Science and ethics (part 3): understanding the biological origin of human morality

Something extraordinary is happening, a cultural revolution is unfolding in front of us, and is mostly going unnoticed. Evolutionary biology, ethology and psychology are all converging to the same conclusion: our moral inclinations have clear and definable biological origins, the evidence is piling up, and in the space of a generation it will become overwhelming and indisputable. [The previous post on this series is here.]
Personally, I am not surprised one bit, if anything, I’m surprised that it took so long, but that’s a topic for another post. The point here is that the whole landscape of Western thought tradition is going to get a vigorous shake, and it’s likely to emerge dramatically changed at the end of the transition. Why? Well, because philosophy as we understand it relies on two founding pillars: the first is a general, sometimes implicit assumption that good and bad are real and meaningful concepts, that provide some sort of coordinates system, a moral space, on which one can plot what happens in the world. The second is some form of rational thought, that can be used to explore, define and refine the moral space and the relations between elements on it.

On the other hand, for most of our cultural history, Science has usually left the first pillar well hidden as an unstated implicit premise, simply assuming that finding out how the Universe (the world, nature, physics, biology, everything) works, is good in itself [As you may know, I have included this idea in my own premises, explicitly defining it as a primary intuition that drives my intellectual effort]. Rationality (whatever that is) was then used to probe and explore reality in order to identify and describe regularities, making the Universe around us progressively less unpredictable. Until now, this was possible (more or less) without having to address the implicit moral premise, and, crucially, without interfering with philosophers, that could keep thinking about what defines the moral space on their own terms. But today it’s different, both traditions are going to be shaken by the current findings: science is telling us that we are born with a moral sense, we arrive in this world with a biologically determined, one could say “instinctive”, understanding of “right” and “wrong”, and that experience then allows us to develop and refine it in a million different and diverging ways. For science, this may lead to a much-needed acknowledgement of its own, implicit, premise of what is good, generating an interesting and unpredictable short-cut: we start with one definition of “good”, use it to explore reality, and find out that this reality contains the reasons why we needed a definition of good in the first place.

For philosophy, the change will also be dramatic: finding out the biological foundations of our all-important moral compass will redefine the different philosophical traditions in dramatic ways. I will not discuss this in detail, but I’m sure it’s going to be interesting.

But are we really sure this is happening? Is science really starting to scrutinise the most cherished human trait: our moral nature? This may be possible if we indeed can identify the biological sources of morality: if we can, then there is no doubt that morality will, for the first time, become a subject of scientific study. This is the first and more important thing to establish, so I will now provide some pointers that show that we can safely assume that morality is a consequence of our biology, and that therefore we can actively study it empirically. I will start with first hand, everyday experience, and then continue with some academic proofs.

If you have ever shared your house with a dog or a cat, this will be no surprise. Dogs and cats distinctively display (and sometime make a real show!) some behaviours that, in humans, are unanimously recognised as the consequence of our moral compass. Have you ever seen a dog acting apologetically? Or a cat displaying what can only be described as rightful indignation? If you haven’t, you probably never shared your living space with cats or dogs. Both behaviours are typical, and to different extents (and in different forms), part of the behavioural repertoire of both dogs and cats. Until recently, stupid and short-sighted scientists were happy to brush this evidence aside, and describe these behaviours as “instinctive”, using instinct as a magic “explanatory” word that could allow us to avoid looking in uncomfortable depths. We were told that we shouldn’t humanise animal behaviour, in the name of some mythical value of objectivity, as well as a not well-defined fundamental difference between us and them. Thankfully, this pitiful attitude is now recognised for what it was: wilful selective blindness. On the contrary, contemporary science is quite happy to look closely at this sort of behaviours, and, more importantly, recognise that they can easily be described (understood) by assuming that also our pets use some concepts of right and wrong, and that these are the cognitive basis that generate or influence the whole spectrum of social behaviour in mammals (disposing, once and for all, the shameful discipline known and behaviourism).
Crucially, there is a general consensus in assuming that studying these cognitive processes in other social animals (mostly mammals), will provide some insight about humans: it is likely that human faculties have evolved from previous ancestors, and that these may be inferred by looking at their current form in other animals.

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure to attend a lecture by Patricia Churchland (Organised by the Royal Institute of Philosophy, as part of the Mind, Self, and Person series, YouTube videos for the series are available here, Patricia’s lecture is here). Her point was simple: there are good biological and evolutionary reasons to believe that our moral sense evolved from basic behavioural needs: parental care and sociality. Patricia made a good job, and, judging by the questions asked, was able to convince an audience of philosophers that her thesis is solid enough. However, she didn’t go into the details, so I’ll need to use other sources to solidify my argument.

I suppose that the starting assumption can be taken for granted: human beings are social animals. We like to stick with one another and, as a species, display a remarkable ability to collaborate. There is a lot of debate on how this ability evolved, see for example this very interesting discussion on (read the replies, that’s where it gets thrilling), but some things are unquestionably accepted by all: in order to be social and collaborative, it is useful to have a common understanding of what is right and what is wrong, so that trust can be established and collaboration can be profitable to all. Non human mammals that display collaborative and social behaviours in fact also show retributive behaviours that can be seen as praise or punishments delivered as the result of moral judgement.

But it doesn’t end here, the story in fact continues on the human side, with a steadily growing amount of evidence suggesting that babies show to have moral preferences as soon as they become able to show any preference at all. Paul Bloom has done a lot of research in this field and summarised it in his recent book ‘Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil’ (it’s still in my reading list, but you can find two reviews here and here). I’ll repeat the main concept using Paul’s (and colleagues) words:

infants prefer an individual who helps another to one who hinders another, prefer a helping individual to a neutral individual, and prefer a neutral individual to a hindering individual

This comes directly from Nature (Hamlin, J. Kiley, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom. 2007 “Social evaluation by preverbal infants.” Nature 450.7169: 557-559) and leaves little room for doubt: human beings start making moral judgements well before they learn to speak. The plot thickens when one adds another spectacular result obtained this time in the field of experimental philosophy (don’t worry, I will resist the temptation of commenting on the puzzling name of this discipline): Josh Knobe has neatly demonstrated that adults make moral judgements in an ubiquitous way, even when one would expect logic to trump. For a highly entertaining overview, I recommend episode 25 from, it’s a joy to listen. In a nutshell: if you ask “was this damage caused intentionally?” or “was this positive effect caused intentionally?” when in both cases the damage or gain were a side effect deemed irrelevant by the decision maker, people will usually answer “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second. Yeah, we can say goodbye to logic and rationality.

Taken together, these two findings tell a compelling and very significant story: our moral judgements precede rational/verbal evaluations. This observation is entirely in accordance with the image of human nature that I’m slowly building in here: I have stated before that “emotions underlie all our cognitive processes“, they precede and ignite our rational abilities. Yes, emotions may be influenced by rational thought, but there is little doubt that reason is ultimately guided by our feelings much more than the other way round. This is a crucial remark, because it explains so much of the world around us, so much so that I don’t even know where to start. Think of theology, and how it uses rationalistic arguments, or even better, think of antagonist theological interpretations of the same Scriptures (there is no shortage, in no tradition). Think also about the immense diversity of philosophical theories, and one question emerges crystal clear: they should all be based on reason (in the case of antagonist theological interpretations, they should also be grounded on one or the other shared and agreed upon “revealed truth”). But reason should be objective, so why on earth there is so little agreement? The “emotional” nature of morality offers a clear answer: because morality is pre-rational (or at least pre-verbal, see Bloom), and because our rationalisations are guided by our moral intuitions (see Knobe), rationality can amplify small initial differences in these intuitions, and act as a diverging force, something that is quite the opposite of what one would expect when the assumption relies on the supposed objectivity of rational thought.

We are left with plenty of open questions, and an equal amount consequences to ponder… Looks like this series of posts will continue for quite a while. Stay tuned!

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Posted in Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Philosophy, Psychology, Science
6 comments on “Science and ethics (part 3): understanding the biological origin of human morality
  1. […] the previous post, I’ve briefly looked at some of the evidence that makes it possible scientifically look at […]

  2. […] others. This is important, and very interesting, because it happens on many levels: for example, in a previous post, I have hinted about this kind of problem in the domain of human collaboration (see the […]

  3. […] allowed us to shape the world around us. This is the reason why we have moral instincts (discussed here): we find joy and fulfilment when we feel useful and appreciated by our peers. One could reduce […]

  4. […] Science and ethics (part 3): understanding the biological origin of human morality.  This one is straightforward: I review some of the evidence that supports the founding idea of a science of ethics. Our ethical drives have a biological origin, and therefore fall squarely within the scope of standard scientific enquiry. The side effect is another confirmation that rationality is enslaved to our intrinsic biologically-dictated drives. […]

  5. […] seen before that there is no big mystery surrounding the biological origin of human morality: sociality creates […]

  6. […] How about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Quite the opposite: thinking about him evokes the most peculiar mix of fear, puzzlement, an urge to fight him and even compassion (don’t ask! it would take a long time to explain this one). Why not righteous indignation? Surely the man merits at least the same level of spite that I grant to Blair, right? Well, yes, but looking at the general picture you will find that it is really hard to identify a single person that doesn’t seem to be afflicted by the same asymmetry of judgements (of course, many would deny that they are, but that’s just straight forward self-judgement blindness). Because this mechanism seems to generalise to humanity as a whole, it becomes legitimate to look for a general answer, not something that applies to me alone; to do so, the usual lens seems appropriate: I’ll use the ideas provided by my exploration of biological sources of morality. […]

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