Morality Explained

I decided to take a step back and go over the basics as I was told that I’m too technical.  I suppose that I lack self-awareness and must be self-interested (not funny).  Because I forgot that I’m not writing for me.  I honestly believe that this is a prerequisite to becoming an effective liberal.  If we don’t know this, then we don’t know our own morality and won’t be able to stand our ground.

Self-Interest and Evil

To an anthropologist or biologist, morality is an adaptation or a set of adaptations.  An adaptation is something that helped solve a problem in our past.  The problem always involves one of helping us to survive and reproduce.  We know what an adaptation does but what is it?  An adaptation is a set of behaviors that were useful in helping us cooperate with others.  Bear with me here.

Behaviors are goal-oriented actions that result from us thinking and feeling in certain kinds of ways.  So if we think and feel that something may harm us then we may behave cautiously or fearfully.  But isn’t morality about what is right and wrong and what should be?  It still is.  The rights and wrongs that we set are social norms that help us to protect the wellbeing of others.

When we feel safe with social norms to protect our wellbeing, then we are more likely to cooperate with one another.  This is why the definition of morality is that it evolved to help solve the problem of cooperation.  What we are doing when making social norms to protect one another, say by coming up with legal and penal institutions, is that we are suppressing the self-interest of others.

How is suppressing the self-interest of others related to keeping us safe?  Ask yourself what is evil?  From a biologist’s perspective, evil is usually an act that harms another person for the benefit of the evil-doer.  So self-interest is related to evil.  That is why liberty, which is like self-interest, is the freedom to do what we want as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the freedom of others.

Self-Interest and Good

Self-interest is not well defined, but we can think of it as anything that benefits us with or without a cost to others.  Adam Smith gave us the belief that benefiting ourselves will help maximize the wellbeing of others by making the proverbial economic pie bigger.  If we act in our self-interest by buying things and specializing in what we do best, then others can benefit from these selfish acts.

But it is absurd to think that acting in our self-interest will always benefit others.  Adam Smith was smart enough to know that not all selfish acts benefit others.  He knew that we need to exercise sympathy for others and set social norms to protect the weak.  This is not how classical economics took it though.  This had consequences and people now believe that life is a competition.

Classical economics perverted Smith’s message in favor of self-interest always creating good outcomes for society at large.  Economics assumes, just like conservativism, that life is always a competitive struggle for survival because their model assumes that we have scarce resources.  But in an age of plenty of resources and innovation, life doesn’t have to always be a competition.

Bullying the Bullies

So if morality is about protecting the wellbeing of others, then it only follows that bullying the bullies is moral.  This may seem like hypocrisy, but morality could careless about hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy is just a word that we use to criticize our opponents.  Morality only cares about protecting the wellbeing of others.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t try to say what we mean and do what we say.

If you want to argue that hypocrisy is immoral on philosophical grounds, then go right ahead.  But biology doesn’t care about philosophy either as it does what worked at some level in our ancestral past.  Anthropologists have argued that egalitarianism can only be achieved by us bullying the bullies.  This is because social hierarchies emerge naturally whenever people form groups.

If you argue that egalitarianism is about equality, then you are correct from a political theory perspective, but what is the mechanism that makes it work?  In short, it is about bullying the bullies to equalize things.  You are only fooling yourself if you think that we can just tell people to not bully and that we are equal.  We naturally compare our weaknesses and strengths to others.

When we compare ourselves to others, and this is not taught but innate, in a way that is favorable, then we tend to feel confident in our social value and are more likely to be the ones that get deferred to and submitted to.  This is the formation of rank and is the basis of social hierarchy.  We can’t stop this as it is too instinctive and natural.  But we do need an equalizing force to regulate it.

Morality Also Bonds

Many will argue, as I do, that true morality is about the well-being of others.  This definition is justified from a biological perspective, which means liberals’ preferences with caring and helping others is scientifically justified as being a moral act.  But we can extend this since morality is not just about the wellbeing of others and is also about behaviors that cause us to bond together.

This is why experts on moral psychology, like Jonathan Haidt, can include multiple moralities in their definition.  Let’s take Haidt’s definition of morality below from “The Righteous Mind”.  He uses the word “interlocking” which means to bond with one another, and he is consistent with our definition of morality which is about regulating the self-interest of others to protect the wellbeing of others.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

This is why he can also include almost, quite frankly, ridiculous moralities that conservatives believe in such as purity and sanctity which involves the chastity of females and the disgust caused by diseased people.  Haidt argues that fear and disgust from things that looked diseased and abnormal helped us to survive and reproduce by causing us to avoid that which could make us ill.

When we all believe that something is bad, then this is a shared belief that helps us to bond.  These beliefs, as Haidt says, are norms, virtues, and practices.  This should all make sense that these things help us to cooperate with one another on some level by also identifying with similarities in others.  The institutional part in the definition is the penal and legal institutions that create norms.


  1. says

    OK, this is a self-contained thesis that doesn’t require too much outside knowledge to engage with. It is, however, more complex than I have the ability to properly discuss at any length, at this point in my life. It took some effort to read every part for comprehension, but I pushed through because I wanted to give you proper respect for your effort.

    Since I don’t have the juice to go more than one round on discussion, I’ll only leave one thought for consideration. I imagine you’ve already considered it, but I think having the idea represented in the comments on this article is a good idea.

    Because science is powerful as a source for understanding reality, it’s tempting to use it as a metric for judging value – in the case of this thesis, the value of ideas on morality. What if that yields cruel results? It is easy to observe that revulsion at physical abnormality can protect organisms from contagious illness or from perpetuating genetic disorders in a population through breeding. (I’m not assuming you would support valuation of revulsion just because you mentioned it, bear with me.)

    We’re more knowledgeable than australopithecines and can make judgments with better information and sophisticated morality now, but our inborn and cruel revulsion is still there and can still sometimes have utility. Run away from the person bleeding out the eyeballs and you most likely will not contract hemorrhagic fever. What does science say about that? Are those conclusions useful for constructing a morality, or affirming an existing one?

    Science can recognize utility but utility seems a questionable yardstick for morality, most easily recognized in the way eugenics can even appeal to fairly liberal and progressive people when presented the right way.

    This is not to say I find no value in your thesis or even disagree with it. I don’t have the mental endurance for engaging fully in your project in an ongoing way, and am genuinely undecided on these issues. I’m raising the question without meaning to imply a definitive answer because I don’t have the follow-through to feel confident in one.

    –That’s as far as I go. I’ll read your reply but not offer another, don’t have the time. But by all means, keep blogging in the intellectual deep end, good sir.

    • musing says

      I agree that there are other ways to view morality, and we don’t have to use science. But anything else I’ve seen does not do a good job at making sense out of our moral or immoral behavior. We also don’t have to use science as a way to measure value, especially not intrinsic worth in a human. But we seem to like invocations, that is, appealing to the authoritative body of works, such as science. So I am cautious with using evolutionary psychology because the findings – which I do believe some are correct – can be used to justify superiority in those that meet the standards. But that is why I spend so much energy on morality, which is, in short, about “bullying the bullies” and “the wellbeing of others”. People like it when things come from credible sources and these two phrases come from the same evolutionary psychology that may say that some don’t meet some standards. We can’t hide from science, but we can be prepared. This is ammunition for anyone to justify using compassion and empathy in order to assist others. Conservatives love to put liberals down for being “in touch with their feelings”. I say to them that it is a biological imperative to do so. Good luck surviving without it.

  2. says

    Morality is not just about the wellbeing of others and is also about behaviors that cause us to bond together… When we all believe that something is bad, then this is a shared belief that helps us to bond. These beliefs, as Haidt says, are norms, virtues, and practices. This should all make sense that these things help us to cooperate with one another on some level by also identifying with similarities in others.

    I am tempted to at least partially reject as valid this particular purpose of moral norms. For example, shared hatred towards Jews helped Nazis to bond with each other and cooperate. The result was less than moral. I suspect that also purity cultists feel bonds among themselves thanks to their shared belief that women who have has sex before marriage are worthless used goods. Yet such beliefs also cause harm for the victims.

    • musing says

      Yes! I am so thankful that you picked up on that! There is one fact that changes everything, but I tried to simplify things as much as possible and excluded it. That is why Great Satan’s point is so crucial too. Although I would argue that we better know how morality works from a scientific point of view, so we know our vulnerabilities, we also have enough smarts and free-will (hate this word) to not be forced to make it destiny. That is the topic of the next post. When I get this one out, I will finally release the ten moralities of a conservative in the easiest to understand form.

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