Plato’s description of the Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Just Substitute Biological and Cultural Evolution for Zeus

“In Plato’s Protagoras there is an avowedly mythical account (told by the Greek philosopher Protagoras) of how Zeus took pity on the hapless humans, who, living in small groups and with inadequate teeth, weak claws, and lack of speed, were no match for the other beasts. To make up for these deficiencies, Zeus gave humans a moral sense and the capacity for law and justice, so that they could live in larger communities and cooperate with one another.” (Peter Singer, 2005. “Ethics and Intuitions”)

“(This) gift, direct from Zeus, saved humankind from destruction: the gift of aidós and díkë: a sense of right and wrong. Importantly, Zeus instructed his messenger Hermes to give this not just to a few people but to everyone; and this universal sense of right and wrong – the foundation of civil society – was to be our salvation.” Plato, L Brown, A Beresford, Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics, Kindle Locations 215-220)

Substituting “biological and cultural evolution” for Zeus, we have:

Humans, living in small groups and with inadequate teeth, weak claws, and lack of speed, were no match for the other beasts. Biological evolution made up for these deficiencies by selecting for human moral sense and the capacity (after the emergence of culture) for law and justice. Cultural evolution selected for enforced cultural norms so that people could live in larger communities. Moral biology and enforced norms were selected for by a single selection force, the benefits of cooperating with one another.

This ‘gift’, direct from biological and cultural evolution, saved humankind from destruction: the ‘gift’ of aidós and díkë: a sense of right and wrong. Importantly, biological evolution gave this not just to a few people but to everyone; and this universal sense of right and wrong – the foundation of civil society – was to be our salvation.

Protagoras’ mythical account of why and how Zeus gave people a moral sense is the earliest account I am aware of (if we substitute “biological and cultural evolution” for Zeus) of the brand of evolutionary morality now coming out of science of morality studies.

But returning to Protagoras, “Socrates … aspires to something much more intellectually grounded and much less commonplace.” Plato, L Brown, A Beresford, Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics, Kindle Locations 229-230)

And in arguing (unfortunately successfully) for “something much more intellectually grounded and much less commonplace” Socrates launched most of the trouble and confusion in moral philosophy ever since.

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