Reason as the Leading Motive

Moral Evolution

Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007

My previous post discussed how altruism has come to broadly represent even the most general sense of benevolence toward others. Also, given this understanding of a badly defined and broad conception of altruism, biologists have been recently finding evidence for some kind of biological root to an “altruistic instinct.”

First, altruism is a conceptual principle, and as such, it is impossible for any concepts to have physical-genetic roots in the human body. The most sensible way of me to comprehend any possible genetic roots to the “altruistic instinct” is to consider it as a genetic tendency or rudimentary impulse–certainly not as a genetic predisposition like having the genes for black hair is.

Second, whatever genetic basis of “altruism-type” impulses that may have been discovered (I’m not conceding that they have been, yet), may be the evolutionary vestiges of the survival instinct in pre-modern man. Hunter-gatherers and nomadic men quite possibly evolved with instinctual motivations to live, hunt, and congregate in groups or tribes; early savages (uncivilized men) were faced with innumerable threats from other savage nomads, tribesmen, animals, and the natural elements. It makes sense that grouping (or roaming and living in herds) was a survival strategy for the early man, and over time, this grouping tendency became internalized as an evolutionary impulse for survival.

However, civilization is the process of setting men free from men; it is a progression from a nomadic life lived in the open spaces of a jungle to settlement in private and discrete spaces for individuals. The climb to privacy and the realization of individualism is the progression toward civilization.

Notice that the less civilized a section of society, the more public are their activities and general existence; economic wealth plays a peripheral role perhaps in how civilized a culture is–a rich man can also be highly uncivilized and mutatis mutandis for the poor man.

In this light, the impulse to be in groups or herds is an obsolete concern today. To borrow Ayn Rand’s insight, today we don’t protect ourselves from savages or tribes by ganging up into groups; we draft the Bill of Rights. Man’s nature today has evolved into being a conceptual and rational one. Reason is our most competent tool for survival–not groups, herds, claws, sticks, or clubs. The supremacy of reason and its efficacy in human life has been firmly established by the advancements following the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.

Therefore, recourse to rudimentary, biological impulses of groupism or other-centrism should be properly evaluated by our faculty of reason to assess its validity and relevance in our present nature and conditions of living. Moreover, remember that what some biologists and altruists are eager to subsume under altruism need not necessarily be altruistic in the proper sense. Therefore, if biologists find that we have genetic impulses to gang up into groups or mobs, we must use our reason to evaluate the relevance and the moral status of these impulses before we choose to act on them.

Since we know that altruism cannot be practiced consistently, we must note that if the principles of reason are consistently applied to the problem of survival, egoism will be the only logical, rational, and moral outcome.

[Related post: Morality in the Jungle; Altruism and Egoism]

5 Responses to “Moral Evolution”

  1. Justin said


    On biologists justifying morality through science, you may be interested in Michael Shermer’s book The Science of Good and Evil. I haven’t read it myself, but had a friend recommend it as at least an interesting read (like The God Delusion). I believe he also tries to claim that we are “altruist” by nature (in the completely watered-down, modern sense of the word). I’m generally completely skeptical of evolutionary psychology as a field, though, so I’d take it with a grain of salt.

    On your discussion of evolving tendencies for grouping, it makes complete sense that, to the extent that those behaviors can be inherited, if at all, we would have them. Man simply functions better with others than alone. Counter to your argument above, this still holds true in civilized settings. In truth, it is the reason civilization is so good for man! This is why individual rights exist, to protect the individual from the enormous benefits gained from “grouping.” It is the source of the value in the division of labor and the trader’s principle.

    Any evolutionarily inherited traits that favor “grouping” do not necessitate the morality of altruism, however. They are just further justification that working with and helping others, to the extent that it doesn’t impede on higher values, is to the egoist’s advantage. After all, they helped us make it out of the plains of Africa and into the skyscrapers of New York.

  2. Ergo said


    Thanks for clarifying the point that a free and civilized society supports a rational, mutually beneficial approach to social living. Individualism does not mean isolationism or adopting an ascetic lifestyle. Indeed, Objectivism points out that only an egoist with self-esteem and a healthy sense of individualism can have the most fruitful and meaningful social relationships, i.e., without coming off as being a parasite or an emotional leech on his friends, lover, co-workers, etc.

    Ayn Rand’s formulation of individualism has been unfortunately caricatured as “man is an island” by people like Steven Pinker, who I assume has only a passing familiarity with Rand’s philosophy.

    Perhaps, I should properly qualify my statement: “the impulse to be in groups or herds is an obsolete concern today.” I intend that such impulses are obsolete today because reason should be our guide to action, not impulses; and therefore, all actions–whether arising from emotional impulses to be concerned of another’s well-being without sacrificing your own or being part of a social group–are subject to the evaluation of our rational cognition.

  3. opit said

    I had the chuckle of an unscientific appraisal with first hand exposure to the evidence for an “unproven field”.
    My son was separated from me by two years old and so completely isolated me from his consciousness that he had no recollection of my extremely infrequent and brief visits – courtesy of relations with both wives, among other things. Yet he did not merely walk as I did, he had an interest in religion – something that tracks back in family history. He even affected what was sort of a faux ‘British accent’ when feeling like being goofy. Long and the short – he grew sick of being compared with hid dad, hom he didn’t know – yet was unlike the rest of the family in aptitudes and attitudes, something that he found alienated him much as adopted kids are.
    The effects of biology on thought are something I expect is commonly vastly underestimated by people generally.

  4. This is a great post, in relation to social justice, a topic for which I’m doing research! I will be using some ideas found here.

  5. Ergo said

    Well, who will you be crediting or citing in your paper as the source of the ideas? Ergo or my real name??

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