If It Feels Good, Do It

I am often perplexed by other’s perplexity. In this particular case, it’s the oft-repeated, “I can’t see how science can explain where goodness comes from,” or “Evolution just can’t account for morality.”


Well, first, several good books explain the connection between evolutionary theory and morality (the last one I read was The Moral Sense, by James Q. Wilson), but even at an intuitive level, morality just makes sense when you consider humans are social by nature.

To ask the question, “Why be moral if there is no god?” Is to misunderstand that we don’t have a choice in whether we “should” or “shouldn’t” be moral — we are moral, and we are moral because we have had to be moral, otherwise we would not be here. Now there are clearly some folks who are “more moral” than others, but how do we judge what is more or less of a moral act?

Here’s a list. On the top is really bad stuff, and on the bottom is the not so bad…

The farther you get from the bottom the more clear-cut the “moral value” of the action (or inaction). So what is (at bottom) our “moral standard?” What is it that the farther we get from, the less moral our actions potentially become… it is life within a social structure. Yup, a little bit of Kant and a little bit of Mill, a dash of “categorical imperative” and a sprinkle of “utilitarianism.” More simply, if the action would totally muck up our social structure, the worse it is. If the action is less harmful, then the less “evil” the action is judged to be. Now, if it was God at bottom, what would be the determining factors as to “how evil” something is — I guess the level to which it angers Him?

Based on our evolution as social beings, this is exactly what one would expect. Those among us who were not (to some degree) moral just didn’t make it through the hundreds of thousands of years of our species’ evolution. One can easily see rudimentary moralities in other social species. In dog packs there is an Alpha Male at the head and an agreement among the pack to respect that authority—because what is good for the pack is good for the individual, and the pack functions best with a single “decider” (o, that GW!). In primates we see further developed social structures, leadership roles, resource pooling, and examples of sharing. Humans have developed even higher senses of “right and wrong” because we have had to live in social groups of ever-increasing complexity.

By giving up my seat to an old woman on the bus, I am, in a small way, helping to create a society that cares for its own, one that is more stable, and it increases the chance of survival of my children to grow up in that kind of society. And my children are, after all, a little bit of me. How does nature get me to act in this way? Well the same way it gets me to do anything, it makes me feel good when I do it. Perhaps not in the short term, but it rewards me with a sense of well-being for having done the “right” thing… o, nature, you are crafty! You really know how to push my buttons…

Finally, to ask what is moral is to ask in context of what. The members of a wolf pack will gang-up against a female that attempts to attack the Alpha’s pups, they will try to bring order back to the pack, but should a spider attack another spider’s hatchlings, it will likely be left alone to snack. And should a child be attacked in a human society, we will chase down and jail the offender even long after the attack has occurred.

We cannot choose morality anymore than we can choose hemoglobin, it is part of us. Maybe someone else’s blood is redder than mine — that’s to be expected, but for any of this social business to work, that is the way it had to be, and that is the way it is… probably.


9 Responses

  1. I think one problem with this construction is that people can (and have) engineer perverse incentives based on these concepts of “the good of the tribe” and “it feels good so it is good.”

    Like, you had murder at the top of your badness list… but it makes me think of the ancient Aztec again. Here you have a society that murders victims in a highly ritualistic manner, ostensibly for the good of the tribe, and presumably with all the exhiliration of ritual to make it feel good.

    So in this case, murder does not damage the social fabric. Indeed the social fabric is based on murder. So, is murder highly moral among Aztecs, while at the same time highly immoral in other societies?

    I haven’t studied the issue closely, but it seems it might be necessary to decide upon moral absolutes. If community cohesion and personal good-feeling are the measures, then absolutely anything can be moral.

    Or maybe morality is a moving target based on the fashions of the day.

    Or maybe morality is a purely local phenomenon.

    It is interesting to think about though. Thank you.

  2. Well, i would say that what you describe is not “murder” but rather “ritualized human sacrifice,” and i think that “morally” they are different… but, in any case, you are very right that it is far more complex than what i have written…

    i am speaking in the most general terms to show what seems clear to me, that there is an evolutionary pathway (and even necessity) for beings such as us to develop “morality”…

  3. To kill someone with direct intend is murder no matter the reason. To understand where the moral zeigheist were in the time of the aztecs of course helps understanding the phenomen, but moral relativism is a real danger. In our time it moderates the critique of honor killing, genital mutilation and so on.

    I of course agree our biology and the group interaction is a base for morality, but I think we need mene theory as well. Let me take slavery in usa as an example.

    Slavery was accepted for a long time and there were different reasons for not including the slaves in the otherwise normaly held morality. But somewhere down the line people started to think about it. After a civil war, in 1865, the last slaves were freed. The point is, the moral zeigheist always moves.

    I also think education and rational thinking is critical for progress and morality. This reminds me of an episode from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos found on youtube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh0eM4tAISQ .

  4. But do we even need meme theory to explain slavery? I mean, it eventually became too destructive a force to maintain in our society, especially in a society that has come to conclude all men and women are equal… as a result it has become “evil”…

  5. I meant to use memes to explain why it were abolished, but the scientific explanation were not the important bit. “Eventually” and “conclude” are the key words here. The moral conclusion that slavery is wrong emerged over time.

  6. but Roger, are you saying that all “scientific” reasons are immediate, timeless, and unchanging? You don’t think that scientific explanations are also a function of changes over time?

  7. Well, yes.. or um.. what? Scientific models are made more accurate by newevidence, or adjusted as needed when we discover new phenomena that isn’t covered by a theory. Did that answer your question?

  8. I was just trying to say that I didn’t think meme theory was necessary to explain how people’s attitudes toward slavery changed… but I do see your point that the “larger conversation” that made slavery unpalatable was likely the product of the “freedom” and “human rights” memes spreading… right?

  9. Well, meme theory isn’t completely established in the science community, but it’s a possible way of explaining what happens. If we accept this then yes, moral evolve through memes such as freedom and human rights.

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