According to Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, morality comes from our ability to reason and our need to cooperate together. Without interactions and dependence on other human beings, we wouldn’t have a sense of morals. We would only have our individual self-interest. However, humans live in complex social groups within complex social communities and we have to live and work together for survival and general life satisfaction. As Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue in The Elephant in the Brain, social and political tribes drove the evolution and need for large rational brains, which Pinker argues allow us to reason from a point of mutual unselfishness, ultimately creating our ideas of morality.
To demonstrate, Pinker writes, “if I appeal to you to do something that affects me – to get off my foot, or not stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning – then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours.” All humans are self-interested, which conflicts with our social lives. We all want to act in our own self-interested ways, but we have to cooperate with others and work with others to get what we desire or need for survival. Therefore, you must demonstrate that your interests go beyond simply your own self-interest in order to get people to respect you, respect your interests, and to cooperate with you. Pinker continues, “I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not.” To work together we have to find ways in which our interests align. I may have to pay you to do some physical effort that I don’t want to do. I may have to agree to respect your property if I want you to respect my property. I may have to give up some level of individual rights if I don’t want you to abridge liberties of mine. “Mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests,” Pinker writes.
What Pinker argues, flowing from this discussion of mutual unselfishness, self-interests, and social cooperation, is that our morals are not given to us by a supernatural power and that our morals do not exist separate from humans. Morals are created through human rationality and through our ability to recognize that we have individual feelings and preferences, and therefore other people who are like us probably have the same capacity for all the feelings, emotions, preferences, and desires that we have. Our morals exist because we have to work together, to interact in social groups and organizations, and to rely upon institutions to order our relationships and collective efforts.
Pinker writes, “Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.” By interchangeability of perspectives Pinker is referring to the human ability to consider that other people have thoughts and feelings and the human ability to imagine or adopt other perspectives. Positive-sum games are situations where everyone is made better through cooperation. By all working together and combining inert pieces of material, we can create a house which which shelter us, keep us warm in the winter and shaded in the summer, and will give us a place to meet and hang out. The total value of the house is greater than the individual value of each component piece. Much of our world is structured around positive-sum interactions that occur when we cooperate through mutual unselfishness. Our morals derive from our ability to reason and help us harness these positive-sum moments. But it all comes back to our desire to pursue our own self interests while having to compromise as part of a larger social group.