by Mario Rizzo
The recent discussion-thread at the blog Coordination Problem regarding a Hayekian case for same-sex marriage got me thinking more generally about moral evolution.
In a market there is a process of trial and error. New products or methods of production come into existence. Some fail; others succeed. Some speculators make successful predictions of the future course of prices; others make mistakes. In general, the filter for these decisions is the profit and loss mechanism.
F.A. Hayek famously argued that the evolution of institutions, including moral and legal rules, follows a similar course, that is, trial and error. And yet the analogy with market processes is far from perfect. How do we view the trial and error process of moral rules? What is the filtering mechanism?
Right off, let me say that I do not have definite answers to these questions. I simply have some relevant thoughts.
We are always living during a process of institutional evolution. The process is literally unending. Despite the claims of some, there is no One Eternal Moral Truth. Even if there were eternal moral principles, for example, the rules that would come out of them would necessarily change as knowledge changed. This is because some principles are result-oriented. If we are enjoined to help the poor our understanding of what is likely to help the poor will change as, say, economic knowledge grows.
Importantly, moral principles can change, as they have. For example, there has been an evolution in the conception of justice. In earlier times justice was scarcely distinguishable from revenge. The tit for tat infliction of death and other destruction produced a downward spiral. In addition, guilt and punishment was at the level of the tribe and later of the family rather than the individual. Justice is a limitation of pure revenge. It is also more predictable, less arbitrary and less costly from a social perspective to administer. It has grown in the context of greater awareness of the importance of social cooperation and the need to use justice to further social cooperation rather than to destroy it through some form of “mutually assured destruction.”
I cannot here recount the many examples of moral evolution. The main point is that moral evolution has happened and will continue.
From the perspective of our own lives of relatively short duration we must realize that it will not be easy to distinguish between changing moral rules and simple violation of moral rules. In an important sense, the distinction will depend on what happens later. Moral rules must be violated for them to change. As time goes on, it will become clearer that people no longer hold certain behavior to be moral or immoral. Subjectively, they feel no guilt in the violation of the dying moral norm.
This is an important reason that we do not want to rigidify all moral norms by giving them the force of law. We want to let the waxing and waning of social sanctions to act now as a strong disincentive and then as a weak disincentive to putatively immoral behavior.
Fundamentally, moral rules and institutions develop from the bottom up. This is a sociological or cultural “fact” which I realize is inconsistent with the idea that they come ready-made and eternal from religion or God. But look at the evidence.
Just as many theists have made their peace with biological evolution, they ought to make their peace with moral evolution. The Hebrews of old favored revenge. The Jews and Christians of today have rejected it.
Is moral evolution good? This is a tricky question. In one sense, the standard by which it is to be judged is itself. In another sense, we might posit a meta-standard like social cooperation. Does the new norm promote or inhibit social cooperation? If so, then it is good; if not, then it is bad.
Why is social cooperation the standard (or perhaps the filter of the trial-and-error process)? Well that is a big story. Suffice it to say now that social cooperation is the sine qua non of just about everything we think beneficial to humankind.