What is the evolutionary reason for morality

Since its inception, Darwin's theory has been suspected of undermining morality (and religion, of course). With a few exceptions, the proponents of this theory have vigorously denied this.

Darwin himself, in his book "The Descent of Humans", published in 1871, characterized morality as by far the most significant difference between humans and animals and studied its origins in detail.

Later evolutionists went a step further and tried to turn the tables. How far, they ask, have the philosophical and theological guardians of morality got?

Have they been able to lay foundations on which morality can stand securely? Obviously not! With philosophers and theologians, therefore, morality does not seem to be in the right hands.

The sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson demanded in the 1970s that ethics should no longer be left to those "who are merely wise". The time has come to put ethics on a scientific footing: on the feet of the theory of evolution.

The basic idea of ​​such an "evolutionary ethic" is that man is not a supernatural, but a biological being, whose expressions of life depend on biological factors. Morality is no exception. And if so, then an evolutionary explanation can be given for them as well as for all other behaviors or physical characteristics of man.

At its core, such an explanation always consists in identifying the advantages that such behavior or trait offers for the "fitness", that is, the reproductive success of the organisms concerned. In the long term, according to the plausible basic thesis, moral behavior can only prevail if it contributes to the largest possible number of offspring.

Not an invention of unworldly moralists

Such an interpretation is seen by many as a provocation. Morality cannot be explained according to the same principles as human body hair! But why not? Those who care about morality should not protest when empirical science tries to trace its roots in nature.

The fact that morality has a history, including a natural history, is by no means detrimental to its dignity. It is more an indication that it is not an invention of unworldly moralists, not an instrument of theological dark men and not a pipe dream of philosophical dreamers, but a biological necessity.

But what does morality mean here? Take, for example, a behavioral scientist who works with chimpanzees and observes how one animal comes to the aid of the other or comforts it after it has been attacked by a conspecific.

Let us further assume that the examples of empathic, grateful or altruistic behavior turn out to be by no means rare. From this it can then be concluded that the moral behavior of people is only a special case of a much more general disposition to moral or proto-moral behavior that is also widespread among animals.

This takes some of our peculiarity from us humans, but at the same time places morality on a broader foundation in nature. It is similar with the findings of sociobiology, according to which the sacrifices that parents (animal as well as human) make for their children have a solid genetic basis. Since caring for one's own children is undoubtedly a moral norm, the sociobiologist can point to the biological roots of this norm.

Empathy and aggression

Before we get too excited about this result, however, we should ask a question. How does the behavioral biologist know that comforting an attacked animal is (proto-) moral? After all, the comforted monkey was attacked by a conspecific; why is this attack not considered (proto-) moral?

As we can see from this example, primates have a behavioral repertoire that includes empathy as well as aggression. Both behaviors are "natural" and both, we suppose, have a biological function.

If our behavioral researcher characterizes only the first of the two as the root of human morality, then he starts from a culturally shaped pre-understanding of what is "moral" and what is not.

In general terms: evolutionary ethics can explain certain behavior biologically, but it cannot characterize it as (proto) moral for biological reasons.

That means: a biological ethics cannot determine its object out of itself. It is not without preconditions, but has to let someone else tell it what morality actually is - and only then can it search for its biological roots.

Self-sacrificing parents

The fact that there is no biological morality criterion, as we can see here, is not a mistake in evolutionary ethics. But it shows a fundamental limit to any biologization of ethics.

The relevance of this point is considerable. It is shown by the fact that there are extensive debates about the question of what morality actually is: not only in philosophy, but in modern societies in general.

Although the answer is by no means clear from the outset, evolutionary ethicists assume a very specific understanding of "morality" as if it were a matter of course. Morality is equated with altruism.

The chimpanzee helping another behaves altruistically and therefore morally; so do the parents who make sacrifices for their children. It is difficult to deny that morality and altruism are related, but equating them is simply wrong.

Because morality is both narrower and wider than altruism. Tighter because not all altruistic behavior is moral. (Anyone who steals money to give it away may be acting altruistically, but not morally.) Further, because morality inevitably implies justice.

This cannot be reduced to altruism, because it follows a completely different "logic": a logic of impartiality whose biological roots are more than thin.