Here’s a great blog post by Jerry Coyne outlining a scientific approach to morality (see How should we be moral?: Three papers and a good book) it gives a summary of his current ideas and a reading list of papers and a book which have influenced him.
I go along with Jerry’s conclusions but I would add a couple of things to his summary:
- I agree that there is no such thing a objective morality – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can show an objective basis for morality. We can understand how some of our values have an objective basis (others may not) and this is important in our evaluation of moral codes.
- I think we should extend our understanding of an instinctual morality model (as opposed to a rational one) beyond the simple proposition of an evolutionary origins of our instincts. We need to see that the instincts or intuitions driving our moral feelings or emotions can also develop, or evolve, via cultural mechanisms. I think this is important to understanding of the moral zeitgeist, the way that our moral codes tend to change over time.
An objective basis for morality?
There is a difference between objective morality – which implies some sort of moral truth existing independently of humanity – and objectively based morality. This latter implies that there is a basis for our morality – the nature of our species – which means that we generally come to the same moral conclusions. Our morality is not just a matter of personal choice.
I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.
While initial organisms may have had simple physical and chemical mechanisms putting biological value into effect evolution eventually led to development of neuronal structures and brains. Biological value could be expressed as instincts and emotions.
Evolution of social animals provided requirements for a finer structure to biological value. The interactions between organisms became more important and this finer structure became represented in the instincts and emotions of social animals – including humans.
Long story short – I see an objective basis for human morality in human nature itself. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, conscious, social and empathetic species.
Hijacking human instinct
Of course, there is not necessarily a direct line between our evolved instincts, objectively based in biological and social value, and the morality we profess. Jonathan Haidt described his useful theory of foundational moral values in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see my review in Human morality is evolving). While some of our moral codes related to life, care, harm and well-being are related to foundational human values involved with life and its survival – biological and social value – others are not. Or at least they are driven by instincts which have been hijacked. For example instincts of purity may well be related to survival and life, but moral codes related to sacredness, racial superiority and religious purity (unrelated to life and survival) rely on the hijacking of such instincts.
So while I assert that there is an objective basis for some of our morality – especially that related to life, care, harm and well-being - some of our morality may well not have a genuine objective basis, even though it utilises basic human instincts.
Moral learning and moral zeitgeist
A simple instinctive model of morality, relying on evolved instincts and not conscious deliberation, really doesn’t explain how and why human morality changes. It doesn’t explain the moral zeitgeist.
I think it’s necessary to include both rational consideration as well as instinctive, emotional reaction, to explain this. As Jerry said, our “instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution.” But it doesn’t stop there. Our intuitions, and hence our emotions, are produced unconsciously, without delineation, but over time they are influenced by our conscious deliberation and learning.
When we learn to ride a bike, or even to walk as a toddler, our actions are deliberate. We consciously consider them and put them into effect. But with learning these actions no longer need conscious deliberation. They are incorporated into our unconscious brain and carried out automatically. Just as well – imagine that adults had to continue all the conscious activity the toddler uses when they start walking. With all the inevitable conscious mistakes. Just imagine grown-ups walking along the footpath, but every so often falling on their backside like a toddler! Because the process of walking had not been learned and incorporated into their unconscious.
I argue, that the conscious moral deliberations of individuals and society produce the same sort of learning. These deliberation may be active – as, for example, our current discussion of marriage equality. Or the learning could be almost passive. Exposure to our culture. I think many people have unconsciously shifted their attitudes towards working mothers, racial integration and homosexuals because of their exposure to TV shows, books, and life itself, where these modern moral attitudes are accepted.
Incorporation of this moral learning into our subconscious means that homosexuality, for example, no longer automatically provokes our instincts of purity and disgust. Or meeting an atheist no longer causes us to react out of disgust or respect for authority.
So while our day-to-day moral functioning relies on these intuitional reactions and not logical consideration, these unconscious intuitional reactions have been modified by our learning and exposure to cultural changes.
On the one hand, that moral attitudes related to care, life, harm and well-being can have an objective basis in biological value, in the very nature of life, means we have ways – both emotional and logical – at arriving at common agreement on what is “right” and “wrong.” On the other hand, although our morality is instinctive or intuitional and not rational (at least in common day-to-day activity) the deliberate intellectual consideration of moral issues, as well as our passive exposure to a culture which is changing because of that deliberate consideration, means that we are capable of moral learning. Of adjusting our automatic moral reactions over time. Of making moral progress.
And I think we can conclude that this has happened on issues such as human rights and discrimination – even if not uniformly and evenly.