The origin of human morality (as opposed to justice) is an old philosophical chestnut. Two hundred years ago, one of the greatest of all German philosophers, Emmanuel Kant, wrote “Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within.”
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’ most potent argument for the existence of God is the ubiquitous existence of right and wrong in everyday human interactions. Independently, while working in a prison almost 40 years ago, I came to the conclusion that the idea of right and wrong must be a solid part of human nature simply on the grounds that criminals were imbued with it. I had ingested enough of Darwin to have adopted the belief that, a “solid” piece of human nature meant that it was inheritable, in other words, genetic, as opposed to culturally acquired or theological.
Maybe Darwin had proven that God was not needed for the creation of species, but being a man of his Victorian times, he had no problems with considering human morality a legitimate feature that had been evolved for its capacity to confer fitness, as opposed to being a consequence of our rationality. Several weeks after I had come to this same conclusion, while reading The Descent of Man, I was exhilarated to find that he had given human morality a great deal of thought and had come up with a penetrating answer to this ancient philosophical conundrum. He wrote that, as a rule, natural selection occurs at the level of individuals competing with one another, so morality would not be evolved. However, past a certain threshold of the individual’s dependency on a group for survival, cooperation and morality would be naturally selected within a group in competition with other groups.
However, I was not seeing much morality in prison, but lots of justice, and was more interested in something I knew was real. Justice has to do with the enforcement of morality like the prison itself and the efforts by the prisoners to enforce their own brands of justice within the prison. In my mind justice came before morality: people were moral because they innately had the motivation and knowledge to enforce justice. This was a thought that had occurred to me before I had been thoroughly indoctrinated by Darwinian thinking, because it explained the existence of morality by the agency not of natural selection, but of previously evolved human instincts for justice. Of course, this just switched the Darwinian “why” question from morality to justice, but, nevertheless, there was a very significant difference that was unknown to me at the time. My simplistic thought was that the whole process of the criminal justice system in which I was involved was just a modern iteration of an equivalent process that had gone on for millions of years in the groups of our ancestors, who had selected the good guys by effectively weeding out the bad guys, generation after generation.
I was speculating that morality itself was not selected naturally by chance, but by dint of the intentional efforts, and, yes, the struggle, of our ancestors. I was too naïve to know that the attribution of any intentional motivations to selection is strictly taboo in Darwinian thinking. I hadn’t learned yet that the word, “struggle” referred very specifically to the individual’s struggle for survival in direct competition with others. The struggle I had in mind was countless generations of groups struggling to rid themselves of divisive and disruptive individuals. I naturally thought that the motivation for justice had occurred initially, which then caused and maintained thereafter the benefits of morality in groups. This gave a general direction to my thinking. I was looking for an initial shift towards justice in human evolution so, for decades I became involved in conceiving of biological mechanisms of natural selection by means of which creatures themselves could have evolved the long-lasting capacity do the selecting themselves via dispensing justice. This made sense to me because early on in prison, I not only became a believer in the existence of justice in human nature, I also became a believer that we possess as well a very strong evil side (but not as strong as justice). I simply came to the conclusion in prison that the reason that people are good is because of the effects of groups exercising justice over very long periods of time.