There is a religion which oppresses women, which is enthusiastically adopted by marginalised groups, which hates democracy and which has declared the modern world to be a heresy they call “Americanism”. This religion, which is run entirely by men, demands of its adherents loyalty to a small group of clerics overseas, in a pseudostate set up by extremists. Its doctrine, to be sure, is hardly consistently adopted by many of its followers who have adapted to democratic civil society, but taken at face value that doctrine requires a theocracy imposed upon all who live under its rule. It has underlain many wars and atrocities, and collaborates with dictatorial states so long as they support its interests, although it has been known to turn on them too, when the chance arises.

Adherents of this religion are often accused of being terrorists and disloyal to their home nation. They are said to follow a legal system that they put above the laws of the land, and to undertake religious wars in the name of justice. Secularists have often attacked this religion in the name of modern society, and egalitarianism, which this religion opposes. It has generally rejected attempts at cross religious dialogue or tolerance for nonbelievers. It opposes secular education, and has set up schools run by clerics and religious authorities to ensure that its next generation is unaware of alternative views. It has media figures that attack everything they hate and wish to impose their views upon those who are not part of its society.

Clerics in this religion attack socially progressive viewpoints and proponents as going against the will of God, and insist that the only way to live is theirs, and so they justify horrible atrocities like killing Jews, stealing children, and prohibiting medical treatment of various kinds because it offends them as a way to “make the world just”.

What is this religion? It is Catholicism.

Any student of recent history (for a historian, the last 200 years are recent) knows these things about Catholicism. As recently as my childhood (granted, that is a long time ago in dog years) people were declaiming that the Catholics would outbreed us all (us being Protestants, and in my suburb, Anglicans and Presbyterians) and throwing stones at their children.

Ask yourself, gentle reader: do you fear the coming Catholic takeover of your democratic society? Sure, the various popes and archbishops (and one cardinal in particular) say fundamentally indecent things about how the rights and welfare of women and children are to be subordinated to the interests and dogmas of the Church, and if they had half a chance they’d block abortion even in life or death situations for mothers, but secular societies have forced the rank and file to accept that they are not in charge, and that they must live by the laws and mores of a modern society. Most Catholics in western societies even think contraception is acceptable, and more than half agree divorce and abortion are okay as well.

So why don’t we scream in the streets that Catholics are a threat to our values, way of life, and safety? Because they have changed how they live, and in the process, changed their religion as well. In the short space of a century (and believe me, in the lifetime of a religion, that is very short indeed) we have gone from the Catholic Church arrogating to itself the role of theocratic arbiter of what is right in every country to it being one among a plurality of religions, viewpoints and ways of life. More remains to be done, but it happens.

The same thing will happen with Islam. Indeed, Muslims have been enthusiastic adopters of secularism in many countries (pre-revolution Iran, pre-Erdogan Turkey, Indonesia) already. Most of the extremists are from the countryside, and rural peasants always are more conservative than urbanites, no matter what the nation, ethnicity or religion. But there’s another concern here: the sacrificial lamb, to use a religious metaphor.

Jews know this. They were used to justify every grab for power and money from Richard II to Hitler, and to denigrate every nation from Spain to America. They were a nice distraction from the real issues facing a political elite. Problems with the economy? The Jews. Problems with employment? The Jews. Terrorist acts by (in recent years) Muslims? The Jews set it up.

Muslims have a large number of extremists, to be sure, among their ranks. I suspect, however, this has more to do with dislocation, dispossession and marginalisation than it does with the admittedly awful doctrines of Islam, just as it did with Catholics before them. Dislocate, dispossess and marginalise any group at all, and they will become extremists. Workers in Europe before the Third Reich were the same (and unions were a convenient whipping boy for the Nazis also, as they are in rapaciously capitalist America). Kick a group long enough and it will try to kick back.

I have personally known many urbane, sophisticated, secular and science-based Muslims, working at a medical research institute for a decade. They came from the Arabian peninsula, from Pakistan, Turkey and other nations. All that mattered for them to be medical researchers was that they adopted the science. Likewise, all that matters for a Muslim to be a good citizen of a secular democratic nation is that they adopt our laws, civic values and practices. And they are. But marginalise them, exclude them from public discourse, and take away their citizenship, and you get what you should expect.

Humans evolved in tribes, our species’ equivalent of the general primate troop structure. This meant that members of the tribe benefited from shared resources, the protection of the group and the inherited knowledge of the tribe. It also meant that we will natively and naively defend our group against others, and demonise the other groups. You see it in sports, culture, nations and religions. You see it in class, gender wars (there’s a reason men tend to denigrate and discriminate against women and intersex) and age cohorts. And recently, Australia has been showing it in spades: beginning with the racist dog whistles of government policy towards refugees over the past decade (yes, Labor, I’m including your execrable craven cowardice too!). And right now that tribalism is being used to take away legal rights that Australians have enjoyed for over 60 years. We are giving up rights like the presumption of innocence, public accountability of government, and general human rights.

I also see tribalism in the attacks by the antireligious on all religious believers (in fact much of the tribalism of the skeptical community stems from attacks upon Islamic belief, just as the current rash of state sponsored racism does). The irony here is that the reason the West hates Islam is because it used to be a competition between Christendom and the Caliphates for control over territory; and now it is the competition for control of oil resources. That irony is lost on the supposedly progressive skeptics movement, almost all of the time.

The fact is, it is not progressive humanistic thinking to replace one set of tribalisms with another set; that’s just hypocrisy and self-serving behaviour. We can get that at the local store – why do we need to be skeptics to do that? Why do we need to promote sexism or anti-non-Western attitudes in what should be a rational movement?

I want to say that rationality leads away from these tribalisms, but in fact rationality is, as old David H said, a slave to the passions, and sometimes (most of the time?) those passions are self-interested in the extreme. Sure, there were the cosmopolitan rational thinkers like Russell, or Tom Huxley, but they would not even get a decent twitter following these days. You gots to hate if you wants the fans.

I’m sick of it. No more labels for me: there are people and their actions. If they act well, I don’t give a flying fornication what their label is. And if they don’t, I don’t care they are supposed to be my peeps. I’m an anti-semic from now on.

Err… wait a minute…

This is about Australian politics, so please ignore it if you do not care.

In New South Wales there is a quasi-judicial investigative organ called the Independent Commission against Corruption, or ICAC (which a certain news empire’s rags insist upon calling “Icac” to avoid focusing on the meaning of the acronym). It has uncovered extensive political corruption of both sides of politics. Recently a similar body was proposed for the federal parliament, but was opposed by those who stand to suffer under its regulation and investigation.

I think this is too limited and too open to political manipulation. Instead I think we should refer back to a traditional role, a number of examples of which still exist in Australia – that of Inspector General.

There is an IG of of Intelligence and Security, of Taxation, of the Australian Defence Force, of Biosecurity, of Animal Welfare, and of Emergency Management in Victoria. Each of these, along with a number of Ombudsmen at Federal and State levels. Each does an important job, but the whole thing is piecemeal and uncoordinated. I would like to suggest a general and coordinated law and organisation: A Federal Inspectorate General. As I envisage it. this would be the government investigative and enforcement agency, similar to judicial and police organs, responsible for checking all official and political activity in the federal government and its agencies.

Each ministry and subject agencies would have its own IG, and there would be a Chief IG overseeing the whole organisation, reporting to parliament. The funding would be determined by an external and nonpartisan committee, and the parliament would be forced to make the funds available, by law, based on that committee’s report. No sitting or past members of parliament or any office bearer of a political party could sit on that committee or act as an IG.

The law would make it mandatory for there to be an IG for each ministry and agency that reports to a minister or the parliament. The IG would investigate all activities for any illegal and unbecoming activities by a federal politician or member of the public service, and refer such cases to the director of public prosecutions in the jurisdiction concerned. All finance of politicians that breached the law would be investigated, as would corruption in any part of a government department. This would also mean that if an IG of, say, the security agencies, found that an agency was behaving illegally or contrary to stated policies, they could bring proceedings against the individuals and sections concerned. At present, they cannot, which means that because of secrecy, such acts are never prosecuted.

States should do something similar, and ensure that such bodies are out of the control or retribution of either politicians or other public bodies. But most of all, we need a federal body like an Inspectorate General.

This one is about Australian politics. International readers may ignore it.

There has been a lot of media and internet hype and fun had about the silly and unfair Australian government and its abortion of a budget in which the poor, the unemployed and the future of our nation, students, are unfairly targeted while the rich are “penalised to the extent of having to maybe cut back on their fine wine purchases a bit. Yes, John Oliver had fun pointing out the idiocy perpetrated by Tony Abbott, but this is not about fairness, or rather, this is about justice (and fair behaviour that is just).

Our government, which came in as an ideological hard line government (voters who say now “I didn’t expect this” have no excuse; it was all flagged years back, and you ignored it), has refused to increase taxation upon those who can best afford to contribute to the Common wealth they exploit. It permits the very rich to save on taxation by allowing them to use superannuation funds, which were designed to provide the less-well-off a retirement income, and to use the purchase of housing they do not intend to live in (“negative gearing”), as taxation breaks. Hence, all the so-called deficit in government spending, which could be recouped directly by abolishing both measures, is foregone.

It has refused to cut the vast amount of government aid to the least deserving of all our economic activities – mining – to the tune of at least $4.5 billion per annum. It has, however, cut subsidies to employee-heavy industries like manufacturing, with a loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

It has made the cost of getting an education, which was made the prerequisite for every career over the past twenty years, so high that only the well-off can now get one. This takes us beyond the days before education was made free by the Whitlam government in the 1970s, because at least then there was an extensive merit-based scholarship scheme run by the government. Now there is none, unless the universities offer a few. And vocational training is now offered by shonky private operators whose primary interest is getting federal money, not actually, you know, teaching students how to do stuff.

It has made the cost of just going to the doctor a choice between medical treatment and food for the least well-off. A $7 copayment doesn’t seem much until you realise that those with long term illnesses must go to the doctor, get tests, have x-rays, etc., literally dozens of times a month, blowing out the cost to them to hundreds of dollars that, as chronically ill people, they probably cannot cover. It also increased the cost of pharmaceuticals for all.

It has told the most vulnerable – young people – they must somehow get by for six months of every year without any unemployment benefits if they can’t find a job (see above, loss of jobs) or study (see above, cost of education). Kids who for no fault of their own cannot find any work must live on the streets. The kids who have any kind of mental illness will be the most harmed, as they are the most vulnerable. These are the kids who cannot manipulate the rather nasty bureaucratic barriers to getting help.

This is not how a wealthy and democratic nation behaves. This is not how a decent society behaves. So we have to ask: why are we behaving this way?

Partly we do so because this is how the media (run largely by Murdoch, because a past Labor government piked out from preventing media monopolies) tells us to behave. Daily there are overblown stories about how the unemployed are ”rorting” the system (shades of Reagan’s fictional “welfare queen”), so that the employed, who have no unemployed family members, are given permission to hate the unemployed.

Partly we do so because the identifiable groups who most need help are the groups our politicians slyly point towards without using overtly racist language: aborigines, refugees, and the underclass of the “not of English ancestry”. Australia is a deeply and ubiquitously racist country, but we do it shamefacedly, without admitting that we are racists. Our politicians (on both sides) have played this race card again and again; so often in fact that we do not even realise we are being racist when we say “turn back the boats” of “illegal” refugees (no refugee is illegal; and the language is deliberate).

So we now have a society that treats the poor and vulnerable worse than we did in the days of paternalism and institutionalisation. We don’t even provide medical care for refugees in our concentration camps. What. The. Fuck.

This happened slowly, with the willing cooperation of both sides of politics. The once-progressive Labor party became a corporatist economic party. Corporate interests have no concern for people; they care only about profits, and we have seen increasingly immoral behaviours by corporations in Australia as they test the water and wait for the backlash, which, not forthcoming, encourages them to act even worse. Our banks are the leaders, taking fees where no service or cost is incurred.

We became acclimatised to behaviours and policies that a few decades earlier would have been rejected even by conservatives as fascist. Basically, we live now in a fascist culture, where corporations and governments act without concern for real people, in favour of abstractions like “nation” or “the economy”.

There is some hope, in the rise of minor parties. Even the Palmer United Party is better than the conservatives or Labor, because at least Palmer recognises that the “budget emergency” is bullshit, and that the extreme measures in the recent budget are acts of ideological bastardry. The major parties represent only the interests of the “big end of town” (and have done, in my view, since 1980), and some people are waking up to this. But unless Labor stands firm and blocks the budget – the whole budget, not just the bits they personally wouldn’t have put in – it makes no difference. The corporatists have won. We now live, if we can live, at their pleasure. It’s the new feudalism.

This is unjust. The reason it is unjust has to do with the best (and in my view only viable) definition of justice, by John Rawls. A just law or policy is one that is framed without reference to a knowledge of one’s own position in society. According to Rawls, you must draw a “veil of ignorance” over yourself when drafting policies. You mustn’t make laws that favour your own. This government, however, is doing nothing else. All the beneficiaries of this government’s policies (and only most of the beneficiaries of the previous government) are the well-off, the high income earners and the investors. They know themselves and make policies to serve their own interests. That is why it is unjust to do these things.

When faced with an unjust government and society, there are few options. Peaceful protest will go only as far as those in power permit, and at least two state governments have legislated to remove the rights of protest when it doesn’t suit government (Victoria and Queensland). This repressive behaviour has only one outcome: riots. If people are not permitted to protest, and protests are ignored, violence will result. I don’t like it, and I don’t condone it, but it is inevitable. If they don’t back down, there will be riots in Australia before the end of this year, I warrant.

In March I joined a spontaneous protest (March in March) at which over a quarter of a million Australians protested across the nation. It was barely even mentioned by the media, and when it was they focused on a few extremists. Abbott even joked about it. When you ignore that much of the population, you can expect bad results. In public relations we are told one letter equals 100 attitudes. Even supposing one attendee represented only two oppositions, that’s nearly 1 in 28 voters. Assume each protester represented ten objectors, and you have 1 in 7. Objections in the polls to these policies, however, run at over 50% (58% in yesterday’s poll). When more than one in two voters hate what you are doing, attention must be paid.

How it will work out I cannot say. I hate how my country has abandoned the decency of the sixties and the principles of a fair and just society. I don’t know if any other countries outside Scandinavia are any better, but that’s besides the point: I want my country to be one I can be proud of, as I used to be when I was a youth, even during the Vietnam era.

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

So far I have made out the following arguments:

  • Evolution does in fact debunk moral realism, as the fitness bearer for a moral claim is the agent in relation to others in their group, not the truth of the claim
  • There is no Milvian Bridge, therefore, from success due to actions based upon moral claims to the truth of those claims
  • Instrumental facts necessary for taking successful action are not moral facts
  • Morality is based upon the Primate Standard Social Structure of social dominance relations, as instantiated in humans (uniquely, perhaps)
  • It relies upon there being classes of agents in a large society, as the number of individuals we can track is sharply constrained
  • With the Neolithic transition to sedentary agrarian populations, we began to need rules of behaviour that exceeded small group size norms
  • With the arising of states, we began to develop rules of the city, in which loyalty and cooperation is owed to institutions
  • With industrial/colonial states, morality becomes an economic, consequentialist, system of rules

This leads to some conclusions that many may find objectionable: as the environment (and here I mean all the affordances of the surroundings of a social group, including other groups and trading opportunities, as well as agriculture and other natural resources) changes, the optimal rules also change. Morality is therefore not something that is constant among human populations. Some rules may stay more or less constant, but the overall scheme does not, and hence neither do the underlying justifications for moral rules.

This deeply undercuts the reason for an evolutionary ethics, a popular enterprise in the late nineteenth century that built upon the long standing tradition of finding moral exemplars in nature (even in the book of Proverbs: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise”, 6:6). Evolutionary ethics proceeded in two ways:

  1. Look for a human universal moral nature, and argue that this gives us moral ends
  2. Look at other species for exemplary cases and argue that this justifies human morality

The trouble with 1 is that the human universals always tend after a while to evaporate, or turn out to be over interpretation by researchers keen to find precursors to Christian, European, capitalist social norms, in part to justify the universality of those norms, and in part to justify the subjugation of other cultures as being incompletely evolved and in need of paternalistic oversight (by colonialists). Evolutionary psychology continues to do this from time to time (as, to be fair, also does most other psychology of a certain kind). It seems it is very hard to not think of one’s own values as somehow privileged and the best. I’ll get back to that.

The trouble with 2 is that it fails the phylogenetic test. What ants, antelope or antbirds do has very little bearing upon what humans do. Even if they inhabit the same or a closely analogous environmental challenge, as soon as you delve into the details of how behaviours are enacted and what particulars in the environment these other species exploit, the analogy quickly goes away. In short, as I have argued in my book The Nature of Classification, you get nothing out of an analogy that you didn’t insert in setting it up, and so it is again too easy to privilege one’s own moral values.

The famous Naturalistic Fallacy presented by G. E. Moore in his 1903 Principia Ethica was in fact a direct attack upon the idea that we could get moral goods (“the Good”) from observation of natural facts, and was a rebuttal against the evolutionary ethicists such as Herbert Spencer. No matter what fact one describes, one can always ask “but is it the Good?”. I believe evolution implies that nothing is the Good in and of itself. As Shakespeare so rightly had Hamlet say: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” [Act II scene 2]. Moral claims cannot be justified by facts unless a hidden premise is added that such facts are good or bad, and of course this is viciously circular. Evolved capacities may permit cooperation and enhance fitness; they do not justify values.

This sets up a conundrum that confronts me when I am asked why I am moral, as I said in the introduction to this series. Yes, apes follow norms, and enforce them, and we are apes. What else would I expect? But why am I moral in this way, and not some other? Insert your favourite moral monstrosity here involving Nazis…

And that is a harder question. Why do I continue to think that it is moral to look after the weak and poor in my society, even though Market Fundamentalism has taken over and discarded them? Why do I think I have a duty of care to look after anyone’s children in distress, not merely those I am closely related to? How is this justified?

And this gets back to my privileging my own values. Of course I do. As Hilary Putnam once wisecracked, I should use somebody else’s values? They are mine and would lead to a world I would prefer. But I cannot justify them beyond saying they are what I regard as virtues. In other words, moral foundations are not ever justified; they are chosen or acquired in some manner, and perhaps reflected upon if one is some kind of a philosopher (amateurs welcome!). A duty is a duty because it is a duty. I am a virtue ethicist, which is a shock, because evolutionists are not supposed to be. I do not justify, though I might explain, my values. They are just my values. Whatever ants, crocodiles and eland may do, I am a human being who prefers a certain type of world, and so I act to bring it about. Utilitarian considerations of greater fitness are almost irrelevant.

This rather existentialist position is not, I think, popular among moral philosophers, although it is very popular among so-called Continental philosophers who read their Nietzsche (from whom I did not get it, by the way, and whose moral norm choices I would tend to repudiate). It raises all kinds of difficulties, such as the “what about the Nazis?” objection. But I think I can deal with those. In the end, evolution explains why we have moral norms and why some moral norms are widespread (especially those that favour relatives – nepotism is a moral rule and more widespread than ethics texts indicate), but it doesn’t ever justify moral rules except instrumentally.

For the record, most of my moral rules are of a Millian liberal bent (not my public polity rules, but in private, I should be free to do what I want so long as nobody’s rights are violated). But I cannot justify this beyond a fundamental value that my life is my own to do with as I wish without undue coercion. I can’t prove this; but just try to take it away.

We tend to think that there must be a fundamental moral set of facts that justify our (or perhaps someone else’s) moral norms. I think this is a mistake of language (the language game of moral philosophy, inherited from theology), as any good Wittgensteinian should. I think moral specifics are justified by moral generalities, and there the justification game stops. I must be moral – I’m a pretty normal ape. But I can only be moral according to my values, and there’s an end to discussion.

So, to answer in more detail my theological interlocutor: I am moral because that is the human thing. I am moral this way because I want a world without interference in people’s lives, especially mine and my children’s. This is because I care about them, and to be consistent I must care about others (bring in Rawl’s Original Position argument here). I think it works for apes like us.


Moore, George Edward. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, John. 1971. A theory of justice. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

In any field that has statistical variation, it is necessary to isolate the variables. Biology is all about statistical variation of populations, and so we must expect that any account of morality that is based upon biology will have variation along a number of axes. Here I wish to sketch out what the variables might be.

All human dispositions vary in individuals [Why dispositions and not behaviours or beliefs? Read my series on Evopsychopathy. We evolved to be disposed to acquire beliefs and behaviours in particular ways, not to acquire beliefs and behaviours directly as a result of any level of selection]. That is, a population will have a distribution curve of traits for any traits that can vary individually and independently. Given my account of moral dispositions in the previous posts, I suggest that we can usefully begin to visualise moral dispositions in the following manner:

  1. There will be tails for any distribution that are seen as over-cooperative (“saintly”) or under-cooperative (“evil”). This is a fact of statistical distributions.
  2. Norm enforcement exists to deal with the detection and sanctions of deviant behaviours like these.
  3. Depending on the value of the variable, sanctions will be applied against such deviation:
    1. Rewards for cooperators, unless the cooperation causes coordination problems (there is such a thing as being too saintly)
    2. Punishments for defectors: precautionary measures included.
  4. If there is a stable mode in the populational distribution, it will represent the average best tradeoff of costs over benefits to cooperation. However, in unstable environments (say, constant invasion, or changing trade conditions), the mode may be a transitory optimum, and possibly one that is best adapted to past conditions, given the delay in social adaptation. If things are too chaotic, it may be the mode represents only the more conserved behaviours, and not any kind of optimum at all.
  5. If there is a skewed distribution of behavioural dispositions, then the null hypothesis must be that there is some selective pressure to which a population has not yet adapted, and a mode that trades off costs and benefits (at that level) optimally. If there is a flat normal distribution, then either there is no selection on that axis, or it has been greatly relaxed. A tight and high normal distribution suggests high levels of selection on that axis.

The implications of these considerations are that the mere existence of a norm is no guarantee that it tracks past success (at that level of fitness bearer), and so we ought not expect that the moral landscape is an adaptive landscape to which morals have adapted, as Sam Harris has it doing. To show that this is the case, we would need to show that the context of the norm (biological, cultural, economic, etc.) is stable for long enough for the distribution of the population to normalise under selection. But let us suppose that we have such a case. What then?

Individuals within the population will tend also to vary in their dispositions over some curve. Some will be at the tails, most will be at the mode or near it, and some in between. What are these dispositions? From my fundament (sorry, from fundamental considerations) I offer these as a first cut:

  1. Other-regarding v self-regarding. This is a general cognitive style, not restricted to morality. It has been called the hererist–autist axis in studies of autism spectrum disorders, which can be seen as the extreme end of a general dispositional distribution.
  2. Virtue consequence. This is where an agent treats rules for their own sake (virtue) or as expedient means to an end (consequence). This is a standard distinction in moral philosophy.
  3. Conservatism v progressivism. This is the disposition of an agent to adopt or retain rules. Some people are disposed towards novelty (“early adopters”), while others are disposed against it (“late adopters”). In times of moral norm change, there will be some who hold out against changing behaviours no matter the consequences.
  4. Narrow v wide scope. Some will tend to broaden the scope of cases under which a rule is applied, while others will tend to be more restrictive. We might call the narrow case appliers legalists and the broad case appliers liberalists.
  5. Reflexivity v mimicry. Some tend to reflect upon the intension, or meaning, of a norm in their moral development. Others simply follow the observed pattern and do not reach any kind of reflective equilibrium (and of course most are somewhere in between these poles).

Now it is possible that these are not independent; that all conservatives are self-regarding virtue ethicists, narrow in their application of norms, and mimics; but if so, that is to be demonstrated empirically. I suspect that while there may be concentrations like this, there will be a spread of alternatives in the population. The modal distributions on this 5-space will be contextual and historical instances of strategies that work in a given environment, not universals about human behaviours. These are context-dependent peaks in the 5-space, and what counts as fit in moral terms depends on what resources and costs there are in the environment. Dawkins once used the metaphor of a Gangster Society (like 1930s Chicago). If you live in such a society, you have limited alternatives to be nice. If, on the other hand, you live in a Society of Friends, it is easier and more rewarding to be a grifter.

Societies can be flat, or they can be structured. The larger the population and the more diverse the ethnicity, the more hierarchical I expect a society to be. That is, those who have all the wealth and control will be a small, ethnically constrained, elite class. In a structured society like this, where upward mobility is difficult if not impossible, pressure from below will tend to undermine the societal norms in favour of class or ethnic norms. Conflict will ensue (this is hardly surprising news).

And finally, I would suggest that moral norms are heavily scaffolded. By this I mean that the development of moral norms is something that individuals receive from the social order and enforcement as they mature. Nobody reconstructs moral norms individually. You get them from your socialisation. An anarchical morality is a theoretical possibility, but in fact, it is impracticable. Even the most libertarian of rugged individuals gets their moral norms through socialisation. You couldn’t get them by experience. Consider how that would have to play out:

  • You would have to draw general conclusions from first principles, and where would they come from?
  • You would need to set up your own norms as hypotheses, out of an indefinitely large number of alternatives, and test them against the behaviours of members of your society.
  • You would deed to have some independent criteria for success of these hypotheses.

In short, moral norms are under determined by observation. Now suppose that you simply do what others do (mimic behaviours), and are sanctioned for this (rewarded or punished). Your norms will evolve rather quickly as action-guiding rules, without much if any reflection upon them and their justification. In short, the reward and lack of punishment is the criterion of success. This is much simpler.

But even reflection upon norms is scaffolded. Norms are justified by the social context (“God wills it”; “it is your duty as an X”, “what would life be like if everyone did that?”). When you first start to reflect upon the norms, these questions and a host of proffered answers, are the tools an agent will begin with. Few range far from these. Reflection is widespread, but not very deep.

All this leads to the diversity of moral behaviours and development one sees in a complex society, and indicates the difficulty in finding universals among all societies. Biology underpins moral behaviour, but at best our biology is an adaptation to constantly changing environments rather than to a singular social structure (whether 1950s suburban American capitalism, or to semi-nomadic foraging societies).

The final post will be “How should I choose to be moral, given evolution?”

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

Humans are apes, evolutionarily speaking. That is, while we are named distinctly in the vernacular usage from the rest of the apes (chimp, bonobo, gorilla, orang-utan, gibbons x 2), we fall squarely within the great ape clade. As such, we might expect that we share with them a social nature.* As I said in the first post, social living is what apes do. Moreover, apes have and enforce social norms. Usually this is based upon mating strategies that are typical for the species. Gorillas, for instance, live in troops of females with young, and a single male (a silverback) that defends mating rights against other unattached (“bachelor”) males. Common chimps live with in troops of several dozen, with an alpha male and several subordinate males. Bonobos have roughly equal numbers of adult males and females, and the alpha individuals can as easily be female as male. Dominant females also occur in chimps when no male is mature enough to compete for the top position.

In each species, norms are enforced by, in the first instance, the dominant individual (usually a male, as I said), who punishes those who fail to recognise the norms, and, in the case of dual gender social group species like chimps and bonobos, reward their allies. Frans de Waal has documented these behaviours in a series of engaging books [listed below]. Roughly, the smaller the sexual dimorphism (differences in size and traits between the sexes), the more equal the gender mix of a social group, and the more a dominant individual must “negotiate” cooperation within their troop. The reason for this is that if extreme polygyny is the rule, as in gorillas, the bigger the male has to be able to control access to his females. Bonobos, on the other hand are nearly the same size – males are around 10% larger than females, and the gender balance is more equal.

Humans, however, have even less sexual dimorphism than bonobos: the average size dimorphism is around 5% for males over females. And our mating strategies are much more equal: mates tend to be singles rather than multiples. Each species has its own version of the Primate Standard Social Structure (PSSS). Since, if we wish to understand human morality, we must consider how we vary and are the same as our nearest relatives, let me set this up, as I understand it.

The PSSS is based upon primates living in troops of varying size. A troop can be a family group, or it can be a more distantly related kin group. Outbreeding occurs when chances of meeting other troops is rare enough to ensure inbreeding among the troop members, but common enough that mates can be acquired from other neighbouring troops. Each troop tends to have its own range, and in chimps, for example, conflict at the borders of these ranges, and attempts to take control of resources and territory, can be quite vicious. Generally, however, primate interactions within the troop are peaceful, and involve only threat displays rather than actual violence.

Pairwise conflicts and transactions set up a dominance hierarchy among primates. Each individual tracks those troop members they are dominant, subordinate, or equal to, and thus a pyramid of relationships evolves over time, as members mature and challenge for status. High status individuals have first choice of mates, food and other resources like resting places. They permit secondary choices to the next rank, and so on. Generally these dominance hierarchies are fluid and not well defined past the third layer, of “gamma” individuals. As the dominant individual ages, younger members may challenge for the top position, often forming alliances with other individuals. Dominant individuals reward their allies and well-behaved individuals in the troop, and punish those who transgress the status quo (if they can). Grooming is one way that primates tend to reinforce these social relations: the higher the status, the more well groomed by others an individual is.

Troops have a maximum size, based on the working memory constraints for tracking cooperators and defectors. The more complex the signs of these behaviours, the smaller the maximum size of the troop. When the troop exceeds this threshold, it will split, spontaneously.

Now humans are apes, as I said, and so we should expect that humans will behave the same way as the other primates, and especially apes, do, because behavioural repertoires are evolutionarily inherited from species to species, which then adapts its species-typical social structure to suit the mating strategies employed. It is unclear what the sequence of human social adaptation and evolution was, but we can make some inferences from so-called “traditional” or “foraging” societies, which used to be called “hunter-gatherers” before anthropologists realised that most of the food was gathered, and very little hunted, in these societies, depending upon the environment.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University, has christened what has come to be known as “Dunbar’s Number”, which is the mean size of social groups in human societies: 100-250, which an average of 150. He has argued that this is due to our cognitive limits at tracking reciprocal relations with individuals. We can only manage to keep track of around 150 social relationships, including family and their mates. Consequently, our social groups are usually about this size. In foraging societies, this is roughly the size of an unstructured tribe or village. By “unstructured”, I mean that there is no fixed social set of institutions that divide labor up and establish a ruling class, to which I shall return later.

So the end result is that a human troop will tend to be around 150 individuals (or greater – some researched put the number at around 300), and there will be only a pairwise-formed dominance hierarchy in such societies. The rules of cooperation are troop-based: one owes most support to relatives, and any support at all to troop members, not members of other troops, although territorial disputes may be managed in a ritual fashion akin to ape threat displays. One thing that is unique to humans, however, is that we trade resources between troops. In Paleolithic Europe, stone tools have been found as far away as 3000km from where they were mined and shaped. So our contacts between troops must be regulated by some shared norms.

This, too, is primate behaviour in the PSSS. Troops generally live in “bands” of up to several thousand individuals. In Australian aborigines in the southeast of the continent, regular gatherings of troops were held, to exchange mates and resources and undergo ritual behaviours that strengthened ties. Called “corroborees” by Europeans, these meets were social, political, and economic events, and happened regularly (every four or five years for southeastern aborigines).

A morality based solely upon troop (tribe) dynamics, therefore, will tend to treat others well only in proportion to the degree of troop (or band) inclusion, and the norms are those of the troop and band. Humans have one rather obvious added complexity: culture. We have highly diverse local cultures, and therefore cultural norms. It pays to distinguish between our biological (species-typical) dispositions to form norms culturally, and the norms themselves. As apes, we have the dispositions. As cultural agents, we have the cultural norms.

Something happened to human societies in the late Neolithic, so marked it is called the “Neolithic transition”. Agriculture made it possible for social groups to grow well beyond Dunbar’s Number in a very short time, speaking from an evolutionary viewpoint. High density populations of thens of thousands now lived in well marked regional territories, which had to be defended, as arable land and water resources were not uniformly distributed. Some cultures became semi-nomadic herders, while others became crop growers. Urbanisation began to occur, and now there had to be norms of the city (in Greek, polis, from which we get behavioural terms like politics, polite, and police, the norm enforcers).

Now the working memory constraints were well-exceeded, and as a result, norms began to be taught as codified rules. Moreover, thinkers began to identify obligations to those who were not part of one’s social network and familial groups. Out of this, morality was born (the term morality comes from m?s, plural m?res, a Latin word meaning “usage” or “custom”). The problem of morality is, I believe, a problem of urbanisation.

If this is the way to see the origins of morality, and as Sterelny and Fraser argue, morality is about the best ways to reinforce cooperative behaviour, which is the fitness enhancer of moral behaviour. Darwin held that it enabled groups (“villages”) to prosper over other groups, and so he is often thought to have provided a group selectionist account, in which the villages are the beneficiaries of moral conformity. Individual selectionists, however, take an agent based view. An individualist selectionist account, however, as we saw, can only work if the agent is already part of a cooperative society, so the origination of that milieu is left as an accident.

I do not know what I shall next write about. This series is taking a turn I did not anticipate.


de Waal, Frans. 1982. Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among apes. London: Cape.

de Waal, Frans. 1989. Peacemaking among primates. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

de Waal, Frans. 1996. Good natured: the origins of right and wrong in humans and other animals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

de Waal, Frans. 2001. The ape and the sushi master: cultural reflections by a primatologist. New York: Basic Books.

de Waal, Frans. 2005. Our inner ape: a leading primatologist explains why we are who we are. New York: Riverhead Books.

Dunbar, Robin I. M. 1992. “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 22:469-493.

Dunbar, Robin I. M. 1998. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Dunbar, R. I. M. 2012. “Social cognition on the Internet: testing constraints on social network size.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367 (1599):2192-2201.

Dunbar, Robin I. M., Camilla Power, and Chris Knight. 1999. The evolution of culture: an interdisciplinary view. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


* Orangs are found in the wild in solitary ranges of males, encompassing several female smaller ranges. Females tend to bear single young, and raise them, but generally do not live in greater than pairs of mother and progeny. However, when orange are placed into groups, as in refuges and sanctuaries, they form social groups readily enough. It is possible that modern orang populations are relict populations living in marginal environments, and have recently adapted to this in the face of human (and possibly other, now-extinct, ape) incursion on their territories.