Morality has a certain math-like and logical rightness. Old language and loose thinking-tools hide that morals are vital social rules, and that some objectively work better. We’re born with tunable and extendable social-rule processors, just like our language-rule processors.
Much confusion comes from using a basically religious, mainly Christian, framework. A useful essay by the talented scientist Paul Bloom provides examples. Ignoring his main argument (“intellectually disgraceful” intelligent design) let’s consider some of the conventional, but unhelpfully oversimplified, language and thinking-tools used.
Bloom says Jefferson nailed morality, as being “as much a part of man as his leg.” Bloom presents evidence that babies aren’t “pint-sized psychopaths.” They’re born with social-rule processors and starter-rules for distinguishing “kind and cruel actions,” preferring fairness (equal shares) and justice (kindness rewarded, badness punished). They’re also selfish (only dislike inequality if it’s disadvantageous) and won’t sacrifice for strangers. So “transcendent moral kindness” isn’t innate, it’s an add-on, like vocabulary. (Darwin called language “half-art and half-instinct.”)
Bloom notes that selfless acts “for the greater good,” can’t be “direct products of natural selection.” But long-term self-interest and “the greater good” are tightly braided in species that survive in teams. If having no team can mean no survival, logic (and evolution eventually) mandates supporting that greater good. Ignoring complex interdependencies leads to Dawkins’ Errors.
Though Bloom refers to “amoral forces” of biology, Darwin believed that “the Golden Rule” would inevitably evolve in any intelligent social species. Selfishness Darwin said tarnished our “most noble faculty,” our social-rule processors. Hardly “Darwinian.”
The Christian social-rule recipe exalts selflessness, but others don’t. Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” Hillel integrated rather than opposed self-interest with other-orientedness. Selves and others have complex relationships, that aren’t well served by a simplistic binary. Self-denial can be maladaptive—as can excess selfishness in social species.
Bloom confuses his gods, and history, in saying, “For most of human history, it was easy enough to believe in a loving and all-powerful God.” The Old Testament God is (like other gods) described as vengeful, capricious, and punitive. As game theory reminds us, turning the other cheek is exploitable, and less productive than eye-for-an-eye punishment, if followed by forgiveness (“Golden Punishment Rule.”)
While noting that much of our behaviour is “non-Darwinian” (influenced by beliefs, habits, desires, and choices; see praxotype), Bloom repeats a common error about paleo-adaptive traits becoming troublesome. Appetites evolved in scarcity aren’t irresistible; as Steven Pinker notes, self-control has long been adaptive.
Saying “morality… doesn’t have much to do with the physical world” can mislead. Its relationship is like that of math or logic. And an evolutionary social-rule math and logic applies: social-species groups with more productive social-rules do better. Conversely, nature tends to eliminate those whose rules allow damage to what they depend. The math and logic of teams sometimes (perhaps often) opposes maximizing self-benefit. We’d all benefit if that idea was widely shared.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.