Human Beings Are Wired For Morality
Though our news coverage paints a grim picture, we have grounds for optimism
When it comes to well-being, it seems to matter greatly how it was sought, and why it was sought. According to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, our cells react positively to well-being produced through actions motivated by a noble purpose, while well-being generated as a consequence of mere self-gratification is correlated with long-term negative outcomes. Apparently, “feeling connected to a larger community through a service project” is associated with a decrease in a type of negative stress-induced gene expression.
The view that we’re wired for morality is not a new one, though certainly much of the scientific evidence for it is. Long before anyone had heard of genetics, Adam Smith and Charles Darwin both articulated, each in their own way, why social animals would necessarily behave more morally than immorally.
Yet if the evening news is any indication, we’ve put a great deal of effort into convincing ourselves we’re awful creatures who, far more often than not, behave selfishly. It seems every day around 6:00 p.m. there is a “public service” announcement intended to instill gratitude for our fight or flight response rather than remind us that our ancestors formed tight social bonds and valued loyalty. In other words, cooperation played a much larger role than competition in getting us to this point.
As Darwin put it:
Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.
The primatologist Frans de Waal has documented a sense of fairness in various primates, even if it is a bit less sophisticated than our own. Using examples of cooperation and fairness in our closest relatives, he argues persuasively that morality has a solid foundation in biology. In his book Primates and Philosophers, de Waal argues that
A human being growing up in isolation would never arrive at moral reasoning. Such a [person] would lack the experience to be sensitive to others’ interests, hence lack the ability to look at the world from any perspective other than his or her own. I thus agree with Darwin and Smith that social interaction must be at the root of moral reasoning.
This means that, given evolution—understood both biologically and civilizationally—we should expect social development to correlate with moral development. Martin Luther King shared this conviction, in his own way, when he famously stated that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Though the universe as a whole, to say nothing of the particles, atoms, and molecules it consists of, doesn’t literally have some sort of built-in moral concern for us or anything else, King was right in a more poetic sense.
Unfortunately, today’s progressives share little of King’s long-term optimism about humanity. Conservatives even less. And this despite our best biological evidence offering a pathway to large-scale moral development: If social cooperation is biologically rigged to generate human flourishing, this fact promises an upward moral trajectory. Yet too many become positively apoplectic whenever it’s implied that biology plays a role in shaping our nature.
While it is true the challenges we face appear larger in both scale and degree than any in recent human history, giving up hope is neither constructive nor justified given both our biological and cultural evolution thus far.
One factor feeding this pessimism stems from technology’s capacity to bring news of the disasters to our doorsteps. Every day, lots of people and institutions do incredible things—and we sometimes hear about them. Yet we also have unprecedented access to the all the tragedies occurring in the world, and we hear about those with more regularity. The news has a built-in tragedy bias, which generates a grim outlook about the state of things. For every plane crash that gets all the coverage, there are millions of flights that go off without a hitch. It’s very likely that human behavior is just like this, yet the disproportionate focus on the negative episodes skews our views toward pessimism.
In their book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy conclude their final chapter with the story of how Hancock Bank responded following Hurricane Katrina. Hancock Bank isn’t a huge multi-national, but neither is it a small and inconsequential community bank. Its headquarters, Zolli and Healy report, is a 17-story building that received heavy damage during the hurricane. Three days following Katrina’s strike on the Gulf Coast, ninety of Hancock’s 103 branches were still not able to open their doors due the hit they received from the storm.
But the damage this venerable 112-year-old southern financial institution had received isn’t the story. The story is what the institution’s leaders did following Katrina. I’ll let Zolli and Healy take it from here:
At the height of the calamity, the bank’s executives went back to the institution’s founding charter, more than a century old, and noticed that it focused entirely on serving people and taking care of communities.
The word “profit” never appeared.
So, Hancock Bank’s executives did something remarkable — they enlarged the tribe. While the winds were still subsiding, Hancock employees stood in front of forty of the branches knocked offline, operating from card tables, under tarps, and out of mobile homes, and offered two hundred dollars in cash to anyone who would sign a slip of paper with his or her name, residence, and Social Security number. Not just Hancock customers — anyone. No ID, no problem.
Many of us — probably most of us given the nature of news coverage — have been conditioned to respond to a story of this kind with a strong measure of cynicism. Even if we can be convinced the bank wasn’t simply doing this as some sort of PR stunt, we’re likely to think they were surely naive if they thought they would ever get that money back.
But they did get virtually all of it back. Again, Zolli and Healy:
Hancock’s incredible act of trust paid off handsomely for the bank: Within months, thirteen thousand new accounts were opened at Hancock and deposits had risen by $1.5 billion; within three years, all but $200,000 worth of the initial $200 loans — 99.5 percent — had been paid back.
It’s difficult not to feel at least a little hope for a species which, when handed $200 and knowing that, given the circumstances, the bank will never be able to collect, pays back the money anyway. Many of these individuals were no doubt extremely poor to begin with. These are the individuals we are led to believe frequently feel “entitled” and who often abuse society’s welfare programs. The Hancock Bank story should challenge our preconceptions about human nature, from bankers right down to those living in poverty. Are there stories where the opposite traits are showcased? Certainly, but perhaps greed, dishonesty, and laziness, aren’t nearly as common as we’re made to think.
Failing to recognize our own biology’s preference for meaningful relationships and cooperative activity can, by itself, reinforce negative behaviors that are contrary to our natural inclinations. Perhaps even worse than overlooking biology altogether is getting the biological explanation for our tendency to think and act in certain ways wrong. We are both blessed and cursed with self-awareness, and therefore have the capacity to develop beliefs. While, so far as we can tell, virtually every other animal on earth feels little to no need to explain themselves when they act in a particular way, we have a powerful desire to make sense of our actions. This urge is especially strong when we act in ways we don’t feel particularly proud of.
The problem is, if we develop a false belief regarding bad behavior, the belief will reinforce the behavior. So, for example, if we assume testosterone causes aggression, the likelihood of male aggression will go up, not down. The fact is, neither testosterone or estrogen cause human behavior at all. They influence it, amplifying certain pre-existing tendencies, but they don’t make men rape or cause women to be more empathic.
In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky reports that the kind of behavior that a hormone such as testosterone amplifies will largely depend on what kind of behavior the society or context signals is masculine. In other words, if generosity is sexy, testosterone will amplify generous tendencies in both individual males and across the population as a whole. Sapolsky puts it this way: “What the hormone makes you do depends on what counts as being studly.”
Importantly, Sapolsky also points to research that shows that how we believe our biology influences our behavior actually influences our behavior. Citing one study in which subjects received “either testosterone or saline, without knowing which,” the results showed that that “subjects who believed it was testosterone (independent of whether it actually was) made less generous offers. In other words,” Sapolsky continues, “testosterone doesn’t necessarily make you behave in a crappy manner, but believing that it does and that you’re drowning in the stuff makes you behave in a crappy manner.”
Most people from across the political spectrum are by now convinced humans are pretty lousy creatures. We are told by political idealogues and religious leaders alike that we are inherently selfish and sinful. Though the evening news throws us a positive human interest story now and then, it focuses almost exclusively on negative events like crime, war, and terrible accidents. Environmental activists will fill newsletters and fundraising appeals with examples of destruction, while giving relatively little space to stories of restoration or species recovery. If the ozone hole is closing, it follows that the news coverage of it will diminish as well.
The implications of the testosterone research for all of this negativity is — or should be — clear. If we believe we are stupid, selfish brutes, we risk increasing the very behavior we’re critical of rather than diminishing it. The truth is, we’re social animals. As the research this essay opened with makes clear, our cells literally react positively to cooperation and noble activity. Our bodies want us to get along, and, the news coverage not withstanding, we almost always manage to do so. Very close to 100 percent of us will never kill another human being.
We do face problems, but most of the really big ones are a product of our success, not our stupidity. Climate change, to take the biggest and most obvious example, is very real. But I wonder if in arguing it’s a product of our stupidity and greed as a species we aren’t actually undermining our capacity to deal with it. By wrongly reinforcing the notion that we are selfish and stupid by nature — the modern version of original sin — we’re just reinforcing the belief that there’s nothing we can do about it. Like experimental subjects who think they just received a dose of testosterone, we act in a more greedy, self-absorbed, and dumb manner than we otherwise would in part because we keep hearing that’s who we really are.
We can no longer pretend it’s possible for evolution to produce social creatures anywhere in the universe who don’t favor nobility and meaning over violence and greed. Morality emerges from the preference to be with others in meaningful ways, and cooperation must be a component of any species that achieves civilization. We are better than we think we are. By recognizing this fact, we will move our actions closer to our aspirations.