Which is More Fundamental: Processes or Things? by Celso Vieira

Glass Half Full or Half Empty by Sealle, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Metaphysics is the attempt to understand how existence works by examining the building blocks of reality, the distinctions between mental and physical entities, and the fundamental questions of being and reality. But metaphysics is not only an arcane branch of philosophy: human beings use metaphysical assumptions to navigate the world. Assumptions about what exists and what is fundamental exert a powerful influence on our lives. Indeed, the less aware we are of our metaphysical assumptions, the more we are subject to them.

Western metaphysics tends to rely on the paradigm of substances. We often see the world as a world of things, composed of atomic molecules, natural kinds, galaxies. Objects are the paradigmatic mode of existence, the basic building blocks of the Universe. What exists exists as an object. That is to say, things are of a certain kind, they have some specific qualities and well-defined spatial and temporal limits. For instance: Fido is my dog, he is grey, and was born one year ago. (It’s worth noting that such a simple statement will give rise to a litany of metaphysical disputes within substance metaphysics: realists believe that universals, such as the natural kind ‘dogs’, exist while nominalists believe them to be only intellectual abstractions.)

Though substance metaphysics seems to undergird Western ‘common sense’, I think it is wrong. To see this, consider the cliché about the glass of water: is it half-empty or half-full? The question assumes a static arrangement of things serving as a basis for either an optimistic or a pessimistic interpretation. One can engage in interminable disputes about the correct description of the physical set-up, or about the legitimacy of the psychological evaluations. But what if the isolated frame ‘a glass of water’ fails to give the relevant information? Anyone would prefer an emptier glass that is getting full to a fuller one getting empty. Any analysis lacking information about change misses the point, which is just what substance metaphysics is missing. Process philosophers, meanwhile, think we should go beyond looking at the world as a set of static unrelated items, and instead examine the processes that make up the world. Processes, not objects, are fundamental.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus provides the most famous image of process metaphysics. ‘It is not possible,’ he says, ‘to step twice into the same river’ – because existence depends on change; the river you step into a second time is changed from the river you stepped into originally (and you have changed in the interval, too). And while substance philosophers will tend to search for the smallest constituent objects in order to locate reality’s most fundamental building blocks, process philosophers think this is insufficient. So do modern physicists. Electrons are now understood as bundles of energy in a field, and quantum vacuum fluctuations prove that there are fields without bundles but no bundles without fields. Things seem to be reducible to processes – and not the reverse. (As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, we should think about ‘occurrences’ instead of ‘things’.)

Change poses a recurring problem for substance metaphysics. Universals have traditionally been a popular way to circumvent it. These static entities are difficult to define precisely, but can be thought of as ‘hyper-things’ that are instantiated in many different particular things. A universal is the thing that particulars have in common, such as types, kinds and relations. Universals are essentially different from particulars: Aristotle, for instance, argued that particulars – such as Fido my dog – are subject to generation and corruption, while species – the universal – are eternal. This particular example provides another instance in which science seems to favour process metaphysics. Thanks to the theory of evolution, the Aristotelian view that species are unchanging and eternal was proven wrong. Species evolve. They change. Dogs, after all, evolved from wolves to constitute a whole different kind. Once again, we’re better off using the paradigm of change rather than substance.

Process metaphysics leads to a re-evaluation of other important philosophical notions. Consider identity. To explain why things change without losing their identity, substance philosophers need to posit some underlying core – an essence –that remains the same throughout change. It is not easy to pin down what this core might be, as the paradox of Theseus’ ship illustrates. A ship goes on a long voyage and requires significant repairs: new planks to replace the old, fresh oars to replace the decayed, and so on, until, by the time the ship returns to port, there is not one single piece that belonged to the ship when it departed. Is this the same ship, even though materially it is completely different? For substance philosophers, this is something of a paradox; for process philosophers, this is a necessary part of identity. Of course it is the same ship. Identity ceases to be a static equivalence of a thing with itself. After all, without the repairs, the ship would have lost its functionality. Instead, as the German philosopher Nicholas Rescher argues in Ideas in Process (2009), identity just is a programmatic development. That is, the identity of a process is the structural identity of its programme. Other things being equal, every puppy will turn out to be a dog. (This programme need not be thought of as deterministic. The interactions between processes, Rescher argues, open room for variations.)

Processes are not the mere intervals between two different states of affairs or two objects, as the paradox of the heap exemplifies: take a heap of sand and remove one grain. It remains a heap; one grain doesn’t make a difference. But if you repeat the subtraction enough times, eventually there will be just one grain. Clearly, this isn’t a heap. Where did it become a non-heap? By looking at the process, and not the end-states of affairs, you’ll realise the impossibility of pinpointing the boundary between heap and non-heap. (Similarly, no individual was the exact turning point between wolves and dogs.) At the very least, this gives us a warning about the unnoticed abstraction operating on our division of natural kinds. Process philosophers such as Henri Bergson stop at this negative conclusion, believing that processes cannot be known but only experienced. Regardless, as the Danish philosopher Johanna Seibt notes, it might just be the case that focusing on the process requires a whole new perspective.

Looking at the world as a manifold of interconnected processes has scientific and philosophical advantages, but there are more prosaic benefits too. Process philosophy invites us to look at longer stretches of time, blurred boundaries and connected relations. Identity as a programmatic – but not deterministic – process welcomes innovation through small, recurring changes. Under these metaphysical assumptions, a meaningful life is less about finding your ‘real’ self than expanding its boundaries. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Celso Vieira has a PhD in philosophy from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He lives in Belo Horizonte where he started the first Brazilian chapter of the effective altruist group The Life You Can Save. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Book Review: Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

Well, it’s sort of a book review. It’s more like a very informal description of a reaction to the book.

Which was: immense enjoyment.

My sister was nearly finished reading it when she left it behind at my house one day. In short order, I ‘accidentally’ forgot to bring it back to her the next time I saw her, or to remind her to take it with her when she came to visit. Perhaps I’m a bad sister, but that’s what she gets when she leaves such a marvelous book behind. Oh, the trials of having excellent taste in reading materials!

Anyway, I picked it up and started browsing through it, since she had already mentioned it to me, and from the start, I could hardly put it down. The long inward struggle that Charles Darwin went through prior to publishing his discovery of the evolution of species (or, rather, the primary mechanism that drives it), is well-known. Yet only the broad outline is really known: no-one can entirely imagine what goes through your mind at a time like that. What tortured thoughts must you wrestle with when you know a truth and believe it’s too important to remain untold, but are also shy, torn by loyalty to family and friends, and fear scorn, notoriety, and persecution?

The book begins with the story of Darwin around this time, just after he published On the Origin of Species, when he had finally been spurred on to do so after another naturalist, Alfred Wallace, made the same discovery independently sixteen or so years later. The book returns often to the story of Darwin’s struggles before publishing, since so many, whose stories are also told in this book, went through similar trials; it first opens with Darwin considering how best to acknowledge and properly credit those whose work contributed most to his theory.

The author proceeds to first takes us on a giant leap far back into the past, to ancient Greece, where the great natural philosopher Aristotle gathered sea sponges and fishes and was the first known to describe them systematically. Then she guides through a history, from Aristotle to Darwin, of the intensely curious, intellectually brilliant, and restless thinkers and observers who gave us modern science. Throughout, I was enthralled. Rebecca Stott tells of awkward, cranky loners who spent most of their time in dusty specimen cabinets or crawling about on hands and knees, meticulously recording the denizens of the natural world, of precocious, highly educated children of privilege who went on to lavish their money and leisure hours in the cause of scientific advancement, of pious priests and moralistic skeptics and atheists who considered the natural universe the most sacred and the most beautiful treasure trove of knowledge available to all, and of many more: a wide variety of people of various temperaments, backgrounds, advantages, types and levels of ability and creativity, are represented in this wonderful history of ideas and of discovery.

Among other scenes in book, I felt myself longing to have had the chance to take part in any, if just one, of those salons of Enlightenment Paris or Edinburgh. Fashionable, educated women and men hosted dinner parties to bring together the best and brightest minds, full of the most original, revolutionary, and fascinating ideas that human minds were creating. But these salons were not where it was all happening: some of the greatest discussions and intellectual achievements at the time happened in ordinary and humble studies, attics, homemade labs, lecture halls, monk’s rooms, coffee shops, and student’s quarters. It was a time when thinking and knowledge was, it seems to me, more widely and more highly valued. Not only familiarity with facts and factoids, but real understanding, was the greatest prize to be sought, the greatest goal in life.

If you want some of the best examples of how to be a part of that great quest, pick up this book and romp through the history of ideas with her. I think you’ll be as glad you did as I was.

*****************************

Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.
https://books.google.com/books?id=5Lt_MXhNJEoC&pg=PP5&dq=darwin%27s+ghost

On Morality: Objective or Subjective?

The Good Samaritan by Jean de Jullienne, 1766, after, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsIs morality objective, or subjective?

If it’s objective, it seems that it would need to be something like mathematics or the laws of physics, existing as part of the universe on its own account. But then, how could it exist independently of conscious, social beings, without whom it need not, and arguably could not, exist? Is ‘objective morality’, in that sense, even a coherent concept?

If it’s subjective, how can we make moral judgments about, and demand moral accountability from, people of times, backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures different than our own? If it’s really subjective and we can’t make those kinds of moral judgments or hold people morally accountable, then what’s the point of morality at all? Is ‘subjective morality’ a coherent concept either?

Take the classic example of slavery, which today is considered among the greatest moral evils, but until relatively recently in human history was common practice: could we say it was morally wrong for people in ancient times, or even two hundred years ago, to own slaves, when most of the predominantly held beliefs systems and most cultures supported it, or at least allowed that it was acceptable, if not ideal? Does it make sense for us to judge slave owners and traders of the past as guilty of wrongdoing?

From the objective view, we would say yes, slavery was always wrong, and most people just didn’t know it. We as a species had to discover that it was wrong, just as we had to discover over time, through reason and empirical evidence, how the movements of the sun, other stars, and the planets work.

From the subjective view, we would say no. We can only judge people according to mores of the time. But this is not so useful, either, because one can legitimately point out that the mere passage of time, all on its own, does not make something right become wrong, or vice versa. (This is actually a quite common unspoken assumption in the excuse ‘well, those were the olden days’ when people want to excuse slavery in ancient ‘enlightened, democratic’ Greece, or in certain pro-slavery Bible verses.) In any case, some people, even back then, thought slavery was wrong. How did they come to believe that, then? Was the minority view’s objections to slavery actually immoral, since they were contrary to the mores their own society, and of most groups, and of most ideologies?

Morality can be viewed as subjective in this sense: morality is secondary to, and contingent upon, the existence of conscious, social, intelligent beings. It really is incoherent to speak of morality independently of moral beings, that is, people capable of consciousness, of making and understanding their own decisions, of being part of a social group, because that’s what morality is: that which governs their interactions, and makes them right or wrong. Morality can be also viewed as subjective in the sense that moral beliefs and practices evolved as human beings (and arguably, in some applications of the term ‘morality’, other intelligent, social animals) evolved.

Morality can be viewed as objective in this sense: given that there are conscious, social beings whose welfare is largely dependent on the actions of others, and who have individual interests distinct from those of the group, there is nearly always one best way to act, or at least very few, given all the variables. For example, people thought that slavery was the best way to make sure that a society was happy, harmonious, and wealthy. But they had not yet worked out the theoretical framework, let alone have the empirical evidence, that in fact societies who trade freely, have good welfare systems, and whose citizens enjoy a high degree of individual liberty, are in fact those that end up increasing the welfare of everyone the most, for the society as well as for each individual. So slavery was always wrong, given that we are conscious, social, intelligent beings, because as a practice it harmed human beings in all of these aspects of human nature. Slavery is destructive to both the society and the individual, but many people did not have a reasonable opportunity to discover that fact, other than through qualms aroused by sympathetic observation of so much suffering.

In sum: it appears that in many arguments over morality, where people accuse each other of being ‘dogmatic’, or of ‘moral relativism’, or various other accusations people (I think) carelessly throw at each other, is due to a basic misunderstanding. To have an ‘objective’ view does not necessarily entail one must have a fixed, eternal, essentialist view of morality which does not allow for moral evolution or progress. Likewise, to have a ‘subjective’ view of morality does not entail thinking that ‘anything goes’, or that morality is entirely relative to culture, religion, or belief system. Here, as is the case with so many important issues, simplistic, black-and-white explanations do not lead to understanding, nor to useful solutions to life’s most pressing problems.

* Also published at The Dance of Reason, Sac State’s philosophy blog

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Morality Evolves, Thank Goodness! Or, ‘Survival of the Moral-est’

What is a moral community? To whom do we owe love, respect, allegiance, and caring, and why? What does it mean to be ‘good’?

As communications technology progresses at an exponential rate, we’re all coming into closer and more constant contact with people from all over the world. One result of this: some clashes between people of disparate cultures and belief systems seem particularly violent and extreme, but such partisan violence is commonplace throughout history. Yet we’re also cooperating as a worldwide community as never before, adapting practices and beliefs, with an increase in tolerance and mutual respect between people who might have had trouble finding enough common ground for fruitful interaction in times past. Since we can now see the faces, hear the voices, and observe the lives of people far away as if they’re next door, we identify with them more, perceive them no longer as abstractions but as people like ourselves, and come to care for them nearly as much, and sometimes just as much, as people that just so happen to live their whole lives geographically near to us. Conquest, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, holy war: all of these violate moral beliefs now common throughout the world. We seem, as a whole, to be enlarging our moral communities.

So what binds these moral communities, and where so the morals by which they live come from?

As a direct result of this new virtual cosmopolitanism (in a sociological rather than a philosophical sense), many are now convinced that morality is relative to cultures and belief systems. All ethic and cultural peoples have moral systems, and while most contain a few common prohibitions and values (child murder is wrong, health is good), all vary on at least some points, and some widely (women should / should make important decisions independent of men; sexual liberty is / is not good).

While the relativistic view of morality is understandable and generally comes from a generous spirit of tolerance, I believe this theory is, for one thing, ultimately of little use in solving the problem of how the worldwide community is to live together. If morality is entirely relevant to belief system, for example, how can we be justified in claiming that a man does wrong when he kills his wife accused of adultery, if his belief system teaches that this is right? How can we be justified in claiming that a trader in finance does wrong when she gambles her clients’ life savings away, when the business culture she works in operates on the premise that this is the right way to do business? A moral theory which explains the nature and workings of human morality  needs to demonstrate that it works, that it offers compelling answers and workable solutions to such challenges, in order to qualify as a candidate for a true theory. If the global human community wants some firm moral grounds on which to promote human flourishing, we need to look elsewhere than moral relativism.

Most importantly, the current evidence from the findings of clinical psychology and other disciplines that study human behavior just don’t appear to support the theory of moral relativism.

Thomas Aquinas

Another moral theory is moral realism, which many believe is the only acceptable alternative to moral relativism. Mores (moral conventions or laws), according to the moral realist, need to be fixed, immutable, and eternal in order to be true or binding. A highly influential, widely accepted version of this view was thoroughly described and explained by theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, which in turn is an interpretation of Aristotle, the great philosopher and logician of 4th century Greece. Aquinas argues that morality is built-in to reality and can be discovered in the “natural law”. Natural law is the totality of the observed, predictable workings of the universe: just as the law of gravity is an unchanging feature of the universe, so is the moral law, and to discover either, we need only carefully observe the world without and within us. To put Aquinas’ view most succinctly: we can derive the ‘ought’ directly from the ‘is’. This is a compelling theory, in my view, reassuring in its promise to deliver concrete and universal results.

David Hume

Yet David Hume, the great Scottish skeptic philosopher, famously overturned this view in the 18th century, pointing out that there is no direct logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. To say something is the case is not the same as saying it should be the case.

One example that illustrates why I think Hume is right is the set of complex issues regarding human reproduction. As Aquinas, modern evolutionary biologists, and indeed most of us, would agree: human beings, and indeed all living creatures, generally have strong instincts to mate, and the biological equipment which most individuals have makes it so that the result of frequent mating is the production of offspring. You could even say that we mate because we are equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively.

Here’s the presumed logical connection between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ in this case: Aquinas (and many modern evolutionary biologists) would say that because human beings generally reproduce, one of the main, if not the primary, purposes of the human race and therefore, all individual human beings, is to reproduce. Since we’re generally equipped to make offspring, both physically and instinctively, individual human beings should have sex only to reproduce.

‘But wait a minute!’ one might say, with Humean skepticism. The scientific evidence reveals to us that at least half, and probably more, of all offspring who are conceived are naturally aborted by the mother’s body well before birth, sometimes because of genetic defects, the current state of health of the mother, or some other reason. And that’s just before birth. In some places in the world today, and especially in Hume’s day, a very large proportion of all children born die before the age of five because they have no access to effective treatments for most diseases. If you put that number together with still births and natural abortions, you end up with a very, very large number of unsuccessful reproductions, a majority, in fact.

So if you try to derive the ‘is’ from the ‘ought’ in the case of human reproduction, you can just as well end up, logically, with the weird result that since attempts to successfully create offspring are usually unsuccessful, well, then, human beings ought not to reproduce! Most would find this conclusion not only weird but unacceptable, I think for the very good reason that people generally place a high value on continuing the human species and on the individual’s right to decide whether or not to have children.

Now, to be fair to Aquinas, it’s still the case that, despite so many failed instances of reproduction, the human race generally is successful at reproduction. Added to that, say some evolutionary biologists, the fact that all living beings evolved some sort of  reproductive capacity, it’s still the case that every being that has a choice should try to reproduce, whether or not individuals fail. But how if you belong to a species where reproduction is so successful that if everyone reproduces, the species as a whole is threatened from overcrowding? Or, as it is in the case of a highly social species such as humans, the young do very well in a community where there’s plenty of individuals around who don’t have offspring of their own? In fact, the human species (unusually) far outlive their mating years, and biologists believes it’s a survival mechanism for children to also have grandparents to help rear them. Aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends fulfill the same roles in society, as auxiliary parents and as overall contributors to the flourishing of the human race as a whole.

Perhaps Aquinas was only partially mistaken, and instead should have said that we should place a high moral value on the reproductive function of the human species as a whole: maybe having children is one among many virtuous choices we can make. He did allow that some instances of refraining from procreation are good (he was a celibate monk, after all!) but he also used procreative instinct arguments to say that any and all sex acts that don’t involve reproductive intent are immoral This, to me, represents an attempt to derive a universal moral law, then apply it to get a predetermined result: people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they do have sex do wrong, and people who don’t fulfill their ‘procreative purpose’ when they don’t have sex do right. (Hmmm… did he accidentally end up a moral relativist here, in this matter at least?)

http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021519,00.htmlThis is only one of countless examples where we find that morally committed, good people disagree on the fundamentals of what constitutes goodness and virtue. We find that this disagreement is among individuals and communities not only across space, but also across time. A classic example of this in Middle Eastern and Western cultures is the contrast between the moral precepts of the Old and the New Testaments, and also between the morals in the whole Bible compared to the morals of today. According to the New Testament, after all, it was still acceptable to own slaves and prevent women from speaking in church, which would be morally impermissible according to the mores of  most societies and religions today.

It could be that the moral relativist and the moral realist theories are both implausible. Maybe morality is not relative nor immutable: maybe it evolves. Maybe you can say something is true about morality just as you can say something is true about the human species itself: although the human race is neither immutable or eternal, it still evolved. Yet human beings all descend from a common ancestry and are identifiable in that they share in a distinctive spectrum of traits, so the criteria for being human is not relativistic either.

I think that human sexuality, in fact, also provides an excellent example of not only how a species, but how morality itself, evolves.

Originally, for human beings as for most other creatures, sex evolved for the purposes of reproduction, but over time, as our brains got bigger and our behavioral, emotional, and cultural capacities became more and more complex, sexuality began to be expressed for other purposes as well. As our ancestors became more social and formed larger and larger supportive groups, the young were better protected and better fed and therefore, were more likely to survive. The pressure for individuals to reproduce as often as possible was greatly reduced. Human beings (like our large-brained and social cousins the bonobos and dolphins) also began to enjoy sex for its own sake and re-purposed it: using sex to court potential mates, express friendship love, and dominance, use it for recreation, politics, and so forth. Some of these purposes of sexual expression have, over time, come to be recognized as beneficial, some have not, and some are still debated.

Just as sexuality evolved, so have the moral precepts surrounding sexuality. With the exception of certain

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Warren Cup

groups who seek enforce a traditional sexual moral code (usually for religious reasons), over the centuries and millennium sexuality has been appreciated as a much more rich and complex domain of human social relations. As we look back in history, a favored few in society have enjoyed a more liberal set of sexual mores (Greek and Roman elite males enjoyed gay sex without fear, and European nobility and royalty not only regularly enjoyed the company of paramours, they were expected to), but as societies became more democratic and open, these liberal moral codes were extended to the general public. Overall, people are now more prone to judge the morality of sexual behavior according to principles of consent, honesty, reciprocity, and respect, rather than a traditional list of prohibitions.

Here’s a story of how the larger evolution of morality could have happened:

In prehistoric times, human social groups were very small, since survival depended both on strong social cohesion to feed and protect everyone, especially the young, and on not exhausting natural resources. Over time, as the body of human knowledge increased and new technologies were created and perfected, human societies grew to include larger numbers of people. So new adaptations, institutions, and practices arose to create and cement human solidarity in these new larger groups who were less homogenous, even though many general characteristics still tended to remain the same (skin tone, hair color, bodily morphology, etc).These adaptations, institutions, and practices included languages, epic stories, religions, national and ethnic identity, cultural practices, political affiliations, and so on. All of these were constantly being invented, were growing, changing… evolving. And as we’ve already seen, the size of our social groups are growing as rapidly as the communicative capacities of technology. To a cosmopolitan (in the philosophical sense this time), it’s likely only a matter of time before the human race will and should consider itself one large community, with a commitment to upholding basic shared moral principles, though particular or localized secondary moral systems could add their own restrictions or requirements.

Morality is not immune to evolution, and I think doesn’t need to be in order to be capable of being understood in terms of true and false. Again, many things change over time, often drastically, and still can be correctly or incorrectly described and referred to. Not only do I think that morality evolves, I’m also glad that it does, comparing some ancient moral codes to some modern ones. Again, we can look to the Bible for examples of this: consider the ancient Biblical endorsements of slavery and genocide, and compare that with their modern near-total rejection. And the Old Testament notion that women and children were chattel that could be killed for any number of transgressions fills most people today with righteous horror.

These and other changes in moral convictions could be entirely attributed to conditioning, of course. Yet, such conditioning that informs the behavior of most individuals can, perhaps, constitute a form of social evolutionary pressure over time. Whatever the precise mechanism(s), when I consider what history and archaeology tells us about moral attitudes over time, and when I put that together with the fact that human beings evolved from small-brained, non-moral creatures, it seems that morality must have evolved too.

For an organism to evolve, it must be a dynamic system, composed of multiple parts that can be added, subtracted, or changed. If morality evolves, it appears that it likewise can’t be reducible to a single foundational principle. If it’s a traditional monist system, there’s no room or impetus for change, since there’s only one, continuous element or substance that determines the nature of the subject at hand. It’s partly for this reason, and partly based on other evidence (such as how human actually make moral decisions), that I suspect that human morality is actually a pluralist system. Our moral judgments result from balancing various norms against one another, combining, elevating, or rejecting one or more depending on the situation at hand. For example, most cultures place a high moral value on personal integrity, reciprocity, mercy, punishing the guilty, love, protecting the innocent and vulnerable, and more, and consider at least a few of these while making each moral judgment. There are many that I just don’t think are reducible to a more basic principle or value.

So where do these moral values come from? How do we justify judgments based on them? How do we

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Code of Hammurabi

know how, when, and to whom to apply them?

Morality not only appears to be based on more than one value or principle, it also involves more than one type of mental processes or cognitive tools. Daniel Kahneman provides one account: a fast, instinctive, emotional process, and a slower, reflective one; Daniel Dennett provides a related explanation of the human mind, originally less capable, enhanced by a ‘toolkit for thinking’. We can apply such a tiered or multilevel system to this story of moral evolution. One is instinctive or more basic, where morality appears to originate. The social instincts, such as empathy and cooperation in humans and other intelligent social creatures, belong to the set variously described as Kahneman’s ‘system one’, or as Hume’s ‘passions’.  The slower ‘system two’, Aristotle and Kant’s ‘reason’, is the part of us that self-consciously reflects on our own emotions and thoughts. So far as we know, only human beings engage in this sort of multi-level mental activity. What the research of social psychologists as Jonathon Haidt reveal is that most of us, most of the time, make our moral judgments quickly and emotionally, and only justify ourselves afterwards, selecting those arguments that best support our own case and neglecting other concerns. This evidence favors Hume’s theory of ‘passion’-centric morality over Kant’s almost wholly rationalistic theory. Yet, we do apply rationality to create, universalize, and enforce a more consistent, regularized moral system on communities, to the benefit of most.

So the basic, foundational instincts that fostered increased cooperation and a drive toward reciprocity were, over time, bolstered by conscious reflection and perfected, enforced, and made more sophisticated through culture. Sounds to me a little bit like the selective, ‘ramping-up’ natural process of evolution by natural selection!

The evolution of morality can be illustrated by analogizing our moral instincts as the genetic mutations, and the use of our slower reasoning process as the selective pressure that allows the instincts to be enacted, or overrides them in order to create a system that best leads to our flourishing. Consider racism and ethnic hatred, instincts that, even today, seem unhappily all too pervasive. The instinct to bigotry might still be a part of our ‘moral DNA’, so to speak, arising as they probably did in the aforementioned circumstance of reinforcing solidarity in small communities struggling to survive. But over time, as we’ve seen race and ethnic hatred lead to suffering and mass slaughter that need not have occurred, the selective pressure of reason, aware of the lessons of history, overrides these ancient instincts and motivates us to value the widely beneficial attitudes of empathy, tolerance, and a sense of shared dignity instead. We used our reason first to regularize moral instincts into rules that apply to the community at large instead of just to the beneficently inclined. Then, we used our technology to widen the spheres of our moral communities, and these spheres are widening as moral communities absorb into ever larger ones.

Over time, we have developed a concept of goodness as that which fosters human flourishing, those instincts, guided and perfected by a natural-selection-like process and by reason, that inspire nurturing and just behavior on the largest scale possible. We can credit goodness, that expanded, instinct-derived and rationally-perfected sense of justice, reciprocity, and beneficence, as the driver of the human race’s ever more cosmopolitan sense of morality.