Morality is both a universal and a surprising fact about human nature. When I say that morality is universal I am not referring to this or that moral code. In fact, I am not referring to an external moral code at all. Rather, I am referring to morality as the voice within, the interior source that Adam Smith called the “impartial spectator.” Morality in this sense is an uncoercive but authoritative judge. It has no power to compel us, but it speaks with unquestioned authority. Of course we can and frequently do reject what morality commands, but when we do so we cannot avoid guilt or regret. It is because of our capacity for self-impeachment and remorse that Aristotle famously called man “the beast with the red cheeks.” Aristotle’s description holds up very well more than 2,000 years later. Even people who most flagrantly repudiate morality — say, a chronic liar or a rapacious thief — nearly always respond to detection with excuses and rationalizations. They say, “Yes, I lied, but I had no alternative under the circumstances,” or “Yes, I stole, but I did so to support my family.” Hardly anyone says, “Of course I am a liar and a thief, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.” What this means is that morality supplies a universal criterion or standard even though this standard is almost universally violated.
Morality is a surprising feature of humanity because it seems to defy the laws of evolution. Evolution is descriptive: It says how we do behave. Morality is prescriptive: It says how we should behave. And beyond this, evolutionary behavior appears to run in the opposite direction from moral behavior. Evolution implies that we are selfish creatures who seek to survive and reproduce in the world. Indeed we are, but we are also unselfish creatures who seek the welfare of others, sometimes in preference to our own. We are participants in the fame of life, understandably partial to our own welfare, while morality stands aloof, taking the impartial, or “God’s eye,” view, directing us to act in a manner conducive to the good of others. In sum, while evolution provides a descriptive account of human self-interest, morality provides a standard of human behavior that frequently operates against self-interest.
So if we are mere evolutionary primates, how to account for morality as a central and universal feature of our nature? Why would morality develop among creatures obsessively bent on survival and reproduction? Darwin himself recognized the problem. In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that “although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet . . . an advancement in the standard of morality will rtainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.” Darwin’s point is that a tribe of virtuous patriots, with each of its members willing to make sacrifices for the group, would prove more successful and thus be favored by natural selection over a tribe of self-serving individuals. This is the group-selection argument, and for many decades it was considered an acceptable way to reconcile evolution with morality.
But as biologists now recognize, the argument has a fatal flaw. The question we have to ask is how a tribe of individuals would become self-sacrificing in the first place. Imagine a tribe where, for instance, many people shared their food with others or volunteered to defend the tribe from external attack. Now what would be the fate of individual cheaters who benefited from this arrangement but hoarded their own food and themselves refused to volunteer to fight? Clearly these scoundrels would have the best deal of all. In other words, cheaters could easily become free riders, benefiting from the sacrifices of others but making no sacrifices themselves, and they would be more likely to survive than their more altruistic fellow tribesmen.
In The Origins of Virtue Matt Ridley gives a more contemporary example. If everyone in a community could be relied on not to steal cars, cars would not have to be locked, and a great deal of expense would be saved on insurance, locking devices, and alarms. The whole community would be better off. But, Ridley notes, “In such a trusting world, an individual can make himself even better off by defecting from the social contract and stealing a car.” By this logic, even tribes that somehow started out patriotic and altruistic would soon become filled with self-serving cheaters. The free-rider problem doesn’t apply to all situations — there are very limited circumstances in which group selection still works — but its discovery has pretty much sunk Darwin’s group-selection argument as a general explanation for morality within an evolutionary framework.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, biologists William Hamilton and Robert Trivers offered an entirely new and more promising way to solve the problem. Their work is summarized in Richard Dawkins’s best book, The Selfish Gene. Drawing on the research of Hamilton and Trivers, Dawkins argues that the basic unit of survival is not the individual but rather the gene. In one of his most memorable formulations, he writes that we individuals are “survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” At first glance this seems like a crazy way to think about evolution, but Dawkins, employing a presuppositional argument of his own, notes that if we think of things in this way, we can explain morality to a degree that previously seemed impossible.
The ingenuity of the selfish-gene theory is that it explains morality as a result not of individual selfishness but rather of genetic selfishness. “Altruism,” writes biologist E. O. Wilson, “is conceived as the mechanism by which DNA multiplies itself.” This may seem like a cold way to think about altruism, but there is some logic behind it. Think of a mother who runs into a burning building to save her two children trapped inside. An act of pure maternal unselfishness? Well, it looks that way. But William Hamilton reminds us that 50 percent of a child’s genes come from the mother. If two or more children are involved, then it makes rational sense for a mother to jeopardize her own survival if she can enhance the prospects of her genes surviving through her offspring. What looks like altruism from the individual point of view can be understood as selfishness from the genetic point of view.
Morality, in Hamilton’s framework, is a form of nepotistic “kin selection.” This idea helps us understand why certain insects, birds, and animals endanger their own welfare to promote that of their fellow creatures. Vervet monkeys and prairie dogs, for instance, give warning calls that signal approaching predators, sometimes at the cost of becoming the target of those predators. Why would they risk their lives in this way? Kin selection holds that it is because they are genetically related to those they are helping. So there is an evolutionary payoff: The risk-takers are maximizing not their individual chance for survival but the chance for their genes to make it into future generations. From the gene’s point of view, helping one’s kin is simply a form of helping oneself.
But of course kin selection is a very limited explanation, in that it only accounts for why animals and people behave altruistically toward relatives. In life, however, humans and even some animals behave that way toward innumerable others who don’t share their genes. Robert Trivers argued that this is because of “reciprocal altruism.” A better term would be reciprocal bargaining: What Trivers means is that creatures behave generously toward others in the expectation that they will get something in return. Vampire bats, for instance, share food not only with relatives but also with other bats who have recently shared with them. Other animals also practice this kind of give-and-take. Trivers does not suggest that animals engage in conscious planning or deliberation; rather, he argues that natural selection has rewarded with survival the instincts for engaging in mutually beneficial exchanges. And of course in human society we routinely exchange favors with neighbors and acquaintances; we even do business with total strangers, all motivated by the principle of “you do something for me and I’ll so something for you.” So here too altruism is understood as a form of extended or long-term selfishness.
Even reciprocal altruism, however, cannot explain the good things that we do that offer no actual return. A fellow gets up to give his seat on the bus to an 80-year-old woman. No, she isn’t grandma, nor is it reasonable to say that he’s doing it so that next week she will give him her seat. So neither kin selection nor reciprocal altruism provides any solution in this case. Moreover, altruism of this sort occurs on a regular basis throughout human society. Many people give blood without any expectation of return. Others volunteer to help the severely disabled. Others donate money to purchase malaria nets or to assist AIDS victims in Africa. Still others agitate against animal abuse in their own community or sex trafficking in Thailand or religious persecution in Tibet. Throughout the centuries there have been people who have devoted themselves to improving the lives of impoverished strangers, or risked their lives to benefit folks who are unrelated to them and cannot possibly reciprocate these sacrifices.
Some biologists concede that evolution is at a loss here. “Altruism toward strangers,” writes biologist Ernst Mayr, “is a behavior not supported by natural selection.” Still, some diehard champions of evolution do try to accommodate such behavior within their evolutionary framework. Their best attempt is to argue that seemingly disinterested altruism toward strangers has a well-hidden personal motive. Essentially it is performed in order to enhance one’s social reputation. Reputation is valuable because it raises one’s position in society and perhaps even improves one’s mating prospects. Michael Shermer recognizes that it is possible to gain a good reputation by faking a dedication to the public welfare. He argues, however, that such schemes may well be exposed over time. According to Shermer, “The best way to convince others that you are a moral person is not to fake being a moral person but actually to be a moral person.” Psychologist David Barash makes the same point: “Be moral, and your reputation will benefit.” The motive here remains one of personal enhancement; we are helping others not for their sake but for our sake. Once again, morality is explained as the outward disguise of the selfish gene.
But Shermer and Barash never really contend with the Machiavellian objection to their argument. Machiavelli argues that “the man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.” A rich man who is habitually generous, Machiavelli remarks, will soon become a poor man. Much better, Machiavelli craftily counsels, to acquire the image of magnanimity while giving away as little as possible. In other words, it is preferable to seem virtuous than to actually be virtuous. “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” Machiavelli insists that the people who prosper most in the world are the ruthless people who employ virtue only occasionally and instrumentally for strategic gain. If Machiavelli is right, then under the rules of natural selection it is the moral pretenders, not the truly moral, who will prosper and multiply. And for empirical evidence Machiavelli could surely point to the successful connivers in our society and every other one.
Of course if there is cosmic justice in the afterlife, then the bad guys ultimately lose. We see this in a beautiful example from Dante’s Inferno, where in the circle of the fraudulent we encounter Guido da Montefeltro. Guido’s martial prowess as a Ghibelline general has been largely due to his mastery of what he calls the “arts of the fox.” He is highly successful in his scams, and is never called to account. In short, he is a true Machiavellian. And late in life he dons the robes of a Franciscan friar, not because he repents of his earlier misdeeds, but in an attempt to fool God and make it to paradise. “And oh, to think it might have worked!” he says in one of the great lines of the Commedia. Unlike gullible humans, however, God can’t be duped, and so Guido gets his comeuppance.
As we see from this example, cosmic justice always evens the scales, but it simply defies reality to contend that in this world the scales are always even. Terrestrial justice is flawed and imperfect, and thus Barash and Shermer’s claim that morality always pays right here on earth isn’t very convincing.