The Development of Morality

[The following essay should be thought of as a hypothesis that consists of a number of subhypotheses. It represents my reactions to, e.g., recent books by de Waal, ((Frans de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.)) Broom, ((Donald M. Broom, The Evolution of Morality and Religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. )) Macedo and Ober, ((Stephen Macedo and Josiah Ober, editors, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. This book consists of an introduction by the editors, a lengthy essay by Frans de Waal, comments of that essay by (successively) Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer, and, finally, a response to these five comments by de Waal. )) Keltner, ((Dacher Keltner, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.)) and Bekoff and Pierce. ((Marc Bekoff, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.)) ]

As one reads about the behavior of Jasmine, a greyhound who cared for other animals in the shelter, one finds it easy to conclude that her behavior is “moral,” or at least “moral-like.” ((See also, e.g., Marc Bekoff, “The Emotional Lives of Animals.” )) In making such a judgment, however, one is—it should be obvious—taking one’s own concept of “moral behavior” and applying it to the animal. But in recognizing that fact, several questions arise, among them:

Does our moral thinking today have a genetic basis? The reasoning (unconscious, if not conscious) behind this position might be (as one possibility) the following:

  • We evolved from a “lower” form of life.
  • Individual members of that “form” developed, over time, a genetic proclivity for engaging in “moral-like” behaviors. ((Why this may have occurred—i..e, the operation of what mechanism(s) “produced” it—is, of course, a separate question—and one beyond the scope of this essay. ))
  • We humans, as their descendants, have inherited those proclivities.
  • At some point in time we became conscious of those proclivities, “recognized” them as desirable ones, and therefore articulated them in a moral code.
  • As our intelligence developed, we gained more experience with the code’s “workability;” and as “conditions” changed over time, we modified the code in an effort to keep it as “up to date” as possible.

Did our moral code arise, rather, independently of behavior that can be observed in animals?

Did our moral code not “arise” at all; was it, rather, given to us by a divine power (along the lines of the Biblical story of the Ten Commandments being given to Moses by God)?

Some scholars have recently been referring to the “moral life” of some animal species. ((Marc Bekoff, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.)) This fact suggests that of the three possibilities identified above, their thinking is closest to the first position. Their doing so puts them in conflict with those who hold the third position, of course—there still being members of our society who hold that position, even though this is now the twenty-first century.

The second position seems to be held primarily by those who hold that when humans reached a certain level of intellectual development, they came to recognize that certain behaviors were “better” than others, and that because of that fact, along with the fact that “bad” behaviors were likely to occur, they (therefore) came to realize that it was desirable to identify the behaviors that were “bad” (which behaviors should therefore be avoided—perhaps under penalty of some form of punishment for violators that were detected); and also identify those behaviors that were “good,” and therefore should be enjoined (with perhaps those engaging in “good” behaviors being praised—to reinforce such behavior).

It appears that most of those holding this second position either put no stock in the claim that we humans have certain innate behavioral proclivities (positive or negative), or hold that humans have an innate proclivity for anti-social behavior, so that for harmonious societal functioning, it is necessary to identify—and make known to all society members—those activities judged to be “good” (i.e., pro-social), and those judged to be “bad” (i.e., anti-social), and to encourage the former and discourage the latter.

I place myself in the second category, but I do not identify with either of the two viewpoints identified in the previous paragraph:

I agree that a certain level of intellectual development was required before a moral code was created (for I do perceive it as having been created), but I do not perceive innate behavioral proclivities as having been irrelevant to the process of moral code formulation.

I do not believe that humans have an innate proclivity for anti-social behavior—for the simple reason that if they did, it would be difficult to explain why societies formed in the first place! Difficult, but not impossible, I should add.

My “take” on how a moral code came into being is rooted in my belief that the Agricultural Revolution (that began about 10,000 years ago) represents a crucial dividing line in human development. Before developing that point, however, I would like, first, to present a classification of behaviors:


1. To external “events.” ((I would hypothesize that reactions first got programmed into our ancestors as a response to predatory activity: Those individuals having genes for this response had a higher probability of survival than those without them, and transmitted those genes to progeny.))

2. To an involuntary reaction of another (resulting, e.g., from “reading” another’s facial expression).

3. To what has been communicated to one by another (with words said perhaps being accompanied by gestures, and expressed in a certain tone of voice).


1. In response to one of the above-listed reactions.

2. In response to an innate “drive”—to obtain food, to engage in sex, etc.

3. Resulting from “choice.” Such actions may be associated with B.1. and B.2. actions, or be actions chosen during “free” time (e.g., play ((Although I associate “choice” with play activities, I also believe that an innate need for physical activity is what motivates (but only partially explains) play activities, and that such activities involve creativity, innovation. I find it conceivable, in fact, that the innovation that we associate with technological development had its roots in play activity. For an extended discussion of play see Chapter 19 (“Play, Social Learning, and Teaching”), pp. 500 – 517 in Melvin Konner’s massive The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.)) activities).

Second, it is useful to classify behaviors on the basis of the integral relationship that exists between well-being and “good” behaviors (i.e., those behaviors that contribute to the well-being of another):

One may discover, by accident, that “doing” for others not only results in an increase in their well-being (evident, e.g., through observing their facial expression), but in one’s own. (This because one has been “programmed,” ((Keltner (op. cit., p. 6) has stated that “When we give to others, or act cooperatively, reward centers of the brain (such as the nucleus accumbens, a region dense with dopamine receptors) hum with activity.” Here is a hypothesis regarding how the “programming” might have occurred: Of those males who happened to provide food and/or protection to females with young, those males experiencing a significant dopamine release as a result of such activity were thereby motivated to continue such behavior. They therefore had an increased chance of being selected for mating by females, so that their genes for dopamine release got transmitted to their progeny. Just a hypothesis, true, but with a high degree of plausibility, I believe. )) by the selection factors of predation and female-choice sexual selection to react this way—with Darwinian “natural selection” playing no role whatsoever here. ((It is also conceivable to me that “Lamarckian” factors played a role here. That the experience of social living somehow became encoded in the genes. Or, more likely, that the experience of social living led to epigenetic developments that had behavioral implications.)) ) Given that one’s intelligence had developed to the point where one could recognize (at least in the sense of “sense”) a causal relationship between one’s actions and one’s feeling of well-being, in the future one finds oneself “pulled” toward such behavior. In a sense, one’s behavior here is “selfish,” but is best viewed as simultaneously selfish and altruistic.

In observing another, one may have reached a stage of intellectual development such that one can “read” the emotions of another (by observing their facial expressions, watching their gestures, listening to their vocalizations), and also feel those emotions oneself (i.e., develop a feeling of empathy for the other). If pain is associated with the emotion, one feels it oneself, and is thereby motivated (“pushed”) to act on one’s own feeling of pain—acting to reduce the pain being felt (one infers) in the other, and in the process reducing, if not eliminating, one’s own feeling of pain. In a sense, one’s behavior here is also “selfish,” but is also best viewed as simultaneously selfish and altruistic.

One may, rather than “reading” pain in another, “read” joy. In doing so, one will also acquire the same feeling, but in this case there is no need to act toward the other. Rather, one may join with the other in laughing and joking—thereby intensifying the feeling of joy in both parties.

One may learn of (rather than observe) others in distress, and respond to this knowledge by feeling sympathy for the other—a reaction that is more intellectual than emotional. One may then make a conscious decision to provide some sort of assistance to those in distress (e.g., write a check to a charitable organization); in doing so, one will likely feel a quiet sense well-being—for doing good usually results in one feeling “good.” (I have used the word “good” here twice, and given each a different meaning. The very fact that we use the same word for a feeling and an ethical judgment seemingly suggests an unconscious recognition, on our part, that “doing good” is a “good” for both giver and recipient.)

If one learns about the joy of another, one will not, of course, be motivated to engage in helping activity directed at that other—for, after all, it is obvious that s/he needs no help! One may very well, however, react to this news by oneself feeling a quiet sense of well-being (what might be termed a love for humankind), and react to that feeling by treating all those whom one meets in a cheerful, humorous manner, by sending a check to a charitable organization etc. That is, one may achieve a (temporary) state of mind such that one sees the world “through rose-colored glasses;” so that even where ugliness exists, one sees only beauty. ((What I am suggesting here is that one may involuntarily achieve a “natural high,” a state of bliss (a state of being associated with, e.g., Abraham Maslow).))

It is, of course, true that many of our behaviors are of a neutral nature so far as any interactions between well-being and “goodness” are concerned; the behaviors that are of interest, however, are those behaviors that do involve such interaction.

Finally, one of the more interesting topics regarding animal behavior that has received research attention recently is that of play activity; and one of the more interesting findings of such research is that such activities seem to be governed by implicitly-held rules. This observation not only raises questions about the mental and emotional capabilities of animals, but also suggests the “possibility that social play plays some role in the evolution of [the concept of] fairness and social morality …” ((Marc Bekoff, “Social Play Behaviour: Cooperation, Fairness, Trust, and the Evolution of Morality,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 8, no. 2 (2001), p. 87.))

Moral-like behavior likely occurred with our ancestors, ((Social play likely originated with the appearance of mammals—i.e., about 200,000 million years ago. Konner, op. cit., p. 502.)) but moral codes—ones that are explicit, that is—could not come into existence until humans had developed a certain level of intelligence, and also achieved a certain level of proficiency in communication. But even those developments, although necessary, were not sufficient for the development of moral codes. What had to occur as a precipitating “event” was a rupture in way of life, and that occurred with the Agricultural Revolution. The scenario, tentatively, for the development of a moral code with humans:

Prior to the advent of that Revolution there had occurred a co-development of (a) humans as biological entities and a (b) way of life centered on gathering and hunting for sustenance purposes—with the former being done primarily by adult females, the latter by adult males. Biological development that occurred with our ancestors did so in the context of a certain way of life and that, therefore, that way of life had implications for the “direction” that biological development took. On the other hand, however, an important change of a biological nature that was occurring was that intelligence was increasing, and this was having an impact on the gathering-hunting way of life. Of particular importance (from my perspective here), relative to this development in intelligence, was that it was being accompanied by technological development (defined broadly), and that technological development eventuated in the Agricultural Revolution.

That Revolution involved a number of changes, including a change in diet, change from a somewhat mobile way of life to a sedentary one, change in the stimuli to which one was exposed, change in the nature of one’s behaviors (relative to gaining sustenance, for example), change in the amount of “free time” available, etc. The most important change that occurred, however, was the change that occurred in the nature of societies.

Gatherer-hunter groups had been small in size (but with fluctuating size, in response to external conditions, among other factors), and relationships within such societies had been relatively harmonious. The involuntary reactions that had developed in humans as a result of evolutionary processes (i.e., predation ((In terms of Walter B. Cannon’s “fight-flight” dichotomy, humans were a flight species. Thus, the presence of predators was important in their evolution. Regarding this latter point, see Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution. New York: Westview Press, 2005.)) and female-choice sexual selection) were ones (e.g., empathy) that promoted cooperative-helpful behavior relative to others in the group; so that within-group behaviors were much as found in experimental groups today. (See, e.g., the research results reported by Dacher Keltner. ((Dacher Keltner, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.)) )

As the Agricultural Revolution began to unfold, not only did social groups become sedentary. They tended to grow in size—and, most importantly, to become less and less solitary, more and more segregated into different class groups, with that division becoming ever more pronounced over time.

Human societies were, in a sense, becoming more and more like bee ones—but with an important difference. Although bee societies have a definite “division of labor,” as human societies were increasingly beginning to have, the members of a bee society are born into their categories: They have no choice regarding position, and presumably don’t even have any awareness of having a position.

With humans, however, as (forced) changes were occurring in their behaviors, as a consequence of the “progressing” Agricultural Revolution, even though the changes may have entered consciousness but dimly, those changes were sensed. Especially sensed were changes in how one was now relating (forced to relate) to others in one’s society; and especially if one sensed that one was being treated unfairly did one sense the changes that were occurring. ((If a society develops in a different sort of environmental situation—e.g., a pastoral nomadic society developing in a desert environment or a seafaring society developing along a coastal area—and develops in a more egalitarian direction (excluding here the situation of females), a different sort of moral system may develop. For a discussion of the “values” associated with the Vikings see this article.))

Given two individuals in the same societal “situation,” the fact that each had a unique biological inheritance would likely mean that one would sense the change more strongly than the other. However, of potentially more significance is that some of those of a higher “rank,” who therefore were not themselves being treated badly (“unfairly,” is how this might be perceived), might “read” (e.g., in the faces) the pain being experienced by those being mistreated, involuntarily react to that “reading” with a feeling of empathy, and then act on that feeling. That action might involve direct activities having the intention of diminishing the pain in others being sensed—for if one feels the pain of another, one is motivated to reduce one’s own felt pain, and the “obvious” course of action for doing so is to attempt to help those others whom one perceives to be experiencing pain. Call this “selfish” behavior if you will, but the important fact about it is not its motivation, but its effect—that of helping others.

There is another possible reaction here, however, and my interest here is primarily in that other possibility. It is a reaction that may occur in conjunction with the first reaction, or may occur independently: The “personality” of the person in question may be (along with position in the society, etc.) a decisive factor in influencing which course one takes in reacting.

This other possible reaction is one of developing “rules” as to what one should not do, and to then promulgate those “rules.” ((Bekoff and Pierce note (op. cit., p. 116) note that rules are involved with play activity, and add that “During social play, individuals can learn a sense of what’s right or wrong—what’s acceptable to others—the result of which is the development and maintenance of a social group (a game) that operates efficiently.” Likely Bekoff and Pierce are correct in suggesting that ideas of right and wrong—and the more general concept of fairness—first arose in the context of play. What I argue here, however, is that the development of moral systems with humans involved a series of steps with, perhaps the playing of games having been the first step in the process.)) (I have no problem in asserting that those “rules” had their roots in game-playing by our ancestors.) In doing the latter, one may make the claim that the rules were revealed to one by God—these being done in an (unconscious) effort to give “force” to the rules. For, after all, there is no point in developing, and then promulgating, behavioral rules if one has no expectation that they will be followed. By claiming that the rules were not mere inventions but, rather, were divine decrees (i.e., commandments), the “hope” (at an unconscious level) is that this will motivate people to follow the rules.

Once might argue that the “purpose” (unaware to the rule-maker) of this rule-making was not just to accomplish a cessation of behaviors identified as hurtful, but ultimately to restore the former way of life. I would hypothesize that if one were to study early rule-making efforts carefully (e.g., that associated with the ancient Hebrews ((Mark H. Gaffney has noted: “From the Bible it is clear that many Hebrews did not welcome the transition from seminomadism to a settled way of life. Strict Yahwists bridled at the perceived corrupting influence of Canaanite culture and religion. Rechabites lamented with nostalgia the passing of the old ways (Jeremiah 35), and many continued to view the former pastoral lifestyle as normative. Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes: The Initiatory Teachings of the Last Supper. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004, p. 78-79.)) ), one would discover evidence in support of that hypothesis.

The initial rules created were of a negative sort—i.e., they specified behaviors that one should refrain from engaging in. However, over time the rules “evolved” in that over time:

Rules regarding what one should do were added.

The codification of rules occurred, with refinement of a given code occurring over time.

“Pictures” of the Good Society were created—simple ones at first, e.g. the “People will build houses and get to live in them—they will not be used by someone else. They will plant vineyards and enjoy the wine—it will not be drunk by others.” ((Isaiah 65:21 – 22, in (p. 813) Good News Bible. New York: American Bible Society 1976.)) (Granted that this particular “picture” certainly does not call to mind the gatherer-hunter way of life—except in the sense that it refers to a clearly better way of life.) This line of thinking became an important one, as Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel’s massive Utopian Thought in the Western World demonstrates.

The development of ethical systems—i.e., rules accompanied by a reasoned rationalization of those rules (that is, why they are “good” rules).

The development of principles that should be followed with animal treatment—including views on whether or not meat should be eaten; and if so, from what species of animals.

Ideas relative to the protection of natural features—such as Yosemite, Devil’s Tower, drumlins in Wisconsin.

Another important development that should be mentioned here is resistance, on the part of a society’s elite, to change the system of moral rules generally accepted in the society. The reason for such resistance is that, as Edward Alsworth Ross ((Sin and Society: An Analysis of Latter-Day Iniquity. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971, With Introduction by Julius Weinberg, and a Letter from Theodore Roosevelt. Originally published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1907.)) noted over a century ago, in civilized societies, as societies change, their moral systems tend to lag behind that change—so harmful behaviors that emerge are not “covered” by the existing moral system. As this occurs, some members of the society may sense this emergence of harmful behaviors, but be unable to declare them as such because of their lack of inclusion in the existing moral system. Given that these emerging harmful behaviors are likely to be most engaged in by members of the elite, those individuals, recognizing the advantage granted to them by the existing (obsolete) moral system, would be expected to resist any efforts to update it.

Related to this, members of the elite seem to be gifted at masking hurtful behaviors by giving them innocuous names—such as “collateral damage.” Being aware of the fact that we attach emotional feelings to many of our words, they remove the negative feelings associated with the word “killing” by substituting for it “collateral damage.” Related to this, they mislead the public by, e.g., self-righteously using “terrorist” when the more accurate label would be “counter-terrorist.” Etc.

The last point that I would like to make here is that if the ostensible purpose of a moral system is to improve existing behavior, the ultimate/actual (if unrecognized) purpose is to restore a way of life comparable to what existed prior to the Agricultural Revolution. To, that is, restore a way of life wherein “moral” behavior was virtually automatic, so that there was no need for explicit rules.

Given these “facts,” the question arises: Do moral systems “work”? And in addressing this question, one must admit—if one is honest—that moral systems, although they have helped in “improving” behavior (especially if penalties are associated with “bad” behaviors, and those penalties are enforced?), they have done little, if anything, to accomplish Restoration. By “Restoration” I am not, of course, referring to a return to a gathering-hunting way of life. Rather, I am referring to something more abstract—the creation of a way of life that would be in accord with our “design specifications” as humans.

A second problem associated with moral codes is that although their original intent may have been to bring about a more general welfare, as a society becomes increasingly stratified, and increasingly under the control of elitists, the elitists use the moral code for their own advantage: to keep “commoners” in their place; to fight changes in the code that might identify some of their activities as “bad,” it involves itself in the intellectual chicanery of inventing labels for “bad” activities that have neutral or even positive connotations; etc.

There is, at present, a “crying need” to recognize (a) the purpose of moral codes, (b) the fact that they are failing in that purpose, and that (c) the need today is for societal system change. Change that will lead us in the direction of our “design specifications” (at minimum), while simultaneously leading us toward sustainability. These are, one might say, the moral imperatives for today.

May such changes occur; if they don’t, the likelihood is that our species will become extinct before the century is out, this resulting from the fact that we appear to be the stupidest of the intelligent species! If we disappear as a species, the cause will be our own shortsightedness—to the extent of blindness. Unfortunately, that shortsightedness/blindness has already resulted in the extinction of some species, and likely will result in many more—our own extinction being a strong possibility.

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.