It’s Science Tuesday at The Times. Today’s topic: Morality. Not mortality, but the basis of rules and ethics that govern our lives. Yes, The Times says, scientists now think they have an explanation for our understanding of good and evil.
Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.
At first glance, natural selection and the survival of the fittest may seem to reward only the most selfish values. But for animals that live in groups, selfishness must be strictly curbed or there will be no advantage to social living. Could the behaviors evolved by social animals to make societies work be the foundation from which human morality evolved?
The article focuses on the work of Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at University of Virginia and author of “The Happiness Hypothesis.” Haidt began researching the evolution of morality by exploring the phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding”—when people know something is wrong but can’t explain it.
He makes a big leap from there to human morality riding the “elephant” of biological evolution, and I’m not buying it. But this is an evocative description.
âImagine visiting a town,â Dr. Haidt writes, âwhere people wear no clothes, never bathe, have sex âdoggie styleâ in public, and eat raw meat by biting off pieces directly from the carcass.â
He sees the disgust evoked by such a scene as allied to notions of physical and religious purity. Purity is, in his view, a moral system that promotes the goals of controlling selfish desires and acting in a religiously approved way.
Notions of disgust and purity are widespread outside Western cultures. âEducated liberals are the only group to say, âI find that disgusting but that doesnât make it wrong,â â Dr. Haidt said.