There is strong evidence that moral beliefs come from a small set of intuitions that evolution has prepared the human brain to develop. Morality, like sexuality and language, can be seen as emerging from the child in response to guidance from family and culture, rather than placed into the child as a result of these external influences. People have a preparedness to acquire certain kinds of moral knowledge and a resistance to moral teaching that is not consistent with these intuitions. The evidence has been presented in an article by Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund in their paper entitled, ‘Social intuitionists answer six questions about moral psychology’ (here) and has been recently summarised by Steven Pinker in a New York Times article (here).
On the basis of examinations of moral virtues and concerns that are common in the world’s cultures, Haidt and his colleagues suggest that five sets of intuitions should be seen as the foundations of ethics: dislike of pain and suffering in others; fairness (reciprocating favours, rewarding benefactors and punishing cheaters); respect for status hierarchies; concerns about purity (related to the emotion of disgust) and concerns about the boundaries between in-group and out-group.
There is, however, a great deal of scope for moral virtues and concerns to be pursued to advance the interests of some at the expense of others. Some people believe that they are acting morally when they seek to use the coercive powers of the state to reciprocate favours and to advance the interests of their families and communities at the expense of others citizens. Some people are so concerned about the pain and suffering among some groups that they seek to use the coercive powers of the state to redistribute the ownership of property and or modify contractual obligations. Some people are so disgusted with the behaviour of fellow citizens, including the clothes they wear or don’t wear, that they attempt to use the coercive powers of the state to prevent the behaviour that offends them, even though this behaviour does not interfere with their own rights.
What is it that holds modern societies together in the face of the ongoing pursuit of moral objectives that were shaped by evolution to protect self, kin and clan? When societies do hold together there seems to be a great deal of respect for decision-making processes that require people to state their case in a way that treats others as moral equals. Steven Pinker suggests that the core of this idea – the interchangeability of perspectives – keeps re-appearing in histories best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the golden rule, Spinoza’s viewpoint of eternity, social contract theories, Kant’s categorical imperative and Rawls’s veil of ignorance.
However this does not explain why in some societies many people have high regard for conventions that treat others as moral equals, while in others such people are in a small minority? Such rules of conduct seem to have gained a foothold in various parts of the world through accidents of history, but it is no accident that when they do gain a foothold people tend to flourish. F. A. Hayek made the point that the rules of conduct that make society a positive sum game have evolved through the successive relaxation of prohibitions. For example, bartering with outsiders, recognition of private property, enforcement of contractual obligations, competition among fellow craftsmen, variation of customary prices and the charging of interest on loans, were all initially infringements of customary rules ( Law, Legislation and Liberty, 1982, V 3, p 161).
I think Hayek was correct when he argued that “one of the most important tasks of our intelligence is to discover the significance of rules we never deliberately made, and the obedience to which builds more complex orders than we can understand” (p 163).