Morality, even when it doesn’t involve slick trolley problems like killing Whitey, poses a perennial puzzle, particularly in light of evolution. Does human morality rise innately, from culture, or both? Did we evolve merely a capacity to think morally, or a compulsion to do so? What do the evolutionary roots of morality, complex as they might be, suggest about its nature?
These questions get bounced around a lot, sometimes in monkey labs, sometimes in halls of philosophy. Over at Evolution, This View of Life, the magazine and site spearheaded by David Sloan Wilson, Wilson this week launched a series of conversations on morality and evolution with a nice Skype conversation with Simon Blackburn, who is the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, and the author of such books as Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays.
Wilson, who recently wrote a splendid take on the altruism spat between E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, leads off with Blackburn so as to ground the discussion of morality and evolution with some definitions about the former. I rather like Blackburn’s direct definition in answer to Wilson’s first question:
Wilson: What is morality?
Blackburn: Morality is the system by which we put pressure, including coercrive pressure, on ourselves and others to obey social rules.
Both interesting and useful, methinks, to anchor the definition in an action — this pressure to be prosocial — than in concepts or feelings. It’s more practical. And it focuses on morality not as an impulse, but as action — a trait clearly expressed.
Get the whole thing at This View of Life: Evolution and Morality I: Simon Blackburn.