Refining cultural moral codes based on conclusions from 50 years of science

In past posts, I have commonly focused on what the science of morality can tell us and then described how that science might be useful for refining cultural moral codes. Here, I reverse that approach. I begin by talking about how this science could be culturally useful and then only briefly summarize the science. Will this approach be effective in communicating how science can provide an objective reference for refining moral codes? Let’s see.

The following conclusions are derived from hypotheses that explain virtually everything science can tell us about “socially moral” behaviors, the behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral codes.

  • Past and present cultural moral codes, no matter how diverse, contradictory, bizarre, or repugnant to our moral sensibilities, are elements of strategies that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups.
  • Many past and present cultural moral codes increase the benefits of cooperation for ingroups by exploiting or excluding outgroups. For example, “slaves must obey their masters”, “women must be submissive to men”, “homosexuals are evil”, and “eating pigs is an abomination” are elements of cooperation strategies that exploit or ignore outgroups.
  • Common cultural moral norms such as “Do not kill, steal, or lie” and “Do to others as you would have them do to you” are heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible rules of thumb) for increasing the benefits of cooperation. Versions of these heuristics are empirically observed to be cross-culturally universal. This is as should be expected because all advocate initiating the most powerful cooperation strategy known, indirect reciprocity. Once chanced upon, the benefits of cooperation these norms produce make them unlikely to be abandoned. For example, indirect reciprocity regarding theft can be summarized as “Do not steal from others (initiate indirect reciprocity), punish (perhaps just by avoidance and gossip) those who do steal from others, and expect others to not steal from you.”
  • Cultures abandon moral norms such as “Do not kill, steal, or lie” and the Golden Rule when following them would predictably decrease the benefits of cooperation. For example, these norms are abandoned in time of war, when dealing with criminals, and, for the Golden Rule, “when tastes differ”. Abandoning these norms when following them would predictably decrease the benefits of cooperation is consistent with the science that shows that social moral behavior’s function (the primary reason they exist) is to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups.

The above conclusions can be culturally useful for refining moral codes to better meet share goals and values because:

  • The primary purpose of living in groups is to access the benefits of living in cooperative societies. Achieving shared goals (whatever they are) is more likely if cultural moral codes are consciously refined to increase the benefits of cooperation. For example, a science based generally applicable moral norm would declare that it is immoral to follow other moral norms (which are generally only fallible heuristics) when doing so will predictably decrease the benefits of cooperation.
  • Moral norms that are recognized as exploiting or ignoring outgroups (as has been common in the past) will violate the existing shared goals and values of many groups. Recognizing the hidden purpose of such norms provides a basis and motivation for rejecting exploitative norms such as “women must be submissive to men”, “homosexuals are evil”, and ingroup cohesion focused norms such as “eating pigs is an abomination”.

The above science-based knowledge about cultural moral codes may be useful for groups seeking insights into how to refine their moral codes to better meet their shared goals and values.

‘Should’ cultures use the above insights from science to refine their moral codes? Like the rest of science, this science provides only “instrumental” oughts, oughts of the form “If you desire X, then based on science Y, you ought (instrumental) to do Z”. So yes, cultures ‘should’ (instrumental) use the above insights to refine their cultural moral codes if they desire to best meet their shared goals and values.

Note that, as suggested by the above conclusions, the science of morality’s instrumental oughts are culturally useful without any need to attempt the formidable challenge of deriving an imperative moral ought from what science tells us social morality ‘is’.

The above conclusions about cultural moralities are based on these hypotheses:

  1. Socially moral behaviors, the behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present moral codes, are elements of strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups.
  2. The ultimate source of socially moral cooperation strategies is a cooperation/exploitation dilemma that is innate to our physical reality and must be solved by all beings that form cooperative societies. This cooperation/exploitation dilemma is how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation when exploitation (such as by free riders), which reduces or eliminates future cooperation, is virtually always the winning short-term strategy and can be in the long term.
  3. Strategies that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others are universal subcomponents of all socially moral cooperation strategies.

In addition to these hypotheses being the best explanation for everything we know about past and present moral codes and our moral intuitions, they meet other normal criteria for scientific truth such as no contradiction with known facts, simplicity, and integration with the rest of science – principally biological and cultural evolution and evolutionary game theory. Reducing virtually the entirety of the large, diverse, contradictory, and bizarre data set of socially moral behaviors to the above three hypotheses demonstrates their explanatory power. The combination of remarkable explanatory power and consistency with other normal criteria for scientific truth arguably provides a robust confirmation of their scientific ‘truth’.

However, a robust confirmation of scientific truth about the origins and function of social morality is no guarantee of that truth’s cultural usefulness. To be culturally useful, people must actually decide that using this truth to refine their cultural moral codes is the option that will best meet their society’s shared goals and values.

 

Supporting links:

https://evolution-institute.org/a-universal-principle-within-moralitys-ultimate-source/

https://scienceandmorality.com/2017/10/27/found-a-universal-moral-principle/

1 thought on “Refining cultural moral codes based on conclusions from 50 years of science

  1. I’m convinced. But what are the steps in this swirl of societies buzzing around the globe to begin to move toward a shared cross-cultural vision, then realization of more scientifically-based moral codes?

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