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Categorized | Philosophy, Religion

Altruism and the Evolution of Morality

One of the issues being debated by freethinkers is the source of our morality. Some atheists postulate that morality is just the product of evolution while agnostics point out that there are cases of altruistic human behavior that have nothing to do with propagating one’s genes, and theists claim that our moral values must have therefore come from a Moral Lawgiver.

While some moral standards can be attributed directly to evolution (for example, a species or race composed mostly of murderers will soon kill itself into extinction, hence, murder is generally judged as morally wrong), some say that evolution cannot account for every act of apparent selflessness such as helping the poor, the sick and the old especially those to whom the giver has no blood relations.

While part of me wants to prove them wrong by explaining how evolution has given us the brains to continuously define moral standards with increasing sophistication, what I want to show in this article is that we are not as “moral” – at least in the altruistic sense – as we like to think we are.

Webster defines altruism as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others“. The operative word is unselfish, and it is precisely because of this qualifier that I daresay that most acts of caring and sharing cannot be considered altruistic because they are not unselfish but rather selfish, albeit with a very long-term view in mind.

In this way, I believe there are relatively few cases of altruism; what we often see is reciprocal altruism, defined as “a behaviour whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.”

Since life is not a zero-sum game, meaning whatever the strong/rich gives to the weak/poor has a relatively lower value to the former than to the latter, it is easy to explain reciprocal altruism. The loss experienced by the giver is less than the gain enjoyed by receiver, and when the giver becomes the receiver in the future, the investment will have paid off handsomely.

What is hard to explain, at least in terms of evolution, is true altruism – pure, selfless concern for the welfare of others at one’s own expense – particularly among those who do not even expect a heavenly reward. And the most altruistic people I can think of are the vegans and animal rights advocates. Helping other people, even those to whom we are not related, always carries the conscious or unconscious expectation that such gesture will be reciprocated in the future, not necessarily by the same people we helped. But caring about the lower animals and granting them equal rights, knowing full well that they have no capacity to repay us for our compassion and sacrifice (a vegan diet is expensive, not to mention not as satisfying, at least at the start), that is simply way beyond reciprocity.

But I will make no attempt to explain such behavior. Why? Because I don’t have to, if only to debunk the theists’ claim that our morality must have come from God. Vegans are the minor exception, not the rule, so instead trying to account their moral advocacy to evolution, I will simply say that humans in general do not have such morality, at least not as of this point in our history.

So to those who say that we are a moral race because we condemn murder, rape, and robbery and even made laws against them, think about the animals that we not only slaughter for food (and leather and fur!) but systematically raise in the most cost-effective way, crowding as many animals as possible in tight spaces to minimize cost without regard for their welfare (overcrowding causes stress, heatstroke and injuries – that’s why we cut off the beaks of chicks [without anesthesia!] so they don’t peck each other and damage the meat). And for as long as we buy and eat farmed chicken, pork, and beef, we are guilty of perpetuating their suffering. Is this something a species supposedly getting their morals from a loving Creator would do?

As Michael Shermer said:

Morals do not exist in nature and thus cannot be discovered. In nature there are just actions – physical actions, biological actions, and human actions. Human actors act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral when someone else judges them as such. Thus, morality is a strictly human creation, subject to all the cultural influences and social constructions as other such human creations.

Does this mean that all human actions are morally equal? No…We create standards of what we like and dislike, desire or not, and make judgments against these standards. But the standards are themselves human creations and not discovered in nature…one group prefers patriarchal dominance, and so judges male privileges to be morally honorable…Thus, male ownership of females was once moral and is now immoral, not because we have discovered it as such, but because our society has realized that women also seek greater happiness and that they can achieve this more easily without being in bondage to males.

Will our race one day realize that animals also seek greater happiness and that they can achieve this more easily without being raised in cramped, cruel captivity all their short miserable lives? More importantly, are we willing to set them free at the expense of losing a reliable food source? Until then, there is no point in bragging about our so-called morality, and especially in arguing that our moral standards must be more than just a product of evolution.

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The following is a comment from our resident vegan, Nancy, posted several days after this article was published. I’m featuring it here because it sheds light to the vegans’ supposed altruism:

Thank you for including nonhuman animals in your consciousness and in this post  That said, if the definition of altruism includes no benefit to the individual, no one would be truly altruisitc. When one chooses to do good, one finds peace within and it could be argued that it is a selfish motivation to do what is aligned to one’s beliefs. This is also true for vegans. After I made the connection between violence and animal use, I became vegan because not doing so would make me intensely uncomfortable (to say the least). It would benefit my emotional well-being more to be a vegan than to continue to consume animals.

I am not more moral than non-vegans. I just happened to make the connection. Other people seem to have an intrinsic sense about this, kids who at a very young age realize that meat comes from animals and just refuse to eat them, even without anyone having to explain factory farming or environmental degradation. Others need exposure and information to sift through the many years of unquestioned beliefs and get it, like me. Whereas others are still brainwashed by the messages sent out by animal agriculture companies (“milk=calcium” when in reality broccoli has more calcium, “it’s tradition”, etc.) and need more time to make the connection. BTW a vegan diet is not expensive. It actually saves you money from medicine and hospital bills so it’s again self-serving if you look at it that way. It is also satisfying as your taste buds begin to appreciate the natural tastes. Regarding reliable food source, we stand more to gain if the world lived on a vegan diet. There will be more food since production will be more efficient. Again, this can be considered self-serving. Not destroying the only planet we live in, I suppose, would be self-serving as well.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.