When trying to understand morality as an evolutionary adaptation, it is easy to get hung up on biological evolution and reproductive fitness. In the past, this has led to nonsensical ideas such as variations of “What increases reproductive fitness is moral”. These particular biology-only-ideas about the origins of morality are based on poor science compounded by worse moral philosophy. Fortunately, such ideas have been intellectual dead horses for at least 60 years.
While the worst abuses of “Social Darwinism” may be behind us, considering morality as an evolutionary adaptation primarily in biological terms continues to produce muddled thinking. For example, it produces current ideas such as “The ultimate source of the content of cultural moralities is our biology based moral emotions such as empathy, loyalty, and shame and guilt (conscience).” Our vaguely defined and species specific moral emotions provide a poor source of data for deriving moral principles or making conclusions about moral universals.
It may clarify these issues to outline how easy it is to derive an evolutionarily moral principle from three non-biological data sources. I do this to emphasize that our moral biology is only one aspect of morality as an evolutionary adaptation.
I find it reassuring that all three sources produce essentially the same species and biology independent, universal, principle that I characterize as: “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral”.
The three non-biological sources are 1) the necessary logic of group norm enforcement, 2) an aspect of physical reality, and 3) all past and present enforced moral standards.
1) The necessary logic of group norm enforcement:
First, a culture is only likely to expend effort to enforce norms (punish violators) that advocate behaviors that are in some sense altruistic. It would be a waste of effort to punish people for violating norms (moral standards) that they actually always want to follow. Second, people live in cooperative groups because there are benefits of doing so. If there is no benefit to living in groups, groups will disperse. So we know that culturally enforced norms will be highly likely (based on the definition of culturally enforced norms) to 1) advocate altruistic behaviors that 2) increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. Therefore, it is highly likely that “Virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms (moral standards) advocate altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups.”
2) An aspect of physical reality:
Everywhere in our universe, synergistic benefits of cooperation between agents are possible. However, cooperation often exposes agents to exploitation and altruistic cooperation always does. Further, exploitation of cooperators is a winning short term strategy, but one that eliminates the larger shared benefits of cooperation. Game theory shows that there are winning altruistic strategies incorporating punishment of exploiters that solve this universal cooperation-exploitation dilemma. Those altruistic cooperation strategies are as mind-and-language-independent as their mathematics. These mind-and-language-independent strategies can be summarized as “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”.
3) Past and present enforced moral standards (norms whose violators are commonly judged to deserve punishment):
My hypothesis is that “Virtually all past and present enforced cultural moral standards advocate altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”. No other hypothesis is even remotely competitive in terms of normal criteria for provisional truth in science such as explanatory power, no contradiction with known facts, and the like. This hypothesis explains and categorizes every past and present enforced moral standard I am aware of no matter how diverse, contradictory, and bizarre. (Contradictions and bizarreness are mainly due to differences in who is in out-groups that can be exploited and different marker strategies for in-groups such as circumcision for men or, in the case of out-groups, burkas for women.) Also, norms such as do not steal, lie in court, or kill advocate altruism in that people must altruistically resist their desires to steal, lie in court, or kill even when they really want to and think doing so would be beneficial. (If anyone can think of any candidate counterexamples from past and present enforced moral standards, please let me know.)
So we can derive essentially the same universal moral principle “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral” from three non-biological sources.
In hindsight, it is then easy to identify our moral biology as that which motivates altruism, including altruistic punishment of poor cooperators, that also increases, on average, the benefits of cooperation in groups. So in one way of looking at it, I have described four sources for essentially the same moral principle.
However, in my view, the single ultimate source of morality is 2) above, “An aspect of physical reality”. The above source in the logic of enforced norms is just an implication of our physical reality, and the sources of past and present enforced moral standards and our moral biology are just examples of cultural and biological evolution exploiting this morally relevant aspect of physical reality in order to access the benefits of cooperation in groups.