A Culturally Useful “Evolutionary Morality” from Morality’s Ultimate Source


This essay was first published on The Center for Humans and Nature’s website in response to their call for answers to the question “What can Evolution Tell Us about Morality?”

This essay, like the others found at the link, are based on the science of the last 45 years or so that shows that morality is a human adaptation  that increases the benefits of cooperation. Here are three clarifying responses to a few standard objections to deriving a moral principle from science. The proposed moral principle is:

  • Only a claim about what ‘is’ rather than what imperatively ought to be – so there is no necessary is/ought problem
  • Implied by a perhaps new perspective that the ultimate source of morality is a cross species universal dilemma, the cooperation/exploitation dilemma, which all species must solve if they are to achieve highly cooperative societies.
  • The moral principle that groups could decide to advocate for and enforce because they expect doing so will best meet the group’s needs and preferences.


What can Evolution Tell Us about Morality?

Well, first of all, the process of evolution itself is certainly not the ultimate source of morality. Evolution is only the process that encodes behaviors in our moral sense and cultural moral codes that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups—the apparent function of morality in human cultures. There is nothing necessarily moral in an absolute sense about these behaviors as is illustrated by the diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness of past and present cultural moral codes.

Game theory has revealed cooperation strategies, such as direct and indirect reciprocity, whose elements appear to be universally encoded in our moral sense and cultural moral codes. But game theory also reveals the cooperation benefits of dividing people into preferred in-groups and ignored, or even exploited, out-groups. There is nothing necessarily moral, again in an absolute sense, about cooperation strategies that exploit out-groups.

But consider the problem these cooperation strategies are solving. Could that problem itself be the ultimate source of morality?

In our physical reality, large benefits of cooperation are commonly available. However, initiating cooperation exposes one to exploitation. Exploitation is virtually always the winning strategy in the short term and can be in the long term. However, exploitation makes cooperation unsustainable. These circumstances set up a cross-species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma. How can species overcome exploitation’s short term “winning” hand in order to sustainably obtain the large benefits of highly cooperative societies?

Fortunately for us, our ancestors came across reciprocity strategies, such as direct and indirect reciprocity, that solve this dilemma. All such strategies include two elements: motivation to risk initiating cooperation and motivation to punish exploitation, though that punishment may just be public shaming or shunning. Encoding these solutions into our biology and cultural norms enabled us to become the incredibly successful social species we are. Since this cooperation/exploitation dilemma is innate to our physical reality, it defines an ultimate source of morality independent of biology, evolution, and game theory.

Further, there appears to be a cross-species universal subset of strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. These are strategies that exploit no one, that only advocate cooperation and punishment of exploitation.

This cross-species universal subset of strategies defines a candidate universal moral principle: “universally moral behaviors are elements of strategies that overcome the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting anyone.”

But the cooperation/exploitation dilemma is merely a claim about what “is” and the universal subset of strategies that solve it only define universally moral “means.” What our ultimate goals somehow “ought” to be is beyond science’s domain. Can we actually define a morality just based on moral “means” without specifying moral “ends?”

For many people, religious and secular alike, their best compact summary of morality is some version of “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” No goal is stated. All that is described is moral “means”—it is silent about moral “ends.” Knowledgeable Christians should be able tell you that Jesus said this version of the Golden Rule summarizes morality. This is an example of a moral principle that does not have to specify a goal in order to be culturally useful.

This version of the Golden Rule is also highly relevant. It is the best heuristic (imperfect as it is) I am aware of for initiating indirect reciprocity, arguably the most powerful strategy known for overcoming the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. So, if you follow the Golden Rule, you are already following a cross-species universal morality that is inherent to our physical reality.

Why might a group decide to advocate and enforce such an evolutionary morality? While science cannot tell us what we ought to do, science can tell us how we are most likely to achieve our needs and preferences. Many of our needs and preferences can be best met by cooperating with others. Groups could decide to advocate for and enforce such an evolutionary morality because they expect it to best meet their needs and preferences.

Of course, there would still have to be a tremendous amount of philosophical work done to go from the above universally moral “means” claim to the set of moral norms that would define a coherent, well-functioning cultural morality in all its complexity. In any event, the above statement of the principle underlying this candidate “evolutionary morality” might be worth exploring further.



Naturalization of Morality by Moral Facts from Science

Moral naturalism in modern moral philosophy proposes there are “natural facts” of one sort or another that provide an objective basis for what is and is not moral. Relevant science of the last 45 years or so supports the existence of such facts. However, I have never seen such natural facts specifically called out. Below is my proposed list of five. They provide a basis for morality that I find appealing. Comments are welcome.

In the following, “benefits of cooperation” are shared goals achieved by cooperation. “Indirect reciprocity” advocates punishment of “free-riders” along with cooperation with others regardless of whether they are expected to directly reciprocate. Additional explanatory information is in parentheses.

1) In our physical reality, benefits of cooperation are commonly available, and they can be particularly large for intelligent species.

2) However, initiating cooperation exposes one to exploitation by “free-riders”, those who accept help but refuse to provide help to others. (Exploitation of others is always a winning strategy in the short term and sometimes can be in the long term. Exploitation destroys motivation for cooperation and thus opportunities to obtain the benefits of cooperation.)

3) The above circumstances create the cross species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma: how to sustainably obtain benefits of cooperation without being exploited.

4) Cooperation strategies such as “indirect reciprocity” solve this universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma and are encoded in our moral sense and cultural moral norms. (The benefits of cooperation made possible by indirect reciprocity are the selection force for elements of indirect reciprocity encoded in our biology and cultural norms. For example, the emotions empathy and loyalty motivate initiating indirect reciprocity. But for indirect reciprocity to be maintained, exploiters must be punished. Thus we must expect that violators of these elements of indirect reciprocity, whether encoded into our biology or in cultural norms, will be commonly thought to deserve punishment. Cultural norms and judgments whose violation are commonly thought to deserve punishment are called moral norms and moral judgments in all cultures. This is the way science grounds the human moral sense and cultural moral codes in natural facts.)

5) Strategies such as indirect reciprocity that overcome our universe’s innate cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting others are universally moral, both empirically among people and theoretically for all intelligent beings.

Consider “Do not kill, steal, or lie”. These are norms whose violations are commonly thought to deserve punishment. These admonitions are heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb) for elements of indirect reciprocity. Each of us is admonished to not do these things to other people, even when we really want to, and they are expected to reciprocate and not do them to us.

Perhaps the most powerful known heuristic for indirect reciprocity is “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. Jesus is quoted as saying it summarizes morality. Science now tells us why it does.

The morality of applying the Golden Rule has been rightly criticized for certain circumstances, such as when dealing with criminals and in time of war or simply “when tastes differ”. Understanding the Golden Rule is a heuristic for indirect reciprocity clears up a lot of confusion. First, the Golden Rule advocates initiating a cooperation strategy. If you are not seeking to cooperate in some sense with a criminal or an enemy in time of war, it would make no sense to apply it. Second, when “tastes differ” and you know others would not like done to them what you would like done to you, then strictly following it would initiate conflict, not cooperation. Finally, the Golden Rule is not a moral principle. It is an incredibly useful, but fallible, heuristic for choosing moral behavior.

But what about moral norms that exploit out-groups such as “Women must be submissive to men” and “Homosexuality is evil!” or are markers defining favored in-groups such as “Cutting your hair disrespects God” or “Eating pigs is an abomination!”? Empirically, these moral norms are not universally considered moral. Theoretically, they are not universally moral to the extent they exploit out-groups. If we prefer morality that is universal, then we can cheerfully reject all of these norms as either immoral or morally irrelevant.

Like the rest of science, 1) to 5) are all ‘is’ claims. How do we know they are the basis for what morality ‘ought’ to be? We don’t. Science tells us nothing about what we imperatively ‘ought’ to do or what our goals ought to be. Moral philosophers remain fully free to continue pursuing perhaps unanswerable questions about what morality ‘ought’ to be. This science about morality is useful for the following reasons. It reveals strategies for achieving commonly shared goals such as increased well-being, saving the environment, and many other goals through increased cooperation. Also, since these strategies are what largely shaped our moral sense and codes, following their imp0lied morality will be uniquely motivating. Finally, since these strategies solve the cross-species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma, they can be expected to be recognized as moral ‘means’ by all sufficiently advanced intelligent beings and that universality is, in itself, attractive.

The moral binding power of this science comes from un-mysterious sources: the social force of cultures that advocate and enforce such a morality, the motivating power of our individual moral sense, and the intellectual charm of a universal, internally coherent morality.

Cultures need moral codes in order to survive and prosper. On the one hand we can choose moral codes based on the morality that is innate to our universe. On the other hand, we can define our morality based on theism, whatever our cultural morality happens to be, or on perhaps unanswerable philosophical questions such as “What is good?”, “How should I live?” and “What are my obligations?”. Or since this science based morality makes no claim to define what we imperatively ‘ought’ to do, is the implication that we can choose only one of these possibilities a false choice?

Perhaps at least theists and philosophers asking the above questions (which are both interesting and important) could improve the coherence and usefulness of their work by integrating in what science tells us morality ‘is’: solutions to the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma. Theists might even describe this science as the morality encoded into our physical universe by a benevolent god and thus available to all intelligent beings from the beginning of time to the end of time.