The Moral Animal (Robert Wright)


Excerpts from ‘The Moral Animal – Why We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology’ by Robert Wright

1st page of – Chapter 1 as Introduction: DARWIN AND US
Then in full – Chapter 16: EVOLUTIONARY ETHICS


Introduction: DARWIN AND US

The Origin of Species contains almost no mention of the human species. The threats the book posed — to the biblical account of our creation, to the comforting belief that we are more than mere animals — were clear enough; Charles Darwin had nothing to gain by amplifying them. Near the end of the final chapter he simply suggested that, through the study of evolution, “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” And, in the same paragraph, he ventured that “in the distant future” the study of psychology “will be based on a new foundation.”

Distant was right. In 1960, 101 years after the Origin appeared, the historian John C. Greene observed, “With respect to the origin of man’s distinctively human attributes, Darwin would be disappointed to find matters little advanced beyond his own speculations in The Descent of Man. He would be discouraged to hear J. S. Wciner of the Anthropology Laboratory at Oxford University describe this subject as ‘one large baffling topic on which our evolutionary insight remains meagre.’ … In the current emphasis on man’s uniqueness as a culture-transmitting animal Darwin might sense a tendency to return to the pre-evolutionary idea of an absolute distinction between man and other animals.”

A few years after Greene spoke, a revolution started. Between 1963 and 1974, four biologists — William Hamilton, George Williams, Robert Trivers, and John Maynard Smith — laid down a series of ideas that, taken together, refine and extend the theory of natural selection. These ideas have radically deepened the insight of evolutionary biologists into the social behavior of animals, including us.

At first, the relevance of the new ideas to our species was hazy. Biologists spoke confidently about the mathematics of self-sacrifice among ants, about the hidden logic of courtship among birds; but about human behavior they spoke conjecturally, if at all. Even the two epoch-marking books that synthesized and publicized the new ideas — E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) — said relatively little about humans. Dawkins steered almost entirely clear of the subject, and Wilson confined his discussion of our species to a final, slender, admittedly speculative chapter — 28 pages out of 575.

Since the mid-1970s, the human angle has gotten much clearer. A small but growing group of scholars has taken what Wilson called “the new synthesis” and carried it into the social sciences with the aim of overhauling them. These scholars have applied the new, improved Darwinian theory to the human species, and then tested their applications with freshly gathered data. And along with their inevitable failures, they have had great success. Though they still consider themselves an embattled minority (an identity they seem sometimes to secretly enjoy), signs of their rising stature are clear. Venerable journals in anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry are publishing articles by authors who ten years ago were consigned to upstart journals of an expressly Darwinian bent. Slowly but unmistakably, a new worldview is emerging.

Here “worldview” is meant quite literally. The new Darwinian synthesis is, like quantum physics or molecular biology, a body of scientific theory and fact; but, unlike them, it is also a way of seeing everyday life. Once truly grasped (and it is much easier to grasp than either of them) it can entirely alter one’s perception of social reality. The questions addressed by the new view range from the mundane to the spiritual and touch on just about everything that matters: romance, love, sex (Are men and/or women really built for monogamy? What circumstances can make them more so or less so?); friendship and enmity (What is the evolutionary logic behind office politics — or, for that matter, politics in general?); selfishness, self-sacrifice, guilt (Why did natural selection give us that vast guilt repository known as the conscience? Is it truly a guide to “moral” behavior?); social status and social climbing (Is hierarchy inherent in human society?); the differing inclinations of men and women in areas such as friendship and ambition (Are we prisoners of our gender?); racism, xenophobia, war (Why do we so easily exclude large groups of people from the reach of our sympathy?); deception, self-deception, and the unconscious mind (Is intellectual honesty possible?); various psychopathologies (Is getting depressed, neurotic, or paranoid “natural” — and, if so, does that make it any more acceptable?); the love-hate relationship between siblings (Why isn’t it pure love?); the tremendous capacity of parents to inflict psychic damage on their children (Whose interests do they have at heart?); and so on.



Our descent, then, is the origin of our evil passions!! — The devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather.
— M Notebook (1838)
It is other question what it is desirable to be taught, — all are agreed general utility.
— “Old and Useless Notes” (undated)

In 1871, twelve years after The Origin of Species appeared, Darwin published The Descent of Man, in which he set out his theory of the “moral sentiments.” He didn’t trumpet the theory’s unsettling implications; he didn’t stress that the very sense of right and wrong, which feels as if heaven-sent, and draws its power from that feeling, is an arbitrary product of our peculiar evolutionary past. But the book did feature, in places, an air of moral relativism. If human society were patterned after bee society, Darwin wrote, “there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.”

Some people got the picture. The Edinburgh Review observed that, if Darwin’s theory turned out to be right, “most earnest-minded men will be compelled to give up these motives by which they have {327} attempted to live noble and virtuous lives, as founded on a mistake; our moral sense will turn out to be a mere developed instinct. … If these views be true, a revolution in thought is imminent, which will shake society to its very foundations by destroying the sanctity of the conscience and the religious sense.”

However breathless this prediction may sound, it wasn’t entirely off base. The religious sense has indeed waned, especially among the intelligentsia, the kinds of people who read today’s equivalents of the Edinburgh Review. And the conscience doesn’t seem to carry quite the weight it carried for the Victorians. Among ethical philosophers, there is nothing approaching agreement on where we might turn for basic moral values — except, perhaps, nowhere. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the prevailing moral philosophy within many philosophy departments is nihilism. A hefty, though unknown, amount of all this can be attributed to the one-two punch Darwin delivered: the Origin’s assault on the biblical account of creation, followed by the Descent’s doubts about the status of the moral sense.

If plain old-fashioned Darwinism has indeed sapped the moral strength of Western civilization, what will happen when the new version fully sinks in? Darwin’s sometimes diffuse speculations about the “social instincts” have given way to theories firmly grounded in logic and fact, the theories of reciprocal altruism and kin selection. And they don’t leave our moral sentiments feeling as celestial as they used to. Sympathy, empathy, compassion, conscience, guilt, remorse, even the very sense of justice, the sense that doers of good deserve reward and doers of bad deserve punishment — all these can now be viewed as vestiges of organic history on a particular planet.
What’s more, we can’t take solace, as Darwin did, in the mistaken belief that these things evolved for the greater good — the “good of the group.” Our ethereal intuitions about what’s right and what’s wrong are weapons designed for daily, hand-to-hand combat among individuals.

It isn’t only moral feelings that now fall under suspicion, but all of moral discourse. By the lights of the new Darwinian paradigm, a moral code is a political compromise. It is molded by competing interest groups, each bringing all its clout to bear. This is the only discernible sense in which moral values are sent down from on high — {328} they are shaped disproportionately by the various parts of society where power resides.

So where does this leave us? Alone in a cold universe, without a moral gyroscope, without any chance of finding one, profoundly devoid of hope? Can morality have no meaning for the thinking person in a post-Darwinian world? This is a deep and murky question that (readers may be relieved to hear) will not be rigorously addressed in this book. But we might at least take the trouble to see how Darwin handled the question of moral meaning. Though he didn’t have access to the new paradigm, with its several peculiarly dispiriting elements, he definitely caught, as surely as the Edinburgh Review did, the morally disorienting drift of Darwinism. Yet he continued to use the words good and bad, right and wrong, with extreme gravity. How did he keep taking morality seriously?



As Darwinism was catching on, and the Edinburgh Review’s fears were sinking in, a number of thinkers scrambled to avert a collapse of all moral foundation. Many of them skirted evolutionism’s threat to religious and moral tradition with a simple maneuver: they redirected their religious awe toward evolution itself, turning it into a touchstone for right and wrong. To see moral absolutes, they said, we need only look to the process that created us; the “right” way to behave is in keeping with evolution’s basic direction: we should all go with its flow.

What exactly was its flow? Opinions differed. One school, later called social Darwinism, dwelt on natural selection’s pitiless but ultimately creative disposal of the unfit. The moral of the story seemed to be that suffering is the handmaiden of progress, in human as in evolutionary history. The Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations version of social Darwinism comes from Herbert Spencer, generally regarded as its father: “The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many ‘in shallows and in miseries,’ are the decrees of a large, farseeing benevolence.”
Actually, Spencer wrote that in 1851, eight years before the Origin {329} appeared. And, for that matter, various people had long had the feeling that gain through pain was nature’s way. This was part of the free-market faith that had brought England such rapid material progress. But the theory of natural selection, in the eyes of many capitalists, gave this view an added measure of cosmic affirmation. John D. Rockefeller said that the withering of weak companies in a laissez-faire economy was “the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

Darwin found crude moral imputations to his theory laughable. He wrote to Lyell, “I have noted in a Manchester newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved ‘might is right’ and therefore Napoleon is right and every cheating tradesman is also right.” For that matter, Spencer himself would have disavowed that squib. He wasn’t as heartless as his more severe utterances imply, nor as heartless as he is now remembered. He put lots of emphasis on the goodness of altruism and sympathy, and he was a pacifist.

How Spencer arrived at these kinder, gentler values illustrates a second approach to figuring out evolution’s “flow.” The idea was to view evolution’s direction, not just its dynamics, as a source of guidance; to know how humans should behave, we must first ask toward what end evolution is heading.

There are various ways to answer this question. Today, among biologists, one common answer is that evolution has no discernible end. Spencer, at any rate, believed evolution had tended to move species toward longer and more comfortable lives and the more secure rearing of offspring. Our mission, then, was to nourish these values. And the way to do so was to cooperate with one another, to be nice — to live in “permanently peaceful societies.”6
All of this now lies in the dustbin of intellectual history. In 1903, the philosopher G. E. Moore decisively assaulted the idea of drawing values from evolution or, for that matter, from any aspect of observed nature. He labeled this error the “naturalistic fallacy.” Ever since, philosophers have worked hard not to commit it.

Moore wasn’t the first to question the inference of “ought” from “is.” John Stuart Mill had done it a few decades earlier. Mill’s dismissal of the naturalistic fallacy, much less technical and academic than Moore’s, was more simply compelling. Its key was to articulate {330} clearly the usually unspoken assumption that typically underlies attempts to use nature as a guide to right conduct: namely, that nature was created by God and thus must embody his values. And, Mill added, not just any God. If, for example, God is not benevolent, then why honor his values? And if he is benevolent, but isn’t omnipotent, why suppose that he has managed to precisely embed his values in nature? So the question of whether nature deserves slavish emulation boils down to the question of whether nature appears to be the handiwork of a benevolent and omnipotent God.

Mill’s answer was: Are you kidding? In an essay called “Nature,” he wrote that nature “impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve.” And she does all this “with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and noblest indifferently with the meanest and worst… .”Mill observed, “If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals.” Anyone, “whatever kind of religious phrases he may use,” must concede “that if Nature and Man are both the works of a Being of perfect goodness, that Being intended Nature as a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by Man.” Nor, believed Mill, should we look for guidance to our moral intuition, a device “for consecrating all deep-seated prejudices.”

Mill wrote “Nature” before the Origin came out (though he published it after), and didn’t consider the possibility that suffering in a price paid for organic creation. Still, the question, even then, would remain: If God were benevolent and truly omnipotent, why couldn’t he invent a painless creative process? Darwin himself, at any rate, saw the voluminous pain in the world as working against common religious beliefs. In 1860, the year after the Origin appeared and long before Mill’s “Nature” did, he wrote in a letter to Asa Gray: “I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to {331} me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”



Darwin and Mill not only saw the problem in much the same terms; they also aw the solution in much the same terms. Both believed that, in a universe which for all we know is godless, one reasonable place to find moral guidance is utilitarianism. Mill, of course, did more than subscribe to utilitarianism. He was its premier publicist. In 1861, two years after On Liberty and the Origin appeared, he published a series of articles in Fraser’s magazine that are now known by the single title Utilitarianism and have become the doctrine’s classic defense.

The idea of utilitarianism is simple: the fundamental guidelines for moral discourse are pleasure and pain. Things can be called good to the extent that they raise the amount of happiness in the world and bad to the extent that they raise the amount of suffering. The purpose of a moral code is to maximize the world’s total happiness. Darwin quibbled with this formulation. He distinguished between “the general good or welfare of the community,” and “the general happiness,” and embraced the former, but then conceded that since “happiness is an essential part of the general good, the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong.” He was, for practical purposes, a utilitarian. And he was a great admirer of Mill, both for his moral philosophy and for his political liberalism.

One virtue of Mill’s utilitarianism in a post-Darwinian world is its minimalism. If it is harder now to find a grounding for assertions about basic moral values, then, presumably, the fewer and the simpler the foundational assertions, the better. Utilitarianism’s foundation consists largely of the simple assertion that happiness, all other things being equal, is better than unhappiness. Who could argue with that?

You’d be surprised. Some people believe that even this seemingly {332} modest moral claim is an unwarranted inference of “ought” from “is” — that is, from the real-world fact that people do like happiness. G. E. Moore himself argued as much (though later philosophers have traced Moore’s complaint to a misunderstanding of Mill).

It’s true that Mill sometimes worded his argument in a way that invited such criticism. But he never professed to have quite “proven” the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain; he believed “first principles” beyond proof. His argument followed more modest and pragmatic lines. One of them consisted of saying, basically: Let’s face it, we all subscribe at least partly to utilitarianism; some of us just don’t use the term.

First of all, we all conduct our own lives as if happiness were the object of the game. (Even people who practice severe self-denial typically do so in the name of future happiness, either here or in the hereafter.) And once each of us admits that, yes, we find our own happiness in some basic sense good, something that is not rightly trampled upon without reason, it becomes hard to deny everyone else’s identical claim without sounding a bit presumptuous. Indeed, the point is widely conceded: everyone — except sociopaths, whom the rest of us consider poor moral beacons — agrees that the question of how their acts affect the happiness of others is an important part of moral evaluation. You may believe in any number of absolute rights (freedom, say) or obligations (never cheat). You may consider these things divinely ordained, or unerringly intuited. You may believe that they always override — “trump,” as some philosophers say — solely utilitarian arguments. But you don’t believe the utilitarian arguments are irrelevant; you implicitly agree that, in the absence of your trump card, they would win.

What’s more, when pressed, you probably have a tendency to justify your trump cards in utilitarian terms. You might argue, for example, that even if the occasional isolated act of cheating somehow inrcased overall welfare in the short run, cheating on a regular basis would erode integrity, so that moral chaos would eventually ensue, to everyone’s detriment. Or, similarly, once freedom is denied even to a small group of people, no one will feel secure. This sort of underlying logic — closet utilitarianism — often emerges when the logic behind basic “rights” is teased out. “The greatest-happiness {333} principle,” Mill wrote, “has had a large share in forming the moral doctrines even of those who most scornfully reject its authority. Nor is there any school of thought which refuses to admit that the influence of actions on happiness is a most material and even predominant consideration in many of the details of morals, however unwilling to acknowledge it as the fundamental principle of morality, and the source of moral obligation.”

The above arguments for “trump cards” illustrate a scantly appreciated fact: utilitarianism can be the basis for absolute rights and obligations. A utilitarian can fiercely defend “inviolable” values, so long as their violation would plausibly lead to big problems in the long run. Such a utilitarian is a “rule” utilitarian, as Mill seems to have been, rather than an “act” utilitarian. Such a person doesn’t ask: What is the effect on overall human happiness of my doing such and such today? Instead the question is: What would be the effect if people always did such and such in comparable circumstances, as a rule?

Belief in the goodness of happiness and the badness of suffering isn’t just a basic part of moral discourse that we all share. Increasingly it seems to be the only basic part that we all share. Thereafter, fragmentation ensues, as different people pursue different divinely imparted or seemingly self-evident truths. So if a moral code is indeed a code for the entire community, then the utilitarian mandate — happiness is good, suffering bad — seems to be the most practical, if not the only practical, basis for moral discourse. It is the common denominator for discussion, the only premise everyone stands on. It’s just about all we have left.

Of course, you could dig up a few people who wouldn’t go even that far; perhaps citing the naturalistic fallacy, they would insist that there’s nothing good about happiness. (My own view is that the goodness of happiness is, in fact, a moral value that remains unscathed by the naturalistic fallacy. Conveniently, space doesn’t permit the dissertation-length defense that this claim requires.) Some other people might say that although happiness is a fine thing, they don’t think there should be any such thing as a consensually accepted moral code. That’s their prerogative. They are free to opt out of moral discourse, and out of any obligations, and benefits, that the resulting code might {334} bring. But if you believe that the idea of a public moral code makes sense, and you want it to be broadly accepted, then the utilitarian premise would seem to be a logical starting point.

Still, the question is a good one: Why should we have a moral code? Even accepting the basis of utilitarianism — the goodness of happiness — you might ask: Why should any of us worry about the happiness of others? Why not let everyone worry about their own happiness — which seems, anyway, to be the one thing they can be more or less counted on to do?

Perhaps the best answer to this question is a sheerly practical one: thanks to our old friend non-zero-sumness, everyone’s happiness can, in principle, go up if everyone treats everyone else nicely. You refrain from cheating or mistreating me, I refrain from cheating or mistreating you; we’re both better off than we would be in a world without morality. For in such a world the mutual mistreatment would roughly cancel itself out anyway (assuming neither of us is a vastly more proficient villain than the other). And, meanwhile, we would each incur the added cost of fear and vigilance.

To put the point another way: life is full of cases where a slight expenditure on one person’s part can yield a larger saving on another person’s part. For example: holding open a door for the person walking behind you. A society in which everyone holds the door open for people behind them is a society in which everyone is better off (assuming none of us has an odd tendency to walk through doors in front of people). If you can create this sort of system of mutual consideration — a moral system — it’s worth the trouble from everyone’s point of view.

In this light, the argument for a utilitarian morality can be put concisely: widely practiced utilitarianism promises to make everyone better off; and so far as we can tell, that’s what everyone wants.

Mill followed the logic of non-zero-sumness (without using the term, or even being very explicit about the idea) to its logical conclusion. He wanted to maximize overall happiness; and the way to maximize it is for everyone to be thoroughly self-sacrificing. You shouldn’t hold doors open for people only if you can do so quite easily and thereby save them lots of trouble. You should hold doors open whenever the amount of trouble you save them is even {335} infinitesimally greater than the trouble you take. You should, in short, go through life considering the welfare of everyone else exactly as important as your own welfare.

This is a radical doctrine. People who preach it have been known to get crucified. Mill wrote: “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”



It is surprising to see such a warm, mushy idea — brotherly love — grow out of a word as cold and clinical as “utilitarianism.” But it shouldn’t be. Brotherly love is implicit in the standard formulations of utilitarianism — maximum total happiness, the greatest good for the greatest number. In other words: everyone’s happiness counts equally; you are not privileged, and you shouldn’t act as if you are. This is the second, less conspicuous foundational assumption of Mill’s argument. From the beginning he is asserting not only that happiness is good, but that no one person’s happiness is special.

It is hard to imagine an assertion that more directly assaults the values implicit in nature. If there’s one thing natural selection “wants” us to believe, it’s that our individual happiness is special. This is the basic gyroscope it has built into us; by pursuing goals that promise to make us happy, we will maximize the proliferation of our genes (or, at least, would have stood a good chance of doing that in the ancestral environment). Leave aside for the moment that pursuing goals which promise to make us happy, in the long run, often doesn’t; leave aside that natural selection doesn’t really “care” about our happiness in the end and will readily countenance our suffering if that will get our genes into the next generation. For now the point is that the basic mechanism by which our genes control us is the deep, often unspoken (even unthought), conviction that our happiness is special. We are designed not to worry about anyone else’s happiness, except in the sort of cases where such worrying has, during evolution, benefited our genes.

And it isn’t just us. Self-absorption is the hallmark of life on this planet. Organisms are things that act as if their welfare were more {336} important than the welfare of all other organisms (except, again, when other organisms can help spread their genes). It may sound innocuous for Mill to say that your happiness is a legitimate goal only so long as it doesn’t interfere with the happiness of others, but this is an evolutionary heresy. Your happiness is designed to interfere with the happiness of others; the very reason it exists is to inspire selfish preoccupation with it.

Long before Darwin knew about natural selection, long before he could have thought about its “values,” his own contrary values were well formed. The ethics embraced by Mill were a Darwin family tradition. Grandfather Erasmus had written about the “greatest happiness principle.” And on both sides of the family universal compassion had long been an ideal. In 1788 Darwin’s maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, made hundreds of antislavery medallions showing a black man in chains under the words “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” Darwin sustained the tradition, feeling deeply the anguish of black men who, he observed bitterly, “are ranked by the polished savages in England as hardly their breth-ren, even in God’s eyes.”

This sort of simple and deep compassion is what Darwin’s utilitarianism ultimately rested on. To be sure, he did, like Mill, pen a rationale for his ethics (a rationale that, oddly, flirts more openly than Mill’s with the naturalistic fallacy). But in the end, Darwin was simply a man who empathized boundlessly; and in the end, boundless empathy is what utilitarianism is.

Once Darwin fathomed natural selection, he surely saw how deeply his ethics were at odds with the values it implies. The insidious lethality of a parasitic wasp, the cruelty of a cat playing with a mouse — these are, after all, just the tip of the iceberg. To ponder natural selection is to be staggered by the amount of suffering and death that can be the price for a single, slight advance in organic design. And it is to realize, moreover, that the purpose of this “advance” — longer, sharper canine teeth in male chimpanzees, say — is often to make other animals suffer or die more surely. Organic design thrives on pain, and pain thrives on organic design.

Darwin doesn’t seem to have spent much time agonizing over this conflict between natural selection’s “morality” and his own. If {337} a parasitic wasp or a cat playing with mice embodies nature’s values — well, so much the worse for nature’s values. It is remarkable that a creative process devoted to selfishness could produce organisms which, having finally discerned this creator, reflect on this central value and reject it. More remarkable still, this happened in record time; the very first organism ever to see its creator did precisely that. Darwin’s moral sentiments, designed ultimately to serve selfishness, renounced this criterion of design as soon as it became explicit.



It’s conceivable that Darwin’s values, ironically, drew a certain strength from his pondering of natural selection. Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: “My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death.” And you are one of these organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity. It’s enough to make you feel a little alienated — if not, indeed, out and out rebellious.

There is another sense in which Darwinian reflection works against selfishness, a sense Darwin himself could not fully appreciate; there is a sense in which the new Darwinian paradigm can lead one appreciably in the direction of Mill’s and Darwin’s and Jesus’ values.

This is meant informally. I’m not claiming that any moral absolutes follow from Darwinism. Indeed, as we’ve seen, the very idea of moral absolutes has suffered a certain amount of damage at Darwin’s hands. But I do believe that most people who clearly understand the new Darwinian paradigm and earnestly ponder it will be led toward greater compassion and concern for their fellow human beings. Or, at least toward the admission, in moments of detachment, that greater compassion and concern would seem to be in order.

The new paradigm strips self-absorption of its noble raiment. Selfishness, remember, seldom presents itself to us in naked form. Belonging as we do to a species (the species) whose members justify their actions morally, we are designed to think of ourselves as good and our behavior as defensible, even when these propositions are {338} objectively dubious. The new paradigm, by exposing the biological machinery behind this illusion, makes the illusion harder to buy.

For example, nearly all of us say, and believe, that we don’t dislike people without reason. If someone is an object of our wrath, or even of our callous indifference — if we can enjoy his suffering, or easily countenance it — it is because of something he did, we say; he deserves to be treated coldly.

Now, for the first time, we understand clearly how humans came to have this feeling that the deserts they dish out are just. And its origins don’t inspire great moral confidence.

At the root of this feeling is the retributive impulse, one of the basic governors of reciprocal altruism. It evolved not for the good of the species, or the good of the nation, or even for the good of the tribe, but for the good of the individual. And, really, even this is misleading; the impulse’s ultimate function is to get the individual’s genetic information copied.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the impulse of retribution is bad. But it does mean that some of the reasons we’ve been thinking of it as good are now open to question. In particular, the aura of reverence surrounding the impulse — the ethereal sense that retribution embodies some higher ethical truth — is harder to credit once the aura is seen to be a self-serving message from our genes, not a beneficent message from the heavens. Its origin is no more heavenly than that of hunger, hatred, lust, or any of the other things that exist by virtue of their past success in shoving genes through generations.

There is, actually, a defense of retribution that can be cast in moral terms — in utilitarian terms, or in terms of any other morality whose aim is to get people to behave considerately toward one another. Retribution helps solve the “cheater” problem that any moral system faces; people who are seen to take more than they give are thereafter punished, discouraged from always being a door holdee and never a door holder. Even though the retributive impulse wasn’t designed for the good of the group, as Mill’s moral system is, it can, and often does, raise the sum of social welfare. It keeps people mindful of the interests of others. However lowly its origins, it has come to serve a lofty purpose. This is something to be thankful for.

And it might be enough to exonerate the retributive impulse {339} except for one fact: the grievances redressed by retribution aren’t tallied with the sort of divine objectivity that Mill would prescribe. We don’t try to punish only people who truly have cheated or mis treated us. Our moral accounting system is wantonly subjective, in formed by a deep bias toward the self.

And this general bias in calculating what we’re owed is only one of several departures from clarity of moral judgment. We tend to find our rivals morally deficient, to find our allies worthy of compassion, to gear that compassion to their social status, to ignore the socially marginal altogether. Who could look at all this and then claim with a straight face that our various departures from brotherly love possess the sort of integrity we ascribe to them?

We are right to say that we never dislike people without a reason. But the reason, often, is that it is not in our interests to like them; liking them won’t elevate our social status, aid our acquisition of material or sexual resources, help our kin, or do any of the other things that during evolution have made genes prolific. The feeling of “rightness” accompanying our dislike is just window dressing. Once you’ve seen that, the feeling’s power may diminish.

But wait a minute. Couldn’t we similarly discount the sense of rightness accompanying compassion, sympathy, and love? After all, love, like hate, exists only by virtue of its past contribution to genetic proliferation. At the level of the gene, it is as crassly self-serving to love a sibling, an offspring, or a spouse as it is to hate an enemy. If {340} the base origins of retribution are grounds for doubting it, why shouldn’t love be doubted too?

The answer is that love should be doubted, but that it survives the doubt in pretty good shape. At least, it survives in good shape by the lights of a utilitarian, or indeed of anyone who considers happiness a moral good. Love, after all, makes us want to further the happiness of others; it makes us give up a little so that others (the loved ones) may have a lot. More than that: love actually makes this sacrifice feel good, thus magnifying total happiness all the more. Of course, sometimes love is hurtful. Witness the woman in Texas who plotted the murder of the mother of her daughter’s rival for a cheer-leading slot. Her maternal love, though undeniably intense, doesn’t go down the positive side of the moral ledger. And so too whenever love ends up doing more harm than good. But either way — whether the new result is good or bad — the moral evaluation of love is the same as the evaluation of retribution: we must first clear away the window dressing, the intuitive feeling of “rightness,” and then soberly assess the effect on overall happiness.

Thus the service performed by the new paradigm isn’t, strictly speaking, to reveal the baseness of our moral sentiments; that baseness, per se, counts neither for nor against them; the ultimate genetic selfishness underlying an impulse is morally neutral — grounds neither for embracing the impulse nor for condemning it. Rather, the paradigm is useful because it helps us see that the aura of rightness surrounding so many of our actions may be delusional; even when they feel right, they may do harm. And surely hatred, more often than love, does harm while feeling right. That is why I contend that the new paradigm will tend to lead the thinking person toward love and away from hate. It helps us judge each feeling on its merits; and on grounds of merit, love usually wins.

Of course, if you’re not a utilitarian, sorting these issues out may be more complex. And although utilitarianism was Darwin’s and Mill’s solution to the moral challenge of modern science, it isn’t everyone’s. Nor is this chapter intended to make it everyone’s (although, I admit, it’s mine). The point, rather, is to show that a Darwinian world needn’t be an amoral world. If you accept even the {341} simple assertion that happiness is better than unhappiness (all other things being equal), you can go on to construct a full-fledged mo rality, with absolute laws and rights and all the rest. You can keep finding laudable some of the things we’ve always found laudable love, sacrifice, honesty. Only the most die-hard nihilist, who insists that there’s nothing good about the happiness of human beings, could find the word moral meaningless in a post-Darwinian world.



Darwin was not the only Victorian evolutionist who took a dim view of evolution’s “values.” Another was his friend and advocate Thomas Huxley. In a lecture titled “Evolution and Ethics,” which he delivered at Oxford University in 1893, Huxley took aim at the whole premise of social Darwinism, the idea of deriving values from evolution. Echoing the logic of Mill’s essay “Nature,” he said that “cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.” Indeed, a close look at evolution, with its massive toll in death and suffering, suggested to Huxley that it is rather at odds with what we call good. Let us understand, he said, “once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” Peter Singer, one of the first philosophers to take the new Dar winism seriously, has noted, in this context, that “the more you know about your opponent, the better your chances of winning.” And George Williams, who did so much to define the new paradigm, has embraced both Huxley’s and Singer’s points, and stressed how strongly the new paradigm underscores them. His revulsion at natural selection’s values, he writes, is even greater than Huxley’s, “based both on the more extreme contemporary view of natural selection as a process for maximizing selfishness, and on the longer list of vices now assignable to the enemy.” And if the enemy is indeed “worse than Huxley thought, there is a more urgent need for biological understanding.”

Biological understanding to date suggests some basic rules for engaging the enemy. (My enumeration of them isn’t meant to imply {342} that I’m notably successful in following them.) A good starting point would be to generally discount moral indignation by 50 percent or so, mindful of its built-in bias, and to be similarly suspicious of moral indifference to suffering. We should be especially vigilant in certain situations. We seem, for example, prone to grow indignant about the behavior of distinct groups of people (nations, say) whose interests conflict with a distinct group to which we belong. We also tend to be inconsiderate of low-status people and exceedingly tolerant of high-status people; making life somewhat easier on the former at the expense of the latter is probably warranted, at least by utilitarian V lights (and the lights of other egalitarian moralities).

This isn’t to say that utilitarianism is mindlessly egalitarian. A powerful person who uses his or her station humanely is a valuable social asset, and thus may merit special treatment, so long as the treatment facilitates such conduct. A famous example in the annals of utilitarian writing is the question of whether you would first save an archbishop or a chambermaid if the two were trapped in a burning building. The standard answer is that you should save the archbishop — even if the chambermaid is your mother — since he will do more good in the future.

Well, maybe so, if the high-status person is an archbishop (and even then, perhaps, it depends on the archbishop). But most high-status people aren’t. And there is little evidence that high-status people have any particular proclivity toward conscience or sacrifice. Indeed, the new paradigm stresses that they have attained their status not for “the good of the group” but for themselves; they can be expected to use it accordingly, just as they can be expected to pretend otherwise. Status merits much less indulgence than it generally gets. It is only human nature to extend deference to Mother Teresa and Donald Trump; in the second case, this part of human nature is perhaps unfortunate.

Of course, these prescriptions assume a utilitarian premise — that the happiness of other people is the object of a moral system. What about the nihilists? What about people who insist that not even happiness is a good thing, or that only their happiness is a good thing, or that for some other reason the welfare of others shouldn’t concern them? Well, for one thing, they probably go around acting as if it {343} did. For the pretense of selflessness is about as much a part of human nature as is its frequent absence. We dress ourselves up in tony moral language, denying base motives and stressing our at least minimal consideration for the greater good; and we fiercely and self-righteously decry selfishness in others. It seems fair to ask that even people who don’t buy the stuff about utilitarianism and brotherly love at least make one minor adjustment in light of the new Darwinism: be consistent; either start subjecting all that moral posturing to skeptical scrutiny or quit the posturing.

For people who choose the former, the simplest single source of guidance is to bear in mind that the feeling of moral “rightness” is something natural selection created so that people would employ it selfishly. Morality, you could almost say, was designed to be misused by its own definition. We’ve seen what may be the rudiments of self-serving moralizing in our close relatives the chimpanzees as they pursue their agendas with righteous indignation. Unlike them, we can distance ourselves from the tendency long enough to see it — long enough, indeed, to construct a whole moral philosophy that consists essentially of attacking it.

Darwin, on grounds such as this, believed that the human species is a moral one — that, in fact, we are the only moral animal. “A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them,” he wrote, “We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity.”

In this sense, yes, we are moral; we have, at least, the technical capacity for leading a truly examined life; we have self-awareness, memory, foresight, and judgment. But the last several decades of evolutionary thought lead one to emphasize the word technical. Chronically subjecting ourselves to a true and bracing moral scrutiny, and adjusting our behavior accordingly, is not something we are designed for. We are potentially moral animals — which is more than any other animal can say — but we aren’t naturally moral animals. To be moral animals, we must realize how thoroughly we aren’t. {344}