oliver_scott_curry's picture
Senior Researcher, Director, The Oxford Morals Project, Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford
Morality Is Made Of Meat

What is morality and where does it come from? Why does it exert such a tremendous hold over us? Scholars have struggled with these questions for millennia, and for many people the nature of morality is so baffling that they assume it must have a supernatural origin. But the good news is that we now have a scientific answer to these questions. 

Morality is made of meat. It is a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. Which problems? Caring for families, working in teams, trading favors, resolving conflicts. Which solutions? Love, loyalty, reciprocity, respect. The solutions arose first as instincts, designed by natural selection; later, they were augmented and extended by human ingenuity, and transmitted as culture. These mechanisms motivate social, cooperative, and altruistic behavior; and they provide the criteria by which we evaluate the behavior of others. And why is morality felt to be so important? Because, for a social species like us, the benefits of cooperation (and the opportunity costs of its absence) can hardly be overstated.

The scientific approach was news when Aristotle first hypothesized that morality was a combination of the natural, the habitual, and the conventional—all of which helped us to fulfill our potential as social animals. It was news when Hobbes theorized that morality was an invention designed to corral selfish individuals into mutually-beneficial cooperation. It was news when Hume proposed that morality was the product of animal passions and human artifice, aimed at the promotion of the “publick interest.” It was news when Darwin conjectured that “the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts,” which tell us how “to act for the public good.” And it has been front-page news for the past few decades, as modern science has made discovery after discovery into the empirical basis of morality, delivering evolutionary explanations, animal antecedents, psychological mechanisms, behavioral manifestations and cultural expressions.

Unfortunately, many philosophers, theologians, and politicians have yet to get the message. They make out that morality is still mysterious, that without God there is no morality, and that the irreligious are unfit for office. This creationist account of morality— “good of the gaps”—is mistaken, and alarmist. 

Morality is natural, not supernatural. We are good because we want to be, and because we are sensitive to the opinions—the praise and the punishment—of others. We can work out for ourselves how best to promote the common good, and with the help of science, make the world a better place. 

Now, ain’t that good news? And ain’t it high time we recognized it?