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Do we really care about right and wrong, or are we just virtue signalling?

Unthinkable: Morality has got humans this far, but do we need to outgrow it?

Friedrich Nietzsche was probably the world’s most effective critic of morality and certainly the most famous. Writing at a time when Christianity was the default belief system, he highlighted the snivelling resentment that lay behind much religious piety and the fact that charity was largely a kind of virtue signalling.

Today the time is ripe for a very different critique of morality, as Christian consensus makes way for tribal ethics, rudderless moral reasoning and mean-spirited social-media pile-ons. Into this realm steps Chris Paley, author of Beyond Bad: How Obsolete Morals are Holding Us Back (Coronet).

Reflecting on how morality developed over tens of thousands of years to serve specific evolutionary goals, and observing how group-based conformity continues to be policed by self-appointed guardians of virtue, Paley argues that “overcoming and discarding morality is urgent”.

“The biggest challenges our species faces, whether global warming, nuclear proliferation or the rise of the robots, are pan-human. They are beyond what our moral minds were designed to cope with,” he writes. “We need rid of morality, for our own sake and for that of the world.”

He admits some people will “find this hard to stomach”, and in that he is right. This reviewer found Paley’s dismissal of moral philosophy unconvincing, and his claims about a correlation between immorality and both wealth and creativity to be exaggerated. But there is refreshing gumption to the thesis, and he is undeniably on to something in depicting contemporary moral thinking as not fit for purpose.

Paley explains his stance further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Morality may have evolved as a kind of virtue signalling, but does that mean all moral behaviour today is mere signalling?

"People don't always realise that they are signalling when they're doing it. They're not being cynical when they help a friend, declare that they support – or oppose – gay marriage, or bung a coin in a charity box.

“But we evolved to be this way, and understanding why we evolved to be moral gives us a different perspective.

“The benefit to our ancestors came from our seeming good, not necessarily being good. We evolved to signal our moral credentials to other people. But we trick ourselves about this just as much as we trick other people.”

You say "morals make enemies", but is morality per se divisive or is it just certain types of moralising?

"For nearly every moral belief that people sincerely hold, other people who are equally sincere, and think of themselves as good, hold exactly the opposite belief. Abortion is wrong, or stopping women from accessing abortion is wrong…

“We didn’t evolve to moralise to better the lot of humanity. If one moral belief is altruistic, then its opposite surely isn’t, yet both slot equally easily into our brains. Instead, moral beliefs signal which group we belong to; whose side we are on.

“We get these beliefs from the people around us. And they prevent us from empathising with people who hold different beliefs.”

Underpinning the book are specific moral judgements. You seem to suggest, for example, that conflict is bad and so too the destruction of the natural world. Do you really want to do away with morality? Or is your argument essentially that we need to outgrow traditional – or evolved – moral thinking?

"I don't think we can do away with morality. We've evolved brains that are highly specialised for holding moral beliefs, judging people based on them and – sometimes – acting on them. We can't act, or even think, with brains that we don't have.

“Perhaps the best we can do is to simultaneously hold two views: our moral views and also the view that it’s all nonsense. Just as a physicist treats the table in front of her as a continuous solid – like the rest of us – while also remembering it’s actually composed of trillions of wiggling, jiggling atoms held together in an electron cloud.”

You say there are no moral truths, but is it possible they exist at a different level of proof from scientific truth?

“There are perhaps two questions: can moral statements such as ‘You ought not to kill’ be true or false, and, if they could be true or false, how would we convince ourselves that certain moral statements are true?

“JL Mackie, an Oxford philosopher, has argued that most people think moral statements have certain properties which make them incapable of being true or false. Others have pointed out that even if certain moral statements could be true, it’s not at all clear how humans could become confident that their moral beliefs were the true ones and others held false ones. There aren’t any moral particles whizzing through the air that we can catch hold of.

“Given this difficulty in knowing the truth, it may be that human behaviour wouldn’t be any different if some moral statements could be true or false. After all, we evolved to hold morals because it benefited our genes, and our genes don’t care about what is true or false, only about what is effective.”

The final chapter arrives almost like a plot twist where you highlight how conventional moral thinking is ill-equipped to deal with climate change. Can you explain how so, and how we might be able to overcome it?

“I hope it’s a good plot twist in the sense that I’ve laid the groundwork for it rather than a Deus ex machina!

“There are two ways to moral behaviour. We act because we empathise with somebody, or we act because we’re signalling that we hold a moral statement is true. With climate change, both of these fail.

“Few experience a twinge of empathy when they turn their ignition in the car. And while we may hold that ‘we ought to save the planet’, there are too many ways of signalling that belief. We might recycle and avoid flying on holiday yet drive to work. We convince others that we care about the planet and we convince ourselves too.

“Solving it is tricky. We can make people care more by convincing them that their group cares: convince conservatives that conservation is one of their core beliefs; convince the Chinese that it’s part of their national identity and so on.

“We can prevent people signalling good intentions through unimportant actions by being clearer what the big-ticket items are. Print the kilos of carbon dioxide released on electricity bills, air tickets, Amazon deliveries and petrol receipts.

“This might sound manipulative. But morals are about manipulation; we just don’t realise it.”

ASK A SAGE

Should nations be altruistic?

Confucius replies: "If one's acts are motivated by profit, one will have many enemies."