On the Limits of an Archaeology of Morals

By John Lussier

Near the end of Edward O. Wilson's examination of the biological basis of human nature, he proposes what seems a simple enough doctrine:

There is a principle to be learned by studying the biological origins of moral reasoning.  It is that outside the clearest ethical precepts, such as the condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide, which all will agree should be opposed everywhere without exception, there is a larger gray domain inherently difficult to navigate.  The declaration of ethical precepts and judgments made from them requires a full understanding of why we care about the matter one way or the other, and that includes the biological history of the emotions engaged.  The inquiry has not been done.  In fact, it is seldom even imagined (The Social Conquest of Earth, 254).

Given, for Wilson, that human beings are the product of multi-level natural selection, with genes that express both selfish and altruistic actions;  and given that our capabilities and the content of our moral reasoning stem from this complex biological history, we should hold our moral precepts lightly.  Except for the most universal intuitions, we could be wrong about how we are reasoning.  Our error comes from a lack of knowledge.  We do not know why we do what we do, because we do not really know who we are.  If, like a sort of moral archaeologist, we were to dig down deeper into our human bio-emotional history, perhaps we could back-fill the bumpy spots in our thinking.

What would be the outcome of this dig into human biology and its history? Wilson continues:

With deepened self-understanding, how will we feel about morality and honor?  I have no doubt that in many cases, perhaps the great majority, the precepts shared by most societies today will stand the test of biology-based realism.  Others, such as the ban on artificial contraception, condemnation of homosexual preference, and forced marriage of adolescent girls, will not.  Whatever the outcome, it seems clear that ethical philosophy will benefit from a reconstruction of its precepts based on both science and culture.  If such greater understanding amounts to the 'moral relativism' so fervently despised by the doctrinally righteous, so be it (254)

Drill down into the biological nature of humanity, pull out as much as we can, bring it to the surface, and let it inform our sense of right and wrong.  If morality, honor, religion, and the creative arts--the entirety of culture, in fact--have their origins in our biology, then our study of biology is the study of first principles which underlay all others.  And if, in that study, some of our moral precepts fall away because they are not biologically realistic, so be it.  The bulk of them, at least the ones we all agree on, will remain.  They are part of our nature, and that is not going away any time soon.  Or so says Wilson.

There are many points with which one might disagree with him, but I want to point out two.

First on the list might be his notion of "biology-based realism."  I am tempted to call this "materialism" but I do not want to put words in Wilson's mouth.  Without doing so, we can certainly say that Wilson restricts his study of the real to science.  For him this is the only true source of knowledge about the world.  What is real is either testable, or can be studied historically.  To continue our archaeological metaphor, only that which comes out of the earth--the products of science--are real for Wilson.  Everything on the surface of Wilson's foundation--say culture--or anything that appears to come from above--say a sense of the spiritual--all actually come from below.  But against Wilson, I think there are parts of reality, and ways of knowing, outside of scientific study.  Put otherwise: there are normative guides outside of biology.

Second, one might disagree with Wilson when it comes to his thought on the universality of certain moral precepts.  Things like "condemnation of slavery, child abuse, and genocide, which all will agree should be opposed everywhere without exception ..."  Even if slavery were universally condemned today, one could assume this was little more than lip-service to an ideal as it still exists in so many places around the world.  Not even two-hundred years ago it existed in America--the blink of an eye when it comes to human biology.  Who is to say it will continue to be condemned in the future?  is there some part of our biological nature that demands its abolition?  Wilson's sociobiology puts forward natural selection at the level of the group, to be sure.  But when it comes to competition for resources between two groups, it is only the group that tends towards altruism amongst itself that will do better than the group tending toward internal selfishness.

We do not have to imagine entire societies organized around a group of slaves and a group of slaveholders--if we are from any number of Western nations this is our history!  What part of our biological nature determines that this will not happen again?  I would dare to say: there is no such part.  Is it really so hard to imagine a future society where one group controls the lives of another group, and does so with purely altruistic intentions?  Or, though having totally effective control, it is nonetheless with the complete agreement of those involved?  These are the makings of an incredibly dystopian sci-fi novel, but it would seem that the doctrine of natural selection at both the individual and group level has nothing negative to say about it.

I will end with this harrowing thought: is this dystopian sci-fi version of society all that different from our own?  Or is the difference a mere matter of "pure" intentions, "complete" agreement, and "perfect" effectiveness?  If we dig down deep into human biology we must ask: are we going to like what we find?  Is there something good there to perfect? 

If not, from whence does our salvation from our own nature come?


[The above is part of a series on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the nature of the mind by Master of Divinity student, John Lussier.  In this series he will be asking some pretty big questions: How might biology inform our sense of the moral? Where do emotions and reason come in? Who are we and what were we made for?  Definitive answers are often hard to come by, but sometimes becoming informed is just as much about learning to ask the right questions.  We hope you will come alongside him--and us--on this intellectual journey! ]