In the previous post I made the claim that emotions drive our behaviour and that morality is in fact much more self-serving than most of us would like to admit. I gave an illustration of this in an earlier post (part 15 of the series) when we discussed loyalty. This human drive which links both to emotionality and to morality is actually one of the basest of our inbuilt behaviours, born as it is out of xenophobia and paranoia. It is useful only in so far as it allows us to feel good about doing bad things.
The fact that loyalty feels moral is precisely the point. It’s the psychological rule of thumb (be loyal) that gives rise to emotions (guilt, anxiety) whenever we consider being disloyal. Those irrational emotions allow us to behave badly to those outside our own group with a clear conscience. We are convinced by the emotions we feel that loyalty is good, even though the behaviours that loyalty prompts are inherently unfair and even cruel.
It would be bad enough if it was only loyalty that so confused our moral sense – our notions of right and wrong. However, as shall see, loyalty is but one example of a much more widespread psychological problem. The reality is that human beings are not only irrational – we are essentially hypocritical, self-serving, cruel and gratuitously vindictive. What’s worse, most of the time we don’t even know it.
That’s another purpose of the unthinking mental short-cut, the heuristic we discussed earlier. It hides our true motives not only from others but from ourselves as well. Indeed – self-deception is a recurring and extremely important part of our evolved survival strategies. If we actually knew what we were doing we’d find it much harder to convince others that our intentions were pure. By deceiving ourselves about our true motives we become much better at deceiving others who, like us, are evolved organisms with a particularly sophisticated system for spotting liars and cheats. So we fool ourselves in order to fool others into trusting us as we lie and cheat our way through life.
That’s precisely why the main drivers of behaviour are emotions rather than thoughts. Thinking things through makes it harder for us to deceive ourselves and that makes our attempts to deceive others easier to spot. We’re not rational creatures at all. We’re emotional animals with a peculiar knack for fooling ourselves into believing in the illusion of rationality. Such is the subtle deception that natural selection favoured so completely.
The best liars convince themselves. Through self-deception they don’t just act sincere – they ARE sincere. This makes them easy to trust which gives them a reproductive advantage in terms not only of sexual activity but also in status and longevity. Consequently their DNA is more likely to make it through the generations at the expense of genes providing greater insight whose living, biological vehicles (apes and humans alike) just couldn’t compete in the mutually exploitative arenas of primate society and selective sexuality.
Remember that the ‘aim’ of natural selection (so far as unthinking processes can have an aim – and, of course they can’t) is never to raise self-awareness – it’s just to raise genetic/reproductive fitness and replicate genetic material. That’s it. As Dawkins put it in ‘The Greatest Show On Earth: The evidence for evolution’, we really are nothing more than elaborate DNA replicating machines. Everything we do and everything we feel has evolved to increase our prospects of transferring our DNA into the next generation.