On Moral Evolutionism

Wednesday July 26, 2006


The more that I read the newspapers and listen to the news, the more I can’t help noticing the prevalence of an implicit conception of the relationship between morality and history, what might be called a kind of moral evolutionism. What I mean by this is not the very reasonable idea that human ethics can be fruitfully explored in an Darwinian evolutionary framework (see, for example , or ). Instead I mean by “moral evolutionism” the completely different view that there is such a thing as a necessary evolution of morality throughout history.

The idea that history has a direction is, from one point of view, perfectly reasonable: time flows forwards and not backwards, dropped pots do not simultaneously recombine into whole pots. It is easier to break things than it is to put them back together again. The fact that history has a direction is not guaranteed by some end-point, by some lofty principle or God, but by the second law of thermodynamics.

There is more to it than this, though. Historically, there is a kind of “progress”, if we don’t understand this term in a moral sense. Looking at history we can see a clear trend towards the increase of social and technological complexity, a clear trend towards the growth of ever larger cities, a clear move away from the kind of hunting and gathering lifestyle that we were all engaged just over ten thousand years ago before the coming of agriculture. This is the cultural and social equivalent of what is known as the “evolutionary ratchet” by virtue of which each generation builds upon what has been bestowed upon it by the generation before, and so there’s a general drift towards growing complexity. However, even if history has a direction, and even if there is an increase in complexity, to say that this direction should be in some way teleological – tending towards some kind of goal that is itself actively shaping this flow of history – is questionable. It is even more questionable to assert that this is a kind of moral teleology.

Moral evolutionist views are so prevalent in the international political arena that once you start noticing them, you cannot help but stumble across them at every turning point. These views often take the form of the claim that somehow “the West” is leading the vanguard of moral development, kindly bringing everybody else along in its wake. This prejudice is one that is deep-rooted in the Western intellectual tradition, and can be seen all over Western philosophy. To take one example – although I could advance many from both the “continental” and the “analytic” camps, Edmund Husserl wrote stirringly about the “West’s mission for humanity” (see , 299), a mission that he believed would lead the entire world from darkness into light and that would bring about “the phoenix of a new life-inwardness and spiritualization as the pledge of a great and distant future for man.”

The idea of moral evolution becomes particularly dangerous when, unannounced, it enters the political realm. It is precisely this kind of view that permits the British government talk about upgrading their own nuclear “deterrent” whilst castigating Iran for developing nuclear tehcnologies: an argument that rests upon the dubious claim that somehow Britain is “moral” and “responsible” enough to possess weapons capable of killing millions whilst Iran is not. Often the implicit claim is even stronger than this: the claim that Britain’s possession of such weapons is required by the very “morality” and “responsibility” that demands that Iran cease the development of the same technologies.

The opposite of the moral evolutionist view is the view of moral decline. This is equally interesting. Confucius (with whom, entirely incidentally, I have just discovered I share a birthday!) in the 6 th Century BCE bemoaned the fact that the world had gone into decline and that the great moral heroes of the past were not to be found. Five hundred years after Confucius, Confucian scholars bemoaned the fact that the world had gone into decline and that the great moral heroes of Confucius’s own time were not to be found. And so on.

Similarly Buddhists look back to the time of the Buddha and again assume that this was an age of a significantly greater moral or spiritual virtue than is possible today. But you only have to turn to the vinaya, the monastic rule, to see that the monks of the early Buddhist sangha were up to all kinds of things that we might find not a little reprehensible (some years ago I read somewhere about injunctions against copulating with severed heads, for example, although I cannot trace the reference at the moment). The idea of spiritual or moral decline, like that of spiritual or moral evolution, is damaging. It either leads to a kind of despair or to a kind of phoney humility, a “how can I be good in such dark times?”, or a “who are we to practice the dharma, when compared with the great heroes of the past?”

Of course the question still remains: are we better than we used to be? Not much, I think. Are we worse? Again, not much. To be sure, we have terrifying tools now at our disposal with which we can do greater harm; and perhaps we also have means of doing greater good: the ratchet continues to move, notch by notch, and complexity (at least for the time being) increases. But I’d tend to go with the authors of the two books I reference above, and root ethics in our biological being, in the passions and needs of the body and in the kind of creatures that we are as human beings. In which case we are born into the world with more or less the same propensities to kindness and cruelty, to compassion and to violence as our forebears; and the real work is not to compare ourselves – favourably or unfavourably – with our ancestors (or even, for that matter, with each other), but to work on living in such a way that we might cause as little harm as possible, in such a way that we might, perhaps, do a little good whilst we still are here.

# · h sofia


# · Dick Montague

Even to ask whether our morals are trending upward or downward implies that we have some idea of which direction is up and which is down. Is altruism up and selfishness down? Is it that simple? Is the ultimate goal the abandonment of one’s own self interest, such that we would all die of starvation were it not for the altruism of others?

Clearly our moral values change over time, and in my Website, moralorigins.com, I have been exploring the origins of our often-conflicting values in prehistoric, and even prehuman, times. I lean more toward researching the causes of moral developments than trying to figure out which end is up.

Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles