Social Morality’s random walk through time

I recently read that people are preferentially suited to understand ideas presented in the form of stories with beginnings, middles, ends with twists, and surprise characters. This certainly describes the evolutionary origins of enforced cultural norms (social morality). Perhaps some readers will enjoy this story version of those events. Along the way, we will unearth a possibly culturally useful functionalist social morality consistent with Phillip Kitcher’s approach in his 2011 book “The Ethical Project”. Here, a functionalist social morality is a definition of morality based on the function, the primary reason they exist in societies, of enforced cultural norms.

The first actor comes on stage dressed as the mindless iterative process of variation, selection, and reproduction called biological evolution. Evolution can be understood as a random walk that, regardless of its random components, has created astonishingly complex and wonderful things.

Perhaps the most amazing biology we know is the human brain, the physical source of our experience of self and all our hopes and fears. Relevant to social morality, evolution in particular selected for the biological structures in our ancestor’s brains that motivate altruism: “Acting without consideration of future net benefits, at a cost to one’s self, and benefiting other people.”. These motivations are experienced as our emotions such as empathy, loyalty, guilt, and indignation (which can motivate altruistic punishment of ‘wrong’ doers).

For Darwin, altruism toward non-kin in particular presented an evolutionary puzzle. How could biological evolution, which selected traits based on reproductive fitness, select for traits which, at least in the short term, reduced the individual’s reproductive fitness? Altruism is a key trait that enabled our ancestors to enjoy, as social animals, the synergistic benefits of cooperation in groups.  This ‘moral’ biology exists as the central core of what makes human beings such successful social animals. Note that altruism was only ONE of our ancestor’s many biological strategies for increasing reproductive fitness. Others were and are quite nasty.

The second actor in our story is cultural evolution.

Evolution is a substrate neutral process. Variation, selection, and reproduction success, in the form of imitation and duplication, can also act on ideas and create cultural norms. Cultural evolution’s perhaps most useful cultural norms advocate altruism.  For example, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “All ought to accept the burdens of maintaining other people’s rights to equality under rule of law, and human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. These impressive ideas may be largely the products of observation and rational thought. But their selection and reproduction which made them culturally useful are distinctly the processes of cultural evolution.

After the emergence of enforced cultural norms, the selection forces (benefits) for altruistic behaviors could be almost whatever benefits of cooperation people found attractive, perhaps material goods benefits and psychological benefits, and not always reproductive fitness benefits. Enforced cultural norms advocating altruism were much more efficient means of promoting altruistic cooperation and, at least for cooperation with people who were not friends or family, made altruism motivated only by our biology almost obsolete.

The emergence of culture was the first radical shift in selection forces for altruistic behaviors away from reproductive fitness and toward whatever benefits of cooperation in groups that people found attractive. 

The third actor, which may be new to some, now comes on stage. This actor is a set of “altruism strategies” that have been recognized by science only in the last 60 years, and mostly in the last 30, but are as intrinsic to our physical reality and as objectively real as all mathematics that describes physical processes.

“Altruism strategies” are winning strategies for independent agents when the benefits for cooperation are greater than for individual action, which is the case in almost all environments people inhabit. Even though it is in the short term interest of each individual to attempt to exploit others and not act altruistically, it will be, on average, in each individual’s long term self-interests to act altruistically (will be a winning strategy) IF they can avoid being exploited.

These altruism strategies provide a universal solution for a universal cooperation problem for all independent agents, intelligent or not, biological or machine based, who have ever lived or who will ever live. They also summarize the forces that shaped our inner emotional lives to make us social animals.

It is time for the character surprise. Social Morality’s origin story has only one actor (besides our ancestors) who wears different cloaks. The first two actors are just the universal altruism strategies wearing the cloaks of biological and cultural evolution.

Darwin’s puzzle about biological altruism toward non-kin and the puzzle of enforced cultural norms that advocate altruism turn out to be the same puzzle. Both kinds of altruism are calibrated to exploit the benefits of cooperation in groups without being exploited. Biologically motivated altruism is paired with our emotion indignation that motivates retribution toward people who exploit altruism. Enforced cultural norms that advocate altruism are “enforced” by norms for group punishment of people who try to exploit other people’s altruism or, who do not, altruistically, refrain from harming or exploiting other people even when they really want to and think doing so would be beneficial.

We can identify our emotions that motivate altruism and our cultural norms that advocate altruism as moral emotions and enforced moral standards. These, respectively, motivate and advocate “altruistic behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”. Since increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups is the obvious reason for living in groups, these moral norms are those that govern the interactions of people in groups. These enforced norms define enforced social morality.

However, the emergence of money economies operating under rule of law overwhelmed the supremacy of socially enforced moral standards advocating altruism as the chief means for sustaining cooperation within groups. Cooperation based on money economies maintained by self-interest, not altruism, produced material goods incredibly more efficiently than socially enforced moral standards. Using a modern example, imagine the impossibility of using only socially enforced moral standards advocating altruism to motivate the cooperation of all the people needed to make a personal computer, including those who mined the ores for its metals and drilled for oil for its plastics.

The invention of money economies under rule of law made socially enforced moral standards advocating altruism largely obsolete for obtaining material goods and reproductive fitness. (Rule of law norms that advocate altruism in the sense of not “stealing, lying in court, or murdering”, even when the individual really wants to and thinks doing so would be beneficial, remain critically necessary.) This was the second radical shift in the function of morality (shift in the benefits of morality).  

Prior to the invention of money economies and rule of law, benefits of acting morally included material goods, reproductive fitness, and psychological rewards. In cultures that enjoy money economies and rule of law, acting morally may now be indifferent to or even reduce material goods benefits and reproductive fitness. The primary remaining benefit of acting morally in these advanced cultures may be only the psychological rewards originally evolved by our ancestors as a means of motivating cooperation in groups.  The original means of motivating moral behavior has, in many cultures, become its primary end.

The classical Greeks philosophers came on the scene after their cultures had already invented money economies under rule of law. They knew nothing about the two previous radical shifts in the function of morality (the two shifts in its benefits) and little to nothing about evolution and the unintuitive mathematics of game theory.

The classical Greeks lacked the tools needed to reveal the common principle underlying our emotions that motivate altruism and virtually all past and present enforced moral standards. That principle is:  “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral”. This is the definition of what can be called Altruistic Cooperation morality, the universal morality and mother of all social moralities.

Without the insights or tools needed to reveal Altruistic Cooperation morality, the Greek philosopher’s best option was to start down the path of attempting to answer very broad questions such as “What is good?” and “How should I live?”.  Moral philosophy has continued down this path since their time. Unfortunately, these broad questions may have no objective answers.  It is not surprising that mainstream moral philosophy is still seeking a consensus about the nature of morality and rational justification for accepting its burdens.

Understanding that the origins of our moral emotions and enforced moral standards are to be found in the intrinsic nature of reality in the form of altruism strategies offers a more defendable and straightforward approach (than do available alternatives) to the problem of deciding 1) what social norms ought to be enforced and 2) finding justifications (which turn out to be strong, but only instrumental) for accepting those norm’s burdens.

This picture of galaxies is a reminder that the basis of Altruistic Cooperation morality is an intrinsic aspect of physical reality. It is as objectively real as the mathematics of the altruistic game theory strategies that employ it. Though there was likely no life present to employ it, in a real sense Altruistic Cooperation morality was available when the fusion fires of the first star lit, and will still be available when the last star dies.

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