Altruism and the Moral Matrix

What are the origins of altruistic behaviour in human society?

One of the greatest debates in philosophy and the social sciences over the last few centuries has been the origins of altruistic behaviour in human beings. This issue can be approached from many perspectives, with the result that polarly opposed opinions not infrequently find themselves being expressed. A central question within this debate is the role played by religion. Religious believers will of course see the hand of God in stimulating our Original Mind through His teachings. But, at the opposite pole, the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, and co.) see religion as one of the biggest barriers preventing human beings from living together in peace and mutual tolerance.

So how can the two sides reach such divergent views on the role of religion in their understanding of the origins of altruism? Can we claim that either side really has a satisfactory explanation of what drives altruistic behaviour and how it can best be cultivated or promoted? While my sympathies tend by habit to be more with the former position – I see how my beliefs and the moral compass implicitly embedded therein propel me to live a life for the sake of others, in particular those who share my beliefs (or some of them) – in relation to the beliefs of certain religious groups such as violent Jihadists, I must confess to feeling more sympathy for Sam Harris’s critique of religious extremism and would have to concede he has a point. And there is the nub of the problem: my spiritual beliefs always cultivate right attitudes and good behaviour, but other people’s are not always so benign…

As with all such big debates, some of which have lumbered on over centuries, this one looks unlikely to be resolved by either side ultimately prevailing over the other. A further dimension needs perhaps to be introduced that can help elucidate the validity of both perspectives while moving the discussion on to a new level.

Weaknesses in Current Explanations

One of the problems for the religious position, or more particularly the Judeo-Christian perspective, is its lack of rigour. The existence of an original mind is postulated (explicitly or implicitly). But this has been polluted by a fallen mind (at some unknown past date), so that in practice we are in a process of evolution towards its liberation. So both the original mind and the fallen mind are at best conceptual tools rather than being empirically observable or concretely defined. For example, if we ask the question whether the original mind will be liberated by creating the right social/spiritual environment or vice versa, this is not answerable in terms of the conceptual framework proposed.

The New Atheists’ position on the other hand is built on the foundation of Darwinism (or more accurately a particular interpretation thereof popularised principally by Stephen J. Gould (1980) and Richard Dawkins (1976, 2006) about 30 years ago). It is their view that human nature has evolved from animal behaviour through a process of natural selection operating on individuals at the genetic level. They explicitly exclude the possibility pointed to by Darwin (and accepted within at least part of the biological community until the 1970’s) of “group selection” whereby some groups might prosper at the expense of others on account of some genetically encoded propensity shared by individuals in the group. An argument commonly used against this possibility in the case of the evolution of altruism is the so-called “free rider” problem, first identified by Darwin himself. It states that if a genetically based behaviour evolves amongst some individuals in a group which assists the group but is not directly in the interests of the individual, there will be an advantage for those in the group who do not practise it. The prospering of the non-practising individuals at the expense of those practising the group-serving behaviour will then serve to suppress the spread of the genetic modification throughout the group.

Dawkins (1976) argues for two possible origins of altruism in human beings, both of which he sees as compatible with the selfish gene concept he promotes. One is kin selection where, for example a mother nurtures her child. But in this case she is securing the future of her own genes, so the phenomenon must be expected to remain tied to that context, except insofar as it misfires and a mother feels maternal instincts for other children, or perhaps infant animals. The second example is so-called reciprocal altruism where individuals in a community develop cooperative behaviour to their mutual benefit. But it is arguable whether this is genuine altruism given that it is defined to be conditional on a benefit returning to the initial benefactor.

On the back of such thinking, biological orthodoxy has tended to argue for the last 30 years or so against the existence of genuinely selfless altruism as an intrinsic human behaviour, i.e. one with a genetic/biological foundation. Rather evidence of altruistic behaviour is viewed either as a failure correctly to perceive the hidden benefit conferred on the individual, or as a learned behaviour. The latter may be reciprocal altruism operating at a cultural rather than, or in addition to, a genetic level (nature and/or nurture); or it may be prescribed by moral agents (such as religions) on behalf of “society” or the group against the immediate interests of the individual.  Dawkins coined the word “memes” to describe such learned behaviours, the behavioural equivalent of genes. It is perhaps not surprising that biologists have on this basis been in general hostile to religion and have been more on the liberal than on the conservative wing politically.

But, whatever one makes of such arguments, it hardly constitutes an “explanation” of altruism in human beings to suggest it is self-delusion or, at best, a false consciousness.

A More Empirical Approach?

So we have the Judeo-Christian viewpoint on the one hand asserting axiomatically that altruism is an intrinsic human propensity because it is part of the divine nature with which we are all supposed to be endowed. On the other side, the hard-line Darwinians remain sceptical about the idea that human beings are intrinsically altruistic, on the basis that the free rider problem would have prevented altruism from evolving at a genetic level.

To make progress in this stand-off we might do well to take a wider perspective, looking in particular at the working and evolution of both the human mind and human society, and indeed their mutual interaction. We are all aware that our basic biological instincts are to advance our own interests as we perceive or feel them. We learn from a young age of the need to resist and control such urges as part of a socialisation process.

Whether an atheist or a religious believer, every parent knows that children have to be taught to behave with consideration for others and do not do so naturally. Why do they usually conform? Well, in the first instance there is the fact that they can: children are born in general with an innate ability to empathise, and develop fairly naturally the capacity to envisage how other people will respond to certain behaviours of theirs. What takes effort to develop is the will to direct their own behaviour in line with other people’s desires rather than their own. This usually occurs by harnessing their will to receive approval from their parents or others around them.

From this observation, two further questions arise:

  • Is this approval-seeking itself an innate or a learned behaviour?

And further:

  • Is the development of altruism tied to this approval-seeking or is there an independent altruistic tendency that operates independently of any approval-seeking mechanism?

These questions take us into the realm of evolutionary psychology and the closely related field of sociobiology. Although the former was for a long time marginalised by evolutionary biologists, it is I believe now starting to become mainstream, if not in the estimation of the wider biologist community, then at least in the opinion of psychologists. We note in this regard that Dawkins (2006) in his more recent writing evinces support for some of the work of evolutionary psychologists, albeit its critique of religion.

I shall not attempt here to do justice to the arguments and supporting studies and evidence presented by evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists in relation to the above questions. Rather I refer the reader to Jonathan Haidt’s (2012) recent account of these issues. In Haidt’s estimation, the answer to the first of these questions is more clear-cut than the other. But a lot can nonetheless be said in relation to both and Haidt gives his conclusions in the third part of his book under the head “Morality Binds and Blinds”.

On the first issue, it seems obvious that approval-seeking is common across many species, not just humans. One only needs to think about mating processes. And if a behaviour supports a mating process, it is a prime candidate for genetic selection. The evidence suggests that approval-seeking is hard-wired not only into our genes but also into our brains. One of the main functions of speech from its inception appears to have been to express disapproval. Gossiping ensured that any transgressions by an individual against the interests and expectations of the community would be sure to become public knowledge, to the significant disadvantage of the transgressor.

This would be expected naturally to lead to a situation where advantage could accrue to individuals manifesting “altruistic” behaviour. But, the question must then be asked whether the altruism induced in this way is transferable to relationships with those outside the community whose approval is sought? As Hayek (1988) argued in his classic defence of free market principles, although it is possible for altruism to transcend the bounds of the community in which it was forged, it is no simple matter for this to happen. The constraints we learn within our community to impose on our behaviour and perception (what Haidt refers to as moral matrices), rather than being an assistance, are frequently an impediment to integration with other communities:

Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.

So, according to Hayek, when in our behaviour we seek the approval of our community, this is likely to lead us into greater conflict rather than concord vis à vis other communities. The behaviours we learn which enable us to transcend our family or community loyalties are what he terms “morality”. So for Hayek, morality is by definition a learned behaviour, imbibed through a combination of imitation and schooling. Altruism beyond the community to which we have natural loyalty cannot in his understanding be construed as having a genetic basis.

Hayek’s answer to our second question would therefore appear to be no: altruism is only hard-wired insofar as approval-seeking is hard-wired in our instinctive behaviour. The hard-line Darwinian purists would happily concur with such a conclusion

Groupishness in Human Beings

Haidt (2012) evinces support for Hayek’s general view of morality. But consideration of more recent evidence surveyed from the perspective of evolutionary psychology lead him to a conclusion which diverges subtly from Hayek’s. He points out evidence of what appears to be an innate propensity in human beings for “groupish” behaviour. By this he means the immersion of oneself in a group identity and/or behaviour (a comparison is made with that of bees or ants). This is not frequently manifested, but is triggered from time to time by certain events which can cause an altered brain state to occur. Extending the analogy with bees, he refers to these triggers as “the hive switch,” summarising his thesis in the aphorism that “human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee”.

Examples of groupish behaviour which he enumerates are:

  • Strong nationalist sentiment induced by a perceived hostility or threat, e.g. 9/11
  • Fraternities and sororities at US universities underpinned by induction rituals
  • Chanting at football games (US or UK version)
  • Evangelical worship services
  • Rites of passage involving ritual dances and chanting
  • Hallucinogenic drug-taking, often as a religious practice or at a rave
  • Camaraderie in war

This tendency he identifies as a driver for genuinely altruistic behaviour. Thus, his claim is that groupishness is not just a behaviour which results in the individual receiving the approbation of the group, resulting in an advantage for the individual which is favoured by natural selection. If this were the case, the appearance of good behaviour would be enough to secure the advantage which would favour selection. But the activation of the hive switch is not something that can be faked. Groups of individuals together enter into altered mental states, the reality of which can be detected and measured by neurological research techniques.

The suggestion is therefore that genuine altruism is an innate propensity, but is conditional in two ways. First it requires the hive switch to be activated at some level for it to kick in. And second, it is expressed in a limited manner towards an “in-group” of other hive members, often but not necessarily at the expense of those perceived not to be members. We can see how this leads to the phenomenon mentioned above whereby religious adherents are willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of their own religion and fellow-religionists, but will often be extremely uncharitable and even violent to those who neither share their faith nor conform in their behaviour to the constraints of their moral matrix.

The interesting question to ask ourselves is whether the benefits of the first outweigh the costs of the social turmoil engendered by the second. There is a strong argument to be made (Haidt makes it) that the foremost position of religion as a strong moral force at the centre of almost every thriving society is not a coincidence, an argument we ignore at our peril. (The recent economic decline in W. Europe is I think well correlated with the decline of the influence of religion.) Yet mainstream liberal opinion in both US and W. Europe tends to be scathing of religion and sees it as a necessary part of their agenda to reduce the power of religion to influence the public moral agenda. At the same time, conservative political opinion tends at best to be conditional in its support for sectarian moral agendas.

Moral Capital

If we take the above viewpoint of Haidt (who incidentally counts himself an atheist and a liberal), we must view the deficit in the respect in the US and W. Europe for the beneficial influences religion has brought to our societies as a problem to be addressed. The consequence of this failure is twofold. The first is what Hayek (1988) calls the fatal conceit. This is an inability to recognise the truth of the claim first made by David Hume that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason,” resulting in a mistaken belief that we can build the morality of our choice into our society through the deliberate design of our laws and institutions.

The second consequence is the diminution of moral capital which Haidt defines as

…the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

Here we confront the paradox that it is typically in membership of a group that we give expression to our altruistic nature. So, by curbing the influence of “parochial” religion we curtail the supply of moral capital. Further, it has been observed that within communities, the degree of sacrifice individuals are willing to make for the community is related to the extent to which the group sacralises certain goals or ends. Such is not restricted to religious sacralisation but includes such causes as tackling climate change, protecting endangered species (and foxes), and promoting minority rights.

But there is a problem in that sacralising is by its definition beyond rationalisation. There will always be those who do not see the sacred objects or objectives as such and seek to use rational arguments to desacralise them. It would appear that in the western world over the last 50 years we have frequently succumbed to such arguments and seen our stock of moral capital decline substantially. We seek to rebuild this stock with exhortations to be good citizens and to commit ourselves to the building of the multi-cultural society. But if the willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause is born out of group membership, moral capital is inevitably diminished, not increased, by an attempt to break down divisions, especially if this involves losing part of our identity, such as our pride in (and knowledge of) our national history.

It should be added that the western world has been particularly vulnerable to such decline in its moral capital because of the excessive focus on the rational individual at the centre of its theorising about morals, rights, economics, politics, etc. Furthermore, religions in the Western world too have tended to be focused on the behaviour and status of the individual rather than on groups like the family, or on relationships. This is in sharp contrast with the oriental tradition of Confucianism. Members of oriental societies will of course look at society very differently and are much more likely to see families, groups and relationships, rather than atomic individuals. They are therefore more likely to take steps to protect families and groups, even where this is at the expense of compromising individual rights or freedoms. I am not here suggesting that oriental societies are therefore a better model; only that they illustrate a weakness in western societies.

The Way Forward?

So what can we learn from the above? Well, one immediate conclusion is that we should seek to use the language of relationships and groups more in discussing moral issues in the public arena.

Secondly, we should be more willing to recognise the value of sacralisation in communities as a good in itself insofar as it is typically the wellspring of altruistic behaviour. Of course, if what is sacralised is a behaviour or end which is of itself clearly harmful to society, such as the promotion of race hatred resulting in violence, that should be discouraged. But there is a difference, say, between homophobia and a choice made in conscience to value heterosexual relationships differently from homosexual. Alongside sacralisation, Haidt recognises loyalty and respect for authority as values which are equally ignored by liberal advocates. We should find the language to speak out for all three as supporting the moral capital of our society, without which it could not exist.

Thirdly, rather than trying to undermine the groups which induce in their members a willingness to sacrifice for the group, it would be more fruitful to seek to enlarge the sphere of the concern. While the innate mechanism for learning altruistic behaviour is demonstrably group-centric, that does not mean that altruistic behaviour and compassion, once learned, cannot be extended to a wider group, as Jesus elucidated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.


Dawkins, Richard (1976) “The Selfish Gene” (1st edition)

Dawkins, Richard (2006) “The God Delusion”

Gould, Stephen J. (1980) “The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History”

Haidt, Jonathan (2012) “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” (see also references therein). Part I summarises his earlier book “The Happiness Hypothesis.” For an overview of part II of his book, see his TED lecture on For part III, see his TED lecture on and his RSA lecture on

Hayek, Friedrich A. (1988) “The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism”.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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