Elsewhere on this site, I’ve described some necessary background:
The science of morality seeks answers to the question “Why do cultural moral norms and our moral sense exist and how do they work?”. (Cultural moral norms are norms whose violations are commonly thought to deserve punishment, though the person may not actually be punished.)
Studies in the science of morality to date support the hypothesis that past and present cultural moral norms exist because they solve cooperation problems. Formally, “cultural moral norms are parts of strategies that solve cooperation problems”.
As we might expect, behaviors that create cooperation problems (the opposite of cultural moral norms function) are consistent with moral norms that define what is immoral. For example, “do not steal, lie, or kill” forbid behaviors that create cooperation problems that prevent or inhibit future cooperation.
Knowing what cultural moral norms are and how they work can directly answer many questions about morality.
For example, the science of morality can explain and help resolve many moral disputes about:
- Why the Golden Rule summarizes morality.
- Why the Golden Rule is a heuristic (a usually reliable, but fallible, rule of thumb) rather than a moral absolute.
- When it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule.
- What moral guidance can science provide when it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule.
- The arbitrary origins of food and sex taboos such as “eating pigs is an abomination” and “masturbation is a sin”.
- The shameful origins of moral norms such as “homosexuality is evil” and “women must be submissive to men”.
- How the goalposts of good and evil were fixed at the beginning of time.
Versions of the Golden Rule are said to summarize morality because they advocate initiating indirect reciprocity, perhaps the most powerful known cooperation strategy.
But these versions are not moral absolutes but only heuristics (usually reliable but fallible rules of thumb) because moral behavior is about solving cooperation problems, not just initiating a perhaps failing attempt to solve them.
For example, slavishly following the Golden Rule in wartime, when dealing with criminals, and when “tastes differ” can create cooperation problems rather than solve them. Creating cooperation problems is the opposite of solving them - human morality’s function. Getting an agreement to abandon the Golden Rule in wartime, when dealing with criminals, when “tastes differ”, or anytime when cooperation problems will be created rather than solved should be easy.
But what moral norms can we agree to follow when we abandon the Golden Rule? Science provides an objective standard – follow the moral norms that solve cooperation problems in those or any circumstances. For example, a simple “tit for tat” reciprocity strategy (reciprocating both harm and help) inspired by game theory is now standard doctrine for reducing warfare’s worst consequences. “Tit for tat” can solve the problem of pointless harm due to the failure of the Golden Rule in hostile environments.
Similar arguments can be made for abandoning “Do not steal, lie, or kill” in circumstances when following them would create cooperation problems (such as telling the truth to the murderer about where their next victim is).
Science can also readily explain the arbitrary and even shameful origins of norms such as “eating pigs is an abomination”, “masturbation is wrong”, “homosexuality is evil”, and “women must be submissive to men”.
Food and sex taboos such as the first three norms are examples of marker strategies. Abstaining from these behaviors (even when you really want to do them) is a marker of membership and commitment to a more reliably cooperative ingroup. Particularly in hostile environments, cooperating preferentially with people in your ingroups such as your tribe or social group can be more successful than risking cooperation with everyone. Arbitrariness of the marker helps distinguish your cooperative ingroup from others. This arbitrariness also explains the wide diversity and strangeness (to outsiders) of marker strategy moral norms.
“Women must be submissive to men” is part of a strategy for an ingroup (men) to cooperatively exploit an outgroup (women). And, in addition to being a marker strategy as mentioned above, “homosexuality is evil” exploits homosexuals as imaginary threats to society. Due to our evolutionary history, threats to society, even imaginary ones, can powerfully motivate increased cooperation.
Science can explain the arbitrariness of food and sex taboos.
Science can shame people who support exploitative moral norms but incoherently hold moral values such as all people are worthy of equal moral regard. “Explaining and shaming” with simple arguments as described above can overcome even strongly felt moral intuitions.
Understanding why food and sex taboos and exploitative ‘moral’ norms exist and how they work provides a strong framework for resolving many troublesome moral disputes.
The goalposts for good and evil were fixed at the beginning of time when simple mathematics came to be innate to our universe that game theory uses to define and solve cooperation problems. Those biology and mind-independent goalposts were: “Behaviors that solve cooperation problems will be moral and behaviors that create cooperation problems will be immoral”.
How can the reader know this is true about human morality – our cultural moral norms and moral sense?
You might start by considering if the cultural moral norms you are aware of, no matter how diverse, contradictory, or strange, can all be explained as parts of cooperation strategies including marker strategies, exploitation of outgroups, and different definitions of who is in favored ingroups or disfavored outgroups. To learn to recognize the parts of cooperation strategies, you might begin with Martin Nowak’s book SuperCooperators, Oliver Curry’s perspective on Morality as Cooperation, and the book that made the lightbulb that illuminated morality come on for me, The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod.
You might also examine your own moral sense. Morality as cooperation strategies is what selected for our moral sense. This morality must then fit our moral sense like a key in a well-oiled lock, because this key, morality as cooperation strategies, is what shaped this lock, our moral sense. Confirm for yourself the harmony between morality as cooperation strategies and the judgments and motivations of your own moral sense.