A Scientifically Based Theory of Conduct?

The contemporary American scientist and philosopher Edward. O. Wilson, famous for his theory of Sociobiology, argues that all forms of knowledge have a fundamental unity. This unity, ‘Consilience’, is created by a way-of-knowing, empiricism, which he argues is common to all the disciplines. Ethics is no exception to this rule. Ethics has an empirical underpinning . He rightly notes that in doing this, he is following in the tradition of naturalistic ethics that stretches from Aristotle to David Hume to Adam Smith and, finally, to Charles Darwin. He is also right to see this naturalistic tradition of ethics as being "empiricist" in contrast to the "transcendentalist" ethics of those thinkers like Immanuel Kant who look to a transcendent realm of moral freedom beyond the natural world of human inclinations and experience.

In the recent past, he argues, much research has been undertaken into the way the human brain works, into how humans respond mentally, both instinctively and rationally. If we harness the information resulting from this research to what we know about the behaviour of early human settlements, we should be able to understand the origins of our universal ethical code.

The Biological Basis of Ethics

The absolute rock bottom of this morality, Wilson argues, is simply the relationship between working together and ’going-it-alone’ (although he doesn’t use these words). The members of the earliest tribal communities realised that co-operating gave a greater chance of survival, and a more satisfying life, than going-it-alone. The selfish genes of the intelligent individuals therefore guided them to co–operation. It has been proved that certain human behavioural traits are genetically passed on and Wilson suggests that co-operation is one of these traits. Certain people are innately more co-operative than others and these people, obviously, tend to live longer than those who are not co-operative. Because they live longer they produce more offspring. Over thousands of generations these co-operative genes have become dominant. Through genetic evolution humans have developed co-operative traits which have encouraged them to act in certain ways. These ways of behaving have been incorporated into their culture as things they ’ought’ to do. Their instinct for survival produced a ’theory of conduct’ which the tribe perpetuated .Our moral decision making system is part of our evolutionary genetic development. In the earliest hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, tribes evolved a pragmatic pattern of behaviour which enabled them to survive. A pattern of behaviour they must follow for their own mutual good.

As societies became more settled, as labour was divided up, hierarchies developed and leaders, chiefs and priests, took control of the organisation of the communities. They formalised these ’co-operative’ rules to stabilise the society and their place in its hierarchy. Gods began to appear to ensure the continued advantage of the ruling group. For this reason communities develop rites of passage ceremonies, which often become religious ceremonies, to induct the young into the community.

Human nature, Wilson insists, is not a product of genes alone or of culture alone. Rather, human nature is constituted by "the epigenetic rules, the hereditary regularities of mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to another, and thus connect the genes to culture". For example, the rules of human language are not strictly determined by either genes alone or culture alone, but instead arise from the interaction of genetic mechanisms and cultural learning. Genes initiate a process of development that endows the human brain with neural mechanisms for acquiring language, so that in normal circumstances, a normal human child is prepared to learn whatever language in spoken in the social environment. Despite the diversity of human languages as shaped by diverse cultural traditions, there is a natural pattern of regularities: all normal human beings are prepared to learn a language, and the languages that they learn have universal traits that reflect the human brain's adaptation for learning language. Such regularities of gene-culture interaction are what Wilson means by "epigenetic rules."

The gene-culture coevolution of morality is similar to that of language. The genetic evolution of the human species has endowed human beings with an instinctive propensity to learn morality. Human morality shows universal patterns shaped by the natural desires that constitute human nature. But the specification of those patterns will be shaped by human cultural traditions and by individual judgments as constrained by both the natural desires and the cultural traditions. This similarity between morality and language as based on instinctive capacities for social learning is a fundamental theme in Marc Hauser's recent book--Moral Minds--surveying the evidence for the biology of morality.

Wilson argues that since morality is ultimately rooted in the moral sentiments of human nature, a natural science of morality requires a biology of the moral sentiments. Although Wilson concedes that we are a long way from achieving such a biology, he has repeatedly throughout his writings used Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory of the incest taboo as the prime example of how biology can explain the moral sentiments.

All moral rules might ultimately be explained in the same way that Westermarck explains the incest taboo. Morality, at the deepest level, depends on gut feelings that some things are right and others are wrong. The precise content of these feelings depends on what human beings learn through social experience, and this experience varies greatly across different cultural traditions. Yet the regularities in these moral feelings manifest the natural inclinations of a universal human nature that is prepared to learn some things more easily than others.

Citing the research of neurologists like Antonio Damasio, Wilson infers that the innate propensity to experience moral emotions, which has been shaped by natural selection, is etched into the neural circuitry of the human brain. To live successfully as social animals, human beings must make practical decisions guided by the emotional control centers of their brains. Our brains incline us to feel sympathy and concern for the pleasures and pains of others, to feel love and gratitutde toward those who help us, to feel anger and indignation toward those who harm us, to feel guilt and shame when we have betrayed our family and friends, and to feel pride and honor when others recognize our good deeds. Insofar as these moral emotions are felt generally across a society, they support social rules of love, loyalty, honesty, and justice.

It might be, however, that a few human beings suffer from abnormal circuitry in their brains that prevents them from feeling, or feeling very strongly, the moral emotions that sustain morality. This seems to be the case for psychopaths, who feel no obligation to obey moral rules because they apparently do not feel the moral emotions that support such rules. If so, we must treat them as moral strangers.

Mary Warnock. An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics. page 89 Duckworth 1998.
Edward O. Wilson. The Biological Basis of Morality. The Atlantic Monthly 1998.
From: Woolman, M. Ways of Knowing IBID Press, Victoria, Australia, 2000, pp 254 – 255.