Blaming the Victim - Morals of The Story

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Blaming the Victim
Morals of The Story

As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives, according as they lead to this end.

The Descent of Man (1871)

We acquire many notions unconsciously, without abstracting them & reasoning on them (as justice ...)

In the mid-1970s, the book Sociobiology gave the new Darwinian paradigm its first burst of publicity. It also gave its author, E. O. Wilson, his first burst of public abuse. He was called a racist, a sexist, a capitilist imperialist. His book was characterized as a right-wing plot, a blueprint for the continued oppression of the oppressed.

It may seem odd that such fears would persist many decades after the unmasking of the "naturalistic fallacy" and the crumbling of social Darwmism's intellectual foundation. But the word natural has more than one application to moral questions. If a man cheating on his wife, or exploiting the weak, excuses himself by saying it's "only natural," he doesn't necessarily mean it's divinely ordained. He may just mean that the impulse runs so deep as to be practically irresistible; what he's doing may not be good, but he can't much help it.

For years, the "sociobiology debate" subsisted largely on this one issue. Darwinians were accused of "genetic determinism" or {345} "biological determinism" — which, it was said, left no room for "free will." They then accused their accusers of confusion; Darwinism, rightly understood, posed no threat to lofty political and moral ideals.

It is true that the accusations were often confused (and that the charges directed specifically against Wilson were gratuitous). But it's also true that some fears on the left have a firm grounding even after the confusion is dispelled. The question of moral responsibility in the view of evolutionary psychology is a large one, and dicey. In fact, it is large enough, properly understood, to alarm the right as well as the left. There are deep and momentous issues lying out there, going largely unaddressed.2

As it happens, Charles Darwin addressed the deepest of them more than a century ago in thoroughly acute and humane fashion. But he didn't tell the world. As aware as any modern Darwinian ol how explosive a truly honest analysis of moral responsibility might be, he never published his thoughts. They have remained in obscurity, in the darkest recesses of his private writings — a grab bag of papers that he labeled, with typically emphatic modesty, "Old & USELESS notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points." Now, with the biological basis of behavior coming rapidly to light, is .1 good time to excavate Darwin's treasure.


The occasion for Darwin's analysis is a conflict between ideal and real. Brotherly love is great in theory. In practice, however, problems arise. Even if you could somehow convince lots of people to pursue brotherly love — reality problem number one — you would run into reality problem number two: brotherly love tends to make society fall apart.

After all, true brotherly love is unconditional compassion; it har bors utter doubt about the validity of harming anyone, however repugnant their behavior. And in a society where no one gets punished for anything, repugnant behavior will grow.

This paradox lurks in the background of utilitarianism, especially John Stuart Mill's rendering of it. Mill may say that a good utilitar ian is someone who loves unconditionally, but until the day when {346} everyone does love unconditionally, the realization of utilitarianism's goal — maximum overall happiness — will entail highly conditional love. Those who haven't seen the light must be encouraged to act nice. Murder must be punished, altruism praised, and so on. People must be held accountable.3

Remarkably, Mill didn't confront this tension anywhere in his basic text on the subject, Utilitarianism. A few dozen pages after embracing the universal love taught by Jesus, he endorsed the principle "of giving to each what they deserve, that is, good for good as well as evil for evil."4 This is an irreconcilable difference — between saying "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and saying, "Do unto others as they have done to you"; between saying "Love your enemies" or "Turn the other cheek" and saying "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."5

Maybe Mill can be excused for taking a charitable view of the sense of justice, the governor of reciprocal altruism.6 As we've noted, the machinery of reciprocal altruism is, for a utilitarian, a real evolutionary godsend; by dishing out a steady stream of tits for tats, it provides the sticks and carrots that keep people in touch with the needs of others. Given that human nature didn't evolve to elevate the community's welfare, it does a none too shabby job of it. Lots of non-zero-sum fruits get reaped.

Still, thanking the retributive impulse for services rendered isn't the same as thanking it for light shed. Whatever its practical value, there is no reason to believe that the inherent sense of justice — the sense that people deserve punishment, that their suffering is a good thing in and of itself — reflects a higher truth. The new Darwinian paradigm, indeed, reveals the sense of rightness surrounding retribution to be mere genetic expediency, and to be warped accordingly. This unmasking was part of the basis for my suggestion in the previous chapter that the new paradigm will tend to steer people toward compassion.

There is a second powerful reason that the idea of retributive punishment looks dubious from the standpoint of modern Darwinisn. Evolutionary psychology professes to be the surest path to a complete explanation of human behavior, good and bad, and of the {347} underlying psychological states: love, hate, greed, and so on. And to know all is to forgive all. Once you see the forces that govern behavior, it's harder to blame the behaver.

This has nothing to do with a supposedly right-wing doctrine of "genetic determinism." To begin with, the question of moral responsibility has no exclusive ideological character. Though some on the far right might be thrilled to hear that businessmen can't help but exploit laborers, they would be less happy to hear that criminals can't help but commit crimes. And neither Bible-thumpers in the "moral majority" nor feminists especially want to hear male philanderers say they're slaves to their hormones.

More to the point: the phrase "genetic determinism" exudes ignorance as to what the new Darwinism is about. As we've seen, everyone (including Darwin) is a victim not of genes, but of genes and environment together: knobs and tunings.

Then again, a victim is a victim. A stereo has no more control over its tunings than over the knobs it was born with; whatever importance you attach to the two factors, there's no sense in which the stereo is to blame for its music. In other words: though the fears of "genetic determinism" that were current in the 1970s were unfounded, the fears of "determinism" weren't. Yet that's also the good news — more reason to doubt impulses of blame and censure and extend our compassion beyond its natural confines of family and friends. Then again, that's also the bad news: this philosophically valid endeavor has some pernicious real-world effects. The situation, in short, is a mess.

Of course, you can argue with the proposition that all we arc is knobs and tunings, genes and environment. You can insist that there's something ... something more. But if you try to visualize the form this something would take, or articulate it clearly, you'll find the task impossible, for any force that is not in the genes or the environment is outside of physical reality as we perceive it. It's beyond scientific discourse.

This doesn't mean it doesn't exist, of course. Science may not tell the whole story. But just about everyone on both sides of the sociobiology debate in the 1970s professed to be scientifically minded. That's what was so ironic about all the anthropologists and {348} psychologists who complained of sociobiology's "genetic determinism." The then-reigning philosophy of the social sciences was "cultural determinism" (as anthropologists put it) or "environmental determinism" (as psychologists put it). And when it comes to free will, and thus to blame and credit, determinism is determinism is determinism. As Richard Dawkins has noted, "Whatever view one takes on the question of determinism, the insertion of the word 'genetic' is not going to make any difference."7


Darwin saw all of this. He didn't know about genes, but he certainly knew about the concept of heredity, and he was a scientific materialist; he didn't think any nonphysical forces were needed to explain human behavior or anything else in the natural world.8 He saw that all behavior must therefore boil down to heredity and environment. "[O]ne doubts existence of free will," he wrote in his notebooks, because "every action determined by heredetary [sic] constitution, example of others or teaching of others."9

What's more, Darwin saw how these forces have their combined effect: by determining a person's physical "organization," which in turn determines thought and feeling and behavior. "My wish to improve my temper, what does it arise from but organization," he asked in his notebook. "That organization may have been affected by circumstances & education, & by choice which at that time organization gave me to will."

Here Darwin is making a point that even today often goes ungrasped: all influences on human behavior, environmental as well as hereditary, are mediated biologically. Whatever combination of things has given your brain the exact physical organization it has at this moment (including your genes, your early environment, and your assimilation of the first half of this sentence), that physical organization is what determines how you will respond to the second half of this sentence. So, even though the term genetic determinism is confused, the term biological determinism isn't — or, at least, it wouldn't be if people would realize that it's not a mere synonym for genetic determinism. Then again, if they realized that, they'd realize they could drop the word "biological" without losing anything. The {349} sense in which E. O. Wilson is a "biological determinist" is the sense in which B. F. Skinner was a "biological determinist" — which is to say, he was a determinist.11 The sense in which evolutionary psychology is "biologically determinist" is the sense in which all psychology is "biologically determinist."

As for why, if all behavior is determined, we "feel" as if we're making free choices, Darwin had a strikingly twentieth-century explanation: our conscious mind isn't privy to all the motivating forces. "The general delusion about free will obvious. — because man has power of action, & he can seldom analyse his motives (originally mostly INSTINCTIVE, & therefore now great effort of reason to discover them: this is important explanation) he thinks they have none.'

Darwin doesn't seem to have suspected what the new Darwinism suggests: that some of our motives are hidden from us not incidentally but by design, so that we can credibly act as if they aren't what they are; that, more generally, the "delusion about free will" may be an adaptation. Still, he got the basic idea: free will is an illusion, brought to us by evolution. All the things we are commonly blamed or praised for — ranging from murder to theft to Darwin's eminently Victorian politeness — are the result not of choices made by some immaterial "I" but of physical necessity. "This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything," Darwin wrote in his notes. "[N]or ought one to blame others."13 Here Darwin has unearthed the most humane scientific insight of all — and, at the same time, one of the most dangerous.

Darwin saw the danger in the forgiveness brought by understand ing; he saw that determinism, by eroding blame, threatens society's moral fiber. But he wasn't too worried about this doctrine spreading. However compelling the logic seemed to a thoughtful scientific ma terialist, most people aren't thoughtful scientific materialists. "This view will not do harm, because no one can be really fully convinced of its truth, except man who has thought very much, & he will know his happiness lays in doing good & being perfect, & therefore will not be tempted, from knowing every thing he does is independent of himself to do harm."14 In other words: So long as this knowledge {350} is confined to a few English gentlemen, and doesn't infect the masses, everything will be all right.

The masses are now getting infected. What Darwin didn't realize is that the technology of science would eventually make the case for determinism vivid. He saw that "thought, however unintelligible it may be, seems as much function of organ, as bile of liver," but he probably didn't dream that we would start pinpointing specific connections between the organ and the thoughts.15

Today these connections regularly make headlines. Scientists link crime to low serotonin. Molecular biologists try — with slight but growing success — to isolate genes that incline the brain toward mental illness. A natural chemical called oxytocin is found to underlie love. And an unnatural chemical, the drug Ecstasy, induces a deeply benign state of mind; now anyone can be Gandhi for a day. People are getting the sense — from news in genetics, molecular biology, pharmacology, neurology, endocrinology — that we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can't discern but that science can.

This picture, though utterly biological, has no special connection with evolutionary biology. Genes, neurotransmitters, and the various other elements of mind control are being studied, for the most part, without special inspiration from Darwinism.

But Darwinism will increasingly frame this picture and give it narrative force. We will see not only that, for example, low serotonin encourages crime, but why: it seems to reflect a person's perception of loreclosed routes to material success; natural selection may "want" that person to take alternate routes. Serotonin and Darwinism together could thus bring sharp testament to otherwise vague complaints about how criminals are "victims of society." A young inner-city thug is pursuing status by the path of least resistance, no less than you; and he is compelled by forces just as strong and subtle as the ones that have made you what you are. You may not reflect on this when he kicks your dog or snatches your purse, but afterwards, on reflection, you may. And you may then see that you would have been him had you been born in his circumstances.

The landslide of news about the biology of behavior is just beginning. People, by and large, haven't succumbed to it and concluded {351} that we're all mere machines. So the notion of free will lives on. But it shows signs of shrinking. Every time a behavior is found to rest on chemistry, someone tries to remove it from the realm of volition. That "someone" is typically a defense lawyer. The most famous example is the "Twinkie defense." A lawyer convinced a California jury that a junk-food diet had left his client with a "diminished capacity" to think clearly, and that full "premeditation" of his crime — murder — was thus impossible. Other examples abound. In both British and American courts, women have used premenstrual syndrome to partly insulate themselves from criminal responsibility. As Martin Daly and Margo Wilson rhetorically asked in their book Homicide, can a "high-testosterone" defense of male murderers bo far behind?16

Of course, psychology was eroding culpability even before biology came along to help it. "Posttraumatic stress disorder" is a defense lawyer's favorite malady — said to encompass everything from "battered-woman syndrome" to "depression-suicide syndrome" (which purportedly leads people not only to commit crimes, but to bungle them, with the unconscious goal of being caught). The dis order was originally couched in purely psychological terms, with little reference to biology. But work is constantly under way to link such maladies to biochemistry, because physical evidence is what really gets a jury's attention. Already, an expert witness touting a conjectured posttraumatic stress disorder subcategory called "action-addict syndrome" (a dependency on the thrill of danger) has traced the problem to endorphins, which the criminal desperately craves, and obtains via crime.17 And compulsive gamblers, it turns out, have abnormally high levels of endorphins in their blood when they gamble. Thus (the argument goes) gambling is a disease. Well, we all like our endorphins, and we all do things to get them, ranging from jogging to sex. And when we do those things, our endorphin levels are abnormally high. No doubt rapists feel good at some point during or after their crimes; no doubt that pleasure has a biochemical basis; and no doubt this basis will come to light. If defense lawyers get their way and we persist in removing biochemically mediated actions from the realm of free will, then within decade {352} that realm will be infinitesimal. As, indeed, it should be — on strictly intellectual grounds, at least.

There are at least two ways to respond to the growing body of evidence that biochemistry governs all. One is to use the data, perversely, as proof of volition. The argument runs as follows: Of course all these criminals have free will, regardless of the state of their endorphins, blood-sugar levels, and everything else. Because if bio-chemistry negated free will, then none of us would have free will! And we know that's not the case. Right? (Pause.) Right?

This sort of whistling in the dark is often heard in the books and articles that bemoan crumbling culpability. It was also implicit in the referendum that finally removed the "diminished capacity" defense from California law. Presumably the voters sensed that if something as natural as sugar could indeed turn you into a robot, that would mean everyone's a robot, and no one deserves punishment. Precisely. The second response to dehumanizing biochemical data is Darwin's — complete surrender. Give up on free will; no one really deserves blame or credit for anything; we are all slaves of biology. We must view a wicked man, Darwin wrote in his notes, "like a sickly one." It would "be more proper to pity than to hate & be disgusted."

In short: brotherly love is a valid doctrine. The hatred and revulsion that send people to jail and to the gallows — and, in other contexts, lead to arguments, fights, and wars — are without intellectual foundation. Of course, they may have a practical foundation, Indeed, that's the problem: blame and punishment are as practically neccssary as they are intellectually vacuous. That's why Darwin took comfort in the hope that his insights would never become common.


What to do? If Darwin knew that the cat, alas, was out of the bag, that the material underpinnings of behavior were on public display, what would he suggest? How should society respond to creeping knowledge of our robotic nature? There are hints in his notes. To begin with, we should try to disentangle punishment from the visceral impulses that drive it. This will sometimes mean narrowing its use, {353} restricting it to the cases where it actually does some good. "[I]t is right to punish criminals; but solely to deter others," Darwin wrote. This is very much in the spirit of the time-honored utilitarian prescription. We should punish people only so long as that will raise overall happiness. There is nothing good, in itself, about retribution, the suffering inflicted on wrongdoers is just as sad as the suffering of everyone else, and counts equally in the grand utilitarian calculus. It is warranted only when outweighed by the growth it brings in the welfare of others, "through the prevention of future crime."19

This idea strikes many people as reasonable and not terribly radical, but taking it seriously would mean overhauling legal doctrine In American law, punishment has several explicit functions. Most are strictly practical: keeping the criminal off the streets, discouraging him from crime after his release, discouraging others who witness his fate, rehabilitating him — all of which a utilitarian would applaud. Bui one of the stated functions of punishment is strictly "moral": retri bution, pure and simple. Even if punishment serves no discernible purpose, it is supposedly good. If on some desert island you happen upon a ninety-five-year-old prison escapee whose very existence was long ago forgotten, you will serve the cause of justice by somehow making him suffer. Even if you don't enjoy dishing out the punishment, and if no one back on the mainland ever hears about it, you can rest assured that, somewhere in the heavens, the God of Justice is smiling.

The doctrine of retributive justice doesn't play the prominent roll-it once played in the courts. But there is discussion these days, es pecially among conservatives, of reemphasizing it. And even now it is one reason courts spend so much time deciding whether people "volitionally" committed a crime — as opposed to being "insane" or "temporarily insane" or having "diminished capacity," or whatever If utilitarians ran the world, messy words like "volition" would never enter the picture. The courts would ask two questions: (a) Did the defendant commit the crime? and (b) What is the practical effect of punishment — on the criminal's own future behavior, and on the behavior of other would-be criminals?

Thus, when a woman who has been beaten or raped by her husband kills or mutilates him, the question wouldn't be whether {354} she has a "disease" called battered-woman syndrome. And when a man kills his wife's lover, the question wouldn't be whether jealousy is "temporary insanity." The question, in both cases, would be whether punishment would prevent these people, and similarly situated people, from committing crimes in the future. This question is impossible to answer precisely, but it's less messy than the question of volition, and it has the added virtue of not being rooted in an outmoded worldview.

Of course, the two questions have a certain amount in common. The courts tend to recognize "free will," and hence justifiable "blame," in the kinds of acts that can be deterred by the anticipation of punishment. Thus, neither a utilitarian nor an old-fashioned judge would send an out-and-out psychotic to jail (though both might institutionalize him if he seemed likely to repeat the crime). As Daly and Wilson write, "The enormous volume of mystico-religious bafflegab about atonement and penance and divine justice and the like is the attribution to higher, detached authority of what is actually a mundane, pragmatic matter: discouraging self-interested competitive acts by reducing their profitability to nil."20

All told, then, "free will" has been a fairly useful fiction, a rough proxy for utilitarian justice. But all the time-wasting debates now in progress (Is alcoholism a disease? Are sex crimes an addiction? Does premenstrual syndrome nullify volition?) suggest that it is beginning to outlive its usefulness. After another decade or two of biological research, it may be more trouble than it's worth; and in the meantime, the scope of "free will" may have shrunk considerably. We will then face (at least) two choices: either (a) artificially restore free will to robustness by redefining it (proclaim, for example, that the existence of a biochemical correlate has no bearing on whether a behavior is volitional); or (b) dispense with volition altogether and adopt explicitly utilitarian criteria of punishment. Both of these options amount to roughly the same thing: as the biological (that is, environmental-genetic) underpinnings of behavior come into view, we must get used to the idea of holding robots responsible for their malfunctions — so long, at least, as this accountability will do some good.

Dispensing with the idea of volition might strip the legal system {355} of some emotional support. Jurors so readily mete out punishment in part because of their vague sense that it's an inherently good thing. Still, this vague sense is a stubborn sense, unlikely to be extinguished by a change of legal doctrine. And even where it weakens, the practical value of punishment will likely remain clear enough to keep jurors doing their jobs.


The truly formidable threat posed by scientific enlightenment is in the moral, not the legal, realm. The problem here isn't that the sense of justice, the governor of reciprocal altruism, will break down entirely. Even people of extreme detachment and humanity, if they feel cheated, lied to, or otherwise mistreated, manage to summon enough indignation for utilitarian purposes. Darwin believed in everyone's ultimate blamelessness, but he could conjure up anger when pressed. He found himself "burning with indignation" at the behavior of his bitter critic, Richard Owen. Writing to Huxley, Darwin said, "I believe I hate him more than you do."21

As a rule, if we all worked toward the ideal of universal com passion and forgiveness, drawing on all the enlightenment modern science has to offer, the meager progress we made would hardly bring civilization tumbling down around us. Few of us are anywhere near overkill in the brotherly-love department. And it is unlikely that all the demystifying logic of modern biology will get us there. The hard animal core of TIT FOR TAT is secure against the ravages of truth.

The real moral danger is less direct. Moral systems draw their strength not just from the principles behind TIT FOR TAT-aggrieved parties punishing offenders — but from society at large pun ishing offenders. Charles Dickens was afraid to take up publicly with his mistress not because his wife would have punished him. (He had already left her; and how much power did she have anyway?) He was afraid, rather, of infamy.

And so it is whenever a strong animal impulse is consistently thwarted by a moral code: violation would bring low repute, the avoidance of which is also a strong animal impulse. Effective moral codes fight fire with fire. {356}

Indeed, they fight fire with an elaborate fire-making machine. Robert Axelrod, whose computer tournament so nicely supported the theory of reciprocal altruism, has also studied the ebb and flow of norms. He finds that robust moral codes rest not just on norms but on "metanorms": society disapproves not only of the code's violators but also of those who tolerate violators by failing to disapprove.22 Had Dickens gone public with his adultery, his friends might well have had to cut ties with him or else suffer punishment themselves for failing to punish.

It is in the world of norms and metanorms, with its oblique and diff use retaliation, that modern science takes its toll on moral fiber. We needn't worry about creeping determinism muting a victim's rage. But the rage of spectators may wane as they come to believe that, for example, male philandering is "natural," a biochemical compulsion — and that, anyway, the wife's retributive furor is an arbitrary product of evolution. Life — the life, at least, of those other than ourselves, our kin, and our close friends — becomes a movie that we watch with the bemused detachment of an absurdist. This is the specter of a thoroughly postmodern morality. Darwinism isn't its only source, nor is biology more broadly, but together the two could do much to feed it.

The basic paradox here — the intellectual groundlessness of blame, and the practical need for it — is something few people seem eager to aknowledge. One anthropologist has made the following two statements about divorce: (a) "I do not want to encourage someone saying, 'Well, it's programmed in and I can't help it.' We can help it. While these behaviors may be powerful, many people in fact resist them quite successfully"; and (b) "[T]here are men and women walking the streets today saying to themselves, 'I'm a failure! I've had two marriages, and neither of them has worked.' Well, that's probably a natural human behavior pattern, and they feel a little better when they hear what I have to say. I don't think people need to feel failure following a divorce."23

Each of these statements is defensible, but you can't have it both ways. It's accurate, on the one hand, to say that any given divorce was inevitable, driven by a long chain of genetic and environmental forces, all mediated biochemically. Still, to stress this inevitability is {357} to affect public discourse, and thus to affect future environmental forces and future neurochemistry, rendering inevitable future divorces that otherwise wouldn't have been. To call things in the past inexorable makes more things in the future inexorable. To tell people they're not to blame for past mistakes is to make future mistakes more likely. The truth is hardly guaranteed to set us free.

Or, to put the point another, perhaps more upbeat, way: the truth depends on what we say the truth is. If men are told that the impulse to philander is deeply "natural," essentially irrepressible, then the impulse — for those men, at least — may indeed be so. In Darwin's day, though, men were told something else: that animal impulses are formidable foes but can, with constant and arduous effort, be defeated. This then became, for many men, the truth. Free will was, in an important sense, created by their belief in it.

In the same sense, one might argue, their "successful" belief in free will justifies our own belief in it. But not belief in the metaphysical doctrine of free will. There is nothing in the behavior of self-disciplined Victorians that upsets the doctrine of determinism; they were just products of their environment, of a time and place where belief in the possibility of self-control was in the air — as were (therefore) stiff moral sanctions against those who failed at the task. Still, these men represent, in a sense, an argument for putting the same influences in our air. At least, these men are evidence that the influ ences can work; they are cause to consider the doctrine of free will "true" in a sheerly pragmatic sense of the word.24 But whether such pragmatism can outweigh real truth — whether a self-fulfilling "belief" in free will can survive the ever-more-manifest dubiousness of free will as a metaphysical doctrine — is another question altogether.

And, anyway, even if this artifice succeeds, and the idea of "blame" remains conveniently robust, we are back to the challenge of confining it to useful proportions: blaming people only when blame serves the greater good, not letting self-righteousness get carried away (as it naturally tends to do). And, meanwhile, we will still face the deeper challenge of reconciling necessary moral sanction with the limitless compassion that is always, in fact, appropriate. {358}


Launching a war against divorce, complete with harsher sanctions against philanderers, and zero tolerance for their claims that philandering is "natural," may or may not be worth the miscellaneous costs. This is a question about which reasonable people may disagree. But creeping determinism is, in any case, a problem, because moral codes of some sort are surely desirable. Morality, after all, is the only way to harvest various fruits of non-zero-sumness — notably those fruits that aren't harvested by kin-selected altruism or reciprocal altruism. Morality makes us mindful of the welfare of people other than family and friends, raising society's overall welfare. You don't have to be a utilitarian to think that's a good thing.

Actually, morality isn't the only way to harvest these particular fruits. But it's the cheapest way, and the least creepy. If no one drinks before driving, society is better off. And most of us would rather see compliance enforced by an internalized moral code than by a ubiquitous police force. This is the rigorous answer to people who ask why terms like morality and values should be taken seriously. Not because tradition is a good thing in itself. But because of what a strong moral code is uniquely able to offer: the more elusive benefits of non-zero-sumness, without lots of police.

John Stuart Mill felt that moral codes could be as stifling and eerie as ubiquitous police. He complained, in On Liberty, of living "under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship."25 So it may seem ironic, at the very least, to pen this ode to moral toughness right after penning an ode to Mill's ethical philosophy, utilitarianism.

But Mill's real complaint wasn't about strong moral codes; it was about strong and mindless moral codes. Specifically: codes banning behaviors that wouldn't have harmed anyone — codes, in other words, that weren't sound from a utilitarian standpoint. In those days, various statistically aberrant lifestyles, such as homosexuality, were considered grave crimes against humanity, even though it was hard to find a human they hurt. And divorce was fairly scandalous even if both husband and wife wanted it and were childless.

But not all rules looked so absurd to Mill. In fact, he pointedly did not embrace a general right to leave a marriage.26 Couching his {359} views on marital responsibility in almost unrecognizably abstract terms, he wrote: "When a person, either by express promise or by conduct, has encouraged another to rely upon his continuing to act in a certain way — to build expectations and calculations, and stake any part of his plan of life upon that supposition — a new series of moral obligations arises on his part towards that person, which may possibly be overruled, but cannot be ignored." And as for leaving a marriage after having children: "[I]f the relation between two con tracting parties ... as in the case of marriage, has even called third parties into existence, obligations arise on the part of both the con tracting parties toward those third persons, the fulfillment of which, or at all events the mode of fulfillment, must be greatly affected by the continuance or disruption of the relation between the original parties to the contract."27 In other words: it's bad to walk out on your family.

Mill's gripe in On Liberty is with Victorian moral gravity, not with moral gravity itself. There had been a time in the distant past, he wrote, when "the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess, and the social principle had a hard struggle with it... ." Back then, the difficulty was "to induce men of strong bodies of minds to pay obedience to any rules which required them to control their impulses." But, "society has now fairly got the better of indi viduality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences." It isn't clear that if Mill were around today he would make the same judgment.

Certainly Mill would attack residues of mindless Victorianism, such as homophobia. But he might well not favor the sort of hedonism that, in the late 1960s, was identified with the left (hallucinogenic drugs and sex) nor the sort that, in the 1980s, was identified with the right (nonhallucinogenic drugs and BMWs).

In fact, Mill considered hedonism fair game for moral judgment even when it hurt no one except the hedonist. We shouldn't punish people for ceding their long-term welfare to the animal within, Mill wrote; still, they can only expect that, since they are hazardous models for emulation, we may choose not to associate with them, and indeed may warn our friends against doing so. "A person who {360} shows rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit — who cannot live within moderate means — who cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgences — who pursues animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect — must expect to be lowered in the opinion of others, and to have a less share of their favourable sentiments... ."29

Here John Stuart Mill, libertarian, meets Samuel Smiles, puritan. Though Mill ridiculed the idea of a "radically corrupt" human nature that must be suffocated in the name of spiritual progress, he also doubted that the higher sentiments, which yield morality, would flower without cultivation. "The truth is," he wrote, "that there is hardly a single point of excellence belonging to human character, which is not decidedly repugnant to the untutored feelings of human nature."30 Smiles himself couldn't have said it better; a not altogether rosy view of human nature underlay his emphasis in Self-Help on strenuous self-restraint. Indeed, notwithstanding the seemingly opposite drifts of Smiles's and Mill's 1859 books, the two men saw eye-to-eye quite broadly. Both (along with Darwin) embraced the left-of-center political reforms of the day, as well as their philosophical framework; Smiles was a big fan of utilitarianism, which was known in those days as "philosophical radicalism."

Mill's position on human nature accords well enough with modern Darwinism. Surely it would be an exaggeration to say that we are innately evil — that, as Mill's caricature of Calvinism would have it, we cannot be good without ceasing to be human. Indeed, the ingredients of morality, from empathy to guilt, have a deep basis in human nature. At the same time, these ingredients don't spontaneously coalesce into a mind that is truly benevolent; they were not designed for the greater good. Nor do these ingredients reliably promote our own happiness. Our happiness was never high among natural selection's priorities, and even if it had been, happiness wouldn't naturally arise in an environment so different from the context of our evolution.


There is thus a sense in which the new paradigm lends itself to morally conservative use. By showing that the "moral sentiments" aren't {361} naturally deployed morally, it suggests that a strong moral code may be needed if people are to respect the greater good. Marvelous though it is how often the mutual pursuit of self-interest leads two or more human beings to find common benefit, much common benefit will go unfound unless we take morality seriously.

Does this sort of moral conservatism have a deep connection with political conservatism? Not really. True, political conservatives spend more time than their opposites championing moral austerity. But they also tend to think that the strong moral code we should all obey is the one they espouse ex cathedra — or, at least, the one that has the blessing of "tradition." A Darwinian, by contrast, looks at time-honored moral codes with deep ambivalence.

On the one hand, codes that have long endured must have a kind of compatibility with human nature, and probably do serve the interests of at least someone. But of whom? The molding of a moral code is a power struggle, and power in human societies is usually distributed complexly and unequally. Figuring out which agendas are served can be tricky.

The dissection of moral codes — determining who pays for them and who benefits, and the costs and benefits of alternative codes — is best done with the tools of the new paradigm. And it is best done with care. We should, in the end, dispense with those norms that don't make practical sense, but in the meanwhile we should recognize that norms often do make practical sense; they have grown out of an informal give and take that, though never purely democratic, is sometimes roughly pluralistic. What's more, this implicit negotiation probably took into account some (perhaps harsh) truths about human nature that may not at first be apparent. We should look at moral axioms the way a prospector looks at shiny rocks — with great respect and great suspicion, a healthy ambivalence pending further, and urgent, inspection.

The result of such appraisal will be too diverse to characterize with a simple label. It may be called conservative, so long as that refers to a tentative respect for tradition and not an undying love for it. Then again, the result of the analysis may be called liberal, so long as liberalism isn't equated with hedonism or with moral laissez-faire. If liberalism's moral philosophy is what the (in his day) "radical" {362} John Stuart Mill laid out in On Liberty, then it includes a healthy appreciation of the dark side of human nature and the need for self-restraint, even for moral censure.

As for the effects of creeping biological determinism — which is to say, creeping determinism — they also defy ideological pigeonholing. On the one hand, by stressing that incarceration is always a moral tragedy, if a practical necessity, determinism accents the urgency of erasing the social conditions, such as poverty, that lead to punishable behavior. Darwin saw this. In his notes, after professing his determinism and recognizing the philosophical vacuousness of retribution, he wrote: "Believer in these views will pay great attention to Education." Animals, he noted, "do attack the weak & sickly as we do the wicked. — we ought to pity & assist & educate by putting contingencies in the way to aid motive power."31

Yet, Darwin wrote, if a wicked man is "incorrigably bad nothing will cure him. "Indeed. Though the new paradigm stresses the mental plasticity that liberals have long stressed, it also suggests — as does casual observation — that this plasticity is not infinite, and certainly not eternal; many mechanisms of mental development seem to have their essential effects during the first two or three decades of life. It's not yet clear how concrete various aspects of the character then become. (Can a man become a nearly incorrigible rapist, or at least incorrigible until his testosterone level drops, near middle age?) But the answers may at times be favored on the political right, by those who argue for locking 'em up and throwing away the key.

Progress in evolutionary psychology will plainly affect — legitimately affect — moral and political discourse for decades to come. But no simple ideological label will summarize the effects. Once everyone understands this, there will be no horde of critics on the left, or on the right, for Darwinians to fend off. Enlightenment can then proceed {363}