Michael Tomasello – The Origins of Human Morality

Michael Tomasello discusses The Origins of Human Morality in Scientific American:

If evolution is about survival of the fittest, how did humans ever become moral creatures? If evolution is each individual maximizing their own fitness, how did humans come to feel that they really ought to help others and be fair to them?

https://www.scientificamerican.com/arti … -morality/

There have been two common responses – altruism and reciprocity:

There have traditionally been two answers to such questions. First, it makes sense for individuals to help their kin, with whom they share genes, a process known as inclusive fitness. Second, situations of reciprocity can arise in which I scratch your back and you scratch mine and we both benefit in the long run.

He admits neither of these explanations are tenable:

Moreover, neither of these traditional explanations gets at what is arguably the essence of human morality—the sense of obligation that human beings feel toward one another.

He presents another possibility – interdependence:

Recently a new approach to looking at the problem of morality has come to the fore. The key insight is a recognition that individuals who live in a social group in which everyone depends on everyone else for their survival and well-being operate with a specific kind of logic. In this logic of interdependence, as we may call it, if I depend on you, then it is in my interest to help ensure your well-being. More generally, if we all depend on one another, then we must all take care of one another.

He says humans were forced into interdependence:

How did this situation come about? The answer has to do with the particular circumstances that forced humans into ever more cooperative ways of life, especially when they are acquiring food and other basic resources.

He compares it with primates where they get their food through dominance:

Our closest living relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—forage for fruit and vegetation in small parties, but when resources are found, each individual scrambles to obtain food on its own. If any conflict arises, it is solved through dominance: the best fighter wins.

He claims instead human survival depended on mutual collaboration:

Early humans needed new options. One alternative involved scavenging carcasses killed by other animals. But then, according to an account from anthropologist Mary C. Stiner of the University of Arizona, some early humans—the best guess is Homo heidelbergensis some 400,000 years ago—began obtaining most of their food through active collaboration in which individuals formed joint goals to work together in hunting and gathering. Indeed, the collaboration became obligate (compulsory) in that it was essential to their survival.

Even if this is true, what is to keep one group of humans from fighting another group to get their hunting grounds or farmland? There is no mandate that two such groups of people interdepend on each other.

The key point for the evolution of morality is that early human individuals who were socially selected for collaborative foraging through their choice of partners developed new ways of relating to others.

Even if we grant this is true, it would only be descriptive morality, not normative morality. Why ought humans work collaboratively? And even if this was true that it is normative morality, morality encompasses much more than working together. How can collaborative ethics explain why we shouldn’t rape or murder or not cheat?

In addition, one’s own survival depended on others seeing you as a competent and motivated collaborative partner.

If one claims this, then one can claim anything for evolution. Why not also state one’s own survival depends on being moral? Or it’s dependent on being a kind and generous person? One can make up any assertion and say one’s own survival depends on it.

In experiments from our laboratory, even young children care about how they are being evaluated by others, whereas chimpanzees seemingly do not.

If this is true, it points out humans are intrinsically different than even our alleged closest ancestors. As a matter of fact, the entire argument of the articles distinguishes humans from other animals. So why should morality only evolve in humans?

Of course, any individual could choose to act against a moral norm. But when called to task by other group members, the options were limited: one could ignore their criticism and censure and so place oneself outside the practices and values shared by the culture, perhaps leading to exclusion from the group.

Criticism, censure, and exclusion does not automatically mean someone did something morally wrong. It can be that person is actually the one that is morally right and everyone else is morally wrong.

Modern humans thought of the cultural norms as legitimate means by which they could regulate themselves and their impulses and signal a sense of group identity.

Cultural norms is subjective morality, not objective morality.

Interestingly, he concludes with a resulting potential of conflict between the in-group and the out-group would be war:

As a consequence, it becomes less clear who constitutes a “we” and who is in the out-group. The resulting potential for divisiveness leads to both internal social tensions within a society and, at the level of nations, to outright war—the ultimate example of in- and out-group conflicts.
But if we are to solve our largest challenges as a species, which threaten all human societies alike, we had best be prepared to think of all of humanity as a “we.”

And the question remains: why ought people do that?