In an excellent recent article for the New York Times, Steven Pinker outlined current research into the evolutionary origin of morality. He explains how researchers have shown that morality can been categorised into five universal headings: fairness, purity, authority, harm and community. Translated into language that we all understand, these five categories mean: do unto others as you would have done to you; do not commit adultery; honour your father and mother; do no murder; and do not covet your neighbour’s ox. Although there are huge variations in morals in different societies, Pinker is convincing that all fit into these categories. When the moral order changes, as it did, for instance, over slavery, the priority attached to the relevant categories is rebalanced. In the case of slavery, fairness trumped authority although most of the arguments in favour before the American Civil War were based on preserving the southern way of life (that is, community).
Pinker’s article covers a lot more ground, but two points stand out. The first is that conservatives seem to value all five kinds of morality in roughly equal measure. Liberals (which means the left in this context), on the other hand, tend to privilege fairness and community. You can see many aspects of the culture wars in a new light by slotting the arguments on both sides into the relevant moral categories. Pornography? Conservatives object on the grounds of purity, liberals get stuck in for fairness’s sake. Animal rights? Wrong, say conservatives protecting their (human) community. Right, say liberals avoiding harm to others. The only point where I am a bit lost is figuring out which moral category applies to people who are pro-choice on abortion. The antis are obviously saying do no harm. I suppose those in favour could cite community much as conservatives do for animal rights.
Ultimately, the categories you use to play this game don’t matter so much as the fact that they are innate. The moral imperative is part of our basic human nature. As such, we can be pretty sure that it has evolved. The advantage, I suppose, of the five categories mentioned above is that it is quite easy to come up with some just-so stories about exactly how we evolved them.
I won’t bother with that but want, instead, to move onto my second point. For many people, the idea that morality evolved leaves them a bit disconcerted. But they should not be. Christian theologians have been almost unanimous in finding that natural law is a part of the natural world. It is a universal property of healthy humans regardless of their religion or culture. But it is only machinery. The software of specific morality and ethics requires something more. The evolutionary explanation for morality does not actually explain why slavery and abortion are wrong, it only explains how we became creatures who are capable of having the argument in the first place.
We are forced back to the position that almost all the specific morality of our society is a product of our Christian heritage, not our genes. Towards the end of his article, Pinker speculates on some of the ways that morality might be ‘objective’ in a universe without God. But he doesn’t get very far with it. Almost any discussion of where our ethics came from must acknowledge that a major part of the answer is Christianity.
By the way, one of the commentators on this blog recommended Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatism blog. It covers similar ground to Pinker at a more adavanced level. Well worth a look.
Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.