The origin of ethics
i The search for justification
WHERE does ethics come from? Two very different questions are combined here, one about historical fact and the other about authority. Anxiety about both questions has been active in shaping many traditional myths about the origin of the universe. These myths describe, not only how human life began, but also why it is so hard, so painful, so confusing, so conflict-ridden. The primal clashes and disasters they tell of are intended – perhaps often primarily intended – to explain why human beings have to live by rules which can frustrate their desires. Both these questions are still pressing. And in the last few centuries, theorists have tried strenuously to answer them in more literal and systematic terms.
This quest does not flow just from curiosity, nor just from the hope of proving the rules unnecessary, though both are strong motives. It perhaps arises centrally from conflicts within ethics, or morality, itself. (I shall make no distinction between these two words for the very general purposes of this article.) In any culture, accepted duties sometimes clash, and deeper, more general principles are needed to arbitrate between them. People look for the point of the different rules involved, and try to weigh these points against each other. This search often forces them to look, more widely still, for a supreme arbiter – the point of morality as a whole.
This is why our original question is so complex. Asking where ethics comes from is not like asking the same question about meteorites. It is asking why we should now obey its rules. (Rules are not actually the whole of morality, but we can concentrate on them for the moment, because they are often the point where conflicts arise.) In order to answer this question, it is necessary to imagine what life would be like without these rules, and this inevitably does raise questions about origins. People tend to look backwards, asking whether there was once an ‘unfallen’ conflict-free state before the rules were imposed, a state where rules were not needed, perhaps because nobody ever wanted to do anything bad. They then ask ‘How did we come to lose this pre-ethical condition? Can we get back to it?’
In our own culture, two sweeping answers to these questions have been widely accepted. One – coming predominantly from the Greeks and from Hobbes – explains ethics simply as a device of egoistic prudence; its origin-myth is the social contract. It sees the pre-ethical state as one of solitude; the primal disaster being that people ever began to meet each other at all. Once they did, conflict was inevitable, and the state of nature was then, as Hobbes put it, ‘a war of every man against every man’ (Hobbes, 1651, Part One, Ch. 13, p. 64) even if, as Rousseau insisted, they had not been actually hostile to each other before colliding (Rousseau, 1762, pp. 188, 194; 1754, Part One). Survival itself, let alone social order, became possible only through rules arrived at by a reluctant bargain. (This story was of course usually seen as symbolical, not as literal history.) The other acount, which is Christian, explains morality as our necessary attempt to bring our imperfect nature in line with the will of God. Its origin-myth is the Fall of Man, which has produced that imperfection in our nature in the way described – again symbolically – in the Book of Genesis.
Simplicity itself is always welcome in a confusing world, so the popularity of these two accounts is not surprising. But simple accounts cannot really explain complex facts, and it has already become clear that neither of these sweeping formulae can really deal with our questions. The Christian account shifts the problem rather than solving it, since we still need to know why we should obey God. Christian teaching has of course plenty to say about this, but what it says is complex, and cannot keep its attractive simplicity once the question about authority is raised. I cannot discuss further here the very important relations between ethics and religion (see Article 46, HOW COULD ETHICS DEPEND ON RELIGION?). But it is important that this Christian answer does not just derive our duty to obey God naively from his position as an all-powerful being who has created us – a derivation which would not confer moral authority. If a bad being had created us for bad purposes, we should not think we had a duty to obey that being, whatever prudence might dictate. The idea of God is not just the idea of such a being, but crystallizes a whole mass of very complex ideals and standards that lie behind moral rules and give them their meaning. But the authority of these ideals and standards is just what we are enquiring about. So that question is still with us.
ii The lure of egoism and the social contract
The notion that ethics is really just a contract based on egoistic prudence is indeed much simpler, but for that very reason it is far too unrealistic to account for the actual complexities of ethics. It may be true that a society of perfectly consistent prudent egoists. if it ever existed. would invent institutions for mutual insurance which would look like many of those found in actual human societies. And it certainly is true that these careful egoists would avoid many of the atrocities that actual human beings commit, because human rashness and folly notoriously and constantly magnify the bad effects of our vices.
But this cannot mean that morality, as it actually exists anywhere, arises only from this calculating self-interest. There are several reasons why this is impossible, but I shall mention only two. (For further discussion, see Article 16, EGOISM.)
(1) The first rests on an obvious human defect. People simply are not so prudent or consistent as this account would imply. Even the very moderate amount of deliberately decent conduct that is actually found in human life would not be possible if it relied solely on these traits.
(2) The second is an equally well-known range of human good qualities. People who do make an effort to behave decently plainly are often moved by a quite different set of motives, arising directly out of consideration for the claims of others. They act from a sense of justice, from friendship, loyalty, compassion, gratitude, generosity, sympathy, family affection and the like – qualities that are recognized and honoured in most human societies. Egoist theorizers such as Hobbes sometimes explain this by claiming that these alleged motives are unreal, only empty names. But it is hard to see how names could ever have been invented, and have become current, for non-existent motives. And it is still more puzzling how anyone could ever have successfully pretended to be moved by them.
I have mentioned this egoistic explanation at once because, in spite of its crying defects, it is very influential today. In asking about the origin of ethics, modern people are quite likely to find themselves unthinkingly using its language. They will pose their question in the Hobbesian form, ‘How did an original society of egoists ever come to find itself lumbered with rules that required consideration for others?’ The crippling difficulties that infest this approach will become clearer as we go on.
iii Moral and factual arguments
We might be asked to accept extreme individualism on strictly scientific grounds, as a factual discovery. It then appears as a piece of information about how human beings are actually constituted. Today, the most usual form for this argument rests on the idea of evolution as proceeding, for all species, by the ‘survival of the fittest’ in unmitigated cut-throat competition between individuals. That process is held to have shaped them into isolated, wholly egoistic social atoms. This picture is often conceived to rest so directly on evidence as to be – unlike all earlier stories about origins – not a myth at all but wholly scientific.
We should be sceptical about this claim. In the crude form just cited, the pseudo-Darwinian myth contains at least as much emotive symbolism from current ideologies and as much propaganda for limited, contemporary social ideals as does its predecessor the Social Contract story. It does also incorporate some genuine scientific evidence and principles, but it ignores and distorts a great deal more than it uses. It is particularly remote from current science on two issues: first, its fantasy-ridden, over-dramatized notion of competition, and second, the strangely predominant place that it gives to our own species in the evolutionary process.
(1) It is essential to distinguish the mere fact of happening to ‘compete’ from the complex of human motives which current ideology endorses as fitting for competitors. Any two organisms may be said to be ‘in competition’ if they both need or want something they cannot both get. But they are not acting competitively unless they both know this and respond by deliberately trying to defeat each other. Since the overwhelming majority of organisms are plants, bacteria etc. which are not even conscious, the very possibility of deliberate, hostile competition is an extremely rare thing in nature. Moreover, both at the conscious and the unconscious level, all life-processes depend on an immense background of harmonious co-operation, which is necessary to build up the complex system within which the much rarer phenomenon of competition becomes possible. Competition is real but necessarily limited. For instance, the plants in a particular ecosystem normally exist in interdependence both with each other and with the animals that eat them, and those animals are equally interdependent with each other and with their predators. If there had really been a natural ‘war of all against all’, the biosphere could never have developed in the first place. It is not surprising therefore that conscious life, arising out of such a background, acts in fact in a way that is much more often co-operative than competitive. And when we come shortly to consider the motivation of social creatures, we shall clearly see that co-operative motivations supply the main structure of their behaviour.
(2) Many popular versions of the pseudo-Darwinian myth (though not all) present the evolutionary process as a pyramid or ladder existing for the purpose of producing MAN as its apex, and sometimes as programmed to develop MAN further to some distant ‘omega point’ which will further glorify contemporary Western human ideals. This notion has no basis in today’s genuine biological theory (Midgley, 1985). Current biology depicts life-forms quite differently, on the pattern sketched out by Darwin in the Origin of Species, as spreading, bush-like, from a common source to fill the available niches, without any special ‘upward’ direction. The pyramid picture was proposed by J.-B. Lamarck and developed by Teilhard de Chardin; it does not belong to modern science at all but to traditional metaphysics. Of course that does not refute it But since the views of human nature associated with it have been widely seen as ‘scientific’, the point is of some importance for us in assessing the standing of these views, and relating them to our questions about the origin of ethics.
iv Dualistic fantasies
These questions have begun to look harder since it became generally accepted that our species took its rise from others which we class as merely ‘animals’. In our culture, the species-barrier has commonly been seen as being also the boundary of the moral realm, and metaphysical doctrines have been built to protect this boundary. Christians, unlike Buddhists, have believed that souls, the seat of all the faculties that we honour, belong only to human beings. Any emphasis on the relationship between our own and other species was seen as degrading us, as suggesting that our spirituality was ‘really’ only a set of animal reactions. This idea of animality as a foreign principle quite alien to spirit is an ancient one, often used to dramatize psychological conflicts as raging between the virtues and ‘the beast within’. The human soul then appears as an isolated intruder in the physical cosmos, a stranger far from its home.
This sharp and simple dualism was important to Plato, and to early Christian thinking. It is probably much less influential today. Its contemptuous attitude to natural motives has not worn well, and on the theoretical side it faces enormous difficulties in explaining the relation between soul and body. Yet dualism still seems to be used as a background framework for certain topics, notably for our thought about other animals. Aristotle countered Plato by proposing a much less divisive, more reconciliatory metaphysic to bring together the various aspects both of human individuality and of the outside world. St Thomas followed this lead. and recent thought has in general been moving the same way. But this more monistic approach has encountered great difficulty in conceiving how human beings could actually have developed out of non-human animals. The trouble was that those animals were viewed as symbols of anti-human forces, indeed often simply as embodied vices (wolf, pig, raven). Until this view was challenged, only two alternatives seemed open – either a depressed, reductive view of humans as ‘no better than the other animals’, or a purely other-worldly view of them as spirits inserted during the evolutionary process into bodies to which they were quite unrelated. (See Midgley, 1979, Ch. 2.)
Hence come the two simple ideas mentioned earlier about the origin of ethics. On the social contract pattern all animate beings equally were egoists, and human beings were distinctive only in their calculating intelligence. They were merely the first enlightened egoists. On the religious view, by contrast, the insertion of souls introduced, at a stroke, not just intelligence but also a vast range of new notivation, much of it altruistic. To Darwin’s distress, his collaborator A. R. Wallace adopted this second view, arguing that God must have added souls to emerging primate bodies by miraculous intervention during the course of evolution. And today, even among non-religious thinkers, there is still often found an intense exaltation of human capacities which treats them as something totally different in kind from those of all other animals, to an extent which seems to demand a different, non-terrestrial source. Indeed, science-fiction accounts of a derivation from some distant planet are occasionally invoked with apparent seriousness to meet this supposed need.
v The advantages of ethology
We can, however, avoid both these bad alternatives today by simply taking a more realistic, less mythical view of non-human animals. In our own time, their behaviour has at last been systematically studied, and the rich, complex nature of social life among many birds and mammals is now becoming a matter of common knowledge. People indeed have long known something about it, though they did not use that knowledge when they thought of animals as incarnations of evil. Thus, two centuries ago Kant wrote, ‘The more we come in contact with animals the more we love them, for we see how great is their care for their young. It is then difficult for us to be cruel in thought even to a wolf.’
Social traits like parental care, co-operative foraging and reciprocal kindness show plainly that such creatures are not in fact crude, exclusive egoists, but beings who have evolved the strong and special motivations needed to form and maintain a simple society. Mutual grooming, mutual removal of parasites and mutual protection are common among social mammals and birds. They have not produced these habits by using those powers of prudent selfish calculation which the Social Contract story views as the mechanism necessary for such a feat, since they do not possess them. Wolves, beavers, jackdaws, and other social creatures, including all our primate relatives, do not build their societies by wily calculation from a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, an original war of all against all. They are able to live together, and sometimes to co-operate in remarkable tasks of hunting, building, joint protection or the like, simply because they are naturally disposed to love and trust one another.
This affection becomes evident in the unmistakable misery of any social animal, from a horse or a dog to a chimpanzee. if it is kept in isolation. Though they often ignore each other and will indeed in certain circumstances compete with and attack each other, they do this against a wider background of friendly acceptance. Devoted care of the young, often including real self-denial over food, is widespread and is often shared by other helpers besides the parents. (It may perhaps be seen as the original matrix of morality). Some creatures, notably elephants, will adopt orphans. Defence of the weak by the strong is common and there are many well-attested examples of cases where the defenders have paid for it with their lives. Old and helpless birds are sometimes fed. Reciprocal help among friends is often seen. All this is by now not a matter of folklore but of detailed, systematic, well-researched record. And there surely is every reason to accept that in this matter human beings closely resemble all their nearest relatives. (For the anthropological evidence of this, see Konner, 1982.)
vi Two objections
Before we examine the link between these natural dispositions and human morality, two possible contrary ideological objections to this approach must be considered. There is the behaviourist thesis that human beings have no natural dispositions at all being blank pap...