considered both objective and not objective (with only a little bit of quibbling on the word ‘objective’). Now, if you are of the opinion that, whether any of the above is true or not, a non-objective or functionally objective morality is somehow uglier or less desirable than an objective morality, then stay tuned for the next post in this series.
The Macroevolution of Morals: