Why Be Good?

What motivates human beings to act morally?

Are humans seeking to gain approval from others? To avoid punishment? Or is doing the right thing, even when the cost to personal advantage is high, compelling for its own sake? Philosophers and theologians have traditionally claimed that genuinely moral action is undertaken for its own sake. More recently, however, researchers in the human sciences have made their own contributions, in conjunction with the study of human evolution, and these are often in tension with moral theory in theology and philosophy. Has morality evolved as something advantageous for humanity as a species, and if so, can humans still be psychologically motivated to act morally for its own sake?

One of the latest offerings in the growing body of work on the evolution of morality suggests the possibility for fruitful conversation between the humanities and human sciences on this point.

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Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Morality is noteworthy for a number of reasons, one of which is his treatment of the complexity of moral motivation. While for Tomasello morality in evolutionary terms exists to facilitate the distinctive forms of cooperation found in human communities, and to make this cooperation stable and profitable, the psychology that has evolved to achieve this end is multifaceted and complex. Over the course of his account, Tomasello treats at least four different forms of moral motivation.

First, drawing on the work of Frans de Waal and others, Tomasello argues that sympathetic concern for others, rooted in mammalian patterns of nurturing offspring, provides one kind of motivation for moral actions. Unlike in chimps, however, humans are not just sympathetic to those with whom they have formed strategic partnerships. Rather, human sympathy has evolved in the context of wider interdependence, meaning that the welfare of the individual is inextricably tied to the welfare of the group and vice versa. This extensive group interdependence, Tomasello argues, has selected for a broader concern for others than is typical in other primates.

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A second form of moral motivation that has evolved in humans in Tomasello’s account has its basis in distinctively human rationality. Unlike other social animals, Tomasello notes that humans engage in a particular form of collaborative activity that relies on a shared understanding that all participants are working together to achieve a goal and each knows that the others know they are working together. Furthermore, the partners are equivalent in the sense that they know they cannot achieve the goal independently. They have what Tomasello calls “joint intentionality” and “self-other equivalence.” This structure to human cooperative behavior ultimately leads to notions of fairness that motivate all participants. If each participant recognizes the equivalence of all others, then there is a mutual respect and an implied commitment to each fulfilling her role and sharing in the profit. Tomasello argues that the gradual increase of such forms of collaboration in hominin history led to motivations rooted in a sense of fairness or justice.

Tomasello does not limit human moral motivation to internal motives like sympathy and fairness. He also observes the way in which concern for reputation among group members, as well as concern for external sanctions like punishment, motivate human behavior. As early humans became increasingly dependent on cooperation, the question of whom to choose as a collaborative partner would have been a significant selective pressure. Those who were chosen by others would reap the benefits of collaboration and thus enhance their own survival and reproduction. This phenomenon of partner choice would have selected for individuals who were concerned with their reputation for being good collaborators. The group reliance on successful collaboration would also facilitate group sanctioning of those who violated moral norms. Such sanctioning would be understood as legitimate by all parties because of the aforementioned structure of the collaborative endeavor as one characterized by joint intentionality and self-other equivalence.

In addition to providing a compelling explanation of the evolution of moral motivation, this account is noteworthy in the very fact of its complexity. It recognizes that human moral behavior arises from a variety of sources. From the perspective of moral theory—whether in philosophy or theology—such complexity is quite appealing. In the first place, it is attentive to the depth of human experience and human reflection on moral behavior (and it is noteworthy here that Tomasello is conversant with moral philosophy, especially Kantian variants). Such complexity, however, also leaves the door open to further moral reflection. If evolution has equipped us with multiple avenues of moral motivation, then it is also possible for us to ask if any of these is to be preferred. Can we, in the structure of our communal life, facilitate certain forms of motivation as ideal, while leaving others, such as punishment, to a last resort? And does understanding our evolutionary heritage provide any clues as to how, practically speaking, one might privilege some forms of moral motivation over others? For its part, Christian theology recognizes that human beings act rightly for a variety of motives, but it also makes the eschatological claim that genuinely good human action will have its ultimate source not in fear or a desire for approval, but in goodness itself. The law, says the prophet Jeremiah, will be written on the heart.