General Question

Poser's avatar

From an evolutionary standpoint, what are the benefits of ideas such as ethics, morality and conscience?

Asked by Poser (7805points) March 14th, 2008

Not to open a can of flaming worms, but…

It would seem that, from a “survival of the fittest” standpoint, these ideas would be detrimental to the overall survival and strengthening of the species. So how and why did these ideas evolve?

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23 Answers

Spargett's avatar

They all benefit the self, and more importantly in a social creature (such as humans), the group/pack.

Many people don’t realize it, but gossip is an important tool that helps to weed out the weak links in a group that could potentially jeopardize the survival of the group as a whole.

Another aspect if the fact that tight social groups rely heavily on the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality, i.e. social grooming. It’s important to know which members won’t scratch back. Therefor they can be avoided and life can continue on with out any speed bumps, which in a dog eat dog world, can be fatal.

But overall, this is a subject that spans massive distances. This just a very brief and general response that points out a few examples and barely scratched the surface.

The topic you’ll want to research further would be called ”Evolutionary Psychology”. Something I find endlessly fascinating.

ninechars's avatar

It’s hard to imagine that those things are in fact evolved characteristics. They seem difficult to separate from the Western tradition. So in terms of biological evolution, the answer may be “none whatsoever.”

In the broader realm of explaining altruism, usually it’s motivated in terms of protecting one’s own genes; ig, a mother might defend a child in order to ensure that her genes are passed on. Or rather, the genes themselves are protecting the child across generations.

Evolutionary psych too often becomes a post hoc endeavor, however, so proceed with caution.

syz's avatar

They allow us to live as a society (group).

squirbel's avatar

Survival of the fittest… So why do the unfit survive? Isn’t that detrimental to the group and its genetic pool? When and how did morality and consciences evolve, therefore preventing us from killing our deformed newborns and mentally ill members… Or just the frail and sickly period?

syz's avatar

Actually, I think some of our problems as a species are exactly that – technology/science/medicine has removed survival of the fittest. Almost everyone survives now, regardless of whether they have the intelligence or skills to do so.

One of the only-half-joking theories that we have here at work is that the less intelligent someone is, the more prolifically they breed. (I could tell you some truly frightening stories of our clients, clients that make us honestly hope that they do not have children in their care.)

Does that mean that I recommend culling? Of course not. Perhaps that is the cost of developing what we would consider an ethical/moral conscience – we lose that brilliance that allowed us to evolve with such blinding speed.

Mtl_zack's avatar

read frans de waal’s Our Inner Ape

squirbel's avatar

Let’s talk about it here rather than pushing some author’s viewpoint.

Breefield's avatar

I think we keep those weak links in our social groups around because we need them to do menial labor and simply suppport us. Just a speculation…

squirbel's avatar

But my question is less related to why, and more to how consciences and morality developed to prevent us from doing it.

TrenchMouth's avatar

Those ideas help put an end to the survival of the fittest arms race that would otherwise ensue. This leaves the average moral and ethical person complacent enough in his or her daily life to consider risks such as taking on a mortgage. Morals and ethics are a ploy by large coorporations to make you a better customer.

Honestly, they allow for better sleep at night, which an evolving brain apparently needs.

squirbel's avatar

What were the origins of morality and consciences?

qualitycontrol's avatar

people are susceptible to the illusion of morality because it’s socially acceptable. Without this preprogrammed set of rules that have developed over time we would be savages. As far as origin I believe many use their religion as a means by which to guide their morals.

delirium's avatar

Survival of the fittest isn’t ultimately about anyone dying… its about reproduction, mostly.
The capability to be healthy enough to be the most attractive (showing that you have the best genetics) to the opposite sex.

There’s a great book on this, if you want to check it out. Its called “The science of good and evil”.... “Why people Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and FOllow the Golden Rule” by Michael Shermer.
“A century and a half after Darwin first proposed an “evolutionary ethics”, science has begun to tackle the roots of morality. Just as evolutionary biologists study why we are hungry (to motivate us to eat) or why sex is enjoyable (to motivate us to procreate), they are now searching for the very nature of humanity.
In the science of good and evil, psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer explores how humans evolved from social primates into moral primates, how and why morality motivates the human animal, and how the foundation of moral principles can be built upon empirical evidence. Along the way he explains the implications of scientific findings for fate and free will, the existence of pure good and pure evil, andt he development of early moral sentimants among the first humans. As he closes the divide between science and morality, Shermer draws on stories from the Yanamamo, infamously known as the ‘fierce people’ of the tropical rain forest, so the stanford studies on jailers’ behavior in prisons. The sicnece of good and evil is ultimately a profound look at hte moral animal, belief, and the scientific pursuit of truth. ”

Seriously. GREAT read!

That’s one of many books.
/me walks to bookshelf to obtain another to list…
Moral Minds: The nature of right and wrong BY marc d. hauser

Not as good of a read. More wordy than the first one listed.. but still ultimately a good book. (it has a cuter cover too, if you’re the type to judge ;P)

sndfreQ's avatar

My opinion is that constructs relate to survival in civilized cultures that rely on the concept of a social community to survive both as individuals and as a collective. We need things from each other (goods, services, community), so these values are predicated on a structure of principles, mores, laws, and common belief in basic human rights, that can be applied universally. My impression of a baseline for survival in the Western Culture.

unddiefliege's avatar

i guess mankind was as succesful as it is still because we learned to contribute on a complex level. as civilization got more more complex, so did the tasks of each member. they specialized immensivly, making single people valuable for a single and very specialized ability.

to provide security for every potentially valuable member of society, ethics and moral was invented. they try to arrange the coexistence of personal liberties, which are needed to grow in personal fields of interest, thus contributing to the growth of all mankind.

(my english’s bad today, ayayay)

jballou's avatar

Ethics, morality, and conscience have nothing to do with evolution and they didn’t evolve from anything. They are more of a trial and error building upon the history of society. They are all learned ideas, and there is nothing inherent within people to follow those ideas. Children learn from an extremely early age that their actions have social consequence, and that will guide their future actions.

Evolution isn’t anything that we as people can see taking place, obviously, so nothing we notice can really qualify as evolution happening right now.

On top of it all, while I believe in evolution, it IS just a theory.

delirium's avatar

I hate when people say that evolution is just a theory. Its really a pet peeve.

Evolution is just as much of a theory as Gravity is.

and we CAN see evolution taking place. There are endless examples. Domesticated animals as an obvious one. The coolest example that I can cite is bighorn sheep. Their horns have been shrinking for decades now. This is happening with all animals who are hunted for the size of their horns. The ones with the biggest horns get killed and don’t get a chance to reproduce as much as the males with smaller horns.

jacintomendoza's avatar

i think we’re asking the wrong question. i think we should be asking if there is a place for grace, mercy, and forgiveness in a world of evolution where survival of the fittest is the core rule, and is it a world we want to live our lives in?

jacintomendoza's avatar

@ delirium – on gravity there are other theories that overrule it – such is the natural law of aerodynamics, some theories that seem to contradict each other can actually mutually exist. i have nothing against evolution other than people think that it just happens by chance. you’ll have more chances of winning the lottery a million times over than for you to be the person who you are today.

delirium's avatar

A fact is how the world works, a theory is how we explain it.

Critter38's avatar


Gravitational theory is not negated because other forces (momentum, aerodynamics) can be stronger. All this tells us is that some forces are stronger than others, the gravitational pull is still occuring..even if the craft flies into space. I know you use the word overrule…but I think you are implying that evolution can be overcome. Until you stop our allele frequencies from shifting in a population, you can’t overcome evolution. You can easily engage in guided evolution by promoting those populations which are good and nice and whatever, but this does not overrule evolution, all it does is guide the selection process.

How does mercy and forgiveness negate someone’s capacity to reproduce? Would you want to have children with someone who never forgave, or never showed empathy? We are a social primate. Although the issues of how far one’s circle of empathy extends into wider social circles and the net benefit to society are very complex, I know of no society where the immediate family or core social group does better reproductively if they lack empathy and compassion for siblings and close colleagues. Without such altruism (be it reciprical or inclusive fitness as a causal factor) people will not be able to unite to achieve anything, because there would be no trust.

The world we live in is based on societies which have evolved both biologically and culturally…so we do live in a world that is based on “survival of the fittest”. Those societies that failed to propagate are no longer with us.

Also, I can’t tell but it seems like you are making the mistake of equating evolution with chance? Correct me if Im mistaken…Evolution is the opposite of chance because it is not random as to whether an individual successfully reproduces or not. But this does not negate your last sentence because although evolution is not a random process, it is not deterministic to the point of being able to replicate the exact events time after time. So no if we reset the picture, none of us would be here. True.

tennesseejac's avatar

Hopefully, these “ideas” will continue to evolve and weed out the rude people. And, I’m glad that I don’t live in a place where it’s customary to discriminate race and sex (even though i guess it still goes on a little). Eventually I think the “benefits” of these ideas are going to be less jerks, easier living circumstances, more opportunity, no punishment by hanging, a cleaner earth, and better sex.

mamabeverley's avatar

Morality, ethics and conscience are all bred in us to prevent us from killing eachother. In reality, if “The Bomb” was dropped and society was disrupted, you can bet we would “de-evolve” to a clan/survivalist mentality, and most morality and ethics would be out the window. I think most morality is fear of a greater power, what ever that is to you. A whole “Defending your Life” scenario. I hate to think that I may have to go justify my actions to my God. That is what keeps most of us in line. We are all just animals of a different kind. We think we are superior beacause we live in houses and shop at the grocery store, instead of living in the jungle and getting our food off of trees. Take the houses away and we are just animals.

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