Morality is just social convention

Evolutionary Notes

PHILOSOPHERS USED to say that all their endeavours were merely a footnote to Plato. In ethics this is still largely true.

Modern moral philosophers are mostly divided into consequentialists and deontologists. Both see their task as uncovering the nature of an a priori Platonic ideal, that cosequentialists take to be the Good and deontologists the Right. But neither side doubts that their purpose is to lay down absolute principals that are universally applicable to all human beings.

This approach extinguish-ed the commensense ideas of sophists like Glaucon in Plato's Republic, who held that morality is a matter of social convention. The view was revived again by David Hume but the world continues to prefer the grandiose notions of Immanuel Kant, who argued that the only reason that we are sentient is to put into practice the categorical imperative: act only on the maxim that you would will to be a universal law. But such an approach denies the obvious fact that what people think is good or right depends on the culture in which they were raised.

In recent years, sociobiologists have followed E.O. Wilson in reviving yet again the idea that it is possible to approach ethics as a scientist, by exploring the biological and social facts on which our moral intuitions are based. Such facts are contingent. They would have been otherwise if biological and social history had taken a different course. Moral behaviour in chimpanzees and baboons differs from moral behaviour in humans because their biological history differs from ours. Moral behaviour in other human societies differs from moral behaviour in our society because their social history differs from ours. In ancient Athens, I would perhaps have chased after adolescent boys like Socrates. In ante-bellum Virginia, I would probably have been ready to keep slaves like Thomas Jefferson.

Such frank relativism is too much for many to swallow. But those who wish to preach that one society is better than another are not entitled to appeal to naturalistic theories of ethics. Even the wishy-washy liberal doctrine that all societies are equally meritorious receives no support from naturalism. There is no culture- free Archimedian standpoint from which to apply a moral lever to the world. If we could liberate ourselves from all cultural prejudices, we would find that morality no longer had any meaning for us.

Of course, as history shows only too well, no holds are barred when one cultural prejudice seeks to sustain itself against another. Sociobiologists are attacked as fascist dinosaurs still peddling the eugenicist filth of the Social Darwinists of Victorian times. In self-defence they have taken to calling themselves behavioural ecologists or evolutionary psychologists. But whatever his name, no modern sociobiologist believes G.E. Moore's claim that evolutionary ethics necessarily maintains that "we ought to move in the direction of evolution simply because it is the direction of evolution". He may think his expertise about the way societies work makes it likely that he know more than others about which reforms are feasible. But his relativism forces him to deny that his opinion on what is optimal is worth more than that of the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus.

Part of the reason the reaction to sociobiology has been so vitriolic is that it has concentrated its attention in the past largely on biological or genetic evolution, as if we are pieces of robotic wetware like ants. I agree that the human universals which constitute the holy grail for traditional moral philosophers are to be found in our genes, but I think the phenomena that traditionalists discuss are almost entirely determined by social evolution. I do not believe the strategies we use in coordinating with other human beings are hard-wired - rather we learn them as we grow to maturity by imitating the behaviour of those higher in the pecking order.

Ken Binmore is the author of `Game Theory and the Social Contract Vol 2: just playing' (MIT Press, pounds 29.95)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence