Social Order is an Evolved Complex Moral Order

Philosophers and theologians in the Western tradition have tended to draw a strong distinction between humankind and other animals, believing—at least in earlier times—that humankind alone shared in the divine nature and that this set us apart radically from other animals. It is now quite clear, however, that we are descended from other social animals. Even our earliest hominoid ancestors lived as members of structured social groups. Our closest contemporary relatives—the other primate species—also live in social groups that exhibit cooperative behaviour involving parental care, cooperative foraging, mutual protection, self-denial and reciprocal kindness.[51] This social behaviour among primates appears to extend back millions of years. Therefore, it seems fair to assume that human cooperation is partly a legacy of our primate origins.[52] Indeed, contemporary research is attributing a central role to collaboration and trust in human evolution and, in particular, to the evolution of language. It is, therefore, simply not true that we are born entirely selfish.

Humans have an unusually long period of infantile and juvenile dependency on adults and this fact alone should put paid to any excessive adulation of individualism. The basic ability to intensively attend to and respond to others is present at birth.[53] New-born human babies imitate the expressions of others and enter into an exchange of feelings. By twelve months, they show a specific need to share purposes and meanings and to learn how to denote common ideas by means of symbolic expression. It is also clear that the life chances of a person—and the lifelong sense of his or her own worth—is heavily dependent on the experience of being loved as a child.

Human nurture and cooperation more generally are not simply a result of biological inheritance. Even among other primates, behaviour is not determined purely genetically; social learning is also important. Primate behaviour is a consequence of a complex mix of genetic, cultural and environmental factors with some recent research tending to emphasise the significance of the cultural element. Cultural learning is even more important to humans because human cooperation involves a much more complex range of behaviours and far wider networks than does cooperation among other primates. It is our ability to fashion more complex and more varied forms of social life that distinguishes us from them—an ability that depends on language and story-telling.

It is, therefore, now generally considered that humans are distinguished uniquely from other animals by our capacity for—and possession of—complex cultures and language. The possession of culture played an active role in shaping the final stages of human development.[54] The evolution of the human race—and particularly the emergence of intelligence and symbolic capacity—entailed a complex in which the organised hunting of large animals, life in organised social groups and the making and the use of tools were interconnected.[55] As contemporary anthropologist Roger Keesing (b. 1935) puts it: ‘[T]he whole pattern evolves together; changes in physical structures and changes in behaviour, both genetically and socially transmitted, are tied together.’[56] Michael Carrithers emphasises the evolution of social intelligence as playing the key role in this development[57] —a position consistent with the social function of intellectual hypothesis advanced by British psychologist Nicholas K. Humphrey.[58] Similarly, Philip Lieberman believes that our ability to talk is one of the keys to understanding the evolutionary process that made us human.[59]

It also appears that there is no necessary opposition between the influence of instinct and of learning in this evolutionary process. Among recent commentators, anthropologist Peter Reynolds[60] rejects explicitly the proposition that human evolution has been characterised by the replacement of instinct by culture. Rather, human behaviour and animal behaviour more generally appear to involve a complex interaction between instinct and experience. He argues that there is a great deal of behavioural continuity and that the instinctive systems that function in animals have parallels among humans. There appears to be a ‘progressive’ development of social behaviour, particularly among primates. We also appear to share much of the same emotional equipment. Reynolds concludes that a theory of human evolution that presupposes the development of reason at the expense of emotion, or of learning at the expense of instinct, conflicts with the evidence. Importantly, he argues that the relationship between reason and emotion is not one of hierarchy, but of specialisation by function—the brain integrating different kinds of information into a unified course of action. Consequently, the progressive evolution of primate cognition did not depend on the replacement of innate behaviour by learned behaviour, but on the selection and control of innate behaviour by conceptually stored information. The comparative evidence also supports progressive changes in the capacity for conceptualisation, in instrumental skills and in the volitional control of behaviour during the course of human evolution.

Keesing argues that our behavioural potential appears to be many-sided, complex, culturally shaped and socially expressed:

[T]he human behavioural repertoire entails countervailing tendencies. Humans probably do have behavioural tendencies to dominate, to compete, to be aggressive (though probably not to be territorial in a strict sense). But they also have tendencies to share, to cooperate, to be altruistic. Institutions and customs may intensify competition, reinforce dominance, or express aggression in warfare and combat; but they may reinforce our propensities to share, cooperate, be egalitarian and peaceful.[61]

Similarly, Mary Midgley argues that there is no need to choose between explanations based exclusively on social or innate human tendencies, because she believes that such causes do not compete; they supplement each other.[62] For example, she suggests that such innate tendencies as fear and anger are necessary motives and elements in a good life. Further, she points to the complexity of human motives and of the states labelled as aggression, spite, resentment, envy, avarice, cruelty, meanness and hatred and the complex activities they produce. Importantly, she argues that we are capable of these vices because we are capable of their opposites—the virtues. The capacity to form long-term relationships necessarily involves the possibility of rejecting or abusing that relationship. Aggression is only one among many motives that can lead to wickedness. Nor is it true that all aggressive behaviour is evil. She argues that we need to think of wickedness not primarily as a positive, definite tendency such as aggression—which needs special explanation—but rather as a negative, as a general kind of failure to live as we are capable of living. This, she suggests, involves recognising a whole range of natural motives associated with power: aggression, territoriality, possessiveness and competitiveness. The positive motives that move people to evil conduct are often quite decent ones such as prudence, loyalty, self-fulfilment and professional conscientiousness. The appalling element for Midgley lies in the lack of other motives, which ought to balance these—in particular, a proper regard for other people and a proper priority system that would enforce it.

It should be quite clear from the above that it would be a mistake to devalue the critical influence of cultural evolution in trying to correct the excessive distinction made between nature and nurture in earlier accounts of human evolution. It is also important to note that an evolutionary account of human development does not involve any necessary acceptance of the biological determinism connected with such contemporary theorists as Edward O. Wilson (Sociobiology: The New Synthesis) and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene). The more extreme pronouncements of these theorists are simply wrong. Their story is simply another attempt—in a long line of attempts in the Enlightenment tradition—to find a deterministic, mechanical explanation of human behaviour. Their selfish-gene metaphor is simply not helpful. Genes are not selfish; they lack the agency that would enable them to be described appropriately in that way. Nor are living organisms reducible to their genes, as recent research into the human genome has shown.

Contemporary biologist Brian Goodwin says it quite bluntly: organisms cannot be reduced to the properties of their genes and have to be understood as dynamic systems with distinctive properties. He argues that a more dynamic comprehensive theory of life focused on the dynamics of emergent processes would reinstate organisms as the fundamental units of life. In this view, organisms are not simply survival machines for genes. Organisms assume intrinsic value, having worth in and of themselves.[63] For Goodwin, such a realisation arises from an understanding of organisms as centres of autonomous action and creativity, connected with a causal agency that cannot be described as mechanical. It is the relational order that matters. Of course, this applies with particular strength to humans, and Goodwin extends this conclusion to social structures where relationships, creativity and values are of primary significance.

As should be clear from the above, this social order is acknowledged to be a moral order; it determines how we should act. As pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) pointed out:

[W]e are involved in a complex of obligations from which we have no right to free ourselves…Thus, altruism is not destined to become, as Spencer desires, a sort of agreeable ornament to social life, but it will forever be its fundamental basis. How can we ever really dispense with it? Men cannot live together without acknowledging, and, consequently, making mutual sacrifices, without tying themselves to one another with strong, durable bonds. Every society is a moral society.[64]

The study of social life is therefore a study of social norms, the institutions in which they are embodied and the stories we tell about them. It involves not simply regularities in conduct, but regulated conduct.[65] It is the shared values embedded in those stories that act as the mortar that binds together the structure of each human community, with rewards and punishments based on those commonly held values. It is also the pervasiveness of these values and rules that gives each person a sense of belonging, a sense of community.[66] Our very survival depends on such conformity. For the most part, conformity is a result of the internalisation of values and conceptions of what is desirable. These provide security and contribute to personal and social identity. Such cultural knowledge is, however, often tacit; it is so regular and routine that it lies below a conscious level. Michael Polanyi tells us that paying express attention to such knowledge can impede the skilful application of it in much the same way as giving express attention to a motor skill can impede the application of that skill.[67] Such skills are not exercised by following the rules explicitly. The aim of training is to free us from the need to follow such rules consciously.[68]

Sociability, then, is not simply a natural trait. Rather, social phenomena are due to nature and nurture. What is distinctive about human beings is our capacity to control our behaviour—what Stark calls our ‘animality’—a capacity that other species on the whole lack.[69] The process of nurture, the process of socialisation, is a process of moralisation.[70] The survival of sociality requires a system of discipline that sets limits to, and works against, the drives that we have inherited. It is this control that makes human civilisation possible and it is only then that higher values can influence human conduct. American cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (b. 1930) puts it this way:

It is an extraordinary fact that primate urges often become, not the secure foundation of human social life, but a source of weakness in it…In selective adaptation to the perils of the Stone Age, human society overcame or subordinated such primate propensities as selfishness, indiscriminate sexuality, dominance and brutal competition. It substituted kinship and cooperation for conflict, placed solidarity over sex [and] morality over might.[71]

Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) made a similar argument: ‘It is certain that self-love, when it acts at its liberty, instead of engaging us to honest action, is the source of all injustice and violence…We must allow that the sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature, but arises artificially, though necessarily, from education and human conventions.’[72]

For Stark, it is the control of greed exercised by the social norms that, in particular, constitutes a crucial victory of culture over animality.[73] He sees what he calls society’s primary laws as emerging out of these social norms. These norms—a society’s ethos—are not only taught to us by our parents, as indicated above, we learn them from our stories, our popular music, our fairy-tales, fables, sagas and legends, symbolism and ceremony, and from popular, artistic and educational literature. In the contemporary world, radio, television, film and the Internet provide much of the medium for this learning. These norms always operate in conjunction with ethical and religious teachings.

Importantly, for Stark, religion lies behind the other ethos-building institutions, filling the gaps left by custom and law—a view consistent with that of Geertz cited in Chapter 1. Because only crude offenders are detected, the pressures encouraging obedience to the law cannot be fully effective. They leave inner dispositions largely unaltered and cannot enforce the performance of good deeds. In these circumstances, the belief that our moral conduct will ultimately be rewarded or punished by some transcendent judge provides a powerful incentive for moral conformity. Stark, drawing on the work of French philosopher Henri Bergson (1858–1941), doubts whether society and culture could survive without a metaphysical prop of some kind. As indicated in the previous chapter, even in our partly secularised society, religious conceptions have not been eliminated. Not only do traditional religious views survive in a significant proportion of the population, powerful religion substitutes such as the deification of nature and of history have a similar influence.

The evolution of social norms and institutions has involved a long process of moral search and experimentation. Stark, drawing on the work of American social evolutionist William Sumner (1840–1910), describes it as follows:

What Sumner saw at work, in the lap of society, was a process of selection separating by way of trial and error, useful and disappointing expedients, and leading to the adoption of the former and the discarding of the latter. The guide in this never resting and never ending stream of experimentation is not pure but practical reason, not ratiocination, but, rather, common sense. General principles of action may and do in the end emerge, but they are merely abstract formulations, summings up, of concrete experiences.[74]

The conviction that humans have themselves created the social system within which they have their being is central to this point of view. For Stark, the self-creation of society is the greatest of all social phenomena. What have been selected in this historical process of evolution are ways of behaving that mitigate the war of all against all. Hayek, the darling of economic rationalists, also described a historical, evolutionary process of trial and error for the development of social rules.[75] Successful action results in the rule being selected, whereas unsuccessful action results in the rule being discarded.

Importantly, if humankind has made society in the process of its own evolution, it is not the pure product of ‘nature’. In the words of Berger and Luckmann, ‘[s]ocial order is not part of the “nature of things” and it cannot be derived from the “laws of nature”. Social order exists only as a product of human activity.’[76] Equally, if humankind has made society, it has also made the economic system.

These insights have considerable significance for the study of human behaviour itself. The social and economic systems and their constituents are not natural types or entities such as sodium chloride—exhibiting natural regularities to be described by the natural sciences—they are social artefacts. It is also clear from the above that culture is not a once-for-all influence; it is a continuing process constructed and reconstructed during human interaction.[77] Consequently, contemporary anthropologist Bruce Knauft tells us: ‘Culture is now best seen not as an entity, tied to a fixed group of people, but as a shifting and contested process of constructing collective identity…This is as true in New Guinea as it is in New York.’[78] The entire cultural and institutional environment within which the institutions of governance are embedded is the product of history and is subject to a path of dependency to at least some extent.[79] Consequently, history matters.

In their account, Berger and Luckmann explain that institutionalisation arises out of the habitualisation of actions that tend to be repeated frequently and their associated typifications.[80] These actions can then be reproduced with an economy of effort, making it unnecessary for each situation to be defined anew. Institutions control conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct, and are experienced as possessing a reality of their own that confronts members of the group as an external and coercive fact. The objectivity of this created world of meaning hardens as those patterns are passed on to children, and are experienced by them as an objective reality and an authoritative claim. Among groups, it ensures predicability of behaviour, stabilising actions, interactions and routines, which are then taken for granted. As such, they make possible a division of roles and labour in the widest sense.

Such an institutional world, and its associated roles, requires ways in which it can be explained and justified—that is, it requires legitimisation, giving rise to legitimising formulae. These legitimisations, these stories, are also learned during socialisation. In the evolution of human society, a widening canopy of legitimisations has been created, backed by the mechanisms of social control. For Berger and Luckmann, this edifice of legitimisation uses language as its principal instrument, with the fundamental legitimising explanations being built into the vocabulary. Importantly, society, identity and reality are each crystallised in the human subject in the process of internalising the language, which provides the means and the content of socialisation.

Language also provides the means for objectifying new experiences, allowing their incorporation into the existing stock of knowledge and the means by which these sedimentations are transmitted in the tradition of a collective. In this way, legitimisations can be adapted so as to reinterpret experience without necessarily upsetting the institutional order. Berger and Luckmann stress that this process of legitimisation does not primarily involve a preoccupation with complex theoretical systems because ‘the primary knowledge about the institutional order is the sum total of “what everybody knows” about the social world, an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths [and] so forth’.[81] With the evolving complexity of a society, however, there similarly arose specialised bodies of ‘theoretical’ knowledge providing a stable canopy of meaning for the society and ultimately creating symbolic universes in which all sectors of the institutional order were integrated in an all-embracing frame of reference. In the process, they attained a measure of autonomy capable of modifying, as well as reflecting, institutional processes.

As more complex forms of knowledge arose—and as an economic surplus developed—there also arose specialist legitimisers, who devoted themselves full-time to integrating the meanings attached to disparate institutional processes. In the process, they became increasingly removed from the necessities of everyday life, claimed a novel status and claimed knowledge of the ultimate status of what everyone did. These legitimisers, these story-tellers, these ‘priests’, form part of the system of social control, justifying the institutional order and giving normative dignity to its practices. The symbolic universe provides order for the subjective understanding of biographical experience and the history of society more generally—our sense of who we are.

The entire society now makes sense. Particular institutions and roles are legitimised by locating them in a comprehensively meaningful world. For example, the political order is legitimated by reference to a cosmicThe entire so order of power and justice, and political roles are legitimated as representatives of these cosmic principles.[82]

This human projection of meanings onto reality creates the world in which we live, but these symbolic universes are social products with a history. Of course, no symbolic universe is entirely taken for granted, with variation in the way in which the universe is conceived, with competition between rival groups of experts, the repression of dissent and the evolution of the tradition to ward off heretical groups. Importantly, an ideology develops when a particular definition of reality comes to be attached to a concrete power interest. So it has been with our society and with our market system. Of course, in modern pluralist societies, there tends to be a taken-for-granted shared universe and different partial universes existing in mutual accommodation and tension.

Berger and Luckmann go on to give an account of what they call the conceptual machineries of universe maintenance, pointing to the role of mythology, theology, philosophy and science in creating and maintaining the symbolic universe. For them:

Modern science is an extreme step in this development, and in the secularisation and sophistication of universe-maintenance. Science not only completes the removal of the sacred from the world of everyday life, but removes universe-maintaining knowledge as such from that world. Everyday life becomes bereft of both sacred legitimation and the sort of theoretical intelligibility that would link it with the symbolic universe in its intended totality. Put more simply, the ‘lay’ member of society no longer knows how his universe is to be conceptually maintained, although, of course, he still knows who the specialists of universe-maintenance are presumed to be.[83]

In summary, social life is made possible only through the disciplining of what Stark calls our animal nature or our animality.[84] Not only have our instincts been tamed, they have been transformed into factors making for social cohesion. Nevertheless, underneath human culture, animal nature is still present and needs permanent discipline. At best, the average socialised person is only semi-moralised up to a moderate standard of law-abidingness. We adjust to social life by internalising and operating its norms and by internalising and manipulating them. We learn how to seem social as well as how to be social—not only how to serve, but how to hold our own, to manipulate and how to exploit. Of course, we often also lie to ourselves about our own motives. Consequently, there is often a deep discrepancy between human ideals and real conduct. Every society must therefore guard against antisocial conduct; it must have and apply sanctions, to deter as far as possible criminal behaviour in the widest sense of the word.

It is important to note before we move on that the above evolutionary account of the development of human society and of culture does not involve any acceptance of the social Darwinism that is identified with Spencer or Sumner in the late nineteenth century, and which attempted to justify the dominant social hierarchies of Victorian society.