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
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

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

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
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

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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).
books
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
film
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’

Film

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

TV

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

Film

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
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
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.

    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?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London