Morality Is Not Nice
What is “morality”? Intellectuals have pondered the question for millennia. As far as I can tell, their answers have converged on something like this:
Morality is about working together to serve the greater good. Our moral compass guides us to resolve our conflicts and treat each other with respect. Without morality, we would lie, steal, and kill. Morality makes us better people.
It’s a nice story. It makes me feel good when I read it. But unfortunately, it’s bullshit.
The truth is, morality is more about deluding ourselves into thinking we’re serving the greater good than serving it. Our moral compass more often guides us to reject compromise and disrespect each other than resolve our conflicts and respect each other. Morality helps us lie, steal, and kill, by giving us a menu of excuses to choose from. Want to lie? Tell a “noble lie”. Want to steal? Take “what you rightly deserve”. Someone has to go? Serve them a cold helping of “justice”. Morality often makes us worse people, by justifying our sadism and fueling our sense of moral superiority.
Morality, in other words, is not nice.
In fact, morality can’t be nice—there has to be a mean part—because otherwise, it could not have evolved. Natural selection favors genes when they have higher fitness than alternative genes. Equal fitness doesn’t cut it. Genes do not spread by helping everyone equally. They spread by selfishly helping the animals who have them or spitefully hurting the animals who don’t. If morality evolved by natural selection, then ancestral moralists must have outcompeted their amoral rivals.
If the word “outcompete” is too abstract, let me make it more concrete. Ancestral moralists must have gotten more stuff than their competitors—stuff like food, territory, or mates. How does an ape get more stuff than other apes? By dominating, depriving, excluding, exploiting, or executing those other apes. I don’t see nicer way of getting more stuff than them, do you?
It gets worse. Once the genes for morality became common, more paranoid variants would have evolved. In a world without villains, the capacity to vilify the innocent would have offered a Darwinian advantage, allowing the vilifiers to get more stuff than their unlucky victims. Witch hunts, purges, scapegoats, and moral panics entered the human drama. Our ancestors were forced to rally mobs against increasingly arbitrary targets, lest they be outcompeted, or targeted, by their more paranoid rivals. Morality emerged not as a force for good, but as a tool for social competition and domination.
We cannot admit this, of course. If we admitted our moral goals were this mean, then nobody would like us, and we would fail to achieve our mean goals. A lot of our social goals are like this: they have to be pursued covertly. Status-seekers don’t get status by saying, “All I care about is status”, and corporations don’t make money by saying, “All we care about is making money.” Instead, status-seekers say they’re seeking “authenticity” or “self-actualization,” and corporations say their mission is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time” (no joke, that’s Starbucks’ mission statement).
That’s why morality seems so nice. The mean part lives underground, and the nice part lives on the surface. We say our moral agenda is better for more people than it really is, because morality is a numbers game—bigger mobs get more stuff—and we want to rally more people to our side. But morality is also an assurance game. We have to trust that no one will chicken out or defect to the other side. That’s why tarring our rivals as “evil” is so rewarding; it reassures that other moralists will have our backs when it’s time to strike. Morality is the parent of hatred.
If you think morality is all about cooperation and being nice, then you’ve got a lot of explaining to do:
Why is morality the leading cause of violence around the world and throughout history?
Why is moralizing the best way to reduce compassion for a person’s suffering?
Why does morality make us more biased and tribal?
Why do people care so little about whether their moral preferences actually make the world better?
Why are so many horrific things—pogroms, purges, holy wars, honor killings, caste systems—done in the name of “morality”?
My answer is simple: morality is not nice. In fact, I’m inclined to say that it’s mean.
“But David,” you say. “What about moral progress? Haven’t our moral strivings made the world a better place? How do you explain that?”
Great question. Here’s how I explain that.
Morality is mean, but it can still cause nice things to happen. As an analogy, consider nuclear weapons—they’re mean. Yet according to some scholars, nuclear proliferation made nuclear-armed countries afraid to go to war with one another, out of fear of destroying themselves and the rest of the planet. Nuclear weapons may have caused peace (a nice thing), even though they were designed for war (a mean thing).
I think the same thing happened with morality. Coordinated outrage is a kind of social weapon, a way for groups to get together and dominate their rivals. What happens when a weapon rapidly advances and proliferates? Mutually assured destruction.
Consider the many advances in communication and transportation throughout the 20th century. Untold masses of people could coordinate, gossip, and share information. Vast distances could be traversed at unprecedented speeds. In this newly interconnected world, bullies had a problem. Any bully-victim could rally thousands of similar bully-victims from far-flung communities and merge into a massive anti-bullying coalition, appearing on every television set in the nation.
This explains why moral progress coincided with the advent of cameras, radios, telephones, television, and the internet, alongside planes, trains, and automobiles. These are group mobilization technologies—social weapons. Combined with a growing population and expanding social networks, these weapons gave everyone the ability to gather angry mobs at breakneck speed—and brandish their pitchforks on the world’s stage.
That’s my best guess for how moral progress got started, and why it took so many thousands of years to get started at all. It wasn’t that everyone all of a sudden thought to themselves, after millennia of moral atrocities, “Whoa, dominating people is bad.” Deep down, we still want to dominate people; we just can’t do it now, because everyone is equipped with social weapons of mass destruction. We find ourselves in a moral version of the Cold War—a culture war.
So the next time you see a thinkpiece bewailing our increasingly globalized, polarized, socially mediated world, consider the fact that we’re living in the most peaceful time in human history. The features of our society that make us anomic and angsty—the endless superficial relationships, the lack of fierce loyalty, the feeling that we’re constantly being watched and judged—might be the very same features that keep us from killing each other. Existential malaise—the feeling that everything is bullshit—might be the price of peace.
I think it’s a price worth paying.
In fact, I think it’s nice.
 Here’s a mathematical model of the argument. Consider a three-person game, where any two players can form an alliance to impose a cost, -c, on the third player, in exchange for a benefit, b, for themselves (we can think of this as the two allies dominating or exploiting the third). If no two players can coordinate to form an alliance, all players receive zero. Let us posit a Recruiter strategy that attempts to form an alliance with either of the other two players at random, compared to a strategy that does not attempt to form nor join an alliance with either of the other two players. Let’s call the latter strategy Pacifist. If we let p be the proportion of Recruiters in the population, then Recruiters will be an ESS when 2p(1 - p)(1/4)b + p^2(1/2b - 1/4c) > p^2(1/4)(-c), which simplifies to pb/2 > 0 . Thus, Recruiters are an ESS so long as the benefits of the alliance are greater than zero, and so long as there are at least some other Recruiters in the population to recruit. Since Recruiters and Pacifists face the same risk of being dominated by the other two members of the triad, the expected costs of the strategies are equivalent and cancel out. Recruiters are also an ESS in groups larger than three, though selection is weaker because coordination is less likely to occur by chance (though, of course, humans coordinate via focal points and not by chance). This means that natural selection will favor any tendency to collectively dominate or exploit a rival individual or group, so long as the benefit to the dominators is greater than zero, and so long as the dominators are capable of coordinating on whom to dominate. Indeed, dominating rivals can even be favored by selection if the benefit to the dominators is zero or negative, so long as the rivals are negatively related or negatively interdependent with members of the alliance. Morality may be viewed, in part, as a coordination device for dominating rivals, which may derive from systems that evolved for assessing others’ reputations. When someone commits a reputation-damaging act, morality allows people to use that act as a coordination device or focal point, allowing group members to dominate, deprive, exploit, or collectively side against the actor for their own benefit. The act doesn’t even need to actually signal an antisocial character, because group members may benefit from dominating, depriving, exploiting, or collectively siding against the actor regardless of their true character.
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