F Rosa Rubicondior: Evolved Morality

Friday 20 December 2013

Evolved Morality

Our morals were not handed down to us by gods but evolved with us as a set of psychological processes which fitted us for living in small, cooperative social groups.

Here's a simple moral dilemma. It was first proposed by philosopher Peter Singer some forty years ago.

Imagine you are walking along a riverbank wearing a $1000 suit and you see a child is drowning. You can save the child but the water will ruin your suit.

No contest.

The moral thing to do is to save the child. Asked why, most people would say the child's life is worth more than the cost of the suit; that it's immoral to put material goods before human life. Forced to compare the value of a human life, especially that of a child, most people will value the child vastly more than material goods. In fact, asked to place a value on a child's life, most people will decline to do so. The idea itself is repugnant.

Now consider a starving child on the other side of the planet. Instead of buying that $1000 suit you could have saved the life of that child by giving money. We all know starving children are dying daily yet we rarely think about them when we buy luxuries for ourselves. The strange thing is that these basic human responses would be common to all cultures, not just those worshipping any one particular god, or even a secular Humanist one.

But how is this situation morally different? Do we perceive these as different moral dilemmas, or do we merely respond differently to the same dilemma in different situations? And how is the situation different?

The difference is, of course, one of distance. We feel a stronger moral obligation to those nearby but less - or even no obligation at all - to those far away. Out of sight; out of mind.

Not my problem! Not my tribe!

The evolutionary process is relatively obvious: our evolved psychology causes us to change our responses to the same dilemma, probably because the effort involved in 'saving' a far-away child is greater, so a tendency to do so would have had reduced or even negative survival value for the genes/memes involved and the genes being saved would be less likely to be those compelling the altruism.

How does this fit with the 'our morals from a god' model?

Well, if we look in the Bible, we find firstly the typically confused and contradictory ethics. For example, we see that not only is the idea of putting a value on a child's life not, contrary to most normal people's instincts, repugnant, but there is a different one for male and female children and it varies by age too, so quite a lot to work out first when deciding to save the child or the suit.

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When a man shall make a singular vow, the persons shall be for the Lord by thy estimation.

And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it be a female, then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels.

And if it be from five years old even unto twenty years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male twenty shekels, and for the female ten shekels.

And if it be from a month old even unto five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver, and for the female thy estimation shall be three shekels of silver.

And if it be from sixty years old and above; if it be a male, then thy estimation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels.

Leviticus 27:1-7

At least it's good to know your value increases as you get older, up to a point, though I know some sixty plus people who might be a bit miffed at being down-valued on their sixtieth birthday, but at least it makes it easier to resolve Singer's Dilemma.

So, would we expect to see Christians finding out the gender and age of the drowning child, then estimating their value in today's currency, scaled up for inflation, etc., before deciding whether it was worth the cost of an expensive suit before diving in?

If you're a Christian you might like to ask yourself why you're offended by that suggestion when your holy book is very clear on the monetary value of a human being.

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834–1890)
To be fair, Christians who are embarrassed by the Old Testament, from which the above piece of grotesque callousness is taken, will try to find something from the New Testament to cover their needs. They won't find anything to override the differential value of males and females of course, because females were still relegated to being mere chattels and not deserving of anything better because of Eve's part in the legendary sin which was used to justify their lesser status in the first place.

Unfortunately, they won't find anything. There is actually nothing in the New Testament about valuing human life above that of worldly goods. Slavery is still endorsed and this depends entirely on a monetary value being ascribed to human life, admittedly to the value of the lesser races and of sub-human peoples.

The nearest they will come to anything in the Bible which comes anywhere near to helping them with Singer's Dilemma is the so-called Golden Rule (so-called because it's common to all human groups and certainly pre-dates the Bible) - do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

Most people would want someone to jump in to try to save them from drowning, regardless of the value of any clothes he or she might be wearing. But then most people would want someone to give them some food if they were starving, even someone on the far side of the planet.

So, the only moral code in the Bible helping them with Singer's Dilemma turns out to be the humanist one we evolved as a pre-human tribal ape on the plains of East Africa, which was incorporated into the Bible by people who already had the idea that if you wanted people to treat you well you had to treat them well too, and didn't need a magic man in the sky to tell them that.

Those Christians who imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan might have some bearing on the matter might like to remind themselves how this is often used by the Christian right as justifying the accumulation of wealth so one is in a position to help a person in need in the first place. The idea of wealth is a comparative one which depends on there being poor people in the first place. This of course directly conflicts with Jesus' instructions to sell all your worldly goods and give the money to the poor, which Christians almost without exception seem to think applies to everyone else, but not to them.

These later stories in the Bible are of course nothing more than attempts to fit a pre-existing moral code around the Jesus myth to give him the semblance of a lawgiver, but the Jesus of the Bible actually tells us nothing new and introduces nothing which wouldn't have been immediately recognised as 'good' by the readers at the time they were written. Obviously, tales about a man who advocated letting children drown or starve or who said stealing from elderly widows was a good thing would never have gained traction.

"But Jesus would never advocate that kind of thing!", I hear you say. Why not? If 'good' is defined as what God says is good and 'evil' is defined as what God says is evil then whatever Jesus told us to do would be 'good', wouldn't it? Or was Jesus constrained by some other standard? If so, without allowing for evolved Humanism, how do you avoid an infinite regress of law-givers each handing down essentially arbitrary morals to lesser law-givers of which Jesus was the least?

There is, of course, no way to fit the observable reality into a god-given model of morality because the god-given model is wrong. On the other hand, the evolutionary model fits them perfectly and even explains the apparent dichotomies such as the drowning child nearby versus the starving one far away.

An article by Tiffany O'Callaghan in this week's New Scientist, taking the form of an interview with Joshua Greene, director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard University, explores the Singer Dilemma as well as other problems created by human society outstripping human ethical evolution. Greene calls for a rethinking of our morality to overcome the essentially tribal one we have inherited being the cause of conflict for a number of reasons. Our evolved morality is fairly good for producing cooperative groups and solving intra-group conflict. It is not so good at solving inter-group conflict and may even exacerbate them.

One thing is clear though, there is no solution to be had in religions which actively divide humans into rival groups and set up conflicts, often where there were none, and which actively oppose any moral development which moves away from the 'god-given' morals of the competing and contradictory holy books. Religions evolve as though they are memetic parasites having no regard to the interests of their hosts and acting to increase their isolation within the memepool and actively encouraging attacks on carriers of rival religious memeplexes.

If our morality is to progress it can only do so if we take control of it away from the religious clerics who wrested it from us in the first place and who have been abusing the power it gave them ever since.

Further Reading:
Tiffany O'Callaghan, Modern moral responses need a manual mode, New Scientist, 11 December 2013, Magazine issue 2946.
Religion: An Abdication Of Moral Responsibility.

submit to reddit


  1. Interesting as usual, Rosa! The other day I read this blog article, also about morality, and also interesting: "If your god didn't care about right and wrong, would you still be good?" See: http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2013/12/if-your-god-didnt-care-about-right-and.html .

    1. It beggars belief that telling us about their psychopathy, and how their behaviour is only moderated by fear and reward, is an argument for a god. Even more amazing is the tendency of these psychopaths to accuse atheists of being amoral because we have a sense of right and wrong and don't need a reward beyond knowing that we've done the right thing.

      I assume it's this same empathy-free psychopathy which allows religious people to casually carry out mass killings when they're convinced their god requires it. Normal people will of course think that if that's what a religion requires then the religion is wrong.


Obscene, threatening or obnoxious messages, preaching, abuse and spam will be removed, as will anything by known Internet trolls and stalkers, by known sock-puppet accounts and anything not connected with the post,

A claim made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Remember: your opinion is not an established fact unless corroborated.

Web Analytics