A Culturally Useful “Evolutionary Morality” from Morality’s Ultimate Source


This essay was first published on The Center for Humans and Nature’s website in response to their call for answers to the question “What can Evolution Tell Us about Morality?”

Like the others found at the link, this essay is based on the science of the last 45 years or so that shows that morality is a human adaptation  that increases the benefits of cooperation. Here are three clarifying responses to a few standard objections to deriving a moral principle from science. The proposed moral principle is:

  • Only a claim about what ‘is’ rather than what imperatively ought to be – so there is no necessary is/ought problem
  • Implied by a perhaps new perspective that the ultimate source of morality is a cross species universal dilemma, the cooperation/exploitation dilemma, which all species must solve if they are to achieve highly cooperative societies.
  • The moral principle that groups could decide to advocate for and enforce because they expect doing so will best meet the group’s needs and preferences.


What can Evolution Tell Us about Morality?

Well, first of all, the process of evolution itself is certainly not the ultimate source of morality. Evolution is only the process that encodes behaviors in our moral sense and cultural moral codes that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups—the apparent function of morality in human cultures. There is nothing necessarily moral in an absolute sense about these behaviors as is illustrated by the diversity, contradictions, and bizarreness of past and present cultural moral codes.

Game theory has revealed cooperation strategies, such as direct and indirect reciprocity, whose elements appear to be universally encoded in our moral sense and cultural moral codes. But game theory also reveals the cooperation benefits of dividing people into preferred in-groups and ignored, or even exploited, out-groups. There is nothing necessarily moral, again in an absolute sense, about cooperation strategies that exploit out-groups.

But consider the problem these cooperation strategies are solving. Could that problem itself be the ultimate source of morality?

In our physical reality, large benefits of cooperation are commonly available. However, initiating cooperation exposes one to exploitation. Exploitation is virtually always the winning strategy in the short term and can be in the long term. However, exploitation makes cooperation unsustainable. These circumstances set up a cross-species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma. How can species overcome exploitation’s short term “winning” hand in order to sustainably obtain the large benefits of highly cooperative societies?

Fortunately for us, our ancestors came across reciprocity strategies, such as direct and indirect reciprocity, that solve this dilemma. All such strategies include two elements: motivation to risk initiating cooperation and motivation to punish exploitation, though that punishment may just be public shaming or shunning. Encoding these solutions into our biology and cultural norms enabled us to become the incredibly successful social species we are. Since this cooperation/exploitation dilemma is innate to our physical reality, it defines an ultimate source of morality independent of biology, evolution, and game theory.

Further, there appears to be a cross-species universal subset of strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. These are strategies that exploit no one, that only advocate cooperation and punishment of exploitation.

This cross-species universal subset of strategies defines a candidate universal moral principle: “universally moral behaviors are elements of strategies that overcome the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting anyone.”

But the cooperation/exploitation dilemma is merely a claim about what “is” and the universal subset of strategies that solve it only define universally moral “means.” What our ultimate goals somehow “ought” to be is beyond science’s domain. Can we actually define a morality just based on moral “means” without specifying moral “ends?”

For many people, religious and secular alike, their best compact summary of morality is some version of “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” No goal is stated. All that is described is moral “means”—it is silent about moral “ends.” Knowledgeable Christians should be able tell you that Jesus said this version of the Golden Rule summarizes morality. This is an example of a moral principle that does not have to specify a goal in order to be culturally useful.

This version of the Golden Rule is also highly relevant. It is the best heuristic (imperfect as it is) I am aware of for initiating indirect reciprocity, arguably the most powerful strategy known for overcoming the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. So, if you follow the Golden Rule, you are already following a cross-species universal morality that is inherent to our physical reality.

Why might a group decide to advocate and enforce such an evolutionary morality? While science cannot tell us what we ought to do, science can tell us how we are most likely to achieve our needs and preferences. Many of our needs and preferences can be best met by cooperating with others. Groups could decide to advocate for and enforce such an evolutionary morality because they expect it to best meet their needs and preferences.

Of course, there would still have to be a tremendous amount of philosophical work done to go from the above universally moral “means” claim to the set of moral norms that would define a coherent, well-functioning cultural morality in all its complexity. In any event, the above statement of the principle underlying this candidate “evolutionary morality” might be worth exploring further.



7 thoughts on “A Culturally Useful “Evolutionary Morality” from Morality’s Ultimate Source

  1. “Can we actually define a morality just based on moral “means” without specifying moral “ends?”

    I don’t see how you can. How can you arbitrate between two “means” acting at cross purposes?

  2. Hi Ed,

    We already have one well known example of morality defined by ‘means’ rather than ‘ends’. The Golden Rule summarizes morality for many people and is completely silent on ‘ends’; it only specifies ‘means’ and works pretty well. (Though of course the Golden Rule is only a useful, but necessarily flawed, heuristic for initiating indirect reciprocity.)

    Could the ‘means’ suggested by my proposed normative moral principle ever be working a cross purposes? Perhaps, but this universal moral principle still is arguably more culturally useful (more likely to meet people’s needs and preferences for cultural moral norms) than any alternative. In any event, nothing prevents groups which are advocating and enforcing such a ‘means’ only moral system from resolving any conflicts between ‘means’ however they think will most likely meet the group’s needs and preferences.

    My chief objection to defining morality in terms of ‘ends’ is that ‘ends’ questions such as “What is good?”, “How should I live?”, and “What are my obligations?” appear to have no conclusive answers to date and may never do so. That makes a poor basis for a moral system.

    On the other hand, universally moral ‘means’ are firmly grounded in our physical reality as solutions to the cross-species universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma. All intelligent species must solve this dilemma if they are to achieve highly cooperative societies. That is, to achieve highly cooperative societies, all species must devise a moral system whose minimum core is defined by “strategies that overcome the cooperation exploitation dilemma without exploiting anyone”.

    • –> “The Golden Rule summarizes morality for many people and is completely silent on ‘ends’”

      Stated alone, this may be true. However, in the original post, you used Jesus as a point of reference for this and said he thought the Golden Rule summarised morality. But his ends were very clear – the salvation of the soul for eternal life in heaven with Yahweh His father. Such an end is obviously not compatible with other religions and non-religious worldviews though. If you really want to strip religious context from the Golden Rule, it might be better to be more careful about such allusions.

      –> “All intelligent species must solve this dilemma if they are to achieve highly cooperative societies.

      That sounds to me like these are your ends. I read this as saying your moral goal is a highly cooperative species. But that would be cooperation for the sake of cooperation. There must be an end to know what we are cooperating towards.

      –> “My chief objection to defining morality in terms of ‘ends’ is that ‘ends’ questions … appear to have no conclusive answers to date and may never do so.

      Do you have an objection to the goal of ensuring the survival of life? To me, this is the must fundamental and necessary goal imaginable given our present understanding of what *is* in the universe. No?

      • Hi Ed,

        The quote from Jesus about the Golden Rule was very deliberate. The quote was included to gently introduce average people, starting from a shared common concept of morality (religious and secular), to what will seem a very radical idea: that morality’s function is innate to our physical reality. Since it is irrelevant to my argument, I have little interest in speculating on what the biblical Jesus thought the ultimate goal of following the Golden Rule was.

        I would be delighted if religious people decided that my natural morality best summarizes morality – as a kind of science based “red letter Christianity” – and following it would help them better meet their goal of pleasing God,

        Regarding ‘ends’ in general, we must distinguish between what the function of morality ‘is’ (a matter of science) and what morality ‘ought’ to be (to date, a matter of rational speculation). I see it as extraordinarily unlikely that rational speculation can ever produce a sound argument that morality’s function ‘ought’ to be something different than what it ‘is’ as a matter of science. However, there is a possibility a sound argument could be made about what morality’s ‘ends’ ‘ought’ to be.

        Personally, I prefer some version of happiness as moral ‘ends’, perhaps you prefer moral ‘ends’ being survival of life or of our species.

        Common moral ‘ends’ based on rational speculation and morality’s universal function will, most of the time, work together well. However, contradictions between them can arise. (As they do with simple utilitarianism’s and Kantianism’s in moral requirements for an individual to accept a large penalty so many people can have a small benefit or telling the murderer where his next victim is.) Then people would have to decide if they preferred achieving those perhaps speculative ‘ends’ or acting according to what morality’s function universally ‘is’ as a matter of science. In practice, I expect such contradiction would be rare. There is no necessary contradiction between what I am proposing morality’s function ‘is’ and the goal of preserving the human species. (The goal of preserving all life might be a bit more problematic.)

        Finally, groups can justify advocating for and enforcing the natural morality I am proposing if they think doing so will best meet the group’s goals and preferences. Perhaps some rational argument will someday show they ‘ought’ to enforce another morality but that seems highly unlikely based on the history of moral philosophy to date.

        Expanding on my delight at the idea of Christians using the the science of morality (in the form of universally moral ‘means’) to better meet their goals, I expect Utilitarians, Kantians, and even virtue ethicists could benefit by understanding what universally moral ‘means’ ‘are’.

  3. Even though you and I are “on the same team” Mark, dialogue between us never seems to go very well. I’ll keep reading your work and asking questions every once in a while to see if we can make some progress towards our own cooperation, but in the meantime I thought you might like to know that my continuing blog series on philosophical thought experiments happened to be about the golden rule this week. Maybe you will read it and enjoy the similar mental jousting I enjoy when I read your work.


  4. Hi, Mark,

    Your argument is basically that, with non-exploitative cooperation strategies (NECS), evolution provided a way for us to get along and reap the benefits of doing so and that we should therefore pursue NECS rather than other traits evolution saddled us with like xenophobia, patriarchy etc.

    I have no problem with that except that you cannot (as has often been pointed out) call NECS objectively moral. And I wonder whether the fact that NECS are products of evolution and that they align with game theory would make them attractive to the folk as a grounding for ethics? Most people don’t believe evolution and know nothing of mathematics. But even if they did, why would NECS be more appealing or convincing to them than rules of thumb like the golden rule or (if they have more than a high school education) deontological or consequentialist schemes or virtue ethics? Whichever substantive ethical scheme people choose, whether based on NECS or anything else, it will not provide them with objective truth in which to anchor morality. As Ruse says, “substantive ethics has no referent”. And, as Coel Hellier points out, there is no objective scale against which we can measure behaviour to tell us whether it is objectively right or wrong.

    But all that shouldn’t bother us. It doesn’t leave us unable to make judgements and decisions on moral issues. We do it all the time. We don’t need objectivity for morality. And the really cool thing is that, once we ditch religion, we can change our minds about what we think should be moral to better suit our needs and feelings.

    The most effective way to persuade people to change their moral views is via their subjective feelings which are real and can often be influenced by reason. In fact, that’s all we can ever do. We can never prove that any behaviour is objectively moral or immoral. But we can change peoples’ feelings and minds about the behaviours in question. The recent plebiscite in Australia that legalized same-sex marriage is a good example of this. We can change the things that matter to us. This flexibility, and not objectivity, is what’s important.

    As far as we know, the only mattering that happens in the universe happens behind our eyes and between our ears. If we want change it has to happen there first. The great thing is that we can change ourselves and influence others with respect to what ought to matter. We’re not hobbled in our choices by religion and while the range of what we can tolerate may be constrained somewhat by our evolutionary history we were left with plenty of wriggle room. As religion dies off and as evolution is more widely understood maybe NECS will be taken up as a good a place as any in which to anchor morality even though we can never have objectivity.


    • Hi Rob,

      Thanks for commenting here!

      I suspect I gave you an old link. The newer post I was hoping you might read and comment on is here:

      But I expect your comment will apply to it also. So, moving forward to my reply..

      Science is about what ‘is’, not what ought to be. So the only coherent forms of should or ought connected to objective science are instrumental forms, what we should or ought do to in order to fulfill some human defined goal.

      By your definitions, do you think that a moral principle that is innately only instrumental CANNOT be objectively moral? I suspect this is the case.

      If you agree a moral principle that is only instrumental might be objective, are you thinking either:
      1) Science can’t tell us what is objectively universal about descriptively moral behaviors?
      2) Or what is objectively universal about descriptively moral behaviors is real but can’t be called objectively moral? Why?

      If needed, here is a definition of descriptively moral – certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion) or accepted by an individual for her own behavior (SEP), and where science suggests the most useful understanding of “certain” is norms whose violation are commonly thought to deserve punishment.

      I argue NECS would be much more appealing or convincing “than rules of thumb like the golden rule or (if they have more than a high school education) deontological or consequentialist schemes or virtue ethics”. My reasons include that it:
      1) Is more harmonious with our morals sense. (The Golden Rule, Utilitarianism, and Kantianism can famously all be dissonant with our moral sense. They are all are more correctly understood as necessarily flawed heuristics for what is universally moral, rather than universal moral principles.)
      2) Is cross cultural and cross species universal moral reference defined by science.
      3) Presents morality as a benefit rather than a burden.
      4) Leaves ultimate goals open for people to define based on changing circumstances.
      5) Coherently maximizes the benefits of living in a cooperative society.

      To me, the golden rule, deontological, or consequentialist schemes are not seriously competitive as moral references compared with what is universal to all descriptively moral behaviors. And virtue ethics is about a broader subject – “How should I live?” rather than the narrower “How should I interact with other people?”.

      I agree with “But we can change peoples’ feelings and minds about the behaviours in question. The recent plebiscite in Australia that legalized same-sex marriage is a good example of this.” I am suggesting this would have been an easier fight to win if we could have used the science of morality to show the shameful origins of opposition to same sex marriage. (Shameful as 1) a strategy for increasing the benefits of cooperation in an in-group by exploiting out-groups as imaginary threats and 2) as a marker of a ‘moral’ person who would be a good cooperator.)

      I’m still in work on responding to you over on Coel’s blog.

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