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Responding to Mary Midgley’s article in the RSA Journal,  Clem Henricson FRSA examines the question of what part morality plays in our evolution.

In her article "The Pseudo-Darwinist Conspiracy" for the RSA Journal, Mary Midgley drew attention to Darwin’s analysis of the innate sociability in human and other species, rightly saying that this has been eclipsed in recent years with an exclusive interest in the operation of competition reflecting the mood of the times.

Indeed in his examination of human motivation Darwin went on to identify morality as the mechanism by which sociability is prioritised in human conduct. It enables us to manage fleeting and contradictory impulses that run counter to pro-social behaviour.

Darwin reflects on the multiple impulses and instincts and the combined capacity for memory, intelligent thought and language that typifies humanity. His conclusion is that morality would have arisen in any species with comparable intellectual capacities, and that it is the result of a need to order and prioritise impulses so as to avoid regret over succumbing to one at the expense of another.

Darwin describes the array of instincts, needs and behaviours: from hunger and anger, shame and fear of approbation, to the parent child relationship. His understanding of the web of mood, motive, cultural and biological influences on conduct is considerable, and he makes links with other species. He nevertheless focuses on two principal drivers – social instincts and innate aggression – and deems the social instincts to be prioritised within morality because they provide longer term satisfaction.

Is this right, or do we need to push the boundaries of the role of morality in reconciling conflicting impulses further? Certainly there are some unanswered questions and issues to be addressed in Darwin’s thesis.

One of these relates to his contention that the longer-term satisfaction offered by social instincts lies at the root of their superior ranking within morality. While both the longer term and profound nature of the good life may be widely endorsed, and the elements of deferred gratification recognised, the prioritisation of the social instincts is by no means a given.

Gratification that satisfies the ego in ways not necessarily to do with the social instincts may be pursued as a long-term goal, for example in relation to sustaining interests of the mind, the pursuit of arts and the acquisition of status symbols. Then there is the assuagement of hunger through long-term forward planning. Critically, there is the fulfilment of the emotional drives of the ego in relation to sexuality which can involve sustained action contravening the social mores of the group: homosexuality, adultery and desertion.

These and many other examples can be given of the pursuit of the meaningful life that involves a considered prioritisation of aspects of the ego that are not to do with social instincts. The fulfilment of other needs can produce long-term satisfaction, and if denied can result in emotional, intellectual or physical crippling. Indeed it has been the denial of these egotistical needs that has caused some thinkers, including Sartre and D H Lawrence, to deprecate rigid codes of conduct in favour of a liberated ego.

It is even questionable whether the social instincts are necessarily the prime purpose of morality. Might not morality be the management of different emotional and cognitive pulls within the human psyche with the social instincts being one but not necessarily the dominant pull? The evidence suggests that morality is in reality associated with the interplay of needs: egotism and even cruelty, as well as pro-social empathy.

Let us take two examples of moral precepts that accommodate behaviours that are far from social within religious moral traditions.

Torture has a thematic hold on Christian practice, from the centrality of the crucifixion to the martyrdom of the saints, and of course, we have hell and punishment. There is much engagement in the spectacle of pain and sadism in the current and afterlife. Arguably this elaboration of excruciating pain goes beyond the need for social control for the good of the group. Might it not rather be an accommodation of the sinister side of the human psyche?

Another significant feature of religious morality is the abnegation of self; the ascetic life as the epitome of the godly life. Is this about putting the needs of the group first? Is it not rather about accommodating a release from the irksome demands of choice and want? Isn’t solitary escapism a route to happiness or numbness that is self-centred in the extreme?

Shifts in morality – episodic change and movement over time – provide one of the clearest indications of morality as the tool endeavouring to hold the reins between the muddled drivers of the human psyche. These include major shifts in sexual mores, intergenerational relations, filial duties, expectations of self-sacrifice and self-realisation, and obedience and challenge to authority within the family, community and the state.

The complexity of human motives, their tensions and contradictions, is considerable. They go beyond the dichotomy between sociability and competition. They cross a range of short and long-term impulses, some innate, some cultural and some of which, despite the advances of behavioural science, we do not yet understand. Morality has been a significant player in the maelstrom, but not as a simple promoter of the social instincts, but rather as a manager of the human condition.

Public policy is linked to and reflects morality; it too is about the management of psychological and social tensions. This is particularly true for family policy and the equalities agenda, which have a close interface with moral precepts as they shift over time. However policies are seldom framed in these terms.

The language used tends to be one of aspiring to perfection rather than more neutrally - and realistically - managing tensions. The RSA's work on the Social Brain is taking us in this direction, but there is still some way to go in understanding and facing up to our inherent and all too human internal conflicts.


Clem Henricson FRSA is an Honorary Senior Fellow University of East Anglia and member of the Oxford Centre for Research into Parenting and Children. She was formerly the Director of Research and Policy for the National Family and Parenting Institute.

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