Rob Henderson on Natural Morality
Does morality exist without supernatural cause? Evolutionary psychology points to "yes."
I popped in here yesterday to talk about how I’m wicked busy and don’t have much time to write at the moment, and then of course I immediately find myself compulsively thinking about writing more. It’s kind of like how when you buy a certain kind of car, you notice how many of the same kind are on the road.
This one is mostly a drive-by, I suppose, because it’s an interesting topic I don’t want to lose track of and I’m reading about it right now. I follow Rob Henderson, who is a PhD candidate in psychology who writes about human nature. His latest Substack is about the evolutionary psychology of morality, and I just wanted to throw a couple of excerpts here that I found interesting. But first, a link to his post:
I’ve written before about the proposition, “If God is not, everything is permissible.” I used to believe that. Now I don’t. My ability to understand what might best be described as “natural morality” was hindered by the overbearing religious narrative that man is fallen and bad and God is perfectly good and thus man cannot do good without the aid of God.
The problem is, there’s too much evidence to the contrary. I don’t mean to dismiss the unethical potential in atheistic systems. We certainly saw what it did in the hands of various Communist dictators over the course of the 20th century. But that ideology is dehumanizing for other reasons than its lack of theistic core values.
It is certainly possible to be non-religious but live morally. Even if one’s moral code is not absolute, in the sense that it is not imposed by an omnipotent being who insists on unwavering devotion to said moral code as objectively true and punishable with unspeakable torments, there is a certain consistency in moral systems that arise among various cultures with varying beliefs over time. Put bluntly, you don’t need the ten commandments to know that you don’t want people to murder your loved ones, your spouse to cheat on you, your stuff to get stolen, etc. These are pretty universal moral values, with or without a religious system behind them. Fail to follow these, and any attempt at a society or even a community is going to break down very quickly.
The following blockquote, which Henderson grabbed from one of his previous posts, is a good brief summation of morality as a natural, evolutionary human development:
“Morality is analogous to language. Both are human universals, but the specifics of each vary by culture and change over time.
Morality and language are both governed by certain rules. Though languages differ, they all have some underlying similarities. This is also the case with moral edicts. The specifics may differ by time and place, but all languages have rules about nouns. Though the specifics differ, all moralities have rules about harm.
We also absorb both language and moral beliefs through osmosis. Who you grew up around is the best predictor of what language you speak and what your moral values are.
Some people are moral nihilists who say nothing is really right or wrong because morality differs so much by time and place and culture. Others are moral realists who think there is one true morality, and that moral values are indistinguishable from objective facts.
My view is that morality is ‘real’ in the same way that language is real. Both can change, but still operate within certain constraints. There are rules to every language, and rules to every morality.
Saying morality isn’t real is like saying language isn’t real. Saying there is one true morality is like saying there is only one true language.” [emphasis added]
That last line hit me, because of course, I spent 40 years believing in “one true religion,” so “one true morality” derived from that religion never seemed objectionable. But there are other religions that promote somewhat varying but still reasonable views on morality. And there are people who believe in no religion at all who still live moral lives.
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Henderson goes on to dig into and summarize his doctoral thesis, which he just submitted a few weeks ago, for the rest of his post. That thesis is entitled “Physical and Social Threats Fortify Moral Judgements.”
Scientists, philosophers, and theologians have long struggled to understand the origins of morality.
For many people, the nature of morality is so bewildering that they believe it must have a supernatural origin. However, research across different disciplines has helped to resolve this enduring mystery.
Morality arose to address evolutionary challenges.
Evolutionary biologists, animal researchers, and comparative psychologists have documented instances of selfless and empathic acts from nonhuman animal species. These findings are key to understanding the origins of human morality.
Moreover, developmental psychologists have found that human infants show preferences that indicate a rudimentary sense of morality that is later refined and shaped by culture.
The discovery of such behaviors and preferences in animals and human infants suggests that morality serves an adaptive purpose. Moral edicts suppress selfishness, prevent cheating, and promote cooperation and trust. The importance of morality in promoting social cohesion has been explored by thinkers and scholars from a range of disciplines. [emphasis added]
Modern accounts informed by evolutionary theory suggest that morality is not solely due to socialization. In the human ancestral environment, beliefs about right and wrong were crucial for survival.
Throughout the course of evolution, human ancestors developed mental adaptations shaped by selection pressures to address recurring threats. The moral sense is one such mechanism; a solution to resolve frequently encountered threats.
Morality confers benefits.
Across societies and throughout history, morality aids in solidifying social bonds, enhancing trust, minimizing resource depletion, and reducing the odds of infection, illness, and death, among other benefits.
Moreover, people who report greater commitment to moral principles exhibit a greater sense of purpose in life. They are less likely to report feelings of alienation, which in turn is associated with greater life satisfaction.
A 2014 field study found that people who committed moral deeds in everyday life experienced a greater sense of purpose, increased feelings of meaning in life, and improved happiness. In contrast, people who performed immoral deeds reported reduced feelings of happiness. Intriguingly, committing an immoral act was associated with a happiness penalty that was greater than the happiness gain from committing a moral act.
Thus, moral behavior is intertwined with emotions. This suggests an evolutionary benefit to adhering to moral proscriptions.
This is because positive emotions arose to direct organisms toward goals that, on average, increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction. Positive emotions did not evolve just because they happen to feel good. Good feelings evolved to motivate certain behaviors that have some adaptive benefit.
Some will no doubt argue that feeling good or bad about doing moral or immoral things is the result of conscience, the whispering of God in the soul, playing on the immutable and inscribed conditions of the natural law. It’s certainly a widely accepted (if unfalsifiable) theory. Maybe this is so. Maybe it’s not. But the fact that there is demonstrable evolutionary benefit to morality, which serves in “solidifying social bonds, enhancing trust, minimizing resource depletion, and reducing the odds of infection, illness, and death, among other benefits,” means there’s a perfectly reasonable non-religious reason for morality to exist as well.
A bit more:
Emotions signal the presence of events that may have important survival implications. Different emotions are activated depending on whether an event is a threat or an opportunity. Emotions motivate action.
To influence outcomes and shape behavior, knowledge—cognitive awareness—is not enough.
Knowledge has little motivational power. I can know that drugs are bad for me yet still do them. I can know that being cruel to marginalized individuals is bad but still do it. But if my community condemns me for doing it, then certain emotions will activate (e.g., shame, humiliation, embarrassment) that motivate me to change my behavior.
With regard to morality, when people do things that are in accordance with their local moral norms, they typically experience good feelings. When they do things that violate the community’s moral norms, they tend to experience negative feelings (e.g., guilt, shame).
Such feelings about oneself arose in part because of concerns about reputation. Upholding moral norms boosts social standing. Failing to do so does the opposite—signaling that one is untrustworthy, dangerous, or does not value the individual or group. In other words, behaving unethically can result in severe social consequences with long-term costs. This is why people adjust their behaviors according to reputational concerns. When people fail to live up to their local moral norms, they often experience intense guilt and shame, which then motivates them to repair the harm done to their reputations and resolve impairments to their relationships.
Henderson says that “a key function of morality is to forego immediate personal gain for long-term benefits.” That’s certainly true. Just because I lost my ironclad conviction that God was up there watching me like the omniscient surveillance deity my mother warned me about as a child, who would punish me for whatever offenses I committed that she didn’t see (“and it’s better to be punished by me than by God,” dontcha know), doesn’t mean I don’t both experience and feel the need to resist temptations. There are times when I experience desires pertaining to things that would be enjoyable for me, but would hurt or deprive others. Foregoing whatever gratification I might receive that would come at another’s expense secures my position in those relationships and signals to those I love that I care about their wellbeing, not just my own.
Henderson explores the ancestral reasons why we have certain behaviors that seem maladaptive now, such as our inclination towards calorie-rich foods or sugar, which are derived from times of a kind of food insecurity and scarcity, leading us to have to wrestle with instinctual behaviors that, indulged, make us unhealthy in our age of superabundance. Our bodies, he posits, have evolved much slower than our minds and culture have. When it comes to morals, he suggests how much more important our reputation might have been in a tribal society where being an exile because of antisocial or immoral behavior could mean severe privation. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a person in a hunter/gatherer tribe, where the efforts of the collective were the only things that secured survival, would face an increased likelihood of untimely death if they were ostracized and force to go it alone.
It’s a long piece, inasmuch as it summarizes a book-length dissertation, and I haven’t finished it yet. But it’s a compelling look at the evolutionary psychological imperatives for human beings to live by a moral/ethical code, and it feels like rich soil for further exploration and even refutation of the idea that without a God to hold us accountable, we could simply do whatever we wanted.
The truth is, that’s not actually the case. And for all of our sakes, that’s a good thing.
If you’d like to read the rest, here’s that link again: