From Skeptic vol. 4, no. 2, 1996, pp. 78-87. The following article is copyright ©1996 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice.

THE SECULAR SPHINX: The Riddle of Ethics Without Religion

By Michael Shermer

"Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic....Instead of taking possession of man's freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever." -- Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Grand Inquisitor," Brothers Karamozov, Book V, Chapter 5.

On Friday, May 24, 1996, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury (starting with St. Augustine in 597), spiritual leader of over 70 million Anglicans, told 425 civic, business, and religious leaders at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel that "secularism" is the cause of much of the West's moral woes. Paradoxically, this was followed by a litany of "unspeakable atrocities against innocent people" committed in the name of religion, as in Bosnia and against the Christian minority in Islamic Sudan. The Archbishop-the Most Reverend George L. Carey-told his audience that only faith can stop these atrocities (Stammer, p. 1):

How else can momentum be found for combating the worst excesses of poverty and inequality around the world? How else can we find the self-restraint in the interest of future generations in order to save our environment? How else can we combat the malignant power of exclusive nationalism and racism? All this requires the dynamic power of commitment, faith and love. The privatized morality of "what works for me" will not do.

Agreed, what-works-for-me morality will not do. But is this all there is to secular morality? And are these our only choices? Is it true, as Dostoevky mused in Brothers Karamozov, that if God doesn't exist, anything goes? Can we lead moral lives without recourse to the hereafter and a spiritual being who may or may not exist? Can we construct an ethical system without religion?

The Sphinx was a mythical creature who delighted in posing seemingly insoluble riddles. I use the term "Secular Sphinx" to describe three longstanding ethical riddles that must be solved if we are to consider a secular alternative to religion-based ethics:

  1. The Riddle of Ethical Decisions-How Are We To Act?
  2. The Riddle of Ethical Nature-Are We Moral, Immoral, or Amoral?
  3. The Riddle of Ethical Freedom-How Can We Make Moral Choices in a Determined Universe?


As soon as one makes an ethical decision, that is, an action that is deemed right or wrong, it implies that there is a standard of right versus wrong that can be applied in other situations. But if so, why isn't that same standard obvious and in effect all around the world? Instead, observation reveals many such systems, most of which claim to be "the truth." But if there is no absolute ethical standard and instead only relative standards, can we speak of right and wrong? An action may be wise or unwise, prudent or imprudent, profitable or unprofitable. But is that the same as right or wrong? One solution to the riddle may be found in a middle way between Absolute Ethics and Relative Ethics-Provisional Ethics.

Absolute Ethics

When I was 17 I became a born-again Christian, not for any rational or noble reason, but because most of my buddies were doing it, in particular my best friend George Oakley, whose sister I liked. Still, shallow, trivial reasons can become entrenched serious ones, and I really got into the spirit of the movement, going to Bible-study classes, "witnessing" to non-Christians (trying to convert them), and even enrolling at Pepperdine University to major in theology (later changed to psychology for practical reasons like getting a job).

My first inkling of a problem with absolute ethical systems came soon after my conversion. My friend Frank was really religious so I figured he would be delighted at my new-found faith. He wasn't. In fact, he scolded me for choosing the wrong Christian faith and told me I was still doomed if I didn't switch to his church: Jehovah's Witnesses. The more churches and faiths I examined, the more aware I became of the fact that they all think they alone are right and everyone else is wrong.

Most ethical systems are absolute and most absolute systems are derived from religious sources. In the last 2,000 years, for example, there have been approximately 28,000 different Christian denominations. Today alone there are approximately 1,500 different Christian sects, all of which claim sole possession of the absolute truth. They cannot all be right.

Most absolute ethical systems are based on a simplistic reward and punishment, heaven and hell duality, a very childlike morality, as Isaac Asimov observed (1989, p. 6):

They assume that human beings have no feeling about what is right and wrong. Is the only reason you are virtuous because that's your ticket to heaven? Is the only reason you don't beat your children to death because you don't want to go to hell? It seems to me that it's insulting to human beings to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn't it conceivable that a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better? Because that way the world is better?

Obviously the reward-punishment system doesn't work anyway, as the Archbishop of Canterbury observed, since even the most religious of societies have an abundance of crime, violence, and sin of all sorts. As Laura Schlessinger notes in her book about the abdication of morality, in response to a Christian having an adulterous affair but unable to articulate why this was bad (other than to say it was "a sin"): "no one these days is worried about bolts of lightning and everlasting fire and brimstone, so calling a behavior a sin, in and of itself, just doesn't seem to impress" (1996, p. 33). We need more precise definitions.

Absolute Ethics, then, may be defined as an inflexible set of rules for right and wrong human behavior derived from God, the Bible, the Koran, the State, Nature, or some canon of ethics or philosophy. The problem with all systems of absolute moralities is that they set themselves up to be the final arbiters of truth, creating two types of people: Good and Bad, Right and Wrong, True Believers and Heretics.

This was expressed by that sage philosopher, Maxwell Smart, who observed: "Don't be silly, 99. We have to shoot, kill, and destroy. We represent everything that's wholesome and good in the world." Sadly, such rhetoric is not restricted to silly television shows. Richard Nixon used this rhetoric for political gain (in Askenasy, 1978): "It may seem melodramatic to say that the U.S. and Russia represent Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, God and the Devil. But if we think of it that way it helps to clarify our perspective of the world struggle." In a similar vein anti-abortionist Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, clearly summarized the absolute problem with absolute ethics: "Let a wave of intolerance wash over you….Yes, hate is good….Our goal is a Christian nation….We are called by God to conquer this country….We don't want pluralism" (in Sagan, 1995, p. 430).

One might argue that a few bad apples don't spoil the bunch. Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, for example, is a reasonable (but flawed) attempt at a rational absolute ethics. For Kant, if you want to judge the rightness or wrongness of an action: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (1785, p. 268). Would we ever want to universalize lying, stealing, or adultery? Of course not. That would put an end to contracts, property, and marriage. But we do lie and often there are perfectly rational reasons to do so.

The problem with absolute ethics is that since virtually everyone claims he knows what constitutes right versus wrong action, and since virtually all moral systems differ from all others to a greater or lesser extent, then there is no such thing as a rationally demonstrable absolute ethics.

Relative Ethics

After graduating from Pepperdine University and studying evolution and ethology at California State University, Fullerton (as part of a graduate psychology program), I realized the limitations of Christianity and other faiths, and turned to science and philosophy for answers. In the process I tried out a number of what might be considered relative ethical systems. Existentialism was appealing to me because of its emphasis on freedom and individual responsibility. In fact, I found it to be one of the most optimistic ethical philosophies I had encountered but discovered I was in a rather small minority in that regard. Most existentialists seemed to agree with one of the philosophy's founders, Albert Camus, when he wrote: "There is but one serious philosophical problem. That is suicide. Why stay alive in a meaningless universe?" Suicide may be painless, as the M*A*S*H theme song goes, but it brings on one major change I find unappealing.

After existentialism I tried Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism-the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Specifically I found his quantitative utilitarianism attractive since it attempted a type of hedonic calculus where one can quantify ethical decisions. But by "hedonism" Bentham did not mean a simple pleasure principle where, in the vernacular, "if it feels good do it." He specified "seven circumstances" by which "the value of a pleasure or a pain is considered," including (1789, p. 30):

  1. Purity - "The chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind."
  2. Intnesity - How intense is the pleasure?
  3. Propinquity - How near in place or time is the pleasure?
  4. Certainty - How certain is the pleasure?
  5. Fecundity - "The chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind."
  6. Extent - "The number of persons to whom it extends; or (in other words) who are affected by it."
  7. Duration - How long will the pleasure last?

For fun I used to use the above table in my psychology course to draw the students into the problems of assigning actual numbers to these seven values (the boxes were blank), in making a rather simple choice between spending money on a good meal, a good date (with the possibility but not certainty of sex), or a good book. The values above are my own (I was single at the time).

According to Bentham, once the figures are assigned, "Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole." So the book wins out over the meal or date. But this is just my opinion. To apply the principle to society as a whole, Bentham says (p. 31):

Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of the degrees of good tendency, which the act has, with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance; which, if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act, with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community.

Dismissing the obvious impossibility of doing this on a daily basis and being able to even leave the house, it is obvious that you can "cook" the numbers to make it come out almost any way you like. Doing this on a societal level is simply impossible.

These are just two of the many interesting attempts to construct a relative ethical system, defined as a flexible set of rules for right and wrong human action derived from how the situation is defined individually or socially. The problem with relative ethics is that one can justify almost any behavior, implying that all moral actions-from self-sacrifice to human sacrifice-are equal. On a practical level no one believes this.

Provisional Ethics

In thinking about which ethical system to choose I asked myself this question: how do we know something is true or right? In science we accumulate evidence and assign a probability of truth to a claim. Claims are not true or false, right or wrong in an absolute sense. They are probably true or probably false, probably right or probably wrong. Yet probabilities can be so high or so low that we can act as if they are true or false. Stephen Jay Gould said it best (1983, p. 25): "In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.'" That is, scientific facts are conclusions confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer our provisional agreement, as with heliocentrism and evolution. Moral choices in a provisional ethical system might be considered analogous to scientific "facts" in being provisionally true or false, right or wrong, moral or immoral:

In Provisional Ethics, "moral" or "immoral" means confirmed and justified to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer provisional assent.

That is, in Provisional Ethics it would be reasonable for us to offer our provisional agreement that an action is moral or immoral if the evidence for and the justification of the action is overwhelming. It remains provisional because, as in science, the evidence and justification might change. And, obviously, some moral principles have less evidence and justification for them than others, and therefore they are more provisional and more personal.

What I'm getting at here is that there are moral principles by which we can construct a secular ethical system. These principles are not absolute (no exceptions), nor are they relative (anything goes). They are provisional-true for most people in most circumstances most of the time. Whenever possible moral questions should be subjected to scientific and rational scrutiny, much as nature's questions are subjected to scientific and rational scrutiny. But can morality become a science?

To reverse the question, is there morality in science? Of course. If you cheat, lie, steal and get caught, the consequences are devastating, but scientific murder is unheard of. I know of no instance when one scientist was murdered by another scientist. Scientists have been murdered in the past, but not by fellow scientists. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the church for his heretical beliefs in the Copernican system, the plurality of worlds and life, and the infinity of the cosmos. The mathematician Evariste Galois was killed at the age of 20 in a duel over "an infamous coquette"-love and jealousy, not science, did him in.

Rarely does anyone go to jail over scientific fraud, but when someone commits a significant breach of conduct he or she is usually ostracized. Offenders may lose their their job, and therefore their livelihood. There is even a government Office of Research Integrity that has become the moral watchdog of science (see Kevles, 1996). The process known as shunning works quite well as a moral guide or deterrent.

The test of an ethical system, however, is not in theory but in practice. Let's see how Provisional Ethics might work for two ethical questions: abortion and adultery.

1. Abortion. The pro-choice-pro-life debate, leaving aside religious and political foundations, should be able to be resolved through reason and science. First of all, we have to leave God and religion out of the equation since this is secular ethics. Second, we have to leave "rights" out of the equation because getting into a debate about the rights of the mother versus the rights of the fetus cannot be resolved. A right is a type of political contract between individuals and the group in which they live. Rights are conferred on individuals by political bodies. They are not discovered in nature. As Jeremy Bentham said (1843):

[Natural rights is] confusion, nonsense, and the nonsense, as usual, dangerous nonsense. The word can scarcely be said to have a meaning. Natural rights is simple nonsense. Natural and imprescriptible rights rhetorical nonsense. Nonsense upon stilts.

That leaves us with this basic question about abortion: Is it murder? If not, then abortion is moral. If so, then abortion is immoral. This is a relatively simple question that science may help us answer by answering this question: When does life begin? Now we're getting somewhere…sort of.

In the October 16, 1995 issue of The New Republic, feminist author Naomi Wolf shocked the pro-choice movement by claiming that the fetus at all stages is a human individual and therefore abortion is immoral (though she still supports free choice). The Los Angeles Times (Rivenburg, 1996) called this the most important article on abortion in years. In the 6,700 word essay, however, there is not a single scientific fact presented by Wolf in support of her claim for fetal human individuality. Instead we get references to "lapel pins with the little feet," "detailed drawings of the fetus" in What to Expect When You're Expecting, and "Mozart for your belly; framed sonogram photos; home fetal-heartbeat stethoscopes." With similar shortcomings, in a 1995 PBS Firing Line debate, Arianna Huffington claimed that scientists have proved that life begins at conception. Baloney.

The problem with such questions as "origins" is that with life, as with historical events, there is no single-point origin. Life is a continuum from sperm and egg, to zygote, to multicellular entity, to embryo, to fetus, to newborn infant. At no time did life "begin" because it never ended, and surely no one would call menstruation or male masturbation murder. (See Amici Curiae Brief, 1988.)

We might pose the question this way: when does a fetus become a human individual? Obviously neither egg nor sperm is a human individual, nor is the zygote, since it might split to become twins, or develop into less than one individual and naturally abort. Not after two weeks, since twinning can still occur. Nor by eight weeks-while there are recognizable human features such as the face, hands, and feet, neuronal synaptic connections are still being made. Only after eight weeks do embryos begin to show primitive response movements. Between eight and 24 weeks, however, the organism could not exist on its own (Pleasure, et al., 1984; Milner and Beard, 1984; Koops, et al., 1982).

There is provisional assent amongst most physicians and scientists-i.e., it is a "fact"-that fetus viability is 24 weeks of gestation. That is six months. It appears that it cannot be earlier because critical organs-lungs and kidneys-do not mature before that time. For example, air sac development sufficient for gas exchange does not occur until at least 23 weeks after gestation, and often later (Beddis, et al., 1979).

Additionally, not until after 28 weeks of gestation does the fetus develop sufficient neocortical complexity to exhibit some of the cognitive capacities typically found in full-term newborns. Fetus EEG recordings with the characteristics of an adult EEG appear at approximately 30 weeks. In other words, the capacity for human thought cannot exist until 28 to 30 weeks of gestation (Flower, 1989; Purpura, 1975; Molliver, et al., 1973). Of all the characteristics used to define what it means to be "human," the capacity to think is provisionally agreed upon by most scientists to be the most important (see Sagan and Druyan, 1992, for a good discussion of the terms of this debate).

Since virtually no abortions are performed after the 2nd trimester, and before the end of the 2nd trimester there is no scientific evidence that the fetus is a thinking human individual, by this definition abortion is not murder. If it is not murder, then it is not immoral, from a social point of view. That is, the state should not prevent women from choosing abortion. If a woman says she believes for personal reasons that abortion would be an immoral act for her, even though we might not agree on a scientific basis, we should have no qualms with her decision.

From a Provisional Ethics perspective it would be reasonable for us to offer our provisional agreement that abortions within the first two trimesters are not immoral because the evidence confirms that during this time the fetus is not a human individual and thus the action of aborting the fetus is justified if so desired by the mother.

2. Adultery. Let me introduce this subject by making a public confession of what some might consider to be a rather serious breach of ethics. Last month I committed adultery…in my mind.

Was this an immoral act? How significant is the difference between committing adultery in the mind versus in a hotel room? Can such mental musings lead to actual physical acts? Like marijuana leading to heroin, might lusting in your mind lead to lusting in your body (and thus be considered immoral)? Why did I commit adultery in my mind? Is it from my evolutionary past where my ancestors for millions of years lusted in their minds? Or is it from watching too many steamy Sharon Stone movies? (It wasn't Sharon Stone, by the way.) I've never committed physical adultery, but why not if I fantasize about it? Is it because I'm afraid of incurring the wrath of God in the next life, or the wrath of my wife in this one? Let's see how Provisional Ethics might handle both mental and physical adultery.

First of all, mental adultery is certainly not immoral since studies show that "autoeroticism" (as Havelock Ellis called it) is one of the most ubiquitous of all sexual activities. As an example of the difference between evolutionary ethics and theological ethics, a medieval penitential assigned the following penances for erotic fantasies: 25 days for a deacon, 30 days for a monk, 40 days for a priest, and 50 days for a bishop. (I guess the Pope is not only infallible, but also unimaginative.)

How can something so harmless to others and yet so fulfilling and fun to the individual be immoral? Science sees it rather differently. Erotic fantasies may serve a variety of personal functions, including the fact that sometimes it's a lot easier to just fantasize about a sexual encounter than it is to actually invest the time, energy, money, and risk of rejection, failure, disease, or an unsatisfactory experience.

I don't know if sexual fantasy itself evolved, providing some selective advantage to individuals who had them versus those who did not. But certainly the ability to fantasize did evolve as a wonderful by-product of a large cerebral cortex, and no doubt this ability did provide a selective advantage (imagining the positive outcome of a hunt, or the negative consequences of a fight). Sexual fantasies are probably a contingent free-ride that goes with having a large brain.

From a Provisional Ethics perspective, it would be reasonable for us to offer our provisional agreement that sexual fantasies are not immoral because the evidence confirms that almost everyone has them, they provide numerous benefits, they harm no one else, and thus they are justified if so desired by the individual.

Actual physical adultery, on the other hand, is another matter. Its evolutionary benefits are obvious. For the male, depositing one's genes in more places increases the probability of this form of genetic immortality. For the female, it is a chance to trade up for better genes and higher social status.

Its evolutionary hazards are equally obvious. For the male, getting caught by the adulterous woman's husband can be extremely dangerous. And while getting caught by one's own wife is not likely to result in death, it can result in loss of contact with children, loss of family and security, and risk of sexual retaliation, thus decreasing the odds of one's mate bearing one's own offspring. For the female, getting caught by the adulterous man's wife involves little physical risk, but getting caught by one's own husband can and often does lead to extreme physical abuse and sometimes death.

Beyond the evolutionary implications, there are the social-cultural problems, such as the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, extended family rejection, social ostracization, and the like. It would be difficult to justify adultery as a moral act from either an evolutionary perspective or a cultural one. (Extreme exceptions come to mind, of course, such as a woman whose husband is in a long-term coma and she finds solace and sex with another man.)

From a Provisional Ethics perspective, most moral actors-especially those who are involved such as one's mate, the mate of the adulterous partner, the families of both adulterous parties, the community, and the society-would likely offer their provisional agreement that adultery is an immoral act for most people in most circumstances most of the time because the evidence confirms that adultery causes considerably more harm than good and so cannot be justified.

A very simple experiment to test this claim is to ask the potentially affected party. I once asked my wife, Kim, how she would feel if I had sex with another woman. She responded: "How would you like it if I had sex with another man?" That ended the discussion. Provisional Ethics can be as simple as asking the other moral agent, another variation on the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


In the late 1830s, in his musings about the implications for his budding evolutionary hypothesis, Darwin penned this in his M Notebook: "He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke." And: "Our descent, then is the origin of our evil passions!! -- The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!" (in Barrett, 1974, pp. 57, 63).

Darwin was the first evolutionary psychologist and ethicist. Herbert Spencer soon followed with his 1879 The Data of Ethics, in which he enthusiastically applied Darwinian selection to moral choices. Thomas Huxley (1899) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1870), however, were skeptical about how far evolutionary theory can extend into the realm of ethics, questioning what selective advantage a system of ethics would have conferred on an individual or species.

By World War I the study of evolutionary ethics was in serious decline, along with Darwinism itself. Between the wars it was revised by Julian Huxley & C. H. Waddington in conjunction with the modern synthesis, but it died again after World War II, in part as a result of the extreme anti-hereditarian view in psychology and the social sciences (an understandable response to Nazi eugenics and the Holocaust).

There it lay dormant for 30 years until, in 1975, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson published his 700-page magnum opus, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Ironically, only the final chapter deals with humans ("Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology"), and only in one short section, barely two pages, does the reader encounter ethics. But what is said, when it is said, and who is doing the saying matters in science, and here is what Wilson said: "Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized."

Like Darwin's single line at the end of The Origin of Species-"light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history"-Wilson's one-liner fired a shot heard 'round the intellectual world. Considerable praise, but considerably more pain was heaped upon Wilson, including a pitcher of water dumped on his head at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. in 1978. Stephen Jay Gould remonstrated the demonstrators, telling them their actions were what Lenin had dismissively called "Infantile Leftism," while anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon tried to eject them from the speaker's dais. Wilson let his pen do the talking, responding later that year with On Human Nature (winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process), in which he succinctly threw down the gauntlet (p. 7):

Above all, for our own physical well-being if nothing else, ethical philosophy must not be left in the hands of the merely wise. Although human progress can be achieved by intuition and force of will, only hard-won empirical knowledge of our biological nature will allow us to make optimum choices among the competing criteria of progress.

The gauntlet was taken up by Donald Symons (1979), Robert Axelrod (1984), Robert Trivers (1985), Michael Ruse (1986), Robert Richards (1987), Richard Alexander (1987), John Maynard Smith (1992), James Q. Wilson (1993), W. D. Hamilton (1996), Frans De Waal (1996), and many others. (See Robert Wright's 1994 The Moral Animal for an engaging history of evolutionary ethics; Paul Farber's 1994 The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics for a scholarly history and critique; Philip Kitcher's 1995 Vaulting Ambition for a strong critique; and Paul Thompson's 1995 Issues in Evolutionary Ethics for a collection of the most important works in the field, pro and con).

Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976) was especially influential in getting people to think about applying science and evolution to human behavior, including moral behavior. To the concept of genes as carriers of information, Dawkins added "memes," cultural carriers of information that go beyond biology yet act much like genes in terms of propagation, selection, and mutation. He even treated religious ideas as virus memes that, like computer viruses, invade our mental software, destroying our programs for rational thought and behavior.

A Bio-Cultural Evolutionary Model of Ethics

It is important to note that Dawkins' memes are not biological. In fact, in many places, especially with regard to religion, Dawkins is arguing that memes contradict genes. Clearly there is a distinction between genes and memes, biology and society, evolutionary history and cultural history. When did that shift come about?

Just as life does not "begin" at a single point, neither does society, culture, or morality. They evolved over eons in the paleolithic environment where hunting and gathering was the way of life for small bands of hominids eking out a living and struggling to survive in a hostile environment filled with predators, parasites, diseases, accidents, and nature's quirks. Morality evolved in these small groups as individuals cooperated with one another to meet their needs (see Irons, this issue). Individuals belonged to families, families to extended families, extended families to communities, and, more recently, communities to societies. This natural progression, which is now in its latest evolutionary stages of perceiving societies as part of the species, and the species as part of the biosphere, is illustrated in the Bio-Cultural Evolutionary (BCE) Pyramid opposite.

I designed the BCE Pyramid out of a hybrid of Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs and Singer's expanding circle of ethical sentiment. It depicts the 1.5 million years over which our ethical behavior evolved in our ancestral environment under primarily biogenetic control, and the transition about 35,000 years ago when sociocultural factors increasingly assumed control in shaping our ethical behavior. Keep in mind that this is a continuous process. There was no point at which an Upper Paleolithic Moses descended from a glacier-covered mountain and proclaimed to his fellow Cro-Magnons, "I've just invented culture. We no longer have to obey our genes like those stupid Neanderthals. From now on we obey THE LAW!"

The semi-permeable "evolutionary transitional boundary" divides time and dominant source of influence, where the individual, family, extended family, and paleolithic communities were primarily molded by natural selection; whereas neolithic communities and modern societies were and are primarily shaped by cultural selection. Starting at the bottom of the BCE Pyramid, the individual's need for survival and genetic propagation (through food, drink, safety, and sex) is met through the family, extended family, and the community. The nuclear family, however, is the foundation. Despite assaults on it in the second half of the 20th century, the family remains the most common social unit around the world. Even within extremes of cultural deprivation-slavery, prisons, communes-the two-parents-with-children structure emerges: (1) African slave families broken up retained their attachment and structure for generations through the oral tradition; (2) in women's prisons in particular, pseudofamiles self-organize, with a sexually-active couple acting as "husband" and "wife" and others playing "brothers" and "sisters"; (3) even when communal collective parenting is the norm (e.g., Kibbutzim), many mothers switch to the two-parent arrangement and the raising of their own offspring (Wilson, 1978). For this foundational social structure our evolutionary history is too strong to overcome. Conservatives need not bemoan the decline of families. They will be around as long as the species continues.

Moving up the BCE Pyramid, basic psychological and social needs such as security, bonding, socialization, affiliation, acceptance, and affection evolved as mental programs to aid and reinforce cooperation and altruism, all of which facilitates genetic propagation through children. Kin Altruism works indirectly-siblings and half-siblings, grand- and great-grandchildren, cousins and half-cousins, nieces and nephews, all carry portions of our genes (Alexander, 1979; Miele, 1996). In larger communities and societies, Reciprocal Altruism (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) and Indirect/Blind Altruism (you scratch my back now and I'll scratch yours later) supplements Kin Altruism. The natural progression will be the adoption of Species Altruism and Bioaltruism (we'll prevent extinction and destruction now for a long term payoff), which E. O. Wilson argues in Biophilia (1984) may have a genetic basis. But, Wilson confesses, this should probably be grounded in self-interest arguments-my children will be better off in a future with abundant diversity and a healthy biosphere.

The width of the BCE Pyramid at any point indicates the strength of ethical sentiment, and the degree to which it is under evolutionary control. The height of the BCE Pyramid at any point indicates the degree to which that ethical sentiment extends beyond our own genome (ourselves). But the pyramid also shows that these two sets of sentiments are inversely related. The further a sentiment reaches beyond ourselves, the further it goes in the direction of helping someone genetically less related, and the less support it receives from underlying evolutionary mechanisms.

To what extent, then, can we derive ethical principles from our evolutionary history? Philosophers David Hume (1739) and G. E. Moore (1903) described the problems inherent in the naturalistic fallacy -- trying to go from the biological is to the ethical ought. The inverse relationship depicted in the BCE Pyramid helps to explain this problem in biocultural terms. Consider three ethical issues:

1. Abortion. From an evolutionary perspective one could argue pro or con: abortion is bad for the species in a sparsely populated paleolithic environment, and bad for individuals who depend on having lots of offspring in order to increase the probability of their genes being passed on, to help in the hunting and gathering of food (or with farming in later neolithic communities), and aid in child rearing (older sibs become surrogate parents). But in an environment already in excess of its carrying capacity, continuously damaged by an ever-increasing population growth, abortion is good for the community, the family, and the individual.

Above the bio-cultural transitional boundary one could make a similar argument that abortion is good for the species in an overcrowded modern environment, and good for individuals living in a complex society in which there is virtually no advantage and lots of disadvantages incurred by having lots of children. My friend and colleague Carol Tavris makes an argument that I think fits the BCE Pyramid (personal communication):

The main reason that legal abortion is "moral" is that the consequence of making abortion illegal is the death of millions of women. Whenever abortion and birth control are forbidden, adult women die-in illegal abortions, unhealthy deliveries, etc. (In the U.S., hospitals used to have entire wards of women with perforated uteri caused by attempts to abort.)

Tavris cites Kristin Luker's 1984 review of such evidence-one early study found that over a period of 10 years in Philadelphia, when they were illegal, abortions accounted for 20% of all maternal mortality. And still today, worldwide, one woman dies every three minutes from a bungled abortion. What are the long term consequences for women and the species?

As illustrated in the BCE Pyramid, the bio-cultural trend over the past 35,000 years has been to move toward more control over our biology, more inclusiveness for all members of the species, and more self-determination of personal freedoms for all members of the species. For this trend to continue to the top of the pyramid it is absolutely essential that women be given the same control, self-determination, and freedom as men. Roe v. Wade was a giant step toward the top. To overturn it would be to take a giant step backward in our bio-cultural evolution.

2. Welfare. Below the bio-cultural transitional boundary one could argue that welfare is a form of kin, reciprocal, or blind altruism, if we just expand the circle (in Peter Singer's apt phrase) to include those outside our immediate family, or if we consider the society to be our family. Above the transitional boundary, however, one could just as easily argue that welfare is bad because of cheating and the fact that the group is too large to see any consequences of our actions, or reap any reciprocal benefits, direct or indirect.

3. Adultery. In an ancestral environment where the goal is to pass along one's genes in as many places as possible, one could argue for the moral benefits of adultery. But in a modern environment where there are extreme personal and social consequences to marital cheating, the argument could go from the is to the ought-not.

Our nature is determined by an interaction of genes and environment, our evolutionary history and our cultural history. Ethical theories and moral choices are a function of both evolutionary drives and personal and social consequences. Here evolutionary ethics helps us enormously to understand why we have these feelings, and through understanding comes the possibility of moral control. Where do we begin? How about with the motto of tolerance adopted by the Skeptics Society from Baruch Spinoza?: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them."

Oskar Schindler or Amon Goeth?

One morning in 1995, when he was visiting Occidental College, I had breakfast with Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List. Out of curiosity I asked him what he thought was the difference between Oskar Schindler, rescuer of Jews and hero of the story, and Amon Goeth, evil incarnate as commandant of the Plaszow camp. His answer was revealing. Not much, he said. Had there been no war Schindler and Goeth might have been business partners and drinking buddies, morally questionable at times perhaps, but relatively harmless and ineffectual as historical personages. What a difference a war makes!

Humans have the capacity to be both moral and immoral, as Stanley Milgram showed in his famous shock experiments in which subjects believed they were delivering electric shocks to other subjects for "wrong" answers on a test. Ranging from Slight Shock to Moderate Shock to Strong Shock to Very Strong Shock to Intense Shock to Extreme Intensity Shock to Danger: Severe Shock to XXX, the results were, well, shocking: 65% administered the maximum shock possible and 100% administered a "Strong Shock" of 135 volts. Milgram expressed his own and others' amazement at what these experiments revealed about human nature (1974):

What is surprising is how far ordinary individuals will go in complying with the experimenter's instructions. Despite the fact that many subjects experience stress, despite the fact that many protest to the experimenter, a substantial proportion continue to the last shock on the generator. I am forever astonished when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country. I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way, but who in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid. In this respect, they are no better and no worse than human beings of any other era who lend themselves to the purposes of authority and become instruments in its destructive processes.

Depending on circumstances perhaps any of us could become Nazis. Who's to say? Raised in a free, democratic society like America, how do any of us know how we might react in a totalitarian regime like Nazi Germany? Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer made this observation about Himmler and human nature:

The brutal murder of whole populations, including children, has been with us since the beginning of recorded history and most probably before that. Sadism and brutality scream at us from every page of human history, and they are in no way less horrific than the Nazi variety. If we cannot "understand" Himmler, most of human history is beyond our capacity of understanding. We can put ourselves in the shoes of the perpetrators, as well as the shoes of the victims, because we all have in ourselves the potential for extreme good and extreme evil-at least, what we call good and evil. Himmler's ideas and motives are latent in everyone's subconscious. The real horror of Himmler is not that he was unusual or unique but that he was in many ways quite ordinary, and that he could have lived out his life as a chicken farmer, a good neighbor with perhaps somewhat antiquated ideas about people.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective since individuals in the ancestral environment would have needed to be both aggressive and cooperative, depending on context and desired outcomes. Tavris and Wade (1995), in fact, show that an individual's history, culture, generation, and immediate situation are crucial in understanding moral behavior. Without context the search for moral universals is misleading.

The Problem of Evil

A philosophical conundrum that has plagued theologians throughout the ages is the "problem of evil." The following three conditions of the universe are incompatible:

God is Omnipotent
God is Omnibenevolent
Evil Exists

If God is all powerful, couldn't he prevent evil from existing? If God is all good, shouldn't he prevent evil from existing? If evil exists, then either God is not all powerful or not all good.

Since we are leaving God out of the analysis that leaves us with the final question: does evil exist? If it does, and certainly we are neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent, then we will always be plagued with war, genocide, crime, rape, etc. One solution to the problem of evil was suggested to me by UCLA English professor Henry Ansgar Kelly: replace the word evil with bad. Can we have a problem of bad? No. Bad does not exist. Bad things happen, but there is no inherent good or evil, as William James noted (1897):

Calling a thing bad means, if it means anything at all, that the thing ought not to be -- that something else ought to be in its stead. Determinism, in denying that anything else can be in its stead, virtually defines the universe as a place in which what ought to be is impossible.

For James, to be a determinist is to say something terrible about the universe-that bad things cannot become any better. But we hold people responsible for murder. If we didn't, we would have to blame the universe for the act, in which case we all are accomplices and responsible since we are all part of the universe. No one would be found guilty of anything. We'd only each be assigned our share of the liability. Surely few would accept this.

There is only human action, some of which we like and some of which we don't like, as it is provisionally defined. As the Preacher Casey tells Tom Joad in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, after he explains that he has given up revivals because of the obvious conflict between the content of his preaching and context of his own sex life:

I says, 'Maybe it ain't a sin. Maybe it's just the way folks is.' Well, I was layin' under a tree when I figured that out, and I went to sleep. And it come night, an' it was dark when I come to. They was a coyote squawkin' near by. Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud…'There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do….And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say.'

So why do some people turn out to be Oscar Schindlers and others Amon Goeths? Sure, there may be a handful of sick, twisted minds gone haywire through chemical imbalance or neuronal miswiring. But for most, the contingencies of history and the circumstances of life lead us down different paths, as we shall see in solving the final riddle.


In 1985, while racing a bicycle along a lonely rural highway in Arkansas in the transcontinental Race Across America, ABC's Diana Nyad asked me how it felt to be too far behind the leader of the race to win. I told her that while I would prefer winning I had done everything I could in training, nutrition, equipment, etc., and that the only thing I could have done was to pick better parents. When that comment aired months later on Wide World of Sports, I called my parents to assure them I only meant that genetics plays a powerful role in athletic performance. I got the comment from renowned sports physiologist, Perolof Astrand, who told an exercise symposium: "I am convinced that anyone interested in winning Olympic gold medals must select his or her parents very carefully."

From an evolutionary perspective our parents have been very carefully selected for us -- by natural selection. But we are also the products our parents' upbringing, family dynamics, community values, education, and so forth. Michael Ruse, in a paper on "Darwinism and Determinism," put it well:

[W]e are what we are because of our biology in conjunction with the environment. Dogs are friendly; if you beat and starve them, they are vicious. Scotsmen are as tall as Englishmen; if you feed them simply on oats they are runts. As well-known, long-term study has shown…thanks to improved nutrition, the height and physique of the Scots has improved dramatically.

Out of the interaction of genes and environment comes the possibility of freedom. The philosopher Karl Schmitz-Moormann, in a paper "On the Evolution of Human Freedom," explains that even the most complete knowledge of a person will not allow us to perfectly predict the future of this individual because statistical probabilities are built around populations, not individuals. Schmitz-Moormann replaces "determined" with "conditioned":

At all levels of the evolving universe statistics might be understood as the description of freely evolving elements within more or less narrowly defined ranges of possibilities created by past evolution. Instead of being determined, the universe appears only to be conditioned on all levels.

To put this in human terms, inheritability of talent does not mean inevitability of success, and vice versa.

We are free to select the optimal environmental conditions that will allow us to rise to the height of our biological potentials. In this sense, athletic success, like any other type of success, may be measured not just against others' performances, but against the upper ceiling of our own ability. To succeed is to have done one's absolute best. To win is not just to have crossed the finish line first, but to cross the finish line in the fastest time possible within one's own limits. The closer one comes to reaching the personal upper limit of potential, the greater the achievement, as depicted in the Genetic Range of Potential model above. This does not prove we are free, it just shows that the environment can make a significant difference. There's not much we can do about selecting our parents. Can we select our environmental conditions to push us to the top of our range of potential, and, as a consequence, be held accountable for our actions?

Master of My Fate

Chaos and complexity theory have provided two important concepts that help us understand free will and therefore how we can make free moral choices:

1. The Butterfly Effect -- the sensitive dependence on initial conditions (see Lorenz's 1979 paper "Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?").

2. Bifurcations -- points where an evolving system makes a significant change in direction. Ilya Prigogine describes the conditions under which bifurcations occur (1984, pp. 169-170):

The 'historical' path along which the system evolves as the control parameter grows is characterized by a succession of stable regions, where deterministic laws dominate, and of instable ones, near the bifurcation points, where the system can 'choose' between or among more than one possible future.

All historical events-from the life history of a species to the life history of an individual-are the product of deterministic laws in stable regions and unpredictable events in unstable regions, or what I call necessities and contingencies (1993, 1995, 1996). Our lives are pushed, pulled, guided, and influenced by gravity, the weather, supply and demand, demographic changes, political events, wars and revolutions, etc. But the sensitive dependence on our personal initial conditions, and the countless unstable regions in which we may choose alternate futures, means we can act as if we are conditioned, instead of determined. Prigogine explains how this leads to meaning and hope for humanity (p. 313):

We know now that societies are immensely complex systems involving a potentially enormous number of bifurcations exemplified by the variety of cultures that have evolved in the relatively short span of human history. We know that such systems are highly sensitive to fluctuations. This leads both to hope and threat: hope, since even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. As the result, individual activity is not doomed to insignificance. On the other hand, this is also a threat, since in our universe the security of stable, permanent rule seems gone forever.

Human behavior is no less caused than other physical or biological phenomena, just more difficult to understand and predict because of the butterfly effect, unstable bifurcations, and the number of causes and the complexity of their interactions. Since no cause or set of causes we select to examine as the determiners of human action can be complete, they may be pragmatically considered as conditioning causes, not determining ones. That is, we may act as if we are free.

A splendid example of the role of the individual within historical systems-used by Gould (1989) as his title theme but considered slightly differently here-is Frank Capra's 1946 holiday film classic It's a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a small-town building and loan proprietor who, after decades of hard, honest work feels his life has been a failure because he sees nothing of the results of his efforts. His youthful dreams of seeing and changing the world seemingly have been lost to age and responsibility. Further, some of his friends have managed to break away from the small town to make more money. Others have ventured out to see the world about which George has only fantasized. His own brother is a decorated war hero who saved the lives of many men in battle. George perceives that he has done little. His life appears stalled and stagnant. When financial and familial pressures finally build beyond control on Christmas Eve, George decides to take his life by leaping into the rapids of a nearly frozen river. Fortunately he is interrupted by his guardian angel-Clarence Oddbody-who, knowing George's humanitarian disposition, jumps in the river before him, triggering George to save his life. In recovery, George unloads his problems on Clarence, and then exclaims he wishes he were never born. Clarence grants him his wish, taking George out of the historical picture and reconstructing the story of what his little town of Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

Suddenly things are not what they used to be, and the changes are mostly negative. The people George helped financially are now poor and wretched; the buildings he constructed are nonexistent; his wife is a lonely unmarried librarian; his children unborn; and the town is renamed "Pottersville," after the treacherous banker whose miserly ways prevented those George had helped from ever owning their own homes. His brother, whom George saved in childhood, is now not in the World War II battle, with the contingent consequences that the lives the brother saved are now also gone. As Clarence guides George through these unfamiliar surroundings, he is dismayed and shocked. The history of his town is quite different without the influence of George Bailey. He never realized just how many people were dependent upon his seemingly routine existence. "Strange, isn't it?," queries Clarence to George at the appropriate moment of enlightenment. "Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

In the end Clarence restores the historical sequence to its original condition-with George's contingent influence intact-and reassures him: "You see George, you really had a wonderful life." In this sense, then, we are all individuals of power and importance. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, every encounter, every thought, every action, can and does make some degree of difference, ranging from virtually negligent to powerfully diverting. A seemingly innocuous decision, carefully placed in time and circumstance, may affect uncounted others in multitudinous ways.

But there is some wishful thinking in this tale. Don't we all like to think that we do make a difference? Such a position is certainly existentially more satisfying. It is nice to think that the history of Bedford Falls was contingent upon George Bailey's actions, and therefore George Bailey matters.

Well, you and I and George do matter, as long as it is early in the sequence when there is sensitive dependence on our actions, or when the sequence is hanging in the balance and our actions may trigger a bifurcation. But systems are not always so delicately poised, hinged to fall one way or the other. History is not all contiguous bifurcation points, awaiting the next flap of the butterfly's wings. As often as not (and probably more than we would like to believe), necessity guides the paths down which we proceed, oblivious to the majority of our contingent actions. It is hard to imagine how Old Man Potter could have remained in business had he foreclosed on all those homes; or that the difference between the town being Goodtown or Badtown USA was completely contingent upon the actions of one small building and loan proprietor. There is no question that one individual can make a difference, but the question of how much will depend on when in the sequence the individual action is applied. Some of what George Bailey did-such as saving his brother's life-made a sizable difference to a great many people. More likely than not most of what he did made little difference in the overall outcome of the historical development of Bedford Falls, wishful thinking notwithstanding.

This disclaimer aside, because of contingencies, and the fact that at any point in the sequence it could be early as well as late (since we do not know when our personal sequence will end), one never knows which actions will or will not make a difference. It is this lack of foresight and prognostication that makes the potential for the power of individual moral action so potent. Since we do not know for certain which actions will matter and which will not, why not act as if they all do? It may be nothing but wishful thinking to desire one's place in history to be contingently significant, but since we do not know, why not act as if it is? From this belief comes freedom and free moral choice.

I close with William Ernest Henley's famous poem Invictus, especially fitting since he wrote it when he was terminally ill and in the context of the 19th-century push for scientific determinism, as if to say it ain't so:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Special thanks to Carol Tavris, Roger Bingham, Frank Miele, Laurie Johanson, Elizabeth Knoll, Tom McDonough, Betty McCollister, Gene Friedman, and Pat Linse for critically honest feedback; and special acknowledgment to Kim Shermer for her endless ethical examples and exceptions to the rules that forced me to refine my thinking on many points in this essay, and for convincing me that this, like all works on morality, is a work-in-progress.


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