Moral Philosophy

Morality and altruism are linked and so I will start with altruism. To many people altruism is the dullest of topics and is linked to outdated philosophers who still argue that all actions are selfish. But it’s possible that the levels of altruism are in a state of flux and an increase in altruism might lead to the greatest genetic change of humankind and give it a new destiny.

There are three types of altruism. The first is genetic altruism, a product of the evolutionary process, where parents give their children love, compassion and empathy. All are necessary for survival. Genetic altruism also allows for helping relatives to varying extents as they share many of the same genes.

To digress for one paragraph, I need here to mention the idea of “redirection” and I will use hunting as an example. Hunting is a genetic desire of most animals and certainly of humans. But where are the animals in a modern city? Compelled to exercise this desire we redirect hunting with games. Football most likely originated as a pre-hunting practice for children with an animal’s bladder for a ball. The football is the wild animal that must be caught in a net. The players receive satisfaction from hunting with the football’s successful capture. But space is so limited today that even playing football is difficult, so, for most people, this “hunting participation” is reduced to watching others hunt the football. An audience participates by observation. Once the football is caught, it is then “released” and the process repeated with the ball again recaptured. After a few hours the genetic hunting desire of the audience has been met. This type of hunting, while not as good as a real hunt, is better than nothing. Other hunting games, such as tennis or chess, and now computer games, give a similar satisfaction. People need to address their genetic desires to remain psychologically healthy. Real hunting has become industrialised and emotionless today with modern farms and factories.

A childless couple that wanted children but due to some genetic anomaly or other misfortune cannot have them, might adopt some. Here they give love and compassion to children not genetically related as if they were their own children. Similarly, they may start an orphanage, work for the homeless, or in some other way satisfy their genetic desire for nurturing. It is common for nuns to work with children or the homeless as their vows won’t allow reproduction. Mother Teresa could be an example of a woman with a strong nurturing urge. In all these cases, nurturing can bring great happiness. All these actions are redirected genetic altruism like the redirected hunting mentioned above.

The second type of altruism is reciprocal altruism where people help other non-related people.  People in a village may come together in defence even though many may not be related. A person in retirement may work for a club like “Apex” and help others as he was helped by the same club when he was young. This type of altruism is of the form “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours”. People help others with the possibility of being helped in turn if they have the need. The laws of governments are mostly reciprocal. You pay tax and for this you get roads, speed limits, schools, hospitals and police for protection. The government is kind to you for a fee.

The third type of altruism could be called “pure” altruism. Some philosophers argue that this type of altruism cannot exist, as a couple, who help others at their own expense without the expectation of help in return, will have fewer resources to give to their own children and so these children will be materially disadvantaged. Any new genes for this type of altruism would not survive in a population for long. But this pure altruism is really so elusive that I can’t think of an example. I could never be sure that the example was not really genetic or reciprocal altruism. It is a common error in books to mistake redirected genetic altruism for pure altruism. Mother Teresa had a strong genetic nurturing desire and so helped many people rather than a few but this was redirected genetic altruism.

But let’s say genetic mutations allow for a truly altruistic person to be born. Of course they would be materially disadvantaged, but there is no reason that they should die immediately. They may survive a generation or two and even produce altruistic children. So this third type of altruism should be able to exist. But in the long term, many philosophers argue that this pure altruism should die out. That is, any new genes for pure altruism will not persist in the population.

This may be true for most of the evolution of Homo sapiens but things have changed in societies of the last few thousand years with the invention of the social welfare system. A struggling family with many children gets money for food and accommodation with no expectation of any help in return. The “rare altruist” of earlier times is now guaranteed assistance by the commonplace welfare system. Here the altruist is bound to survive and go on to produce a family. Any new altruistic children who would have had a low probability of survival in the past would now have an improved probability of survival.

Almost all countries today have some sort of welfare where the disadvantaged get at least some support. Over time, perhaps in hundreds of generations, a welfare system would allow any genes for pure altruism to spread in a population. It may have already happened to some extent. This could be the most important change in the history of evolution. It would certainly make humans unique over all the other animals. We would significantly change as a species. There could be a reduction of aggression and territorial disputes, wars should decrease and kindness prevail. The world could be a much-improved place to live with this genetic change being our saving.

But how could such a welfare system arise in the first place? The first seeds probably came from religions and philosophers. The Confucian and later Christian idea of “love your neighbour” has pure altruism as a central idea (the neighbour being an unrelated person). A favourite theme of Mohammed was to help orphans as well as the giving of alms. If pure altruism was proposed in the past as the highest virtue, then it is continued in the present day by vote. I suppose it is like insuring your house. A small amount of money for insurance will stop the long-term worry of being homeless if one’s house burns down.

Similarly, if the majority of people are prepared to vote for a small amount of tax to go towards a welfare system to prevent the worry of losing one’s job or otherwise falling on hard times, then this idea will become a standard through the passing of laws. While voting for welfare can still be selfish in one sense, in another sense it helps the survival of non-related people, some of whom might have genes for altruism.

The human genome could be changed by this emerging cultural welfare system.  As organisms adapt to their environments through the process of the differential survival of offspring, by adding a welfare system for all, the environment of new offspring is now altered from the traditional environments of our past. Just as you cannot throw pollutants in the air and expect the climate to remain the same, you cannot put welfare systems into human populations and expect the genome to remain the same. Changes may take hundreds or thousands of years but in time we could become a kinder species.

Now to morality. A moral action is one that does not detract from society. If the above logic is correct moral actions should be on the increase.

to be continued……