A Guide to Reality, Part 11

In chapter 6 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Professor Alex Rosenberg offers an explanation of what he calls “nice nihilism”. The point he wants to make is that, although we should all be ethical nihilists and recognize that morality is an illusion, nihilism is nothing to worry about. We humans have evolved to be nice to each other, on balance, so we can continue to behave ethically despite giving up the idea that any of our ethical beliefs are true or correct.

Rosenberg begins with an account of human evolution, beginning a few million years ago when our ancestors left the African jungle and moved to the savanna. 


Scientists believe that our ancestors began consuming more protein on the savanna (see striped animals above). This dietary change had certain biological effects, including increased fertility:

[There were] more mouths to feed over longer periods, but mothers prevented from providing for older offspring by the demands of younger ones; males living longer and so having still more offspring, putting further strains on available resources; and those offspring needing literally years of protection and nourishment before they could fend for themselves [118].

Living on the savanna also meant our ancestors had to compete with other predators and scavengers and avoid being eaten themselves. To make a long story short, the key to survival was cooperation, including the division of labor.

Rosenberg admits that reconstructing the very early history of the human race is somewhat speculative, but he invokes game theory to help explain why cooperation won out. Game theory, supported by computer simulations, has revealed that “tit for tat” and “fair and equal” strategies have the most favorable outcomes over time and, as he points out, human evolution was not an overnight phenomenon.

Still, he wonders whether biology and game theory can alone account for the widespread existence of norms like fairness, equity and cooperation:

But how does natural selection get people to adopt such norms? How does it shape such adaptations? … This problem looks like it’s too hard to be solved by genetically-based natural selection. Maybe if there were genes for playing tit for tat, they would be selected for. But at least in the human case, if not in animal models, such genes seem unlikely [134].

It isn’t clear why Rosenberg doubts the existence of a strong genetic basis for cooperation. On the contrary, there is some recent evidence that human infants have a built-in sense of fair play (The Atheists Guide was published in 2011). Instead, Rosenberg argues that core morality (the morality that’s common among world cultures) has come about partly through a process of “cultural natural selection” (134).

Again, I’m not sure what Rosenberg means by “cultural natural selection”, since earlier he suggested that “core morality is almost certainly locked-in by now” (108). Obviously, purely cultural practices are learned, not transmitted genetically. There is no set of genes that transmits the rules of baseball. Maybe he’s merely pointing out that there is no genetic basis for specific moral rules or practices, like keeping promises or tit-for-tat. Instead, he asks:

What kind of a device could nature have hit on in the course of our evolution that could guarantee to others that we will act in accordance with norms of niceness, fairness, equity and much of the rest of the moral core? It would have had to be a device that overrides the temptation to cheat, cut corners, free-ride when the opportunity occurs [136].

His answer is emotion. Emotions are “hardwired by genes we share” and “get harnessed together” with norms that are adaptive in our environments. They “motivate enforcement” of core morality and also morality’s local variations. For example, he argues that different norms will develop in pastoral vs. agricultural communities. Shepherds have to protect against rustlers, since their animals are easy to lead away. Farmers don’t have a similar problem, since a rustler can’t lead away a herd of wheat. As a result, herding communities develop strong emotions regarding theft and the need for revenge, while farming communities don’t (maybe they develop strong emotions regarding their plots of land, but Rosenberg doesn’t say). Some important combinations of norms and emotions enhance fitness in all environments, however; the norms in those combinations become part of core morality.

I don’t think it’s important for our purposes to understand exactly where the obscure boundary is between genetic and cultural transmission of norms and emotions. His thesis is that there is a strong relationship between morality and emotion, and that natural selection has played an important role in the evolution of both. In particular, the emotions of shame and guilt have been especially important in getting people to choose long-term benefits (e.g., remaining part of a community by behaving nicely) over short-term ones (e.g., enjoying candy you stole from your little brother).

Pointing out the strong connection between morality and emotion isn’t new with Rosenberg or isn’t an especially scientistic view. That connection has been emphasized by most philosophers, some of whom have argued that morality is a kind of cultural emotionalism: morality promotes or should promote behavior that makes people happy or feel good in the long run, and discourages or should discourage behavior that doesn’t. It’s also been pointed out that emotions aren’t usually irrational. People often get angry over things that aren’t that important from other people’s perspective, but angry people can almost always say why they’re angry, and there is usually some validity to their reasoning.

The last issue Rosenberg addresses in chapter 6 is why there is so much bad behavior if morality has been programmed into us. The obvious answer is that there is always variation in traits that are subject to evolution. With morality, most people end up in the middle, with saints on one side and sociopaths on the other. The chapter ends with the reminder that, although core morality evolved into its present form and has contributed to the reproductive success of human beings, that doesn’t make it right or true, since ethical beliefs are neither true nor false. 

One question Rosenberg should have considered in greater depth is whether accepting ethical nihilism would make people behave less ethically. His answer is that we shouldn’t worry about the nihilists who may be lurking in our midst because they’ve also been programmed via natural and cultural selection to behave ethically (for the most part).

But some studies have shown that after being exposed to the idea that they lack free will and therefore aren’t responsible for their actions, people tend to become more selfish or dishonest. Being exposed to new philosophical ideas can clearly affect behavior. It’s been reported that one philosopher, Saul Smilansky, refuses to teach his students about free will and determinism because he’s afraid that their sense of responsibility will be affected. So it isn’t clear at all that the widespread adoption of ethical nihilism by itself or as part of scientism would leave society’s moral behavior untouched. This might be a case in which we couldn’t handle the truth.

Next installment: Whether we should let consciousness be our guide.