I understand morality as a human invention, underpinned by our evolved emotional tendencies and our existential situation. Morality is thus a technology that responds to our needs as social animals1,5,6. It facilitates cooperation, originally in small groups in competition with each other and with the local non-human predators3,6. It provides a counterweight to our limited rationality, information, intelligence, and sympathies6.
From the viewpoint of an ordinary person who has been socialized into a particular moral system, the local moral norms will usually seem like something more impressive and metaphysical than I’ve described. They will appear to be categorically authoritative; they will be experienced as objective requirements for conduct. For most people, that is, their society’s standards for conduct appear to be necessitated by a mind-independent reality that transcends any mere social institutions and anyone’s contingent desires and attitudes2,4,6. In typical societies, this appearance is taken to be the reality and given some kind of supernatural explanation.
The outer limits of moral possibility are established by the emotional tendencies that prepare us to be morality-making beings.
If objective moral requirements are construed as transcending human nature itself, and as binding upon all rational beings that might exist in the universe, it is implausible that they exist—and indeed, the idea seems to defy coherent explanation2,4,6. Might there, nonetheless, be one true morality for human beings (not necessarily for whatever other rational beings happen to exist) grounded in a common human nature and transcending the desires and attitudes of particular people and the varied moral systems of actual societies6?
This still seems unlikely. It requires a more harmonious and purposive conception of human nature than appears scientifically and historically plausible6,7. We probably won’t discover a single perfect way of life for either individuals or societies. That said, not just any set of proposed norms can form a viable moral system. Natural boundaries are shaped by the function of morality in facilitating social cooperation. The outer limits of moral possibility are established by the emotional tendencies that prepare us to be morality-making beings. In particular, we care most about ourselves (as individuals), our offspring, kin, mates, and other affiliates1. We show some restraint in hurting each other, a degree of natural kindness and reciprocity, positive attitudes to helpfulness, and a disposition to seek vengeance when betrayed and to punish non-cooperators3.
Moral systems vary considerably, but some virtues of character, such as courage and honesty, are likely to be regarded highly in any human society. Conversely, no human society can tolerate unlimited ruthlessness in social, sexual, and economic competition within the group; more specifically, each society insists on limits to intra-group violence. A full and systematic understanding of the phenomenon of morality would include both the possibilities for variation in moral systems and the boundaries within which variants proliferate.
Against that background, our modern moral predicament involves at least two interrelated problems. First, we increasingly live in societies that contain relatively little in the way of a unitary moral system. Instead, contemporary societies blend different groups with complex, diverse, yet intertwined, histories, and with their own religious and moral traditions. Rival traditions often confront each other within the same society, struggling for political and cultural supremacy3.
Second, the world’s societies—again with divergent moral traditions—increasingly need to cooperate with each other to handle problems on a very large scale6. In this situation, our existing moralities and our evolved emotional tendencies do not necessarily serve us well. They helped us to cooperate and survive in small, often mutually suspicious, groups. Arguably, they are not so helpful when we come to terms with global issues of climate change, epidemic diseases, and the spread of massively destructive weapons.
- Churchland, Patricia S. (2011). Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton University Press.
- Garner, R. (1994). Beyond Morality. Temple University Press.
- Greene, J. (2013). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. Penguin.
- Joyce, R. (2001). The Myth of Morality. Cambridge University Press.
- Kitcher, Philip (2011). The Ethical Project. Harvard University Press.
- Mackie, J. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin.
- Williams, Bernard (1995). Evolution, Ethics and the Representation Problem. In Making Sense of Humanity and other Philosophical Papers 1982–1993. Cambridge University Press, pp. 100-110.
This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.