Morality Unraveled

If you ever wonder why we are the way we are, I recommend reading Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Moral Animal. Wright lucidly explains the insights of the emerging science of evolutionary psychology.

It’s more than a little disheartening to see one’s grand pretensions laid bare, but it’s also freeing. The foundations of human morality seem very clearly to lie in the adaptive trait of reciprocal altruism — you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Like our cousins the chimpanzees, we form alliances by doing one another small favors.

There’s more to the book than that. Wright discusses both status hierarchies and cheating in considerable detail, along with the values related to mate selection.

After re-reading The Moral Animal, I’m afraid I may need to rethink my fondness for the ideals of socialism. As I define it, socialism springs from the insight that we’re all in this together. It’s a small planet, and if we can’t figure out how to live with one another, we’re doomed. But while this insight is inarguable, it also runs against the grain of human instinct. Human instinct prompts us to form alliances to gain advantages. Those with whom we are allied, we treat with kindness and support. But we have nothing to gain by wasting resources helping those with whom we are not allied. In fact, it’s better (or so instinct assures us) to deal with those outside our immediate group by stealing from them whatever we can grab.

That’s exactly what’s going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for example. The Israelis support one another and blithely steal resources (primarily land) from the Palestinians. Telling the Israelis that the Palestinians are people just like them would be pointless. Their very human instincts will not allow them to operate on the basis of that truth.

Instinct cares nothing for truth. Instinct cares nothing for happiness. Instinct is optimized strictly to promote behaviors that worked well for our ancestors over the course of the last few million years, allowing them to pass on their genes to the next generation.

It’s the same all over the world, and it’s never going to change. Socialism, then, is well-meaning but naive. It’s based on a moral precept that is too refined, too humane, for the human race ever to live by.

This is not a happy conclusion.

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3 Responses to Morality Unraveled

  1. Conrad Cook says:

    “It’s the same all over the world, and it’s never going to change.”

    Have you read Konrad Lorenz’s _On Aggression_? He develops the identical argument to the opposite conclusion.


  2. Conrad Cook says:

    …and in indirect support of his thesis is the recent perspective in Discover’s recent article, “Are We Still Evolving?” []

    –You’re welcome to keep a more bleak, or indeed nihilistic, view of humanity, of course. Especially if, like a Goth teen, you consider it cool.


  3. Every mammel is likely to reject an 80% – 20% split made by another, costing both any renumeration at all.

    It has been demonstrated that every anuimal pushes back about 80% harder when trying to be fair.
    I believe it has been shown repeatedly that animals have an innate sense of fairness, and that the balence in percieving fairness is weighted in favor of the individual percieving it. This is the basis for such alliances as you mention.

    However, any extremely social animal has much use for deception, and the detection of deception requires more ability to reason and detect than any other thing that animals do a lot (see “why do elephants have such large brains?”).

    Out of this instinct for fairness, social animals evolve instincts for alliance and competition, and an ability to decive and penetrate deception.

    Humans have evolved a more complex level of interdependance and hence have complicated deception as well. To me socialism is about respecting the fact that we are the most interdependant and deceptive of all. We really cannot survive without attempting to be social(ist) to a large degree.

    We simply have to respect our capacity for deception, and hierachic relations, as well, and engineer a more democratic and participatory socialism.

    Of course, one could also base an argument for a more hierarchic system, like Fascism, on the same grounds. I simply prefer to see the half full cup becoming filled as opposed to looking at the one that is being drained.

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