Faith & Reason: Is morality anything more than an emotion?

Our moral impulses sometimes seem unanswerable. Perhaps because they are encoded. Perhaps because evolution has shown that they work

ONE OF the most puzzling things about evolutionary explanations of the human mind is why we should love truth, which we do, a bit. It's always seemed to me that the natural point of defence for Christianity trying to come to terms with Darwinism, and yet to preserve the idea that there is something special and god-breathed about humanity, has been the supposition that it is our moral sentiments which cut us off from the animals decisively. The beasts do evil because it is in their nature. We want to do good, even when doing evil, and surely this is God's signature on our nature.

This is a reasonable statement of the Orthodox Christian position, and it can certainly be interpreted to mean that our human moral urges are the result of some kind of divine intervention, even if this involved God in some genetic engineering. But God is not a necessary player in these explanations; and a godless evolved morality would look just the same as the one we actually have. Here's why.

One of the distinctive things about moral feeling, as opposed to moral reasoning, is that it is not consequential. It is not the result of a process of conscious calculation: we calculate in order to check our intuitions, but the intuitions themselves seem given; when they differ from calculation, our first instinct is to re-check the calculus, and not the emotional compass. I am talking here about the sense that there is a moral compass, and that right and wrong do exist as absolutes outside ourselves, which is one of the things that classical Christian apologetics assumes is a human universal, and very likely it is. Just which acts qualify as right and noble, or wrong and ignoble, varies wildly from culture to culture; and some have different moral weights within cultures, depending on their context. But the tendency to classify actions as right and wrong, repulsive and admirable, do seem to be universal constituents of humanity and both Christians and evolutionary psychologists should be happy with this idea.

Sociobiologists are generally happier with the idea that it is simple aversions and desires that are genetically encoded. There is a difference; and it is important, as can be seen by the proposal that we have innate defences against incest. Incest has fairly deleterious consequences for populations that do a lot of it, so you would expect such defences to evolve. The most popular theory is that in humans as (we suppose) in other animals the defence is not a moral appeal. We just don't find sexually attractive as adults people with whom we were, so to say, litter- mates in infancy. This mechanism would not operate between parents and children, which explains Lot and his daughters.

This is freedom from temptation, though, which is not what people mean by a moral sense. That would involve firstly being able to recognise something as a temptation; and secondly being able to resist it. Could such a more complex set of feelings have evolved? I think the answer is quite clearly "yes"; and that our intuitions about the existence of an absolute morality are a way of dramatising the conflicts that result.

The whole point about feelings or instincts in an evolutionary analysis is that they can also be analysed as strategies. You can look at the behaviour of an animal, or a human from the outside and see how it is likely to spread through a population at the expense of other behaviours; but when you look at it from the inside, you do not make these calculations: you are part of them. Nobody thinks "It would make sense to behave towards this lion as if I were frightened of it and run away". They think with their feet and by the time the thought has emerged into something as coherent as "aaaaaargh!" they have, if well-adapted, already run 20 yards.

The strategy which the emotions encode can only be reconstructed in tranquillity. And if it is true that we have moral instincts, then they too will be like this. They will in some sense encode a strategy which has proved more useful in the past than its alternatives but we won't learn from them what it is. The strategic usefulness of emotions is obvious with those so primitive and so widely shared across the animal kingdom that we think of them as completely natural: we panic if short of breath; we grow very distressed if short of food.

Other more specifically human emotional habits such as depression or some of the ways in which we experience pain are harder to explain as strategies; but it is possible, if they are carefully analysed, to come up with perfectly respectable accounts of why they might make sense in most contexts. But these analyses always come long after the fact. A man paralysed by pain does not think "I am maximising my chances of worsening an infected stomach wound". He just knows he must not move.

In a similar way, we would expect our moral impulses to come sometimes with completely unanswerable force. It seems to be a distinguishing mark of religious experience or transformation that it is unanswerable and largely incommunicable. You just know, overwhelmingly, that the world is a fundamentally good place, or that some evil must be resisted. It is a way of making decisions at once and forever. In this it does not differ importantly from other evolved emotions. There's no need for God to have twiddled our genes to get there.

But the argument has one last twist: evolved emotions don't survive unless they encode strategies that work and unless the insights that they give us are in some sense true.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?