Comparing and Integrating Biological and Cultural Moral Progress

Abstract

Moral progress may be a matter of time scale. If intuitive measures of moral progress like the degree of physical violence within a society are taken as empirical markers, then most human societies have experienced moral progress in the last few centuries. However, if the development of the human species is taken as relevant time scale, there is evidence that humanity has experienced a global moral decline compared to a small-band hunter-gatherer (SBHG) baseline that represents a lifestyle presumed to largely account for 99% of human history. A counter-argument to such a diagnosis of moral decline is the fact that the living conditions of the modern world that emerged since sedentariness and the beginning of agriculture are completely different compared to those of SBHG due to cultural and technological developments. We therefore suggest that two notions of moral progress should be distinguished: a “biological notion” referring to the inherited capacities typical of the evolutionary niche of mammals and that unfold in a specific way in the human species; and a “cultural notion” that relates moral progress to dealing with an increasing diversity of temptations and possible wrongdoings in a human social world whose complexity accumulates in time. In our contribution, we describe these two different notions of moral progress, we discuss how they interact, how this interaction impacts the standards by which we measure moral progress, and we provide suggestions and justifications for re-aligning biological and cultural moral progress.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A concise overview on the philosophy of “progress” is available at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/progress/ (last access: October 31 2015).

  2. 2.

    We note that these analyses are disputed by experts on empirical and categorization grounds (see Ferguson 2013a, 2013b; Fry 2013). For example, small-band hunter-gatherers, who represent 99% of human genus history, are relatively peaceful and not war-like, but Pinker mixes them together with complex hunter-gatherers, who can be war-like.

  3. 3.

    We note that human use of natural resources is not necessarily linked to the destruction of nature and decrease of biodiversity. For example, Europe today without human intervention would be wooded to a large degree, with a likely lower degree of biodiversity compared to a Europe with bounded and non-monocropping agricultural activity, because boundary zones between forest and acres increase the number of ecological niches.

  4. 4.

    It is important to clarify that we do not use this term with a specific geographic focus (i.e., focus on Europe or North America) or racial implication (i.e., focus on “white” culture). The term “western” just denotes that the conceptual origin of the idea that humans are special in a normative sense and that this special status provides the legitimation of exploiting nature has its historic origin mainly in assumptions about human distinctiveness (Biblical theology) which undergird the rationalization of thinkers of the western world (e.g. Francis Bacon or René Descartes). As the example of contemporary China shows, exploitation of nature and environmental pollution are not bound to specific geographic regions or racial boundaries. And, as the example of the Easter Island civilization has shown, destruction of nature can also happen without the presence of a “western worldview” in a culture (Diamond 2005).

  5. 5.

    This problem points to fundamental questions of moral philosophy: the quest for the universality of moral norms and the quest on how to “ground” ethical theories (foundationalism vs. coherentism). We will not outline these questions further.

  6. 6.

    We do not claim that the biological systems determine the behavior of the agent, nor do we claim that we have complete knowledge how biological systems enable moral behavior – actually, an individual’s biological systems might be much more complex than initially thought. There are for example indications that even the type of microorganisms that populate a human body may have an effect on moral behavior (Kramer and Bressan 2015).

  7. 7.

    With respect to indirect moral progress, one has to be aware that political declarations of progress are not the same as actual progress. For example, slavery is nowadays technically illegal throughout most of the world – but according to some global watch-dog groups (e.g., http://www.freetheslaves.net/), we still have millions of people that live under slave-like conditions. Thus, the removal of institutional racism may not address the persistence or growth of other, less institutionalized, forms of systematic oppression [we thank an anonymous reviewer for this observation].

  8. 8.

    Another interesting question to ask would be: Why did these complex societies emerge, given the high “moral price” that resulted from this change in lifestyle? In addition, other problems resulted from this transition, for example a higher vulnerability for epidemics, decreased health from worse nutrition. The causes for this change are still a matter of scientific controversies; see for example Cochran and Harpending (2009).

  9. 9.

    A similar argument has been put forward regarding nutrition. Some suggest that the human metabolism is not adapted to the modern feeding pattern, which would partly explain the increasing obesity problem in many countries once the “western” diet is introduced.

  10. 10.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for this observation.

  11. 11.

    This information emerges from the HYDE (History Database of the Global Environment) database that presents (gridded) time series of population and land use for the last 12,000 years: http://themasites.pbl.nl/tridion/en/themasites/hyde/ (last access: October 31 2015).

  12. 12.

    A highly topical instance of this disrespect towards others in children and adolescents is the systematic, targeted and ongoing power abuse characterizing bullying in both its normal (offline) and online forms (see for example Hymel et al. 2010 for an overview of the moral dimensions of bullying).

  13. 13.

    However, too, peoples exist worldwide who have a legacy of or adopt the indigenous worldview.

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Christen, M., Narvaez, D. & Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E. Comparing and Integrating Biological and Cultural Moral Progress. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 20, 55–73 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-016-9773-y

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Keywords

  • Moral progress
  • Small-band hunter gatherer
  • Culture
  • Biology
  • Moral development
  • Parenting