Can morals be maladaptive vestiges?

  1. Introduction
  2. The trouble with orthodox concepts of morality
    2.1. The trouble with normative concepts of morality
    2.2. The trouble with descriptive concepts of morality
    2.3. An alternative approach to understanding morality as an adaptive fiction
  3. Morality as an evolutionary adaptive fiction
    3.1 Morality as a set of social norms
    3.2 Morals as fictions
    3.3 Humans as moral beings
    3.4 The evolutionary origin of morality
    3.4.1 The fitness-advantages of morality The problem of cooperation Bounded Rationality and morals as social heuristics Moral norms as equilibrium selection devices
    3.4.2 The tools of evolution Kin selection Direct and indirect reciprocity Sexual selection Group selection
    3.5 Morality as a tool and its purpose
  4. Maladaptive Morals
    4.1 Bounded Rationality
    4.2 Changed Environments
    4.3 Universalizing and misapplying morals as heuristics
    4.4 Self-interest, deception and power
  5. The open questions of moral progress and genetic interest
  6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The human species homo sapiens appears in many areas rather maladapted to the civilization it created and inhabits. Examples of such maladaptation and vestiges abound:

Our fondness for sugars – probably an adaptation to the scarcity of carbohydrates in the environment of our ancestors – is a prominent example, leading to overindulgence in the abundance created by industrialized agriculture (cf. Wright 2010, p.83). As a result, today, more than a billion people suffer from obesity, which are twice as many as those who suffer from a caloric deficit (cf. Phelps et al. 2024). Wisdom teeth are a common vestigial feature, which serve no purpose today, except enriching dentists and the producers of painkillers (cf. Rogers 2014). In addition to our physical maladaptations, our psyches are not adapted to life in cities, offices, and social media; the rise of loneliness and mental health issues the unfortunate result (cf. Bower et al. 2023). The mismatch between our evolutionary adaptations and today’s environment is most starkly seen in the dramatic and puzzling decline of fertility in almost every country in the world: Reproduction is dropping below replacement levels in an increasing number of countries (cf. Aitken 2022). This trend not only strains retirement systems and economies but could also result in fertility traps and even extinction – as it is currently feared in South Korea (cf. Lee & Kim 2024).

Almost no one denies that there is a huge mismatch between the environment humanity has adapted for over the millennia and the one it finds itself today. Faced with mounting challenges, optimists like to point out the unique adaptability of humans. Our diversified cultures, highly plastic brains and ability to create technology to solve problems, allow us to adapt faster than the slow grind of biological evolution would allow (cf. Joyce 2007, p.40; cf. Ross 2023, p. 131). Especially in current debates on AI development fears of a posthuman dystopia or singularity, are often swept aside by stressing the adaptability of our species – with leading figures like OpenAI CEO Sam Altman mainly worrying whether humans can adapt fast enough, not whether adaptation could be beyond our capabilities (cf. Altman & Gates 2024).

A common reaction to such challenges of change, is the turn towards moral authorities for guidance. This turn seems at first glance reasonable. As morality facilitates cooperation and well-being, shaping society usually in positive ways, it appears to be a guide to goodness and to be about how one ought to act (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, p. 218-219).

Therefore, especially in times of upheaval – such as the one currently caused by global tensions, climate crisis and AI breakthroughs – moral authorities are in high demand. Professional ethicists such as the German Ethics Council are engaged in a flurry of activity (cf. Deutscher Ethik Rat 2023) and moral philosophers are reinventing themselves as AI researchers (cf. Weinberg 2023, cf. Waelen 2022). Politicians are asserting the primacy of moral values and aligning technologies with the good, by formalising morals in legal texts, e.g. the EUs AI Act (cf. European Commission 2024).

Even some religious authorities are glad to offer moral guidance on the new. For example the clergy in Iran is praising AI as a tool to issue fatwas more efficiently (cf. Bozorgmehr 2023) – apparently trying not to repeat the mistake of the Islamic scholars of the 15th century, who deemed the printing press haram and for 250 years made its use punishable by death, a decision which still contributes to illiteracy and poverty in Islamic countries (cf. Rubin 2017, pp.105-120).

Looking closer at history, there appears to be something problematic about turning to morality and moral authorities to solve problems (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, p.218). The Nazis are an extreme example. They were to a significant extent motivated and driven by moral outrage and moral conviction to commit heinous crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust (cf. Bialas 2013, pp.4-5, 7-8), that no amoral rational being would even consider committing.

Quite possibly, if humans were not moral beings, something like the Holocaust would never have happened, since only irrational moral convictions (fuelled by propaganda and the strict adherence to the Nazi Ethic) are capable of motivating such barbarism (cf. ibid. p.7). Morality, which usually prevents atrocities, appears in this case to have fuelled them. While morality is at the heart of every well-functioning society, it is also at the heart of the most destructive ones (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, p. 218). While we commonly experience and use morality as the fundamental basis for a good society, our instinctive beliefs in its absolute truth and its ability to alter our reasoning and perception, paradoxically can motivated extremely destructive acts, we would deem deeply immoral otherwise (cf. ibid. p.219).

Consequently, what commonly is called Evil, in many cases, doesn’t appear to be an absence of morals – on the contrary, often it is the actions of people motivated by strong, but maladaptive and irrational, moral convictions and delusions.  We see many examples of this form of Evil: from the Nazis convinced of their moral duty to commit the Holocaust, to the Fascists thinking of Mussolini as Plato’s Philosopher King, to Communists running Gulags and committing the Holodomor, to massacres perpetrated by crusaders and jihadists. At the core of avoidable suffering, senseless destruction, and evilness, one often finds not a lack of morals, but a delusional overindulgence in them. Like someone bloating and sickening from overindulging in industrial sugar, the uncritical moralist overindulges in moral convictions – restlessly driven into a state of deadly fervour devoid of reason and health. What if our modern civilization is plagued with a pandemic, not unlike the obesity pandemic, of overindulgence in maladaptive morals?

From this a question arises: what if our turning towards morality and moral authorities, is itself today a maladaptation and – like our fondness for sugar – causes more harm than good in the long run (cf. Joyce 2007, p. 107)? What if the moral intuitions, faiths and feelings, grounding not only the moral fabrics of our cultures, but also the discourse and axioms of academic moral philosophy, are themselves harmful vestiges? Could even morality itself be a maladaptive vestige – as useful as a rotting wisdom tooth – and a source of deadly infection? And if so, what would that even mean for us?

This essay aims to sketch out an answer to these questions, by outlining a functionalist approach to objectively study morality based on moral fictionalism. To achieve this, this essay starts by exploring orthodox anti-realist and realist conceptions of morality, contrasting them with a functionalist approach in Section 2. Section 3 provides the core arguments why and how morals are to be understood as adaptive fictions, which humans evolved to believe due to advantages to do so and evolutionary pressures. Subsequently Section 4 outlines exemplary instances of maladaptive moral beliefs, which undermine the general function and advantages of morality. Section 5 sketches out how this applies to the phenomenon of moral progress, and finally Section 6 draws conclusions from the presented arguments.

2. The trouble with orthodox concepts of morality

Before we can deliberate whether morality can be even described as maladaptive, it is necessary to gain clarity on the central term, on the definition of morality. The term morality is often defined and used in two very distinct ways: descriptive and normative (cf. Gert & Gert 2020, p.1). Descriptive morality refers to “certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior” (ibid.), while normatively morality refers “to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational people” (ibid.). While normative approaches are usually realist, assuming moral truths to objective and real; descriptive concepts are commonly anti-realist or sceptic, assuming morals to be subjective or relative (cf. ibid. pp. 8, 19)

2.1. The trouble with normative concepts of morality

The first troubling issue with realist normative concepts of morality is: they themselves appear to be a product of human psychology and empirical morality, grounded in a certain moral norm, which governs what is deemed rational given the premisses and beliefs uphold by the moral code in question (cf. Mackie 1990, pp.47-49). When speaking normatively about morality we are already engaging in it, using moral beliefs to define it; proposing an Ought, already assumes an Ought must exist. Normative concepts of morality are self-immunising tautologies detached from empirical reality (cf. Gerritsen 2022, pp.537-540). This causes the famous logical gap between the Is and the Ought in moral discourses, which was pointed out by Hume (cf. Hume 1739, p.469).

Second, discussing morality seems almost impossible to do objectively, because social norms and morals are everywhere – permeating our entire life (cf. Joyce 2011) so much, that we are often unaware and in denial of them (cf. Binmore 2010, p.143).

Thirdly, there are moral norms regulating discourse on morality. Moral authorities, like religious leaders and ideologues, base their authority on claims of superior moral insight, and tend to campaign against and persecute those who might be sceptic of this authority (cf. Binmore 2011, pp.1-2). These actors also highlight the not only logical, but also empirical gap between our common, normative understanding of morality, and its empirical, descriptive reality.

Fourthly, normative concepts of morality seem to have little in common with reality. They appear to be fictions decoupled from reality. When realist moral philosophers – and priests, politicians, intellectuals, laymen – argue about morality, they don’t appear to speak about the empirical moral reality with its dynamism and heterogeneity, but about a platonic fantasy world governed by absolute truths (cf. Joyce 2011; cf. Skrobisz 2024c, p. 2). But absolute, eternal truths regarding morality are seldom found outside the minds of layman and the writing of moralists – and even their texts, can be interpreted as desperate attempts to prove personal preferences as universally binding (cf. ibid.). In the real world, equally reasonable and conscientious cultures, families and even individual minds are divided, convinced of their own moral truth and the falsehood and immorality of the others (cf. Haidt 2013, pp. 30-36). This is as much apparent in history as in the culture wars today, where left and right wing, secular and religious convictions clash and where each side sees itself as good, and the other as evil.

Looking at this divide between theory and practice in orthodox moral thinking, a normative understanding of morality, seems inadequately naïve, as moral claims don’t appear to refer to anything objectively existing outside the human mind (cf. Gerritsen 2022, pp.538). It also creates a situation, where objective inquiry into morality becomes hard, as it immunises morality against inquiry. The result: several millennia of wasted compute and spilled ink by moral philosophers, who called their own moral preferences moral truths, only to become an obsolete fiction detached from reality (cf. Joyce 2011). What once was thought to be a universal moral truth, is today seen as immoral e.g. no modern-day Aristotelian, would subscribe to Aristotele’s defence of Slavery (cf. Aristotle, Pol. 1.1255a), and one would be hard pressed to find a Christian, who sees it as his moral duty to kill someone for engaging in astrology or insulting parents (cf. Leviticus 20).

While in the static imagination of theory, morals are everlasting truths; in the real world, they do change constantly. But why do they change?  Some theorists may try to explain moral change as progress towards greater enlightenment and insight into moral truth or decline due to the influence of a devil. But this seems hardly plausible looking at the ebb and flow of ideas captured by the descriptive studies of morality, who show that the relativity and variability of moral thinking, strongly depends on actual ways of life (cf. Mackie 1990, pp. 47-49).

2.2. The trouble with descriptive concepts of morality

Among many social scientists and anthropologists, anti-realist descriptive concepts of morality dominate, as they allow to scientifically describe and study the diverse moral systems of different cultures and times (cf. Haidt 2013, p. 16; cf. Boghossian 2022, pp.9 -14). This descriptive approach aims to explain moral beliefs and practices as contingent on cultural, societal, or individual contexts, without making judgments about their truth or falsity. While this approach allows an empirical study of real morals, it appears equally naïve and even more dangerous than the normative conception, as this methodology encompasses and facilitates moral relativism: the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular position and that no position is uniquely privileged over all others (cf. Gert & Gert 2020, pp. 11 – 12 ), leading some even to the view, that all convictions are equally true (cf. Boghossian 2022, pp. 9 – 14).

This is deeply problematic: when we accept moral relativism, almost anything appears to be justifiable (cf. Westacott 2024) – even the Holocaust, as the Nazis considered themselves as fighting against what they perceived as the forces of evil, while they slaughtered millions of innocent people (cf. Bialas 2013, p.3). While a 21st century liberal European may see it as a moral duty to protect minorities like Jews or Homosexuals, a 20th century Nazi or a 21st century Islamist may see it as a moral duty to exterminate this minorities and do so with a clear conscience (cf. Bialas 2013; cf. Zelin & Olidort 2016). Here a normative critique appears intuitively inevitable: Common purely descriptive and relativistic approaches to study morality, aren’t able to judge and point to a substantive difference between the moral convictions of the Nazis and the moral convictions of today’s democratic societies. To just take a descriptive or relative stance, and saying, that the Nazis just had a different moral worldview than us, is not only naïve and evidently dangerous, but seems also intuitively wrong. But does it only seem subjectively wrong to the author of this essay, as he grew up in a democratic culture and because he would be murdered by the Nazis due to his ethnic identity? Or is there an objective objection against Nazi Ethics to be found in descriptive moral studies?

To objectively judge a moral worldview as evil compared to another, appears at first glance to require a universally true and objective morality and therefore a realist normative concept of morality. But as we apparently can’t ground such a normative concept in empirical reality, we again get lost in the tautology of normative concepts, detached from reason and reality – and again, morality becomes de facto subjective, as anyone can produce arbitrary metaphysical axioms as justification. As we judge morals using our own morals, and deem immoral what others call moral, the nature of morality clouds itself from inquiry. But trying to abandon all morality and just objectively studying it as a purely empirical phenomena, seems to paralyse our ability to judge and evaluate. Is there a way to circumvent this? Orthodox moral philosophy seems to answer No, pointing again to Hume. This leaves us only with the options of taking a leap of faith into moral realism and accepting some norm as an axiomatic primitive, or abandoning our search for objective morality altogether and opt for moral anti-realism or error theory (cf. Joyce 2011).

2.3. An alternative approach to understanding morality as an adaptive fiction

An alternative approach to the conventional realist and anti-realist views, is to go beyond a simple faith in moral realism, as well as beyond just relativistic description, and analyse morality through a functionalist lens as an adaptive and useful fiction and an extension of rationality (cf. Joyce 2011; cf. Gerritsen 2022, pp.537-540). Instead of treating morality as an absolute truth to be discovered – as we are inclined to do by the properties of moral thinking itself (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, p.220) – we have to take a step back and ask, why morality exists in the first place, why and how it emerged, and what its function really is, and finally whether it fulfils this function well.

This approach not only enables us to descriptively understand morality, but also makes different moral systems objectively comparable, by assessing how well they fulfil morality’s function.

This question on the purpose and origin of morality as well as of its continuing value was most famously initially articulated by Nietzsche (cf. Joyce 2007, p. 107), especially in Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality, where he asked: „unter welchen Bedingungen erfand sich der Mensch jene Werthurteile gut und böse? […] welchen Werth haben sie selbst? Hemmten oder förderten sie bisher das menschliche Gedeihen?“(Nietzsche 2018, p. 249). While Nietzsche’s work raised the underlying questions of this discourse, his ability to articulate an answer was limited by the science of his time, never reaching a clear conclusion and only leaving a convolute of speculative narratives, idiosyncratic ideas and observations. Like philosophers and thinkers before him, Nietzsche lacked and rejected one of the most powerful theoretical frameworks devised so far to understand the design of living beings and the human psyche: the theory of evolution (cf. Haidt 2013, p.36), which – not unlike Nietzsche’s own writing – was heavily abused and vilified in the realm of political and moral philosophy during the 20th century, and only was able enter the to discourses again during the recent decades (cf. ibid. p. 36 – 38).

This essay, utilizing the insights from evolutionary psychology, game theory and ideas of contemporary theorists like Ken Binmore, Jonathan Haidt and especially Richard Joyce, tries to go beyond Nietzsche and the philosophers before him, in explaining morality as an adaptive fiction.

3. Morality as an evolutionary adaptive fiction

3.1 Morality as a set of social norms

We return to the question articulated at the beginning of the previous section: What is morality?

While it is a property of morality, that we usually experience it as an absolute higher truth (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, p. 220), descriptively morals appear just to be a set of social norms. While especially in western cultures morality is associated with a very distinct and somewhat special set of social norms, in most cultures and times this distinction doesn’t appear to be very strong, as e.g. many cultures moralise dietary and fashion choices (cf. Haidt 2013, pp. 129-130).  Some psychological research also indicates that the distinction of moral and non-moral norms may be based solely on the perceived seriousness of transgression and not a fundamental difference (cf. Dubreuil & Grégoire 2012, pp.149-151; cf. Binmore 2011, p.3).

But if morality is just a label for a vaguely distinct set of social norms, what are social norms?

In general, from a descriptive position, social norms are understood as a consensus on empirical and normative expectations among a group of people, which causes them to expect and enforce punishment or reward for certain behaviour (cf. Bendor & Swistak 2001, pp. 1493-1494; cf. Bicchieri et al. 2023, pp.3, 7; cf. Skrobisz 2024c). Social norms therefore act as a kind of grammar of social interaction, facilitating cooperation and coordinating behaviour (cf. ibid.).

3.2 Morals as fictions

Moral statements and claims are not in themself true, and they are referring to nothing that exists or is ever instantiated outside the imagination of humans (cf. Gerritsen 2022, pp.537 – 540). As Richard Joyce works out in his texts on error theory and moral fictionalism, moral norms are fictions commonly believed by a certain group, as believing these fictions yields special advantages (cf. ibid. p.538; Joyce 2011). While this definition describes how social norms like morality function, it initially doesn’t seem to explain much about the causes of social norms. It also doesn’t allow for judgement yet. In essence, this definition alone remains on the superficial plain, where also the methodological relativism is at home. To understand morality’s overall function and nature, we have to understand its origin and its advantages ergo rationale.

3.3 Humans as moral beings

Humans are the result of ~ 3.5 billion years of biological (cf. Arnoldt 2015) and several thousands of years of cultural evolution. Our behaviour today – while itself not necessarily adaptive – is the product of psychological mechanisms that evolved because of genetic, cultural, and individual adaptations (cf. Joyce 2007, p.5; cf. Skrobisz 2024c). That humans are the result of evolution is backed by an overwhelming scientific consensus – which is often denied by laypeople, who value their moral beliefs higher than scientific evidence (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, p. 225).

Humans appear to be moral beings by nature, having an innate capacity to understand, believe in and be motivated by moral norms (cf. Joyce 2007, pp.6-8). Furthermore, moral values are deeply ingrained in our psyches, providing a filter for how we see the world, changing often our perception and reasoning, as we experience them as universal and objectively true, and are strongly emotionally affected and motivated by them (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, pp. 220, 225).

Our capacity for morality seems therefore to be an innate, but highly flexible trait, like e.g. our capacity for fear is an innate trait: All but brain-damaged humans, are capable of experiencing fear, the result of a biological adaptation – but what we are afraid of, the contents of our fears, appear to result primarily from the environment, being the result of cultural and individual adaptation (cf. Joyce 2007, pp.6-8). Similarly, cognitive moral faculties appear to be functionally universal and biologically hard-wired, while the particular norms and morals appear to be mainly the result of cultural and personal experience. Morality is therefore not the result of the discovery of a metaphysical good, but of the high plasticity of the organ called the human brain, whose cognitive faculties developed to allow for fast adaptation to changing environments – and to make us believe in the truth of morals. If this is the case, one shouldn’t be surprised, that no universal and everlasting moral code was ever written down, as while times and environments change, so do the adequate norms and with them morals (cf. ibid.). To find everlasting moral truth in ancient texts, would be as surprising as finding in them instructions on how to properly fly a plane or use a computer. But what are morals adapting towards and where did they come from, if not from a divine spark or the influence of the pure idea of the good? Why would evolution shape beings into moral beings?

3.4 The evolutionary origin of morality

If one has a naïve, short-sighted and distorted concept of evolution – as e.g. the Social Darwinists of the 20th century had (cf. Wright 2010, pp. 12-14) – it may appear somewhat paradoxical, that the selection pressures driving evolution would shape beings into moral beings, which engage in apparently fitness-sacrificing activities like e.g. altruism, forgiveness or selfless philanthropy. Furthermore, if moral beliefs are false, as moral truths don’t exist objectively, it appears strange that evolution would shape us to believe falsehoods, as knowledge of the truths seems in general more advantageous, when trying to deal with and survive in the real world (cf. Joyce 2005, p.1)

But such apparently false beliefs in moral truths and resulting selfless acts, which sacrifice fitness in the short term, in general can in fact increase fitness. Especially as they increase the fitness of a group: Since the long-term reproductive success of an individual’s genes depends on the long-term fitness of their group, individual fitness increases too. Thus evolution may facilitate social selection for such moral behaviour (cf. Joyce 2007, pp. 33-40).

To understand how moral beliefs and moral behaviour may have become a fitness-advantage and resulted out of evolution, this essay first examines the general advantages brought by morality through fostering rationality, before explicating the processes or tools of evolution, which most likely facilitated the adoption of morality and consequently the believe in moral fictions.

3.4.1 The fitness-advantages of morality The problem of cooperation

One problem that our moral faculties regularly solve is the problem of cooperation or collective action, which refers to situations in which all individuals would be better off if they cooperated – but fail to do so because of conflicting interests and incentives (cf. Bendor & Swistak 2001, pp. 1500, 1511). To illustrate this problem, usually the famous one-shot Prisoner Dilemma or the Tragedy of the Commons, are cited (cf. Binmore 2011, pp. 10, 14, 63). Despite Kant’s magical thinking that rationality would demand obedience to his categorical imperative, in the classical Prisoners Dilemma or Tragedy of the Commons the Nash-Equilibrium, ergo the rational solution, is found in mutual defection, leading to failure to cooperate and worse outcomes for everyone (cf. ibid., p.63). Pure rationality seems to be a slave of passion, as Hume pointed out. At first glance rationality facilitates rather Hobbesian state of nature with a war of all against all, instead of Kant’s pious obsession with duty (cf. ibid. p. 39) – but in the long run, it indeed may approach a version of the Golden Rule, which is found in many religions and cultures, and of which the categorical imperative appears to only be a somewhat high-brow, inflated abstraction (cf. ibid. pp. 129 – 134).

To illustrate this, I draw on an example that I have already developed in another essay (cf. Skrobisz 2024c, pp. 2 – 3): Imagine a small tribe of prehistoric humans roaming a savannah. From the tall grass a lion emerges and attacks. To simplify the thought experiment, let us assume each tribe member has two options when choosing how to react to this attack:

1) Defect: Run away and flee the scene. 2) Cooperate: Throw a stone at the lion.

If everyone cooperates and throws stones at the lion, the lion will probably halt his attack and flee, and no one will die. However, if some run away, the stones thrown will not be enough to scare the lion and he will certainly kill and eat one of the stone-throwers, while the tribe members, who decided to defect and flee, have a high probability of escaping unharmed (cf. ibid.).

If you prefer to survive, which is the most rational reaction to the lion’s attack as an individual?

It’s running away. Hoping someone else stays behind and gets eaten by the lion, while you are running away, yields the highest chance of survival. Because if others run away you don’t want to be left alone with the lion. If all tribe members are rational and prefer their own survival, the Nash equilibrium in this encounter is to defect, and everyone will run. The lion pursues and snatches someone, but the odds are it isn’t you (cf. ibid.).

In this situation, individual rationality leads to free riding at the expense of others and a suboptimal outcome for the tribe: the loss of a member. But this single event isn’t all there is. If such encounters repeat and each time individuals behave rational only in regard to the encounter and run away, and each time the lion kills someone, over time, the entire tribe will get hunted down by the lions and its genes vanish (cf. ibid.) Individual rationality caused collective and ultimately individual tragedy – a classical dilemma from game theory (cf. ibid.; cf. Binmore 2011, pp. 57 – 62).

To prevent such tragedies and facilitate cooperation in such an encounter, the payoffs must change, so that fleeing from the lion becomes more costly and therefore irrational, than staying and risking death. Here morality can act as a solution of mechanism design, by aligning the individual’s rationality in the heat of the moment with long term and collective rationality:

If the group adopts a moral conviction to denounce fleeing individuals as cowards and denies them as a punishment access to resources and reproductive sex, the Nash equilibrium shifts to cooperatively throwing a stone (cf. Skrobisz 2024c, pp. 2 – 3; cf. Binmore 2011, p. 135). This can be further enforced by moral outrage affecting kin, e.g. by the killing of the children of fallen men – as it was practiced by some tribal societies (cf. Buss 2016, pp. 79, 140).

In the absence of a modern police force with surveillance and forensics, making people believe the fiction that they are being watched by an all-mighty God would make cooperation even easier – and become a useful fiction, when the belief is enforced by religious institutions (cf. Skrobisz 2024c, pp. 3; cf. Joyce 2011).

In summary, moral convictions solve the problems of cooperation, by planting a Hobbesian Leviathan in the form of conscience and moral convictions into the individual’s mind. Working as an internalised policing system, morality incentivises the individual to believe that they must act in certain, pro-social ways and that they must also punish transgression. As humanity existed most of its history without governments, courts, laws, police, forensics, surveillance and other formalised systems of control (which today facilitate cooperation and disincentive free riding), the innate psychological disposition of humans to believe in moral conventions to be true, developed probably partially to fulfil this policing function and solve these problems. Bounded Rationality and morals as social heuristics

Humans, while capable of rationality, are not perfectly rational beings, as our reason is constrained by the computational power of our brain, uncertainty, incomplete information and time, so perfect rationality all the time is not achievable for an individual (cf. Todd & Gigerenzer 2000, p. 727). As humans make thousands of decisions every day, our mind uses shortcuts – heuristics – to maximise the use of its resources and to deploy rationality most efficiently (cf. ibid.) These heuristics are often more effective, than more complex deliberations – e.g. doctors often use simple decision trees to classify heart attacks in the emergency room and to select treatment, which not only allow them to act faster, but are actually more reliable than more complex statistical methods due to avoiding overfitting and statistical noise (cf. ibid. pp. 727-728).

Moral convictions can serve similarly as heuristics, facilitating faster and better decisions, which we can require at a low cost by just imitating what others do (cf. Hayakawa 2000, pp. 7 – 9). Many actions can have second or third order effects, which aren’t apparent to us immediately, but due to their harm, became banned through cultural evolution installing moral taboos. While it would be costly for an individual to acquire the experience required to recognize this second order harms, one can often just avoid them by adopting time tested morals – especially if the environment has been relatively stable for a few generations due to the absence of technological disruption, as it was the case for most of human history. Moral beliefs can therefore be seen as socially or mimetically acquired heuristics (cf. Sunstein 2006, p. 531).

For example, in some cultures the consumption of certain food is deemed immoral, e.g. in Judaism the consumption of pork is not kosher and therefore – if applying strict interpretation – forbidden (cf. Leviticus 11:2–4, 7–8). While this may appear as an arbitrary rule and the arguments for this found in the Torah seem not very enlightening, there were rational reasons for humans to abstain from pork consumption during the times the Torah was written: For one, economically pigs were very costly and inefficient to breed and rear as they – unlike cows, goats and sheep – didn’t provide milk or wool, and also competed with humans for the same nutrition e.g. grains (cf. Clements 1991, p.33). Secondly, due to pigs being omnivores, pork is a source of many zoonotic diseases, especially parasites – it is the only common meat that is a source for all four major foodborne parasites – and neither prevention methods like freezing the meat, nor treatments were available in pre-industrialized times (cf. Djurković-Djaković et al. 2013, pp. 586, 592). In the context of the pre-modern Levant, which lacked the resources to rear pigs efficiently and effective treatments for certain diseases, believing that the consumption of pork is immoral, acted as a useful heuristic, which facilitated a more efficient use of scarce resources and prevented disease – effects, of which most adherents weren’t aware of, but from which they benefited anyway.

This is a good example of how a moral belief, even though it is a fiction and also a falsehood, facilitates as a heuristic more rational behaviour as a consequence. Adopting a moral conviction to abstain from pork may initially appear as arbitrary and irrational. The existence of a god, who cares about what humans eat, is from the vantage point of post-enlightenment science, a fiction. But it was and is to a certain extent a fiction, which in consequence acts as a useful heuristic.

Similar, more drastic examples can be found in sexual morality. Norms e.g. regarding fidelity, especially monogamy, appear to have emerged as regulations of the mating market – reducing costly and violent intrasexual competition and freeing up resources for child raising and other activities (cf. Wright 2010, pp. 120-125, cf. Buss 2016, pp. 338-348). Societies without monogamy as a moral norm, today as in history, usually turn polygynous, creating imbalanced societies, in which rich and powerful men marry several – in case of Kings and Emperors, sometimes hundreds or thousands of – wives, while most poor men are doomed to a life of bachelorhood – creating a surplus of young, sexually frustrated “excess men”, prone to political extremism and sexual violence (cf. ibid.; cf. Koos & Neupert-Wentz 2020, pp.1, 20-24). Here we see again a game theoretical dilemma, solved by the mechanism design of a moral norm: While not practising monogamy may be rational and beneficial to an individual, especially as a reproductive strategy – if everyone does so, sexual competition becomes so fierce, that violence erupts, and the resources of parents become so thinly spread across different families and mates, that the collective and individual costs drown the benefits (cf. Wright 2010, pp. 120-125; cf. Buss 2016, p. 213) – or at least this was the case during most of human history, where due to a lack of contraceptives, sex and reproduction were more deeply interwoven than they appear to be today. Moral norms as equilibrium selection devices

In the example in section as in many examples from game theory, there was only one rational solution ergo Nash equilibrium for the encounter. In reality, many situations have several possible rational solutions. For example, regarding efficient and safe traffic, it is rational for all cars to drive only on one side of the road. But whether they all drive on the left or the right side, is an equally rational solution. In such cases morals or social norms in general, serve as equilibrium selection devices, establishing and dictating conventions on which solution the members of a society adopt (cf. Binmore 2010, p.142). Similarly, e.g. to greet someone respectfully, shaking hands, bowing, waving, nodding, could all be equally rational solutions, but moral norms of different cultures ensure common convention among their members by picking one solution.

3.4.2 The tools of evolution

As shown in the previous sections, moral faculties and the resulting beliefs in moral truths, can be beneficial to individuals and groups, by solving problems of aligning individual and collective rationality. How does this translate into a fitness advantage and how could evolution actually create these moral faculties? The exact mechanisms and processes that took place aren’t directly available to us, as the slow grind of evolution makes most experiments impossible and the history of life in all its details is lost to the past. Furthermore, the unique capacity of humans for not only biological but also cultural evolution and the resulting feedback loops of cultural-genetic coevolution, make it rather challenging to untangle all mechanisms and causes (cf. Joyce 2007, pp. 7, 44). We can only construct hypotheses from puzzling together archaeological evidence, empirical observations of animals, psychological studies of humans today, theory and computer simulations. But the evolutionary hypothesis is, given the evidence and explanatory power, the best explanation we have so far. In the following, I will therefore sketch out briefly four mechanisms, which were and are the most likely drivers of the selection pressures, which turned humans into the moral beings we are today. Kin selection

Traits and resulting behaviour, which – while itself not necessarily signs of moral reasoning – are at the core of much, what we consider moral in humans like e.g. altruism, helping and apparently selfless acts, but also related helpful behaviour like nepotism, can be found among many species, most notably among social insects like bees, who often sacrifice their lives to protect their group (cf. Joyce 2007, pp.19 – 20).

In biology and evolutionary psychology, the emergence of this kind of helpful behaviour, has been for a long time now explained using Hamilton’s Rule (cf. ibid.). Given the premisses of evolutionary theory, that organisms act as vehicles for genes, what actually matters for their traits to be favoured by evolution is the successful reproduction of the underlying gene.  Adding the fact that closely related organisms (e.g. parents and their children), share a high percentage of genetic material, self-sacrificing behaviour caused by a gene, can be favoured by evolution and proliferate, if it enhances the fitness of related kin with the same gene.

Or more formally as expressed with Hamilton’s rule (cf. ibid. pp. 19 – 22):

A trait of helping others at the cost of the individual, can be expected to be favoured by evolution

If rB > C


r = degree of genetic relatedness to the individual

B = benefits to the recipient

C = cost to the individual

Therefore, organisms, which boost the overall fitness of a gene, by helping closely related individuals to increase their fitness, will be favoured by natural selection and proliferate. Due to the high degree of genetic relatedness especially among family members and the very high cost of bearing and raising human children, selfless and loving behaviour, especially from parents towards their children, was and is a huge fitness advantage for genes of humans that do so. This process of kin selection was probably crucial to develop the altruistic inclinations which often lie at the heart of moral feelings, especially as humans lived for most of their lives in smaller tribes, where all members were highly interrelated, causing high correlation of their fitness (cf. ibid.).

Kin selection can’t explain everything, especially not the empirically observable moral behaviour towards non-kin – but on the other hand, it appears to explain some maladaptive morals. Looking at history books filled with nepotism, xenophobia, slavery and racism – and empirical studies indicating social biases towards own-race individuals already among children (cf. Anzures et al. 2013, p. 16) – one can’t but to suspect some archaic mechanisms of kin selection being also the drivers of the more cruel and sinister aspects of human morality (cf. Wright 2010, p.9.). Mutualism

Helping others and other kinds of virtuous behaviour can also be beneficial, if the individuals are not related and don’t sacrifice fitness for each other but can only achieve fitness-advancing goals like e.g. hunting down large prey, by cooperating. This kind of cooperative behaviour, which can explain spontaneous cooperation of non-kin and even strangers, is called mutualism. If this kind of behaviour yields fitness-advantages, traits that encourage this – like trusting others and being helpful, but also not-free-riding – it proliferates through evolution (cf. Joyce 2007, p. 23). Direct and indirect reciprocity

A significant driver of helping behaviour are the processes of direct and indirect reciprocity, which can – like mutualism – even motivate cooperation without kinship or altruistic intentions, as they rest on mutual advantage. Direct reciprocity emerges usually, when helping each other is more beneficial than the costs. For example, monkeys groom other (even non-kin) monkeys to remove parasite from the fur in places the other can’t reach themselves, as doing so is easy for the helper – and as they expect the other monkey to reciprocate, ergo groom them in turn at another point in time (cf. Joyce 2007, pp. 24 – 25). If the other monkey doesn’t reciprocate – ergo turns out to be a free rider – the helper in turn often won’t groom the other again. If monkeys interact with each other repeatedly, the selfish monkeys, which don’t return favours and try to free-ride, won’t receive any help more. Only the helpful monkeys continue to help each other – turning kind and honest behaviour into a fitness advantage, since one can only access the benefits of cooperation persistently by helping others. The incentive to cooperate by offering and returning favours is magnified by punishment – e.g. getting beaten up for cheating or free riding.  This basic tit-for-tat direct reciprocity in non-zero-sum interactions has been for long identified as a driving force of cooperation and reciprocal altruism (cf. Joyce 2007, pp. 24 – 31).

Indirect reciprocity expands these mechanisms among highly social and communicative beings like humans even more. While direct reciprocity is mostly limited to the repeated interaction between two individuals e.g. A helping B and therefore B helping A, otherwise A punishing B, leading A and B to cooperate with each other as long as the mutual benefit is higher than the costs of defecting or getting punished, indirect reciprocity incorporates third parties. (cf. ibid.).

An example to illustrate indirect reciprocity (cf. ibid. pp. 31 – 33): C helps D as C expects D to reciprocate by D helping C. But as C is weak, e.g. due to an illness, and unable to enforce any punishment, D doesn’t reciprocate and cheats by not helping C. While C can’t retaliate Ds free riding through direct reciprocity, the interaction could be observed or noticed by other individuals e.g. E. As E sees D cheating on C – or gets told about – E judges D as an untrustworthy individual. As word-of-mouth spreads, D’s reputation turns into being perceived as a potential cheat by others in his peer group. This may lead to the outcome, that by cheating on C, D becomes an outcast, as no other peers want to help him and cooperate, as they see it as too risky because they don’t want to end like C. This kind of punishment through exclusion comes at a very little cost to the peers of D and C, as they can continue to cooperate with each other and also reduce the risk of getting cheated on, but it comes to a very high cost to D. Especially in a pre-industrial society, getting excluded from ones tribe or cooperative ventures like hunting, can literally be a death sentence and is therefore very costly in terms of fitness for D. On the other hand, had D helped C even without C being able to enforce punishment or reward, E may have perceived D as a highly reliable and beneficial individual to be around with and invited D to cooperate (cf. ibid.).

To avoid collective punishment and prove one’s trustworthiness to peers, a wise strategy can be to just to help indiscriminately all peers, even if direct reciprocity and benefit are uncertain. Only by doing so, one can protect one’s reputation. Also, as one doesn’t want to be taken advantage of by freeriders, it is beneficial to oneself, to punish those who exploit others by exclusion. Even if one isn’t affected by it personally, as this acts as a deterrent and insurance against being taken advantage of. Therefore, the processes of indirect reciprocity create selection pressures, which favour indiscriminate helpful behaviour and altruism.

Consequently, as being surrounded by generous individuals is favourable and being generous oneself makes oneself favourable, indirect reciprocity creates evolutionary selection pressure towards greater generosity, honesty and altruism – many of the classical moral virtues.

The emergence of conscience as an internal policing system can thus probably be attributed to the internalisation of reputational risks: We punish and disincentives ourselves from doing certain actions to prevent more severe external punishment from our peers (cf. Sunstein 2006, p. 536). Sexual selection

Combined with sexual selection, indirect reciprocity could be the strongest explanation why humans evolved strong moral beliefs, of which many seem to be to the individuals apparent disadvantage. Sexual selection – through the choosiness of mates, especially of the more selective sex that incurs the higher reproductive costs, and competition among rivals – can cause the emergence of traits that would otherwise be detrimental (cf. Joyce 2007, p. 32).

The common example is the big colourful fan-shaped tail of the peacock, which while being otherwise a huge and therefore fitness-sacrificing advertisement board for every predator in sight, developed through the preference of peahens for such tails, as they are interpreted by peahens as signs of desirable traits in a mate e.g. health (cf. ibid.). Similarly, humans benefit and prefer to be surrounded by and consequently mate with reliable, trustworthy, generous and virtuous humans. Displaying strong moral convictions signals “that one will be a good and generous partner, a good and fair cooperator, a self-sacrificing parent, and a high-quality long-term ally—all qualities that directly solve practical adaptive problems” (cf. Buss 2016, p. 185). Thus, the strong belief in moral convictions today could be the result of sexual selection, as our ancestors mated preferably with partners displaying virtues such as honesty, cooperativeness, fairness and conscientiousness (cf. Buss 2016, pp. 54, 182-185) to the point that this selective self-breeding formed humans from signallers of these traits to firm believers of their truthfulness, as deep conviction is more persuasive and therefore attractive than mere signalling. Group selection

On another level of analysis, but deeply interwoven with the fitness-advantages of kin-selection and reciprocity on the individual’s level, the reproductive success of entire populations can be positively affected by behaviour, which can be broadly described as moral, e.g. helping. (cf. Joyce 2007, pp. 34 – 35, 41) While being an egoistic free-rider, may be beneficial to oneself, this harms the group – and if in consequence one’s own group goes extinct in the long term, one’s own genes vanish with it. The other way around, while being selfless and helpful may be individually disadvantageous, it may enhance the entire group’s reproductive fitness. As especially simulations show, groups containing helpful individuals, can outperform groups without helpers (cf. Joyce 2007, pp. 34 – 41) – and as through reciprocity, helpful individuals tend to cluster together, groups adopting certain fitness-advancing moral convictions and practices, can reproductively outperform and therefore emerge out of an evolutionary process.

3.5 Morality as a tool and its purpose

To answer our question posed at the beginning: Morality is a set of moral norms, which are fictions we developed to believe through the process of evolution, as to believe such fictions was advantageous to our ancestors in the sense of enhancing their reproductive fitness. Morality as a phenomenon therefore stems from biological, cultural and psychological adaptations. Due to its relative flexibility, which it shares with other cognitive traits – e.g. fear – it can therefore be considered an adaptive trait or tool, though this does not necessarily mean that all moral norms are successfully adaptive by themselves.

If we take these arguments from the previous sections and conclude that morality evolved as an adaptive tool for social cooperation, the purpose of morality is more or less this: Rationality.

Morality is a tool to facilitate rationality, which evolved to solve the problems of cooperation and coordination in a society; help us avoid tragedies of the commons and maximise the fitness of our group; to nudge individuals to behave more rational for the sake of collective rationality and reproductive success. Morality is a tool, which developed to help us overcome the limitations of our brains and motivate us to act more prosocial and rational for the benefit of our peers. Our beliefs in moral terms and concepts such as justice or good and evil are than probably heuristics, mental shortcuts, strongly motivating representations of what is beneficial and what is harmful for us, our society and our species. Particular moral systems and convictions are than adaptations to particular environments and challenges, faced by particular societies, groups and individuals. Therefore, they are not arbitrary nor relativistic, but the result of more or less successful applied rationality – and therefore we can judge them, as certain moral systems, are objectively better at solving the problems of coordination and cooperation than others.

E.g. Societies with authoritarian and extractive moral systems empirically are usually in the long term less effective in solving such problems than societies with democratic and inclusive morals, especially in matters of economic development (cf. Friedman 2010, pp. 340-345).

A maladaptive moral norm or moral intuition than is one, which is irrational, and therefore undermines the purposes our moral faculties developed for – instead of being a useful tool, it harms our species or at least individual believers. This can occur in several distinct ways. While the following section can’t be neither comprehensive nor exhaustive due to the broad range of possible factors, it outlines what are probably the biggest sources of maladaptation.

4. Maladaptive Morals

4.1 Bounded Rationality

Many of the moral intuitions and concepts underpinning our moral reasoning and discourses developed probably as heuristics, to facilitate rationality, by believing in concepts, which act as proxies for aggregating and regulating preferences. E.g. one could argue that the idea of justice, is a proxy acting as a heuristic for the rather complex weighted aggregation of preferences of a group regarding the distribution of resources and the punishment of transgressors (cf. Sunstein 2006, pp. 532, 533, 542). These intuitions and concepts emerged due to our bounded rationality, as pointed out in Section These limits to our rationality, which contributed to the emergence of morality, are therefore also the root cause of maladaptive and destructive morals.

As moral fictions ergo moral heuristics are usually well-suited solutions and generalisations to challenges posed by specific environments, they usually work well, but the problems arise, when they are applied outside these contexts (cf. Sunstein 2006, p. 531). Especially, as deeply believed morals are experienced by us humans a strongly motivating and universal truths, their application even to completely new situations often appears obvious and justified – and those, who object to applying them on rational grounds, are seen as immoral and sometimes monstrous (cf. Kovacheff et al. 2018, p.219; cf. Sunstein 2006, p. 531). When heuristics fail to facilitate rationality and instead lead to irrational inferences or mistakes, psychologists and behavioural economists label them as biases (cf. Sunstein 2006, p. 532). Maladaptive morals are at their core often this: biases or the effects of biases, stemming from maladaptive moral heuristics, causing irrationality.

4.2 Changed Environments

Among the most common sources of maladaptive moral heuristics are changing environments (cf. Sunstein 2006, p.533; cf. Anderson 2005, p. 544) as most of our species existence, humans lived in very different environments than we do today.

As our biological moral faculties and many culturally transmitted norms developed mainly in the past, our moral intuitions are often incoherent and irrational when trying to deal with the complexities of the modern world. This is especially apparent, when one considers, that humans lived most of history in rather small tribes – a stark contrast to the globalised and interconnected world of today. Therefore our moral intuitions are biased towards our immediate social environment and our kin, often neglecting moral issues which appear removed from us as e.g. the suffering of people in other countries, leading to inconsistencies in our application of moral heuristics, which are probably most notably captured by Singers concept of the moral circle and his demands to expand it (cf. Singer 2011, pp. 115, 120, 132).

Another notable example can be found in how human morals tend to be influenced by and react to macroeconomic development: Most of history, the economies of human societies were nearly zero-sum in a game theoretical sense: People lived in stagnant agrarian societies, which had hardly any noticeable economic growth, and as the economic pie was more or less fixed, whenever someone’s share grew, someone else lost (cf. Friedman 2010, p.86). Under this conditions, mutually beneficial cooperation was nearly impossible, as aggregated all transaction were zero-sum, and therefore coercion and exploitative practices were incentivized and common (cf. Wright 2001, p. 135). As e.g. Thucydides remarks at the beginning of his History of Peloponnese War, before the emergence of trade, the most common business was piracy and robbery (Thukydides et al. 2000, pp. 10 -11). Consequently, most agrarian societies, in which many to this day influential philosophical and religious traditions and norms developed, were therefore characterised by zero-sum thinking – the conviction that social relationships are antagonistic and that one’s own success is only possible at the expense of others (cf. Foster 1965, p.67). Subsequently out of this zero-sum thinking and the resentment of the exploited, emerged moral norms against the attempt to accumulate wealth and against the desire for economic growth; and therefore e.g. the anti-materialist dogmas of Christianity can be interpreted as strategies to reduce socially harmful behaviour in a zero-sum economy (cf. Skrobisz 2023, p.35). These norms, which seem to have emerged as adaptations to a zero-sum economy are still very influential to this day, as they are explicated even e.g. in the writings of John Rawls, who deems economic growth as a distraction from justice (cf. Rawls 2005, p.290).

But the problem with such anti-wealth and anti-growth morals is that they are self-fulfilling prophecies, preventing economic growth from emerging in the first place, leaving a society stuck in a zero-sum economy. The consequence is, that zero-sum thinking, cements extractive institutions and exploitation, facilitating wars, authoritarianism and discrimination (cf. Wright 2001, p. 135), resulting in what economists today call vicious cycles: Zero-sum-thinking and anti-growth morality create economic stagnation or even decline, which itself leads to even more economic zero-sumness, which fosters extractive institutions and exploitation, which again lead to more zero-sum thinking and so on, in a self-reinforcing cycle (cf. Friedman 2010, pp. 344-345).

Thus, the overcoming of traditional religious morality during the enlightenment and the emergence of pro-business morality, is seen by some economist as the catalyst for the European economies breaking out of the vicious cycle of economic stagnation and feudalism of the mediaeval ages (cf. Friedman 2021, p.10). The result was a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle: a to this day lasting phase of significant global growth emanating from Europe, creating non-zero-sum economic conditions, setting incentives for cooperation instead of exploitation, making society less exploitative and more inclusive (cf. Friedman 2010, p. 345).  And as inclusive institutions such as democracies facilitate themselves economic growth, a virtuous cycle of non-zero-sum-thinking, non-zero-sum morality and growing prosperity and egalitarianism started (cf. ibid.).

Today many people live in more or less constantly growing economies, which by constantly growing, maintain non-zero-sumness, and therefore inclusive moral attitudes and cooperation.

The issue here: The moral convictions of the old zero-sum world are still influential, and they reemerge especially in times of economic crises. As different empirical studies show, times of economic stagnation and decline, are accompanied often by the resurfacing of reactionary, racist, authoritarian and extractive moral convictions (cf. Friedman 2010, pp. 128, 148-153).

A common historical example is the Weimar Republic: Following severe economic crisis, the Republic saw the rise of authoritarian communist and nationalist parties, and ultimately ended with the power grab of the Nazi dictatorship led by Adolf Hitler (cf. ibid. pp. 247, 270 – 277). The Third Reich established non only a morality based on racism and zero-sum-thinking, but also in the image of this beliefs, an economy based on forced labour and plundering neighbouring countries, partnering up with Stalin’s Soviet Union to start the Second World War and devastating huge parts of the world. Instead of the prosperity the German voters hoped to gain, when they elected the Nazis to power, after only twelve years, they found half of the world and themselves in ruins, and also as the nation, which committed the most heinous acts of industrialized genocide to this day (cf. ibid. pp. 277, 278, 284).

Less severe and systematic, regional vicious cycles of this type, where worsening macro-economic conditions lead people to adopt zero-sum-moralities and advocate for policies, which are authoritarian and in the long run harmful to themselves, can be seen today in many countries. For example, the rise of Trumpism in the USA stems mainly from sets of the population e.g. blue-collar workers without college degrees, which themselves experienced economic decline and hardship during the last two decades, even while the overall economy prospered (cf. Komlos 2018, p.4; cf. Binder & Bound 2019, p. 163; cf. Skrobisz 2023, p. 28).

In summary: Humans tend to react to worsening economic conditions by adopting reactionary zero-sum morality again – but these moral convictions lead to authoritarian and extractive politics, which lead to even more economic crises in the long term. Our moral intuitions in dealing with economic crises, lead us to morally prefer policies, which actually only deepen and worsen the economic conditions. Our moral outrage and moral intuitions about worsening macroeconomic conditions, motivate us to act in such manners, that cause even worse macroeconomic conditions – so the opposite of what we actually try to achieve by these morals. Therefore, these morals – and similar ones, which evolved to deal with very different environments than our modern civilization – can be called irrational and maladaptive.

4.3 Universalizing and misapplying morals as heuristics

As pointed out above, a very common way, how moral thinking becomes maladaptive, is when morals, which developed as heuristics for certain situations, are applied incorrectly, e.g. because they are universalized and applied to situations, which are beyond the scope of their original rationale (cf. Sunstein 2006, p. 531).

A well-documented example by historians: The men from the German Reserve Police Battalion 101, which in July 1942 got the order to shoot several hundred Jewish women, children and elders (cf. Gigerenzer 2008, pp. 1 -2). Together with the order, they also received the genuine offer by their commander Major Trapp to declare themselves unwilling to participate in the mass murder and to step out without any sanctions, as he himself disliked the order and only reluctantly passed it on to them (cf. ibid.). Of the 500 men, only a dozen took the offer, while the rest participated in the mass murder. Afterwards many of them vomited in disgust and were tortured by their conscience.

Extensive interviews with the men indicate, that the most common motivation to not step-out, but to participate in the massacre wasn’t ideological – as the battalion consisted of ordinary, older men socialised before the Nazi-era – but mostly stemmed from applying a normative heuristic, which in the immediate situation was stronger than the moral imperative of not killing innocent people: a sense of duty to not break ranks, to not leave comrades alone with a task (cf. ibid.). In this example, the moral beliefs of comradery, conformity and duty, which the men adopted for effective police work, acted as a heuristic, which – given the gruesome context of war and genocide – overwrote other moral convictions, and turned the men into irrational mass murderers.

The universalization of certain moral norms, which only function well as heuristics in specific contexts, resulting in irrational applications, is not only happening in such concrete examples. It is also systematic in theoretical moral thought, especially in deontological moral philosophy.

Take for example the very common moral virtue of honesty, which can be found cross-culturally in virtually every nation on earth (cf. Cohn et al. 2019, pp. 1 -3) and its universalisation by Kant in his essay Über ein vermeintes Recht aus Menschenliebe zu lügen, in which he argues, that there is no moral justification to lie, even if lying would save a life (cf. Kant 1797).

Honesty as a virtue and norm, is a rational heuristic: Successful cooperation relies on trust, and it is only reasonable to trust those, who practise honesty and integrity, and have proven to do so with deeds and reputation. As we want to be trusted, we too have every reason to practise honesty. This also follows from and is reinforced by the mechanisms of reciprocity and sexual selection (cf. Buss 2016, pp. 54, 182-185). In the short run, lying and deception may give a strategic advantage – but over the long run, they are subject to diminishing and negative returns, as the reputation as a liar, leads to mistrust and exclusion. This is already explicated in Greek mythology by the archetypical strategist Odysseus, who – while being hailed as a mastermind for his ideas like to deceive the Trojans with the wooden horse – due to being “known for his cunning”, is mistrusted and avoided by his peers, and punished by the gods (cf. Freedman 2015, pp. 23-27).

So, no wonder: Most cultures adopted the moral norm of honesty, as to be just honest all the time is an effective heuristic (cf. Cohn et al. 2019, pp. 1 -3). But, to universalize honesty as an unconditional imperative by claiming the existence of formal duties as done by Kant (cf. Kant 1797), is irrational: While it is almost always rational to practice honesty, there are particular cases where the rationale of this virtue is undermined by its application. For example, when a murderer knocks at your door and asks about the whereabouts of your friend, he wants to kill, by telling the truth and ratting out the friend – as Kant demands (cf. Kant 1797) – one doesn’t act in the spirit of honesty. The rationale of honesty is to facilitate trust among peers and potential peers; therefore, it is rational to apply it to as many people as possible. But to cooperate with a murderer in killing a friend, undermines the rationale of honesty. We have every reason to cooperate with friends in protecting their lives but little reason to cooperate with their enemies in killing them, as doing so would destroy the trust our friends have put in us. Someone who blindly aids enemies and murderers out of a fanatic belief in honesty is more untrustworthy than a dishonest liar.

The issue with deontological morality as proposed by e.g. Kant’s categorical imperative, is, that by universalizing heuristics and putting them on a pedestal of duty, it treats humans as a tool for morality. Ironic, as according to Kant humans should always be seen as ends, never as means (cf. Kant 2019, 1785: 429)- but his own philosophy, hypostatising and fetishizing duty and subjugation, turns the human into the mean for realising the categorical imperative – something already Nietzsche pointed out in his polemic against Kant (cf. Nietzsche et al. 2022, pp. 176-177). Morality as a useful fiction is a tool to serve humans. Making humans slaves to the fiction, undermines the rationale of morality, and is the irrational, maladaptive result of universalizing moral heuristics.

4.4 Self-interest, deception and power

As explicated in section 3, morality evolved as an adaptation to align collective and individual rationality. And as explained in sections 4.1 and 4.2, given the environment, a certain moral norm can be maladaptive if the reasoning behind it rests on wrong premises e.g. premises derived from a different environment e.g. the past. This also opens the gate for a special kind of maladaptive and irrational morality, namely the moral norms which are based on deception and manipulation.

As explained in the discussion of the problem of cooperation in section, without the incentives created by moral systems, individual rationality may lead to failures to cooperate and suboptimal outcomes. Similarly, when a society deliberates and develops norms, individuals have not only incentives to adhere to established norms, but also to manipulate the consensus towards norms, which are more beneficial to themselves. To build on the story of the attacking lion, a rather absurd sounding example: it would be beneficial for one individual e.g. man G, if the moral incentives for facing the lion would only apply to everyone else, while he himself can run away unpunished and ensure a 100% survival rate for himself, e.g. because the moral beliefs of his peers assign him a special status. An effective way to achieve this special status for G, would be to manipulate his peer’s perception of reality to make them believe that he indeed is unique and deserving of special treatment, and to advocate for corresponding moral norms. This may sound absurd, but indeed such moral manipulation seems very common (cf. Wright 2010, p. 341).

This kind of deception is more or less, what Martin Luther accused the Catholic Church of, when catholic priests extracted money for indulgences by making people fear eternal hell as a punishment for not paying money to the clerics (cf. Ustaoglu & Incekara 2020, pp.64–66). And this is what Nietzsche in essence seems to accuse the clergy of all religions of: Planting deceptive beliefs of fictitious worlds, e.g. a supposedly existing truer world or eternal after-life, being more important than reality, into the minds of others, to make them act in the interest of the clergy (cf. Nietzsche et al. 2022, pp. 171-174). A stark example of this today, is the use of suicide bombers by Islamist military commanders of groups like Hamas to achieve their strategic objectives (cf. Pedazhur 2006, p.16): By using the Islamic belief of Dunya – the idea, that the real world is a fleeting illusion designed as trial to prove oneself worthy for Allah’s eternal afterlife – they convince the suicide attackers, that dying while murdering their perceived enemies, is actually not dying, but rising into heaven as a morally praiseworthy martyr (cf. Slavicek 2007, pp. 554 -556).

But also, outside the power structures of religion – where priests try to convince people to serve a fictious god whose interests are suspiciously closely aligned with the interests of the priest themselves – examples of moral (self)deception abound. From researchers downplaying ideological uncomfortable facts, to dishonest intellectuals acting like secular clerics (cf. Kovacheff et al 2018, p. 225). From dictators using propaganda, to create the perception for the exploited population, that their rule is justified; to revolutionaries, who, once they gain power themselves, usually become as corrupt as the elite they replaced. From NGOs inciting moral rage to fund their operations, to oil companies denying climate change to keep the funding of their operations. Attempts at selfishly manipulating the moral discourse for one owns self interest are an omnipresent meta-game, especially in the interconnected world of today, and a constant source of newly emerging moral memes, which are in general maladaptive and irrational.

5. The open questions of moral progress and genetic interest

As outlined in the previous sections, the sources for irrational and maladaptive beliefs, can be found in our evolutionary past and in the vulnerabilities of our bounded rationality to biases and deception.

To resist these sources and to develop and advocate for moral norms, which truly rest on facts and effective rationality, is anything but easy. Maybe even impossible for an individual, as everyone has some vested interest. But if a truly most rational and best morality can be discovered, then by trying to do so – and the many different philosophical schools of thoughts, like e.g. the Golden Rule, Kants categorical imperative, Rawls Veil of ignorance or Singers expanding circle, appear like approaches to do so, though only approximating a truly perfectly rational morality (cf. Binmore 2011, pp. 129–134). As we continue to evolve, so has moral philosophy and thought to continue evolving. And in some sense, it actually already does so (cf. Dawkins 2016, pp. 300, 307 – 308).

The moral progress of the last millennial can be seen as the overcoming of maladaptive and irrational moral norms, towards more rational ones (cf. ibid.). As we learn and understand more and more about ourselves and our world and develop more and more technologies to solves problems, we come to realize that e.g. homosexuality is not a sin; and pork is not evil and can be freed from parasites by freezing it – or maybe even, that we should abstain from meat entirely, as its consumption destroys not only the environment we depend on, but also other sentient beings.

An issue here could be, that our moral faculties (like our entire cognition) evolved through evolution not to serve us, but because they served the fitness of our genes, ergo reproduction in direct and indirect ways – but genetic and personal interests are not identical and not completely aligned (cf. Joyce 2006, p.15). While the way we are today appears to be largely due to the fact, that becoming so was beneficial for the reproductive success of our genes, we have individually developed other interests than mere reproduction.

What is called moral progress appears to also entail the emancipation of human volition from this genetic interest, from the biases and restrictions stemming from our animal past. What the more and more independent human will, emancipating itself from the forces of selection and evolution that created it, actually wants itself, and whether human reason will remain a slave of evolutionary formed passions, or serve itself – and whatever this means; and how this will shape the morality of the future, remains unclear here and is yet to be seen. Aswell, as the question, if in the long run, an escape from genetic interest is even possible, but this is probably a question only our descendants in a few million years will be able to answer in hindsight – if at all.

6. Conclusion

Morality emerged out of the biological and cultural evolution of humanity, as an adaptive cognitive tool to facilitate cooperation, survival, welfare and reproduction – in short, to make us more rational and effective. By inducing us to believe in absolute truths of certain social norms, it aligns and enhances individual and collective preferences and rationale.

But if the function of Morality is to align our individual rationality with collective rationality to ensure survival and rationality, there is much to clean up. As our ancestors lived in very different environments than we do today. Many of our moral traditions, have become maladaptive – while being functional and useful in the past, they now cause more harm than good. As morality clouds itself in normative language and the appearance of truth, it is hard to spot such maladaptive social norms, before they – like in the case of Nazi Ethics in the Weimar Republic – mimetically spread like a pandemic virus, engulfing minds and institutions, causing mayhem and suffering.

In other words: The policeman in our mind, our moral faculties and conscience, was raised and shaped mainly in a gone world. Therefore, today he is not only susceptible to deception and fervent fallacy, but also acts in certain contexts like an ill and deprived tyrant, out of touch with the reality of our world. To fulfil his purpose well he requires some re-education, maybe re-wiring.

Why not abolishing it? Looking at the many failures and atrocities – should we even want to be moral being, if we are rational?

Yes, we should, as morality is the glue holding together civilization – and as we can’t stop being the moral animals’ evolution shaped us into. While certain morals have become maladaptive vestiges, morality itself is at least for now indispensable and also so deeply ingrained in our nature and our cultures, that we couldn’t escape it even if we wanted to. When trying to talk and reason about morality, not matter how objectively and detached one thinks to be, one inevitably regresses into normative modes of reasoning.

Morality is here to stay for now – and to put it in a moral term, this is good.

But we should also remain cautious. We should be wary of the often invisible but all the more dangerous pandemics of resurging ancient, bloodthirsty moralities crawling out of the abyss and infesting minds. We should question our moral intuitions, institutions and beliefs, as they may deceive us to do things out of moral conviction, which in consequence are irrational and immoral.

The moral outrage and the proliferation of reactionary morals, sparked by economic, technological and societal upheaval in the Weimar Republic, which led to the raise of Nazism and the subsequent destruction of millions of innocents, should remain a cautionary warning against the devastating effects of maladaptive morals.

Moving forward, humanity needs to free itself from such resurgence of maladaptive morals. We humans need to create new moral fictions to adapt to the new environments we discovered and created.

Then there may come a time, when humanity frees itself of the dust and shackles of our evolutionary past and of the tyranny of fictious gods from our cultural past; a time, when humanity shapes the tool of morality to serve its own volition – creating a truly humanist morality by finally dissolving morality in reason.

There may come a time, when morality actually fulfils its promise to make human life better and prosperous, instead of inciting hatred, division and self-righteous murder.

But maybe this vision too will remain another fiction.


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