The Evolution of Virtue

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6 minutes of reading

A few years ago Reader’s Digest magazine ran an experiment to find out which are the most and least honest cities around the world. They randomly dropped wallets including a name with a cell phone number, a family photo, and cash worth fifty dollars in parks, malls, and along sidewalks in sixteen cities.

The result? In Helsinki eleven out of the twelve wallets were returned.  A businessman who found one of these wallets said, “Finns are naturally honest.” In a working-class area, a couple in their sixties said, “Of course we returned the wallet. Honesty is an inner conviction.” In Mumbai, where nine out of the twelve were returned, one man said, “My conscience wouldn’t let me do anything wrong.” By contrast, in Lisbon, Portugal only one wallet was returned, and this by a couple visiting from Holland.

It would be fascinating to replicate this study to discover the common features of these various societies and determine what accounts for the returned wallets. But here I only want to explore why any of the wallets were returned at all! Honesty is a universal human virtue; it is human nature to value honesty, and it is honest to return valuable property to its rightful owners. More generally, humans recognize moral obligations and when individuals behave morally, it is usually simply because it is the right thing to do, and not necessarily because they have sympathy for the welfare of others. People try to be honest dealing with complete strangers for whom they have no feelings, and even in dealing with others whom they dislike.

Morality is doing the right thing merely because it is the right thing to do.

We can justify a moral act by reference to its good effects, but this is not usually why we behave morally, and sometimes the justification is completely fallacious. For instance, if you ask Bob why he voted in a recent election, he will likely say because he wanted to help one or another candidate win the election. But the outcome of the election would have been exactly the same if Bob had not voted, or even if he had voted for another candidate. Indeed, estimates of the probability that a single voter’s decision will determine the outcome of large election are much less than one in ten million. In Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and the United States, no election in which more that forty thousand votes were cast has ever been decided by a single vote.

Bob votes because it is the right thing to do according to the categorical imperative: “If people like me did not vote, we could not have a democracy and we would not have good leaders.” Bob votes even though he individually makes no difference, because people like him make a collective difference. This is morality in action.

The traditional view is that morality is purely a product of civilized culture. According to this view, evolution gave humans large brains; the brain is empty at birth (a blank slate), but it is filled by culture with moral principles. This view thus considers biological evolution irrelevant to the study of human behavior because culture and morality have nothing to do with evolution beyond endowing us with large brains. For instance, the famous philosopher Thomas Hobbes said: “The state of men without civil society (which may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all. . . Where every man is enemy to every man, the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” More recently, the eminent biologist Richard Dawkins opined: “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” Another expression of this traditional view is that there cannot be morality without organized religion.

This view, however, is incorrect for many reasons. Psychologists have shown that even small infants grasp and apply moral standards long before they can talk or walk. In addition, despite the wide variety of social norms around the world, all societies value the same character virtues, including honesty, trustworthiness, courage, compassion, helpfulness, loyalty, fidelity, and forgiveness. Moreover, attempts to instill moral principles that go against human nature, such as in Soviet factories or Israeli kibbutz, have been nothing but abject failures. Finally, societies even with very low levels of religiosity can have high levels of basic moral behavior.

In every social species, from ants to honeybees to humans, individuals sacrifice on behalf of the welfare of the group. In every social species, this behavior is fitness enhancing for the genes that induce sacrifice because copies of those genes in other individuals benefit from the sacrifice of one of its members. This is the effect of biological evolution: social life emerges from the interaction of utterly selfish genes.

Ants circled around a drop of water.

Morality evolved in humans because individuals exhibiting moral behavior had more offspring than individuals who lacked a moral sense. Why were moral individuals more fit than amoral individuals? Doubtless because amoral individuals were punished by the group for their transgressions, to the extent that it was usually fitness enhancing to behave morally, to seek moral mates, and to instill moral behavior in one’s offspring, than to behave otherwise.

But why then are humans the only species with a moral sense? Certainly individuals in other social species engage in group-beneficial but individually costly actions. Morality is distinct in that is that it is structurally very uniform, but its content is highly programmable and can be swiftly altered to fit novel social circumstances. For instance, all societies value preparing foods properly, what is proper in one social group may be an abomination in another. Similarly, what is proper behavior to outsiders may be scandalous in another.

Why is this important? Humans evolved in a highly volatile environment where changing social norms to fit novel environmental conditions was highly socially rewarding. Indeed, human society is a game with rules, people are players in this game, and politics is the arena in which we affirm and change these rules. Unlike the rules in parlor games, however, social rules are continually contested by players allying to scrap old rules and create new rules to serve their purposes.

Everything distinctive about human social life flows from the fact that we construct and then play social games. Other animals are playful, but they do not make up the games they play. They do not change the rules of the game to suit their purposes. Similarly, other animals live in societies. But the rules of the game for nonhuman societies are inscribed in the genome of the species, while ours is not. Other animals do not change these rules to suit their purposes. We do.

Playing games with socially constructed rules requires a moral sense. Humans treat some rules as purely conventional, such as what side of the road to drive on. But many social rules are morally binding. Especially when there is general agreement about the rules, people gain satisfaction by playing by the rules, are ashamed when they break the rules, and are offended when others break the rules. Indeed, individuals often reward others who play by the rules and punish others who break the rules even when there was considerable personal cost in punishing and rewarding.

Even societies that lack government, judges, juries, and jails effectively reward and punish behavior. Our moral sense was developed long before there were courts, jails, and teachers to lecture us on morality. Moreover, there are strict limits to what humans consider morally acceptable. Despots would love to be able to determine the moral sense of their subjects, but they can never rest securely in their beds knowing that they have done so. Morality has a dynamic that, at least up to now, cannot be controlled by states. New technologies may change this. Hopefully not.

Careful inspection of human behavior reveals that there are three distinct dimensions of human motivation: self-regarding, other-regarding, and universal. Self-regarding preferences deal with what we want for our individual selves, including consumption, leisure, wealth, love, health, and the respect of others. Other-regarding preferences deal with our care about other people’s wellbeing. Wanting to help someone for whom we feel compassion, or to hurt someone who has offended or annoyed us, are other-regarding preferences. Universal morality is neither self- nor other-regarding. Universal moral principles can have consequences, as when I help a stranger in need, but they include character virtues without consequences, such as courage, truthfulness, and loyalty. Among these three dimensions, the universal is the most stunning, and offers the possibility of overcoming the myriad problems with which modern society presents us. It is this universal morality that may allow us to adapt successfully to the completely novel challenges that now face our species.

Image Credit

“Kool-aid for Everybody” by Corin Royal Drummond. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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