A Common Morality
Christopher Boehm points out in his book on moral origins that one difference between humans and their closest cousins—chimpanzees and bonobos—is that we blush, a sure sign of shame.[i] Shame occurs when we experience a gap between how others see us and how we want to be seen. It turns out that our morality has its origins not in individual development, but rather in what evolutionists call “social selection.”
Boehm believes that when hunter-gather societies began to hunt large game, they required cooperation of all hunters, and this requirement made it necessary that the division of the kill would also be equally distributed. How else to ensure that all would participate fully in future hunts? Although the earliest humans may have been egoists, around 45,000 thousand years ago, when hunter-gather communities required cooperation for survival, they “become decisively equalitarian”[ii]
By itself, this equalitarian requirement would not have made humans moral. The moral conscience emerged because a few threatened this social cooperation. A few of the hunters sought to capture more than their share of praise for a successful hunt or to take more than their share of the killed game. These are the early thieves, cheats, and free loaders that we know all too well today. Our moral conscience, it turns out, emerged in dealing with such “deviants.”
Boehm found groups used various means to deal with such deviants. One common form was gossip. Gossiping about someone’s bullying antics might potentially so damage his reputation that he would not engage in such behavior again. Especially if one’s reputation was socially valuable in gaining access to community goods or a better mate. In Boehm’s research, he finds instances not only of shaming, but also of exclusion, ostracism, and even capital punishment. These acts of protecting an equalitarian social order had another consequence: they produced a consciousness of what one should be like. As hunter-gather communities protected themselves from bullies and other deviants, in other words, they also developed a sense of what they were protecting—egalitarian, and generous human relationship. What emerged over time was a consciousness not only of what was wrong (a bully) but also what was right (a generous person).
These two processes—the protection of social norms and their affirmation through internalization—do seem to go together. In any case, early human communities knew that the world was a dangerous place and their best way of living together involved providing for one another, and protecting their social practices of cooperation from thieves, cheaters, bullies, and sociopaths. I doubt if our world today is much different.
[i] Christopher Boehm Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame (New York: Basic Books, 2012.
[ii] Ibid., p. 154.