The morality-as-cooperation hypothesis and the link between evolution and moral philosophy

“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, which was Cicero’s translation for the Greek ethos. The Greek word is related to our idea of character, the Latin one has to do with habits and customs. In an important sense, then, morality (or ethics, used here interchangeably) is the study of how to conduct your life, and particularly how to constructively deal with other people.

Recently, a group of researchers headed by Oliver Scott Curry has put out a paper (as yet unpublished) entitled “Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies” which is both interesting and more than a bit irritating. (Here is the site with the full version, and here is a commentary by the lead author, put out by the Evolution Institute.) It is interesting because it provides tantalizing empirical evidence to bolster the case, made by several researchers for a long time now, that the bio-cultural origins of a moral sense lie in the need for a species like ours to foster pro-social behavior, or as Curry et al. put it, “cooperation.” Frustrating because it fails to make the crucial conceptual distinction between the origins of morality and its current function, as well to recognize the equally important difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to ethics. I’ll do my best to highlight both the positives and the negative in what follows.

First off, a recap of the study as presented by the authors themselves:

“What is morality? And to what extent does it vary around the world? The theory of ‘morality-as-cooperation’ argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. Morality-as-cooperation draws on the theory of non-zero-sum games to identify distinct problems of cooperation and their solutions, and predicts that specific forms of cooperative behaviour — including helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession — will be considered morally good wherever they arise, in all cultures. In order to test these predictions, we investigate the moral valence of these seven cooperative behaviours in the ethnographic records of 60 societies. We find that the moral valence of these behaviours is uniformly positive, and the majority of these cooperative morals are observed in the majority of cultures, with equal frequency across all regions of the world. We conclude that these seven cooperative behaviours are plausible candidates for universal moral rules, and that morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked.”

Curry’s commentary begins with more than a whiff of scientism: “What is morality? And are there any universal moral values? Scholars have debated these questions for millennia. But now, thanks to science, we have the answers.” Ah! Yes, thanks to science we have the answers! Except that those two questions are quite distinct, of course. The nature of morality has been debated by Socrates (in the as yet unsurpassed Euthyphro) and is of course the topic of the entire field of meta-ethics. Whether there are universal moral values is a rather ambiguous question: do we mean whether there ought to be (prescriptive) or whether there merely happen to be (descriptive)? Philosophers tend to be concerned with the first sense (e.g., Kant), and are more than happy to leave the second one to anthropologists (it is, after all, an empirical question!).

Curry suggests that addressing problems of social behavior is something that has kept natural selection busy, so to speak, for millions of years during the evolution that led to the human lineage, and that moreover, once cultural evolution got started people have added a panoply of norms, rules, and institutions to deal with such problems. So far so good.

The approach used by Curry and his collaborators revolves around seven principles imported from evolutionary biology: “Kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains: why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity; why we defer to our superiors; why we divide disputed resources fairly; and why we recognize prior possession.”

Setting aside a few caveats (like the fact that not all societies actually have a taboo against incest), this theoretical apparatus does, in fact, go a long way toward explaining the origin of the behaviors mentioned. That brought the researchers to predict the universality of the following seven moral rules: “love your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to authority, be fair, and respect others’ property.” And their results do show that these rules are present across cultures, though different societies vary in the way they rank or prioritize the rules. While their data do not explain the reasons for this variation, they also found no case were any of the rules was considered bad.

The overarching conclusion: “so there is a common core of universal moral principles. Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon.”

Woah, slow down a second here. First off, perhaps the seven principles in question are common across modern cultures, but that does not ipso facto mean that they always were, nor that they evolved by natural selection, though that is a plausible scenario. Take, for instance, “be fair.” Are we really to understand that “fairness” was a moral precept in the highly unequal ancient Egyptian, or Roman (or pretty much all other) societies? And what do we mean by “fair,” anyway? Fairness may be the same as equality, or not, depending on one’s views, so we have to have a discussion about what it means and how the concept is interpreted in various societies.

“Be brave” is another highly ambiguous idea, and again it is hard to imagine that it means the same thing in, say, modern day Japan, with its penchant for anti-individualism, and ancient Sparta, which was characterized by a cult of individual bravery. And of course there are many different ways of being brave (or cowardly).

Second, jumping to the conclusion that morality is “always and everywhere” about cooperation seems entirely unwarranted. We are not ants or bees, each of us has autonomous projects that we intend to pursue and that have a large impact on the degree to which we flourish, as individuals. Yes, human beings are essentially social animals, and we flourish within a given social framework, but I would argue that morality isn’t about cooperation, but rather about how to balance self-centered vs pro-social needs. The two aspects — myself as an autonomous individual and myself as a member of a group — are in constant tension, and it is that tension that morality addresses, not just the group aspect of it. Cooperation is just one means to the end of survival, reproduction, and flourishing.

And by the way, natural selection doesn’t give a damn about the latter, but we most certainly do. Which is why a lot of our norms, rules, and institutions don’t address mere survival and reproduction, but rather issues such as justice, fairness, and access to resources. That is, they are concerned with flourishing.

Third, one can perfectly coherently object to some of those rules even being on a list of moral dicta. Let’s consider three of them a bit more closely: help your group, defer to authority, and respect others’ property.

At the least since the ancient Cynics and Stoics introduced the concept of cosmopolitanism, it is actually highly morally questionable to “help your group” if this is taken to mean regardless of circumstances, or at the expense of other groups that have an equal claim to resources. Today, it is not acceptable to engage in wars of conquest, for instance, in order to make our group thrive (the fact that it happens is irrelevant to the moral point). It isn’t even acceptable to exploit other groups economically, or by imposing on them environmental damages for our own convenience.

As for deferring to authority, nope, that’s a no starter. It may be a common cross-cultural practice, but it’s a bad idea, and it is in fact highly immoral if one does so blindly, following the orders of whoever is in charge. That way lies the road to tyranny, which is not morally acceptable, in either ancient or modern societies.

But surely we should respect other people’s property. Well, it depends. If it is acquired unethically, even if legally, no, I don’t think there is any such moral requirement. If your wealth is both disproportionate and arrived at by exploiting others (and let’s be frank, if it is the former, it can hardly not be the latter), then it is just and fair to pass laws to relieve you of much of that burden, through proportional taxation, for instance. My libertarian friends can scream loudly all they want, but that doesn’t make their claims to having a “natural right” to property one bit less nonsense on stilts (in the immortal phrase by Jeremy Bentham).

So, by all means let us inquire into the likely biological and cultural evolution of morality. It is a fascinating topic, somewhat amenable to empirical investigation. But let’s not confuse the descriptive with the normative aspects of the question, just like we wouldn’t for a second confuse, say, an account of the origin of mathematical thinking with the delivery of a sound proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Any time Curry et al. tell me that rule X is universal it is still perfectly meaningful for me to reply, yes, but is it moral?


Categories: Ethics, Social & Political Philosophy

91 replies

  1. Mark,

    Thank you for the participation. While it doesn’t appear any minds are changed, it is always interesting to explore others thoughts.

    Humanity is set for enormous changes. We have, from the dawn of our existence, operated under the premise of; “Go forth and multiply,” but it now appears we are reaching the edge of the global petri dish.

    I would reiterate my observation that we need to appreciate money as economic medium and social contract holding society together, not a commodity to be extracted, but underlaying that are some more essential premises.

    One, that time is not some narrative dimension, along which the present moves, from past to future, but the effect of change, by which future potential becomes current reality and then residue of preceding actions. As such, this presentist view of time make it an effect of action, similar to temperature and it is the thermodynamically cyclical environment in which we evolved and which permeates every aspect of our being, with linear thought as emergent.

    As such, it is energy radiating out, as form coalesces in. Our physiology is a reflection of this, as we have the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems to process the energy propelling us forward, while the nervous system processes the forms coalescing out of it. So our intellectual bias toward form, over the underlaying dynamic motivating it, is further perspective to process, like finding the earth is not flat, nor the center of the cosmos.

    As such, energy, being conserved and thus only present, goes from prior to succeeding form, while form, coalescing and dissolving, goes future to past. So if we want to understand the past, we need to study the information, but if we want to understand the future, we need to sense where the energy is going.

    Money is that communal energy and right now it is spiraling into an economic vortex and will continue to do so, as those holding all that government debt will, when no more can be issued, trade it for public assets, from highways to water systems and charge for their use, further draining wealth out of the larger community. In the rest of the world, this is referred to as disaster capitalism and is the extension of slavery and colonialism abstracted.

    As medium, it is like blood and when the head and heart tell the hands and feet they don’t need so much blood and should work harder for what they do get, the whole organism dies, the organs from too much and the extremities from too little.

    That is the issue which will need to be dealt with.


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