The Echoes of the Mind (161) The Evolution of Human Morality

The Evolution of Human Morality

Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots. ~ Frans de Waal

Though simian sense of fairness is fairly uniform, the tolerance of inequality that is a major determinant of morality depends upon sociality. Those primates with strong hierarchical social systems, such as baboons, endure considerable inequality. Sexual infidelity is not so much a moral infraction as an act with severe repercussion if caught out. Consequence discourages temptation.

Other monkeys and apes are more even-handed, in both empathic relations and insistence on equity at the risk of ostracization. This is consistent with many other mammals and birds, and corresponds with early human morality.

Sense of equality in human sociality has changed since prehistory, when foragers shared and held equity as an abiding moral value.

Socially acceptable inequality took root with agriculture. Once land had value, its ownership afforded the means to develop material surpluses and so acquire wealth.

Agrarian inequity was accepted because its origination was ostensibly of good fortune in plot selection and hard work. Farming sharpened the work ethic into a moral value unto itself.

The production of surpluses begat a gyre of materialism that became the defining characteristic of the human mind-set. Bolstered by religion, inequities of every sort became accepted as corresponding with the laws of Nature. These were perverse rationalizations.

From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule. ~ Aristotle

The socialism of hunter-gathers became a utopian fantasy. In his day Karl Marx was a wild-eyed radical in proposing that socioeconomic equity was not only technologically possible but morally desirable.

Despite scientific evidence of a universal human tendency toward moral judgments, views on morality have changed dramatically across history. Things we now consider to be horribly immoral were not always seen that way. ~ Lisa Cohen

Only toward the end of the 18th century did the most egregious inequity – slavery – develop into a moral issue in the Western world, even as its economic import peaked.

Social movements in the 20th century, such as women’s suffrage and racial civil rights, enlarged the body politic. Only in the early 21st century did this political liberation of subordinates eventuate in economic inequality as a nascent social issue (but not a moral one), instigated by an increasingly struggling middle class.

20th-century governmental efforts in the area of morality were largely confined to preventing the poorest from outright starving and putting a roof over the heads of a relative few. These ineffectual political measures were instituted largely to limit property crimes against the more affluent.

With rare exceptions, such as the Nordic nations, nothing has been done to stem the growth of economic inequality in capitalist states (and the Nordic measures are cosmetic).

Very few indeed view economic inequity as a moral issue. It is more commonly recognized as an evil only to the extent that it is a drag on economic growth, which depends upon consumers with money to spend.

Our world hinges on moral foundations. ~ Martin Luther King Jr.