Beyond the paleo

by and 2600 2,600 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle

Beyond the paleo

A broader humanity: a volunteer from a French rescue team carries an injured girl during an evacuation from Tacloban, a city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, November 16, 2013. Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

Our morality may be a product of natural selection, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone

Allen Buchanan is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law at Duke University in North Carolina. His latest book is Better Than Human: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Ourselves (2011).

Russell Powell is a philosopher at Boston University, whose research interests include bioethics and biotechnology. His book, Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, is forthcoming.

2600 2,600 words
  • Read later
    • KindleKindle

For centuries now, conservative thinkers have argued that significant social reform is impossible, because human nature is inherently limited. The argument goes something like this: sure, it would be great to change the world, but it will never work, because people are too flawed, lacking the ability to see beyond their own interests and those of the groups to which they belong. They have permanent cognitive, motivational and emotional deficits that make any deliberate, systematic attempt to improve human society futile at best. Efforts to bring about social or moral progress are naive about the natural limits of the human animal and tend to have unintended consequences. They are likely to make things worse rather than better.

It’s tempting to nod along at this, and think humans are irredeemable, or at best, permanently flawed. But it’s not clear that such a view stands up to empirical scrutiny. For the conservative argument to prevail, it is not enough that humans exhibit tendencies toward selfishness, group-mindedness, partiality toward kin and kith, apathy toward strangers, and the like. It must also be the case that these tendencies are unalterable, either due to the inherent constraints of human psychology or to our inability to figure out how to modify these constraints without causing greater harms. The trouble is, these assumptions about human nature are largely based on anecdote or selective and controversial readings of history. A more thorough look at the historical record suggests they are due for revision.

Some conservative thinkers have argued that evolutionary theory provides a scientific foundation for the idea that human nature is fixed in this way. Unlike religious conservatives who reject Darwinian theory and the broader naturalistic world-view of modern science, these ‘evo-conservatives’ embrace evolutionary explanations of morality, and use them to bolster their political philosophy. Appealing to contemporary evolutionary accounts of human nature and morality might seem like an improvement on the pre-Darwinian conception of human nature that has dominated conservative philosophies since Edmund Burke in the 18th century. But in the end, evo-conservatism fails for largely the same reasons that its predecessor failed: it overestimates the ‘natural’ (read: biological) constraints on human moral capacities. As a consequence, it underestimates the potential that we humans have for moral progress.

Many evolutionists believe we can explain morality by appealing to Darwinian mechanisms, in particular to natural selection. Just as physical traits affect an organism’s chances of surviving and reproducing, they argue, so too can behavioural adaptations. Many traits, such as eyes and hearts, have straightforward adaptive functions, whereas others are functionally opaque. Some traits seem paradoxical from a Darwinian perspective because they appear on the face of things to reduce rather than enhance biological fitness. These traits are paradoxical because evolutionary theory entails that, all else being equal, costly traits should not proliferate. One important class of these paradoxical traits involves an organism performing some costly behaviour that confers fitness benefits on another individual, without any obvious return to the helper or its close genetic relatives (note this kind of altruism is different from helping of kin which has a well-established evolutionary explanation as ‘inclusive fitness’).

Of course, altruistic behaviour of precisely this sort is pervasive in human societies, and morality appears to have played an important role in its history. Many evolutionary anthropologists, such as Chris Boehm and Robert Boyd, argue that morality helped to sustain high levels of co-operation in early hunter-gatherer groups. Morality did this, so the explanation goes, by managing free-riding and other patterns of selfish behaviour via threat of punishment, and through the internalisation of moral norms that enable individuals to resist temptations to act in selfish ways. Higher levels of co-operation were beneficial to individual members of the co-operating group, since they allowed for a greater evolutionary return than if individuals had acted alone or as part of a group that did not co-operate effectively. Hunting large dangerous game such as mammoths and buffalo with simple weapons is impossible or prohibitively risky for any single individual. But in a large coordinated assault the risks are far lower, and the rewards reaped by co-operation are substantial.

In larger non-kin groups, however, co-operation will be undermined if some individuals are permitted to free-ride on the efforts of others, or if the spoils are hogged by a single individual or small subset of individuals. Many different evolutionary models have been put forward to account for the evolution of co-operation in humans, including theories of reciprocal altruism, indirect reciprocity, and punishment-reinforced reciprocity. But all of them maintain that morality evolved to enhance co-operation within a group.

In everyday life we tend to think of morality as warm and fuzzy, as ‘being good’: it might include virtues such as compassion, empathy, charity, and self-sacrifice. We often contrast our moral tendencies with our more aggressive or deceptive impulses. But once we realise that morality is, from a functional standpoint, an inherently group-based affair, we can see that it has a much darker side. Indeed, human societies typically enforce moral rules through institutionalised punishment in which many individuals within a given group must participate. Morality involves judgment, shame and exclusion as much as kindness. What is more, modelling work by the anthropologist Robert Boyd, the biologist Peter Richerson, the economist Samuel Bowles and their collaborators has shown that moralising punishment is likely to evolve only in the context of selection between groups. Which means that morality most likely evolved in an arena of intergroup conflict, in which violence and vigorous economic competition between groups was commonplace. This conclusion is consistent with archaeological, ethnographic and ethological data, too. As the archeologist Lawrence Keeley, the psychologist Steven Pinker, the anthropologist Chris Boehm, the primatologist Richard Wrangham and others have observed, intergroup conflict is common in extant and prehistoric hunter-gatherer bands, and is well established in chimpanzees.

Given this picture, we should expect human beings to extend moral consideration to members of their own group, while at the same time ruthlessly exploiting people from other groups. In short, we should expect evolution to have produced a human moral psychology that is group-ish and strategic in nature — one that takes other individuals to be part of the moral community if they are part of one’s co-operative group, or otherwise capable of contributing to or disrupting co-operative goods. Extending moral consideration to outsiders — especially those who are not in a position to reciprocate or who could be exploited without fear of reprisal — is maladaptive in a moral system that arose from competition between groups. In other words, a conventional evolutionary view is that morality involved as a way of bolstering in-groups and excluding others – that we are ‘hard-wired’ for tribal loyalties and conflicts.

This explanation has been used by some conservative thinkers to underpin a political belief – that human psychological limitations have placed significant constraints on the shape of plausible moral and political institutions. More inclusive moralities, they argue, premised on the equal moral worth of all human beings, or on the moral status of non-human animals, are not realistic for evolved beings such as us. The political philosopher Stephen Asma, the jurist Richard Posner, the international legal theorists Jack Goldsmith and Eric Posner, the political scientist Larry Arnhart and others argue that these evolved constraints on altruism undercut, or militate strongly against, the plausibility of a cosmopolitan political order.

But, this evo-conservative argument has more far-reaching implications than its proponents might realise. If our cultural evolution heavily constrains human morality, then we should not only find it unlikely that people will assign equal moral worth to all human beings and act accordingly, we should expect that human beings will refuse to recognise outsiders as having any moral standing at all. Furthermore, if the human capacity for altruism, solidarity, and mutual identification beyond an immediate group were as limited as evo-conservatives say, the very existence of the modern state would be inexplicable.

Nevertheless, the evo-conservative argument has some attractions. Human altruism does tend to be parochial, and people do often act as if they ascribe significantly greater moral worth to kin, kith and countryman. The trouble with this understanding of morality is that it cannot be the whole picture, or even most of it. After all, these evolutionary accounts are incapable of explaining a large swath of contemporary moral behaviour that we call the ‘inclusivist anomaly’. These are features of human morality that are strikingly more inclusive than evolutionary theory would lead us to expect, suggesting that human moral nature is far more flexible than evo-conservatives have acknowledged. This flexibility in turn offers ample room for the development of still more inclusive moralities that, on the evo-conservative view, evolution is purported to have ruled out.

The philosopher Peter Singer has argued that the moral community — the set of beings whose interests we give intrinsic moral consideration — has been expanding ever since the Enlightenment. This increasing inclusivity is due in part to a reconceptualisation of moral status. There have been, no doubt, very substantial setbacks — slavery, colonialism, and genocide are salient examples — but to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward increasing inclusiveness.

Gone are the days when watching cats burned alive was a common recreational pastime

One recent example of this increasing inclusiveness has to do with animal welfare, which increasing numbers of people have come to care about. Many now believe that non-human animals have interests that are valuable in and of themselves, whether or not humans happen to value them. This belief is reflected in a number of laws that are aimed at preventing the gratuitous suffering of animals. These include animal cruelty laws, the regulation of animal experimentation, and rules governing the treatment of animals raised for human consumption: these views and practices may not yet be dominant, but the populations of developed nations, at least, increasingly favour them. Gone are the days when watching cats burned alive was a common recreational pastime, as it was in France before the 19th century.

Another example of increasing moral inclusivity is the culture of human rights. The human rights movement is founded on the principle that all human persons are of equal basic moral worth, a value that is not dependent on strategic capacities, group membership, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other contingencies of birth that we deem morally arbitrary. Such ‘cosmopolitan moral principles’ are enshrined in the major international human rights instruments, which have been formally incorporated into the domestic law of more than 200 nations. In some cases, a country’s ratification of a human rights treaty is more show than substance. But in others, cosmopolitan principles have transformed law and social policy.

Although human rights law is relatively recent, the cosmopolitan moral principles that ground it have roots in the Enlightenment and its philosophical wake. These principles underpin modern constitutional democracy and the rule of law, and they played an important role in the movements and discourse that ended institutionalised torture, slavery, and colonisation. Human rights are grounded in the ‘dignity’ of persons, which turns on the possession of certain ‘subject-centred’ properties, such as practical rationality. The animal ethics movement similarly depends on the widespread acceptance of a subject-centred morality, wherein the ability of non-rational animals to feel pleasure and pain places constraints on how humans may treat them.

According to this inclusivist moral outlook, moral standing depends on the cognitive capacities of the individual, not the ability of the individual to reciprocate or otherwise contribute to co-operative goods. Even if non-human animals, or young children, or persons with disabilities lack strategic capacities, this does not deprive them of moral status. Likewise, if a minority group or weaker nation can safely be exploited without risk of retaliation, we nonetheless deem such behaviour morally unacceptable. If the United States or any other great power intends to invade a foreign country, it must first offer moral justifications that go beyond pure self-interest or a desire to conquer, dominate, or exploit. This is not to say that such justifications do not often serve as pretexts for international aggression — the point is that it is now widely held that such justifications must be given, whereas this was not always so.

Evolutionary accounts of morality do a reasonably good job of explaining the morality of the Pleistocene’s small hunting bands, but they fare much worse in explaining this post-Enlightenment trend toward increasing inclusivity. Hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers who were overly concerned about cruelty to animals would have paid a high fitness price, for this would have placed significant limitations on their exploitation of both wild and domesticated creatures. The same is true of inclusive moral attitudes toward human beings who are outsiders: groups that extended moral community to individuals based on their humanity alone, rather than on the basis of their group membership or strategic capacities, would have foregone the fitness benefits that often flow from more aggressive behaviours, and would have constrained the tactics adopted in military conflicts.

Humans have had moral capacities for millennia, and yet inclusivist morality has emerged only in the most recent eye-blink of human history

Neither can we account for inclusivist morality as a simple evolutionary by-product of our evolved moral capacities. Humans have possessed moral capacities for many millennia, possibly even hundreds of thousands of years, and yet inclusivist morality has emerged only in the most recent eye-blink of human history. Of course, it’s possible that there could be delayed evolutionary by-products. Perhaps it is only recently that humans have possessed technologies — such as electronic images and writing — that allow for the extension of sympathy beyond one’s primary group. But even if inclusivist moral sentiments were just a technologically-enabled spillover of our biologically ‘hard-wired’ in-group psychology, they would still be inclusivist. In other words, the evolutionary leash would not be as short as evo-conservatives assert.

Evo-conservatives have tended to focus on aspects of human morality that evolutionary theory can plausibly explain, while glossing over progressive moral developments that it cannot shed much light on. This helps to explain why evo-conservatives have such a rigid view of human moral psychology. Evolutionary explanations of parochial, group-based, reciprocity-oriented altruism appear to vindicate the conservative conception of human nature, and so conservatives have seized upon this confirmatory evidence, while overlooking the inclusivist anomaly. The trend toward an increasing inclusivist morality among humans, which shows no sign of being a transient cultural artefact, demonstrates that both traditional conservatives and evo-conservatives underestimate our ability to extend our moral capacities well beyond the confines of our evolved moral psychology. This has been accomplished not just through technologies that extend the reach of our moral emotional responses, but also through reasoned debate, moral education, and the creation of domestic and international institutions tasked with making sure the expanding moral circle does not contract. We believe, and we hope, that this is the future of human morality.

Nothing we have said rules out the possibility that a more sophisticated evolutionary explanation can illuminate the recent development of inclusivist morality – indeed there are evolutionary thinkers, such as David Sloan Wilson, who argue for a progressive political philosophy of inclusion on the basis of their scientific research. It might turn out that the capacity for reflecting on and modifying prevalent moral norms can itself be given an evolutionary explanation, either as an object of natural selection or as a by-product of selection. But even so, no conservative implications will follow. What matters — from the standpoint of the possibility of moral progress — is not whether our capacity for inclusivist morality can be given an evolutionary explanation, but whether we have it. And we clearly do.

Read more essays on ethics, evolution and progress & modernity


  • Øyvind Holmstad

    In Norway there's now starting a research project modelling a new democracy foundated in human evolutionary behaviour. - ModEling a Democratic green ecOnomy for a Sustainable Society (MEDOSS):

    “In our book «The biological human being – individuals and societies in the light of evolution» (preliminary only in Norwegian) we suggest a model for a national and global ultimate democratic economy, which can handle and execute ownership on five levels (see figure to the right). It is both about curbing the bad sides and letting the good sides thrive. There are several prerequisites in order to stabilise such an organisation, of which three are most important:

    1) A political solution to sustainability must include democratic control over production and economy.

    2) Production must be for the purpose of sustainability, not profit.

    3) Civil salaries must include all and be decided democratically.

    This can be achieved through ingroup control over the unwanted, selfish strategies of our human mind: When we are observed, among our closest, we hide egoism and are cooperative and generous. No-one is openly selfish when being watched. This democracy, once established, will be extremely stable. Justice and fairness will be decided through open democratic decisions, by elected peers, on each level. Freeriders are controlled within the groups. Surely, we CAN decide to keep on overexploitation, and send our children into an uncertain future, but we will at least decide it ourselves. For example, in the US, only a few extremely rich persons may win elections.

    A safer future can be planned. Profit and economic growth can be replaced by sustainable production: Reusable, repairable and recyclable products. Research and efforts can be focused to meet these goals, without the need for capital growth and profit. Solidarity will be forced upon decision making, through the evolved ingroup strategies.” - Terje Bongard:

    • Fonda Matasser

      The above project is merely Marxism minus the environmental degradation that went hand in glove with Marxist economies of the past.

      • Øyvind Holmstad

        No, the above project has the most resilient structure I've seen by now, having a hierarchy of fractal scaling where the basis, the ingroup or the smallest scale is dominating. Also these ingroups are self-organizing, a sign of every resilient system. You should read the resilience essays by Mehaffy and Salingaros, part one is here:

        My background is from permaculture, where we learn to look for patterns in nature. The handicap principle is a metapattern of evolution, it has two forces, we have to grow the bright side of this force, this can only take place through an ingroup organization.

        This is the same force as we see come alive through the Alexandrine pattern 37, HOUSE CLUSTER:

        This pattern is the inspiration for the new movement of pocket neighborhoods:

        We need to create a new ingroup society!

        • Al_de_Baran

          "My background is from permaculture, where we learn to look for patterns in nature."

          Look to your mind first. That's where the patterns are, not in "nature".

          • Gyrus

            Without wanting to imply that all patterns perceived in nature are simply there, isn't the mind, too, part of nature? Your point relies on outdated Christian-Cartesian dualism.

          • Al_de_Baran

            My reply, although it was perhaps too glib, does not rely on dualism, at all. It merely indicates the foolishness of speaking of external patterns without due regard to the perceptual apparatus, and how it effectively creates the patterns that we ostensibly perceive "out there". Conflating all of this under the all-devouring mega-heading "nature" seems both naive and disingenuous--no mean feat, that!

            Speaking of the disingenuous side, you must realize that my reply was directed at someone who does appear to believe that the patterns are simply "out there". For some reason, however, that response didn't bother you enough to respond to it, but mine did. Why, I wonder? (rhetorical question).

          • Al_de_Baran

            P.S. A parable from the distinctly non-dualistic tradition of Zen also reinforces my point.

            A Zen master overheard two disciples arguing over a flag on a flagpole blowing in the wind. One claimed that the flag was moving, the other claimed that the wind was moving. The master replied, "It is neither the flag nor the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves".

          • Øyvind Holmstad

            As far as I know the handicap principle was discovered/understood in the Negev desert, not in my mind.

            Amotz Zahavi spent 40 years studying the Arabian Babbler, which made him understand this metapattern.

  • atimoshenko

    Inclusive morality is like an airplane. We did not evolve it, we do not have a natural tendency toward it, but we figured it out as a superior tool for the increasingly sophisticated challenges we are now capable of handling.

    The mistake of evo-conservatives (and conservatives in general) does not lie in their acknowledgement of the fact that (human) nature does not change quickly, but in their apparent disregard for the fact that a defining human trait is our ability to use (good) old tools to create even better new ones.

    Morality is not about our preferences and inclinations, but about the ideas we come up with to manage them.

    • Gyrus

      Many of the "great achievements" of civilization seem to largely be great efforts at managing the problems that exponentially increase with large social scales. I think modern inclusivity contains a large element of this - it's not an absolute mark of modern moral progress, but an impressive and heartening sign of how our social instincts adapt to compensate for an increasing scope for exploitation (which we also see evidence for in the modern world).

    • BDewnorkin

      Aren't you contradicting yourself? You say that "we do not have a natural tendency toward [inclusive morality]" but also that "[m]orality is... about the ideas we come up with to manage [our preferences and inclinations]."

      I find your latter sentiment more agreeable, though I wouldn't conceptualize morality as a tool (which, in your characterization, suggests some definite (though undefined) purpose – I can't imagine what that purpose would be).

      • atimoshenko

        I do not see the contradiction. In my opinion, we do not have a natural/evolved tendency toward INCLUSIVE morality (hence, It's something quite new), but we do have natural/evolved preferences towards certain structures or inclinations of social behaviour (as do other social animals), and these have been on display throughout known human history.

        Morals (and ethics, and laws...) then become formalisations of those inclinations, extended by our ability to reason about them and evaluate their outcomes.

  • Melissa

    I'm thankful for the last paragraph because I kept thinking as I read the article "How can anyone who studies evolution believe any of this is set in stone?" Indeed, the development of agriculture and cities has affected us profoundly(and the animals that live in close proximity to us even those not selectively bred) from an evolutionary perspective. The idea that we are stone age minds in modern skulls is outdated. Maybe some laymen who dabble in using evolution to argue their favored opinions still cling to it, but it has lost favor in the evolutionary sciences.

  • Tim Brownawell

    So what about animism? Or sacred cows and reincarnation? Or the lovely recent post here that talked about various native american cultures and their respect for nature?

    There have /at times/ been cultures with little/no respect for non-humans, but there have also long (always?) been cultures that did have that respect. It's not a new invention.

    • Andre Moore

      "various native american cultures and their respect for nature"

      You mean their inability to change nature - there is nothing inherently different between Native American vs Europeans (the worlds bogeyman) - simply their ability to change their surroundings. Had you given the native Americans high powered rifles before the arrival of Europeans you can bet that they would have shot out all their buffalo. In fact we can see this in the way that the Native American burnt the great forests forming the great plains. Ditto with the Australian aborigine's burning their interior and Easter Islanders ecological disasters. Seems like mans capacity to destroy is simply based on the limits of their technology. Which kinda means we're all the same??

      • meika

        Most of Australia's current plant communities require fire regimes between 30 and 500 years. Exceptions are rainforest obviously. Eucalyptus regnans, the world tallest flowering plant, is obligate on fire with a regime of broad landscape scale fires of at least 400 years. Aboriginal use of fire is an adaption to the drying out of Australia which started hundreds of thousands of years before Homo sapiens sapiens arrived here. Fire are used for green pick and are usually burnt in spring and autumn in order to control extent of a fire's spread. see "firestick farming'

      • RacquelJantel

        Yes, the left loves the concept of the 'noble savage' doesn't it?

    • Phil Hartman

      That's a characterization really, isn't it? That native Americans sat around worshiping trees. It's like saying all Americans eat hot dogs. It's a half-truth at best.

    • saksin

      And these differences - that some cultures exhibit belief X or institution Y, while some others do not - point clearly to the source of these differences, namely culture, and hints at the wrong-headedness of looking to biology and evolution for every explanation of every human phenomenon. The "inclusivist anomaly" celebrated by Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell in this article is clearly such a phenomenon, and their faith that it "shows no signs of being a transient cultural artefact" is a bit premature given how recent it is and how relatively confined it is to affluent Western societies, even they often falling grievously short of living up to the confession of their lips. We do not as yet have any way of knowing about the long-term viability of societies and cultures who allow a genuine committment to an inclusivist morality to inform all their practical dealings (we do not even know what such a polity would look like!!!), particularly when faced with expansionist cultures that brush such concerns aside as childish fantasies, telling themselves that they, and they alone, are in possession of the true and righteous culture to which everyone else had better submit...

  • uland

    The expansion of the Leviathan State & the policy logic it employs to do so does not an indicate an expansion of moral capacity (Where did this idea that Cosmopolitanism=equalitarianism come from, btw?) in human beings. While *what we tell ourselves* may have changed among a certain class of people, what people actually do hasn't changed much & where expansions may be evident, on the other side of the tracks (often among those who like to believe themselves cosmopolitan), the moral circle, as lived, has contracted, often only to include only those who believe they're equally cosmopolitan.Charles Murray's Coming Apart illustrates this contraction well.
    And let's be clear; the Leviathan makes distinctions between peoples.A Serbian nationalist isn't as useful to it as a smiling South African girl who dreams of working for the UN.Meanwhile, the Paleo conception of moral likelihoods has never been as deterministic as described in this article. It's impossible to sever those ideas from their roots in Western Christian Tradition, which tend to acknowledge the sanctity of the individual along with a natural and good favoritism of ones own people over those who will likely not be able to reciprocate (even if they wanted to) moral intent.These distinctions among people can be appreciated (or not) without having to abandon loyalties to actual people & practices for policy abstractions.I'd argue this is the cosmopolitan ideal.

    • uland

      I forgot to make this point: Although circles of moral reciprocation can widen, It's never easy & the impetus for this expansion is usually some kind of strife; war, poverty, mass-migrations, etc.. The Paleo position today is to avoid this as much as possible, while the Leviathan often causes strife (post-colonial practices (Colonialism 2.0?) in Africa, for example) & justifies these behaviors via logic of human rights & Universalist morality, thus the appearance that problems that arise when a solution is sought are in fact the cause of the strife to begin with. (File under "Things Progressives tell themselves to justify self-image")

  • Derek Roche

    Moral inclusiveness is another way of saying we're all in this together, like a lifeboat in a stormy sea. If we don't work together we're all doomed. So you'd think, with all the dire predictions of looming catastrophic climate change, we'd have all come together by now and agreed to put a global price on carbon emissions. But no - free riders everywhere.

    It looks like we'll have to learn this lesson the hard way by going to the brink of extinction. Those who survive, if any, will have to teach their children, above all, to internalize the externalities. We met the enemy, kids, and guess what? He was us.

  • Roy Niles

    "and yet inclusivist morality has emerged only in the most recent eye-blink of human history." Not really. Humans would not have moved and spread all over the earth of they were more prone to kill each other than cooperate. Morality at bottom involves a system that rewards mutual trust, whether within groups or between groups. Yet today we have extreme distrust between those who call themselves Muslims and those who are not. Wars between these factions have reached a point where they never seem to end.
    The tensions between the trusted and the distrusted are likely what have caused us to evolve, not just the accidental processes that the author seems to accept as valid evolutionary theory. Fitness to compete would seem to need to balance the fitness to cooperate in our biological world.

  • wri

    I couldn't get past the first two paragraphs. It's news to me that conservatives believe human nature is "unalterable." I consider myself conservative, but I believe mankind has evolved socially, and will continue to evolve. The authors' unfounded premise gives them an easy straw man to attack. (Most) conservatives are realistic about the limitations in human nature, not least of which is self-interest even when purporting to act altruistically. They have a pragmatic view of what Government can do to direct the evolution of humans and and an awareness of how much can be wasted and how much harm can be done in the name of helping others to become "better" people.

    • Gyrus

      I think in terms of historical conservatism, the author's on pretty solid ground with this point. It's more of a fair generalization than a straw man. Recent years may have seen some softening of these views, but I imagine that's a consequence of the downfall of the Soviet Union, and the apparent demolition of the radical agenda of "re-making" humanity. Conservatives don't have to define themselves as rigidly against that agenda, so they can afford to be more pragmatic.

  • Sword of Apollo

    I'm glad to see this article takes into account facts that many ev-psych people ignore. But it doesn't quite fully integrate these facts to come to the proper conclusion: That morality per se is not evolved at all, but defined and chosen. (See: Why Morality is Not “Evolved,” But Defined and Chosen.)

  • Bee

    This seems to be a long, over-complicated way of saying that there are some people who think that our morality is *entirely* a product of evolution and that they are wrong.

    Which seems obvious. How on earth did anyone gain any credence arguing that in the first place?

    And examples of sudden moves towards greater moral inclusivity aren't limited to after the Enlightenment, as you suggest. I'm not a Christian but the fact that the Good Samaritan parable exists at all seems like a good example.

    I would have been interested to see this essay address how technological changes enabled more inclusive morality since the enlightenment (i.e. it's not because we've become better but because we can provide more humane responses without feeling threatened) - for example, better state infrastructure and a prison system enabled most rational countries to do away with the death penalty.

    But really the whole essay is an example of why we desperately still need the humanities. For one thing, most humanities scholars worth their salt would recognise a straw man argument when they saw it. When science alone considers morality, we get the above. Aeon - could you do a topic like this without making it all about the science?

    • James Smith

      Exactly right Bee - the author attacks an absurdly caricatured position. For one most obvious thing, every evolutionist should know that the process is a COevolution between humans and their environment, both of which keep changing.
      But to ignore the evolutionary evidence for morality (by behavior in other species for instance) is idiotic.

    • HenryV

      Yes, doesn't anyone here read cultural history? For starters, look at Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, which traces the development of the secular ethos over the last thousand years or so. Hate Christianity if you want, but the world would be a very different place without it ... and not better, even if our arrogance tells us it would be.

      • Stutters

        According to Christianity and Judaism, it was man's act of disobedience that alienated us from God and made us want to be like God 'knowing good and evil.".

        Man is therefore separated from God but still made in His image, still with free will, intelligence and creativity, but still essentially self centred.

        • Matt Mossberg

          Was moral and better if it did not happen?

        • Matt Mossberg

          How did man even know what disobedience was if he had no knowledge in the first place?

      • Matt Mossberg

        I'm genially interested in how it would be better and for whom it would be better. Better yet, if you can define better in a more grounded definition that would be great. I'll go check out the book, and try with an open mind. How does our arrogance come in? Is it arrogant for me to say that the amounts of families killed during the crusades

        • Matt Mossberg

          Is moral

  • Jonathan Allen

    Maybe we're evolving into a global society of cosmopolitan happiness, or whatever; but even if that is the case- and I very much doubt it- it's ridiculous to imagine it as simply a progression from the bad, brutish past of particularism and xenophobia and all that into a glorious future of progressive global egalitarianism (which, given the role given to state governance in most such models, wouldn't be egalitarian at all...), sparked by everyone's favorite deus ex machina, The Enlightenment. And, apparently, nothing else- certainly not any historical processes that might belie the sincerity or pureness of this vaunted inclusivist morality. No, the story we get here is one of a some sort of epistemic jump from the bad to the good, driven by, apparently, "reasoned debate" and "moral education." Right.

    To put it in short, the authors of this piece have no awareness of history, of historical process and change, or even of things that might complicate their neo-Whiggish view of history. Nor could they have such an awareness and maintain their position: the rise, development, and maintenance of the modern morality they parade requires whole worlds of moral occlusion, of deliberate forgetting, of rebranding, and just general bad faith- some of it so deeply ingrained that is advocates are no longer even capable of recognizing it as such. This is troubling, especially since if one sees one's view of the world as arising naturally (spontaneously, miraculously almost), which would imply it natural superiority, and the superiority (and pure, disinterested apparently nature) of the institutions that sustain it. For these authors, the modern state, and the whole apparatus of modernity, is the institutional embodiment of an inclusivist morality that ought to continue to expand, presumably through the machinations of those very institutions. One need not reflect for long on why such a view, coupled with a tendentious view of that morality and those institutions, might be deeply problematic, to put it mildly.

    Mind you, I have no problem- and I doubt anyone does- with the idea that human morality develops, or that different systems of morality have different parameters of inclusion. This isn't news, nor are inclusivist moralities new either (nor, I have to add, is the idea that one must morally justify one's wars and conquests). But I don't think anyone contests any of those things. What is perhaps contestable is whether morality can ever exist in some sort of "pure," almost historically non-contingent state, which seems to be what the authors are implying. If the conservative answer is "no," then I guess that makes me a conservative: morality in this world cannot be removed from historical contingency, and historical contingency is nasty and messy, in the best of situations; miraculously generated inclusive morality does not magically solve for that reality.

  • saksin

    Aeon apparently is working hard to become a forum for ill-informed and badly argued attempts to apply or refute the application of biological reasoning to human affairs. Articles by David Sloan Wilson, David Dobbs, and the present authors are recent cases in point. If what Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell are talking about (their "inclusivist anomaly") were a universal human tendency found in all climes at all times there would be reason to go looking for biological and evolutionary explanations. But their entire excursion into biology is misplaced and misconceived, given the appositeness of the label "anomaly" from the point of view of the recency and far from universal penetrance of the belief they are concerned with, even as a confession of the lips across our globe. The phenomenon they are celebrating is so clearly a cultural artifact, a culturally held belief, a kind of "confession of faith", or "party line" that it boggles the mind that anyone would go in search of evolutionary explanations on its account. It is a bit like going in serch of evolutionary accounts of the melodic content of Beethovens symphonies!

    Even in the affluent Western societies where it originated, it did so only in certain strata and cultural circles as an ideological weapon in largescale political upheavals (American and French Revolutioins, etc.) and even today does not meet with everyone's assent even in these societies which, moreover, often fall grievously short of living up to the confession of their lips in this regard. The authors' faith that it "shows no sign of being a transient cultural artefact" is thus wildly premature. We do not as yet have any way of knowing about the long-term viability of societies and cultures who allow a genuine committment to an inclusivist morality to concretely inform all their practical affairs and dealings. We do not even know what such a polity would look like, and even at present levels of incomplete committment and implementation, it remains to be seen how it fares when faced with expansionist cultures that brush such concerns aside as childish fantasies, telling themselves that they, and they alone, are in possession of the true and righteous cultural norms to which everyone else had better submit. For those who, like the authors, put their faith in "moral education" of such potential adversaries, it is worth reminding them that hatred and intolerance also can be taught - as it is on a daily basis in numerous places around the world - and that in some ways the inculcation of hatred and intolerance has an easy time of it than the teaching of their opposites.

    However much one might sympathize with the good intentions of Buchanan and Powell, there is little reason for serious moralists to embrace their partisan faith in the benign powers of the "inclusivist anomaly." For all we know, it is perfectly conceivable that it will destroy every culture that makes it the bedrock of its moral committments.

  • PunditFaP

    The first paragraph does such a flawed, inaccurate, self-serving (or dishonest) job of summarizing conservative thought, it casts a shadow over everything the follows. It looks like a classic straw man argument--inventing an imaginary opponent's point of view--which is unfortunate, because one wasn't needed in order to explore the subject.

  • Al_de_Baran

    "[I]t underestimates the potential that we humans have for moral progress".

    And here the argument already comes to a grinding halt, braked and broken by a fatal case of the "we's".

    Like the conservatives they criticize, the authors assume the truth of what is at issue: The idea of a unitary human species, instead of a collection of diverging, distinct individuals. Seen in this light, the problem isn't the malleability or fixity of some assumed unitary "human nature"; the problem is one of "herding cats".

  • Dramis Cire

    "[...] the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward increasing inclusiveness." This reeks of teleology.

    • Al_de_Baran

      It also stinks of Whiggishness.

  • barrycooper

    Conservatives in no way reject the possibility of moral progress. As a group, they are much more generous both with their time and money than self declared "liberals". What they reject is utopian projects conducted by the State which INHERENTLY favor one group versus another, which take as their starting point the very tribalism you claim to want to reject. Socialism does not erase class: it exacerbates it, at least when imposed against the will of the population; and historically no iteration of it has ever worked in conditions of heterogeneity.

    Our Constitution is an archetypal Liberal document, which seeks to reconcile under law the manifest fact of ideological and behavioral diversity. It is not necessary for me to accept you and what you believe in order to allow you to live in freedom and with the reasonable expectation of being treated equally before the law.

    Socialism is not Liberal. It does not tolerate diverse moral narratives. It constitutes a tribe, and having rejected tribalism rhetorically, seeks to implement it vigorously and at the point of a gun. If you doubt me, simply look at history.

  • Jeroen

    I am wondering why the authors bundled morality and politics together? Is this a deliberate choice or are they not well versed enough in political philosophy and political theory?

  • AJ

    Aren't there <200 countries in the world? How could *more* than 200 nations have signed human rights pacts into law?

  • Lauryn

    It is incredibly amusing to note how sympathetic we are to animals these days. It often seems that we have more compassion for a poor animal than for a poor human, especially a human from another country. Reading about our evolution in the area of treating animals (We have gone from burning cats for amusement in the 19th century to expensive adoptions and buying special outfits for our pets.) was uplifting. Maybe we have potential to grow altruistically. Maybe someday war won't exist because we will see that when we go to war with another country, we are going to war with ourselves.

    • Stutters

      I think some of us are more kindly disposed towards animals because in the main they give us food or companionship and don't pose a threat in the same way some humans do.

  • Crews Giles

    Self-aggrandizing tripe.

    First, is the straw-man being erected to be pushed over:

    * "Some conservative thinkers have argued that..." and
    * "Unlike religious conservatives who reject Darwinian theory..."

    Those are not conservatives, those are fundamentalist and/or fascists. A thin line separates them from modern liberals in that they are very intent on using law to control others. Meanwhile, true faith-based conservatives (e.g. most Catholics, mainstream Jews), and agnostics of family-oriented ideologies are less prone to the "Just World Fallacy."

    So of course those who considers themselves liberals (which Fundamentalism is a branch, from the Church's perspective), must first establish the foolishness of conservatives, and second, tell themselves that their ideology is working.

    Between those extremes (like the vast majority of persons), here is what I see:

    Not far from San Diego, a border-village of poverty-stricken Mexicans, many living in cardboard shacks for generations, had lost their source of fresh water. Also, that week, a dozen or so seals on a San Diego beach were dying of an influenza virus.

    Guess which crisis got the money, got the volunteers, got the news? And guess which volunteers patted themselves on the back for their humanity?

    So we give to Green Peace, boycott leather products (but wear NIke's made by children for a bowl of rice and a quarter of day) yet, then turn our backs on thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the sick, and those in prison, and call ourselves "superior" because those conservative deny science, and are motivated only by their hate.

    Have I got the "talking points" about right?

  • Robert Landbeck

    Whatever potential our species may have for moral progress and development, so long as we remain a self-evidently unsustainable species, the very word contains the hollow ring of dishonesty and self deception amongst the smoke and mirrors of the moral relativity that is our cultural creation. Yet the question, are we moral or spiritual continues to mock and haunt every pretension of 'civilization. And the current trajectory of our species would strongly suggest the answer to the question is in the negative. So then, is there a limitation fixed by our evolutionary root to human moral potential and thus progress? Have we reached that limit? And if so how do we break thorough such a barrier? Such answers, if they can be found, may define our very future on earth.

  • notrubaj

    This discussion surely merits Bohr's critique, "you're not thinking, you're just be logical."

    If we debate why we are altruistic shoudn't we also consider why murder, violence, cruelty of all sorts seems "wrong" to must of us? And why do we still invoke Donne's "no man is an island, Entire of itself, Everyman is a piece of the continent, A part of the main."

    Do we not all sense to a greater or lesser degree that we are part of something that includes all of mankind, that Humanity itself is Donne's "continent"? That altruism consists of deeds motivated by the vague awareness that we are not entire unto ourselves, and that the sense that this is true can be developed more and more if we choose to do so?

  • Howard

    All of these discussions always revolve around Whites and their culture needing to change. Never non-Whites -- in fact,much of their cultural morality are quite set in stone (age) -- i.e., Islamists. To the left (who are mostly White - go figure) -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- the world would be perfect if only Whites would give up their interests and/or disappear.

  • Rochester Obscura

    true! what is often forgotten is that each individual has to re-create the moral circle -- pulling others in over and over . . . . not just once, but many different times throughout your life. It is up to you. It's not a 'membership' or a 'subscription' or a few moments of compassionate prayer . . . . it's in your action. Belief and faith leading to action - drawing the circle wider. It's not easy and you will be at varying times in and outside the very group you are helping. It's entirely possible that the loud screaming from the righteous, gun-toting, darwinian, dog-eat-dog mentality may temporarily distract from your action. Doesn't matter. It's not over 'in a moment' -- actions take on a life.

  • Len Xibipiio

    Nice article, but you don't mention the possibility of looking at increasing inclusivist morality as a sign of the very evolutionary explanations of morality that ego-conservatives advocate. For example, couldn't the culture of human rights be an evolutionary innovation for the sake of improving one's odds of survival in our newly changed world (a world that is more interconnected and characterized by new risks such as the threat of more dangerous weapons and technology). So that inclusivist morality might be a strategic human adaptation that is being institutionalized to handle these new realities and threats to one's survival. So that by affirming universal rights as a moral principle for example one is protecting herself as much as protecting the transgender invalid she'll never meet living on the other side of the world…

  • Mike

    The notion of defying nature to create a new kind of man is not new, and I seriously doubt Powell and Buchanan have the guts to implement such a scheme. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot tried their hands at reconstructing human nature and failed despite energetic efforts.

  • janjamm

    Mirror neurons.

  • Robert Landbeck

    Open trials of the 'Promise' for a moral enhancement to human nature itself are now well underway in several countries. For anyone who feels up to the task, details may be found at