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I spent my working career as an engineer designing propulsion systems for new airplanes. Some were commercial transports that are still reliably moving tens of thousands of people every day all around the world, two could take off and land vertically, and one was a proposed hypersonic air-breathing Mach 8 monster which was a lot of fun, but I knew was never going to thunder through the skies.

Retirement has allowed me to return to an old interest of mine. As a teenager in the 1960’s, I was puzzled by morality’s strangeness  but suspected it could be best understood as a product of our evolutionary past. With the wonderful progress made in the intervening years, understanding morality’s foundations in our biological and cultural evolutionary history turned out to be far easier than I expected. What I have been surprised by is how difficult it is to present this knowledge in ways that will be culturally useful. That is the real challenge. This blog is a record of one non-academic’s attempts to be useful in helping meet that challenge and to engage with other people who are attempting to do the same.

About my approach:

Over the last 40 years or so, there has been a growing consensus that behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by cultural moral norms (descriptively moral behaviors) are elements of cooperation strategies. I have proposed that 1) these strategy’s ultimate source is a cooperation/exploitation dilemma: how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without exploitation destroying future benefits, 2) solutions to this dilemma relevant to morality have a universal component, and 3) that universal component, a universal moral principle, is useful as a moral reference for refining cultural moral codes. Both the dilemma and the universal component of its solutions are innate to our natural world.

Here are 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 or need to justify ‘magic’ oughts.
  • 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 societies could decide to advocate for and enforce because they expect doing so will best meet the group’s needs and preferences.
  • Universal because it is a component of all ‘moral’ behaviors, even those that exploit out-groups.

I have expressed the universal moral principle in several ways, but the latest is “Act to solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting others”. This is, of course, almost useless as a moral guide for day to day life. For day to day life, I suggest something like “Increase the benefits of cooperation by doing to others as you would have them do to you” which is also arguably universally moral but not as broadly applicable.

Why is it so difficult to present this knowledge from science in ways that will be culturally useful?

I expect the chief stumbling block is an illusion produced by our biology – a powerful mind trick. People share a biological adaptation that makes us feel moral judgments somehow apply to all regardless of their needs and preferences. This puts moral judgments in a special and strange category all by themselves. Our predecessors who did not experience this illusion tended to die out because they were not as good cooperators.

Since science cannot provide justification for what we ought to do regardless of our needs and preferences, both the general public and moral philosophers (who, as people, also experience this illusion) have trouble accepting a science based moral principle which is justified only by an “instrumental” ought, what societies ‘ought’ to enforce in order to best meet shared needs and preferences.

I can be contacted at cooperationmorality at comcast.net.