The countless books that have come out in recent years on the impact of our evolutionary history on our moral habits have almost outdone Harry Potter. They have all claimed, to a greater or less degree, that our moral habits and beliefs can be attributed to human evolution, and in particular to the selection process that enabled us to rise above other animals competing in the same environment. They appear to be written, in roughly equal numbers, by moral philosophers or evolutionary biologists. Some books, with Why are we Moral? or similar titles, attribute a near complete moral sense to the evolutionary process. Others, more conservative, only argue that higher degrees of cooperation are the result of evolution.
Darwin himself first made the claim. In a much discussed passage, he wrote, in The Descent of Man:
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight advantage or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe . . . [t]here can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.
The method by which the selection process works is not without some controversy. Darwin‘s passage indicated a belief in group selection, although a more widely held belief would appear to be in individual or genetic selection. Several writers however, have noted the vigorous advocacy of philosopher Elliott Sober and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, among others, for group selection. Maynard Smith and ESS (evolutionary stable strategies) illustrated with hawks and doves, the prisoners‘ dilemma, and the impact of genetic mutations, any of which give a reproductive advantage, are all parts of the discussion.
The process has not resulted entirely in a one-way path to cooperation and everlasting justice. Richard Dawkins‘ The Selfish Gene, has put the argument that the self-centered nature of mankind is also an evolutionary product. Peter Singer has presented a similar argument. Many authors, and even our own observations, would confirm this dual nature of mankind. What is far from clear, or agreed, however, is under what conditions these dual positive or negative natures come to the fore.
It appears to this writer that our own human history gives us an answer – that provided self interest or self-centeredness do not dominate, the great bulk of human beings are instinctively cooperative. Cooperation on an on-going basis, however, requires that we continually attempt to help others in the group and avoid harming them. Natural selection also dictates that we strive for the greater individual and collective benefit. I believe that we do this both individually and in groups. Darwin‘s arguments are, in effect, sound – that as genetic mutations produce both self-interest and cooperation, they also produce an ever increasing cognitive ability. The brain realizes the benefits of cooperation, the benefits of undisputed leadership, and of institutions that strengthen one group in the endless conflicts with other groups.
The result is the development of social practices and institutions that make for cooperation within societies, and the gradual development of a more just society. And that justice and fairness is the underpinning, not only for a more effective, more competitive society, but for ethical behaviour within that society. It would take a long, and perhaps tedious argument to support the contention that our history illustrates that evolutionary development has resulted in more ethical societies. A simple example, however, might convince. Why have we gradually, over the ages, introduced laws that seek to eradicate wrongdoing; and punish wrongdoers? It is evidence that those who seek this more just, more ethical society have, albeit with many back-sliding periods of crisis, held an advantage of over those who seek to serve their own interests. Another simple example is the change in government that Australia experienced recently. It was undertaken through a process that many regarded as unethical. But that change in government was bloodless. It will also be bloodless in most civilized countries around the world. It has not been that many years however, since the succession to power, in the long history of these same countries, has not been without bloody conflict between rival contenders.
Perhaps another example to use in the argument that institutional change has resulted in a more ethical stance is the fact that the Western European powers have not experienced an internal, internecine war since World War II. Those sixty-five years have been the longest period without war since the Roman Empire. It is near inconceivable that these powers should now have a war between any of them.
So that is the conclusion – one result of the evolutionary process is that in most societies, those seeking a just society, for whatever reasons they seek it, have held a numerical advantage, with an associated power advantage, over those seeking to further their own interests. We can now put that conclusion to work in both the teaching of ethics and in the employment of those concepts in practice. In short, we can attempt to answer the question as to what extent, n our many organizations and institutions, do we take into account that a greater number of the people involved are instinctively striving for a more ethical institution?
This writer sees six areas where that conclusion will affect ethics in practice, and the teaching of that practice:
One: There will be a number of people in any group who will wish to pursue their own self-interests. This self-interest will encourage unethical behaviour. It is behaviour that is often exhibited by those with greater influence or power within the organization or group. The teaching and practice of ethics must therefore provide the remainder (those who wish to take an ethical stance) with the knowledge, the skills and the confidence to put their ethical objectives into effect.
Two: Codes of ethics, if developed by the people in an organization who are affected, will reflect their actual experiences and ethical concerns. Greater participation by those affected will also create greater commitment to seeing that the codes are observed. Such participation will be more effective han if the codes were superimposed by those in authority.
Three: There will also be a number willing to speak out against wrongdoing. As speaking out usually ends in some retaliation by those whose wrongdoing is exposed, self-interest demands that all who observe the wrongdoing stay quiet (except perhaps the most courageous). The need for social and legal responses to prevent this retaliation, that encourage speaking out, plus training in ways to minimize the retaliation, are imperative.
Four: Laws, principles, and policies reflecting institutional change at a national and international level intended to encourage ethical behaviour, will continue to grow. This change is already at an ―exponential‖ rate, as a director of one of these ethical institutions (a newly established police integrity commission), has described them. Knowledge of these changes by prospective and current employees is also an imperative.
Five: Of these institutional interventions current even now, answers need to be found on which policies, which legislation, what theories and other interventions have been, or could be effective, in minimizing unethical behaviour. A major input into the classroom, and in the workplace, therefore, will be skills in evaluation research, as well as knowledge on what conclusions current evaluations have already reached.
Six: The endless debates on which philosopher provides the optimum moral theory will eventually be deemed irrelevant. The selection process, the struggle for survival, will kick in when the realization comes that resources could be more effectively used. Replacing the debates will be empirical research into combinations of several theorists - on which approaches provide effective responses to the ever increasing complexity of today‘s ethical issues.