The Myth of the Divide Between Individualism and Collectivism

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What!?‘ you may well ask.

These are diametrically opposed, are they not? Those in favor of one of these views of personal identity, the economy, and public life generally despise the other. Proponents on one side of the ideological divide often shudder at the very thought of being identified with the other. So what could I mean by this?

I’ll start, then, by defining my terms.

Individualism, I think, is easier to define in a way that’s generally acceptable. In this view, protecting the rights and liberties of the individual is the ultimate aim of morality and politics. It holds that each human person has their own integrity of mind and body (and by extension, property) and should not be subject to coercion, harm, or theft. Individualism is preeminent in American culture, and the values associated with this worldview are emphasized by most modern democratic, capitalistic societies. It’s also, at first glance, most consistent with the ideals of the Age of Rights, which places the highest value on the rights of individuals, which should not be infringed on by the state nor by others.

Collectivism is harder to define. The 20th century saw the rise of collectivist, or socialist, states, the largest and most influential of which (ostensibly) valued the society more than individuals. When many think of collectivist societies, they think of Chairman Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, or Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. To my mind, however, these societies were collectivist in name only: since it was the will and interests of one individual or few individuals that were imposed on those societies, usually to the detriment of everyone else. There was little or no willing collective effort for the collective’s sake, little to no public input regarding the collective’s rights and interests, and little to no collective benefit.

For the purposes of this piece, I define collectivism more broadly as the idea that a good society, in which people flourish and live as freely as possible, can only be achieved by some significant level of collective action. In this view, there is such a thing as the public good, and morality demands that everyone should do their part to sustain it. The full details of what the public good consists of and how it can be achieved should be debated by the public, but its characteristics include the idea that all human persons have as much moral worth as much as any other, that all have rights regardless of ‘merit’ (real or perceived) and wealth (or the lack thereof), that all are morally accountable when they fail in their responsibility to protect and nurture those rights, and that the fates of all are intertwined.

It may seem to you, as it does to me, that these conceptions of individualism and collectivism each have their attractions, and each contain some level of truth. Both are ultimately concerned with the well-being of all people, even if they might seem to start from a different end of the spectrum in deciding where the foundation of values should be (with the individual, or with the group). Both focus on human rights. So why are people so divided in their views on this matter, at least as presented in the mainstream media and by political parties?

Perhaps it’s because the arguments that we hear so often present a distorted view. Not only do public figures, pundits, commentators, and even educators offer caricatures of others’ views, they often present a misleading, even simplistic view of their own. Here are some ways I see the how we make [non]sense of the tension between individualism and collectivism, between the one and the many, as manifested in public discourse:

From libertarians and the far right:

– A tendency to systematically overemphasize the individualness of individuals. In other words, they represent individual achievement as attributable entirely, or almost entirely, to the innovation, creativity, and hard work of the individual. But in almost every case, each great ‘individual’ achievement is possible because they had the infrastructure of ideas, innovations, inventions, technologies, and discoveries of those who came before available to build on. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example, were able to accomplish what they did because their admirable hard work and creativity enabled them to take the discoveries of mathematicians, physicists, metallurgists, etc, to the next level of technological advancement. The widely-mocked (and admittedly clumsily worded) ‘you didn’t build that’ quote from a 2012 Barack Obama speech was a cynical reaction of the radicalized right against any sort of public recognition that while individual talent and effort are crucial, we also rely heavily on each other in achieving what we do.

– A tendency to underestimate the degree to which a robust morality of social responsibility makes individual freedom not only more expansive, but possible in the first place. Without morality, without a social framework of cooperation, self-restraint from plunder and violence, and the generosity that’s more the rule than the exception in any human group, individual human beings would be left in the narrowly circumscribed situation of the forager and lonely hunter. We would have little time and leisure left to such luxurious pursuits as the acquisition of knowledge, the sharing of ideas, artistic creation, and technological innovation that human beings are so uniquely good at, if we are constantly busy simply feeding ourselves, warming ourselves, and fighting each other off of what little stash of goods we’ve managed to obtain. It may be objected that since human beings naturally desire to better their situation, self-interest would lead to cooperation through the desire to trade. But that only begs the question of why we would engage in fair trade, and not simply plunder if we are the strongest. Why has this instinct for reciprocity has become part of the fabric of the human personality?

From 20th century-style communists and socialists

– A tendency to devalue the importance of the individual out of proportion, and even divorced from, the importance of society. The major autocratic socialist regimes ruthlessly quashed opposition, disposed of enemies, and systematically repressed all but the most insipid, and most propagandist, forms of the arts (and still do! Though not so many). Societies ended up in the odd state of being glorified by their leaders as the greatest in the world, while simultaneously made up of citizens that were each so worthless that any one of them could be legitimately disposed of like so much garbage, if it seemed in the best interests of the state.

From liberals:

– A tendency to declare that government should not be in the business of ‘legislating morality’, while at the same time demanding that government demand accountability for some forms of wrong-doing. Government is a moral enterprise by definition. For example, when a law is made that one person may not kill or injure another, it’s made because of a society’s moral position that life is better than death, and that it’s wrong to infringe on another person’s right to live and thrive. Morality, and law, have everything to do with a society’s deciding what people should or should not do; in other words, it’s normative. There are many who try to downplay the relationship between law and morality, including this blogger who described the law as simply a set of rules to ensure that society is ‘harmonious and safe’, while morality has to do with your ‘personal sense of right and wrong’. But this is not at all how law works now, and not at all how law emerged as a product of human psychology as a social. From the beginning, the law has always had to do with retributive, distributive, and restorative justice, though the balance of these three differ from society to society. Laws that attempt to harmonize society, for example, are based on the notion that harmony is better than discord, that people ‘ought’ to maintain harmony by refraining from violence and disturbing the peace. Laws that govern parking originate with the idea that public spaces ought to be used and maintained for the benefit of everyone. Laws that protect people from assault originate from the idea that people have a right to life and health.

– Closely related to the above, a tendency to incoherence as to whether they themselves view government as moral, or morally neutral. Many liberal people decry any governmental attempts to interfere with some behaviors, such as those pertaining to sexuality and drug use, on the basis that these are moral, and therefore strictly personal, issues. But at the same time, they will demand that government regulate or prohibit other behaviors, such as fraud committed by financial institutions, or in the use of torture and the targeting of minorities in stop-and-frisk policies, on the basis that the latter practices are wrong or unfair. Yet all of these issues have everything to do with morality: what we ought and ought not to do, and why. For example, a democratic government is based on the moral norms that every individual has rights and that every individual’s well-being matters. Therefore, a good government is based on the moral norm that every individual should have a say in what their government does. A society with such a government also, by the very fact they have a government at all, think that all members of society have responsibilities to one another. After all, if there is no moral accountability, there are no norms, no law, no society. We end back up where the radical individualists left us: lonely scavengers or predators, without the vast resources social cooperation offers.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly disparate views?

I think we need to realize that the very idea that there is a sharp dividing line between individualism and collectivism is an illusion. In fact, individualism is not only reliant on collectivism, but is a product of it. We get to pursue such energy-expensive, extravagant projects as music, literature, art, government, architecture, and the rest because at some point we started banding together in a network of support rarely seen in other creatures. We rallied to protect our big-brained, long-vulnerable young, share the fruits of the hunt and of foraging, and invented such social-cohesion-strengthening practices as making music, telling stories, taking part in rituals of marriage and burial, and creating art.

And how do we craft societal practices that promote the rights and interests of the free individual, without undermining the collectivism that makes individual freedom possible?

As we have seen, 20th-century-style ‘socialist’ governments revealed how a society is undermined when it 
under-emphasizes the individual and overemphasizes the collective. But given the utter disregard for individual human life, and individual human rights, it’s not so hard to recognize how badly they got it all wrong. When your ideology holds that a great society is made up of individuals that are so worthless that they can be eliminated at the whim of the government, or have no personal rights or value outside of their value as laborers or fulfillers of some pre-determined role, or have no say in what their government or their autocratic ruler does, than the whole society is undermined by being made up of powerless, dehumanized, devalued, uninspired, unmotivated people.

It’s also the case that those social instincts that make us such successful cooperators combine with other instincts sometimes in a way that leads to atrocious behavior. Anti-Jewish pogroms, racially motivated massacres such as those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and rampages following sports games are such example of violent mass-hysteria. The tendency of people to ‘follow the leader’ in heartless behavior is as thoroughly documented in laboratory studies as it is in the history books. Democracy and reason are the two best tools human beings have come up with to correct the excesses of our strong social instincts. The secret ballot box allows us to participate in governance without coercion or in-the-moment peer pressure, and reason allows us to step back and reflect on whether or not we we’re doing, or what we’re about to do, is really in our own, and everyone else’s, interests. 

Independent-minded individuals, less prone to coercion, herd instinct, and social pressure, are also absolutely essential corrective not only to mass cruelty, but to to entrenched laws and norms that have outlived their usefulness, and whose immorality have been overlooked, explained away, or overridden due to other social interests. Slavery is a classic example of this: a popular desire for attaining personal wealth combined with entrenched racism (the ugly side of tribalism), led a majority in many societies to ignore their own moral sense of sympathy, justice, and beneficence in favor of policies that catered to their baser instincts. It was a few dissenters that reminded society of what morality is for, and how institutionalizing cruelty and indifference to the interests of other human beings harms everyone, that led societies to reform themselves and change their policies to better serve both individual and collective interests.

On the other hand, oligarchic, fascist, and other ultra-capitalist societies, which hold that government’s only job is to enforce contracts, prevent invasion, and prevent people from assaulting one another, also undermine themselves, because they have only a negative conception of freedom as their moral foundation. When a government is structured according to the idea that human beings have few responsibilities to each other than fulfilling contracts and respecting property rights, they become a society where fewer and fewer people are enjoying the fruits of everyone’s labor. For example, monopolies develop (as Adam Smith pointed out), which set prices and wield most of the power over legislators. You have fewer and fewer wealthy individuals and organizations that pay to influence the halls of power, that 
monopolize the dissemination of information trough mass media, while the voices of those that have little or no money to do so are drowned out. You get societies made up that look like the early industrial towns when capitalism first flourished without regulation, where many got rich, while a great bulk of others ended up doing crippling labor in squalid conditions, withe the empty ‘choice’ of accepting such work, or facing privation or starvation. You end up a society that drives down wages for most people while fewer and fewer funnel all or most of the gains made by an economic system to a few, more ruthless individuals that are left at ‘the top’

Because I see individualism and collectivism as intertwined, I’m in favor of a strong democracy and a mixed economy. In a healthy, democratic society, it’s the innovators, the creative geniuses, the ‘weirdos’, that ensure that a society is adaptable, rich in ideas, technologies, and creativity, and does not stagnate and wither away. Human beings succeed not only because we are social, we succeed because we are adaptive and innovative, and it’s the freedom of the individual to come up with new art forms, technologies, ideas, etc, that make a society dynamic. The incentive of improving one’s lot in life through one’s own hard work also fuels the drive to better ones’ self.

A ready analogy for this is the necessity of genetic mutations in evolving a successful, adaptive species. While not all mutations (innovations, new ideas) are beneficial, there are some that are, and without those pioneering one-offs, a population cannot adapt to meet new and challenging circumstances, and does not possess that wonderful variety of traits that make it both capable of much, and fascinating to behold. A society of individuals free to pursue their own goals and protect their own interests, so long as they contribute to the public good and don’t harm others, is that which is likely not only to survive, but thrive. For example, free trade, sometimes derided by modern liberals, is an excellent tool that is both highly individualistic and highly socialistic. It incentivizes and rewards individual innovation and hard work, though an elaborate framework of cooperativeness that includes, but is not limited to, a strong commitment to fairness and reciprocity, a conception of justice that demands recompense for hard work, and a distaste for theft and exploitation. But like all tools, it must be used wisely and well, and within certain parameters.

And this this is why I also believe in such collective projects and institutions as publicly-funded roads, public education, and health care. I believe in regulations such as gun control and strict regulations for drivers, since these don’t prioritize the rights of some individuals to put others in danger for insufficient cause. I don’t believe in society-aggrandizing, anti-individualist enterprises such as war (in most circumstances). After all, you have few rights when you are incapacitated by injury and disease, and none at all when you’re dead. A society that places few restrictions and responsibilities on gun owners and operators of motor vehicles make it all to easy for one individual, in a moment of temper, carelessness, or mental instability to permanently remove all or most rights from fellow human beings. As we can see from (most) heavily-armed, hyper-individualistic societies such as the United States, we kill and injure one another at enormous rates with our guns and our cars. A more morally robust concept of civic duty would lead to the creation of laws based on the premise that a right which bears greater risks engenders a greater burden of responsibility. And since government is a moral enterprise, its laws should not only hold people accountable for doing wrong to one another, but demand some responsibility to do right by each other. 

Why morality requires both accountability and responsibility is another Big Question. Sounds to me like a great topic for another essay…


Some sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy’, 2012 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy
Darwall, Stephen. ‘Moral Accountability’, 2014, Philosophy Bites podcast

Ellis, Joseph. Revolutionary Summer, 2013

Heath, Joseph. Economics Without Illusions, 2010

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011

Sandel, Michael. ‘A New Citizenship’, 2009 Reith Lectures

Review / critique: Frans De Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

I’ve just finished Frans De Waal’s excellent new book, which is a combination of a popular science exploration of primatology and the origins of human morality, and a critique of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. De Waal, a nonbeliever himself (as a scientist, he finds the question of whether or not God exists ‘uninteresting‘), nevertheless finds the confrontational style of the New Atheist movement ill conceived, counterproductive, and probably futile.

Anchoring the themes of his book is a series of reflections on Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Traditional interpretations of the painting, De Waal writes, are generally based on the view that human beings, ever since the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are naturally wicked, prone to cruel and hateful behavior, and it’s only by straining hard against our sinful nature that human beings can hope for redemption by adhering the moral code provided by God through religion .

De Waal has a different interpretation, seeing the painting thorugh the lens of his own understanding of human nature. His lifelong study of primate behavior, especially of bonobos and chimpanzees, reveal a tendency to prosocial behavior that strongly resembles human morality in many important ways. De Waal concludes that not only does morality predate religion, since it’s rooted in the same social instincts we share with our cousins the great apes (as well as other social animals), but it’s most accurately viewed as a key component of human nature. Based on modern findings of human psychology and evolutionary biology, ‘It is now widely assumed that we are designed in body and mind to live together and to take care of each other, and that humans have a natural tendency to judge others in moral terms. Instead of being a thin veneer, morality comes from within.’ (De Waal, p 42).

Image Source:’s painting, De Waal thinks, actually reveals his humanism, the idea that the human race is naturally good and worthy of admiration in it own right. The figures frolicking in the garden in the center panel enjoy the best that the world has to offer, especially the joys of one another’s company. The figures being punished in the hell of the right panel, revealingly, are not being punished for sins against religion. Rather, they have trangressed the moral laws pertaining to just and fair treatment of one another, such sins as greed, gambling, and cheating, and those pertaining to the proper care and comportment of our own bodies, such as gluttony and drunkenness.

In this, De Waal agrees with the bonobo (in this book, the bonobo represents the naturally moral side of all social creatures), the humanist Bosch, and the atheist: human beings are moral beings, and ‘sins’ are those tendencies and behaviors which lead individuals to act against the interests and moral codes of the group. He provides a wealth of evidence, from his own years of fieldwork, experimentation, and research, that prosociality and morality are natural phenomena without which human beings and their social cousins would fail as a species. Morality originates as an evolutionary adaptation, giving us the ability to transcend our individual limitations, to thrive as a species through cooperation, sharing, and mutual protection.

However, De Waal has found himself disturbed by the militancy (as he sees it) of the so-called New Atheist movement: their rhetoric that disparages religion, calling for its immediate demise, ridiculing it as entirely outdated, useless, stupid, and destructive, and for their ‘dogmatic’ God-denial, and their tactics of anti-religious propaganda and political activism. He quotes A.C. Grayling, who compares militant atheism to ‘sleeping furiously’, asking: ‘What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?’ (De Waal, p. 84) He finds that the New Atheist movement shares this with religious fundamentalists: they both misunderstand the origins and nature of religion, which originated and still functions as an evolutionarily useful social tool, encoding and helping to enforce moral behavior.

I found De Waal’s book a refreshing and entirely approachable summary of the best of our current knowledge of human psychology, evolutionary biology, and animal behavior. I also admire the evidence of his knowledge and understanding of philosophy, which he applies to and compares with the findings in his own field. He admires Hume, the prosocial moral philosopher, and both agrees and disagrees with Kant: the moral law is indeed within, as Kant says, but altruism is not confined to those behaviors that are devoid entirely of self-interest, as Kant defines it. It’s actually a good thing that altruism, though it does carry a personal cost, also benefits the altruist, as De Waal sees it: it firmly grounds altruism as a natural product of a human nature that is more social than selfish. (This is not to say that human nature is not selfish as well. It’s rather that we have methods of making sure selfishness does not run amuk and result in mutually assured self-destruction of the human species.) All in all, De Waal offers a compelling and persuasive view of the natural origins of morality and that the good rules human nature more than the bad.

It’s De Waal’s critique of the New Atheist movement and of atheists overall with which I find myself only in partial agreement. I do agree that too many prominent atheists refuse to publicly acknowledge that religion appears to be a product of natural adaptations, and a historically (and prehistorically) useful one at that. Many other atheists, however, do acknowledge this, notably Daniel Dennett, who De Waal sometimes lumps in with the New Atheists, though he does give Dennett some credit for his view of religion as a natural phenomenon. (De Waal, p 94) I also agree with him that an overly confrontational attack-oriented approach is unlikely to be overall as effective as a more humanism-positive, common-ground seeking approach, based on what we know about human psychology and belief formation (Kahneman, Haight, Ariely, and others have done extensive work on this recently; even in antiquity, Aristotle revealed how well he understood this aspect of human psychology).

But contrary to De Waal, I think that atheism, as a movement, does have some important things to offer. When he criticizes atheism as lacking in substance or utility since it’s an ‘anti-‘ stance, he fails to account for the historical abusive and destructive applications of religion. As well as promoting good behavior and bonding within groups, it’s also been used to persecute out-groups of religious minorities and non-believers, to oppress women, children, and the poor, to prop up and protect corrupt regimes and clergy (dictatorships and absolutist monarchs, the sale of undulgences, murderous popes, rapist priests), and as a justification of cruel and oppressive practices (the institution of race-based slavery, the punishment of heretics). There are plenty of ‘anti-‘ groups and ideologies that have plenty to offer precisely because they arise out of opposition to destructive or morally repugnant institutions, belief systems, and natural forces: the abolitionist movement (anti-slavery), the feminist movement (anti-oppression of women), various organizations that combat disease (anti-AIDS, anti-cancer, etc). To ignore what the atheist movement as a whole has to offer is to ignore the history of how and why the atheist movement originated, and that it’s generally united in humanism-derived values and goals (equal social and political rights and protections for non-believers and religious minorities, for example). In his blanket dismissal of atheism as ideologically empty, De Waal fails to adhere to the same standards of applying evidence and history to this issue as he does for the rest of the scientific and philosophical issues he discusses in his otherwise excellent book.

Work Cited:

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.

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?),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.