I've asked a question about how evolution would explain morality, which lead me to a more basic question - if an instinct would tell the group members to act altruistically, where would that instinct come from? Why would that instinct exist? The randomness answer doesn't seem fit here in my opinion, unless it says that the consciousness itself evolves randomly and creates random instinct..

  • Altruistic behavior is common in animals, so presumably it has little to do with consciousness. I am not sure what "where it comes from" means, presumably from the same place as all other instincts, genetically transmitted predispositions of the nervous system. On the evolutionary mechanisms of altruism see SEP's Biological Altruism.
    – Conifold
    Jan 8, 2018 at 22:03
  • I don't have references, but isn't empathy a direct consequence of a more developed ability to think abstractly? The ability to imagine yourself into someone else's shoes? That's the way I've always explained it: empathy + self interest = the "golden rule", which is the basis for most of the world's religions.
    – BradC
    Jan 8, 2018 at 22:22
  • @BradC If it has anything to do with abstract thinking it must be of the kind that we share with most mammals and probably birds, they also display empathy. And empathetic reactions are too immediate to believe that they are mediated by abstract thinking even in humans. It is more likely that these are rationalizations after the fact invented to "justify" unconscious emotional reactions.
    – Conifold
    Jan 8, 2018 at 22:38
  • 1
    Survival of the species. Animals that are 'social' species, i.e., that live within a group environment, act in a way to ensure the survival of the group- not of their own individual. Animals that are not in social constructs, usually still act in a way to insure the survival of their bloodline - their offspring. In both cases it is the survival of the species that is the spur. Even ants take care of their wounded and sick. Crows have 'funerals'. Jan 9, 2018 at 4:51
  • 1
    @Swami Vishwananda (I'm tagging you but replying to all others) my question isn't why would such instinct exist - of course, in order to survive, sociality is needed. The question is HOW would such instinct exist. Jan 9, 2018 at 6:31

5 Answers 5


There is another possibility: The instinct being substituted by social constructs as (biologically) successful strategy.

This is a possibility proposed by Jay M. Bernstein (referring to Brandom):

[...] I adopt a theory of Robert Brandom's that elaborates the structure of human self-consciousness as a social reworking of the governing structures of animal desire and consciousness. Humans are animals who satisfy the entirety of their animal life through social means such that it comes to make sense to consider the desire for recognition as the replacement form of the drive for self-preservation. Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (2014), p. 17

Recognition (more specifically: of bodily integrity), in turn, is what socially construes moral normativity for Bernstein (see Ch.5,6).

Therefore, one could say, e.g. with Habermas, that the reciprocal trust and recognition (fulfilling the same biological role as self-preservation) that proved socially successful in families is, extended (and adjusted) to society, exactly what constitutes morals.


Altruism is not a natural instinct, it is learned. The idea and implementation of altruism is predominately based off of guilt in the individual.

It is not natural in any animal's instinct to feel guilt. It is wholly a learned behavior. New words and definitions, plus combinations of these, can be created to create new ideas, emotions, sensations; not understood or developed previously within the human psyche. The term Altruism is a great example of this. Auguste Comte first coined the term in the early 1800's (not that long ago). It's the selfless idea to suffer yourself for the benefit of the greater man. Think, that if one person could take on all of the world's diseases, suffer, and die from them instantly, only so that the world would be cured of disease. Think the idea of Jesus expanded.

This is not a natural idea or concept formed in instinct. Instinct is to protect the lineage of the being, not set it up for destruction. Sharing, seen amongst other animals is shared for the benefit, not consequence. Most religious practices teach the idea of guilt. Guilt is the single easiest practice of controlling a learned population. Altruism would be this idea at its climax. There is nothing natural or instinctual about this false loop.

So in summary, altruistic tendencies would only come from an idea, they would not exist in instinct. Consciousness does contain instinct, but this is an idea beyond that.


Biased randomness leads to evolution, which can produce moral instincts

Yes, evolutionary theory would hold that, as you say, consciousness evolves randomly and creates random instinct. Or, more precisely, it would hold that consciousness and non-conscious instincts are two things that can evolve randomly.

The basic idea behind evolutionary theory is straightforward: initially, complex systems emerge through random fluctuations. Whether these fluctuations are ultimately truly random (e.g. deriving ultimately from completely unknowable quantum mechanical effects) or subtly deterministic (through a non-casual universal state function, say) is a complicated ontological issue, but at least they appear so. Once sufficiently complex systems emerge (and “sufficiently” can here mean “a few molecules in size”) some of those systems are more likely to survive in their local environment than others. At the level of very simple systems, this might mean something as boring as having a slightly higher stiffness.

Evolutionary theory holds (based on some rather convincing evidence) that complexity itself increased the likelihood of systems surviving in Earth’s distance past. It does not necessarily assert that this would hold in any environment. Further, a system that propagates itself to some degree might, over time, become enriched relative to a system that doesn’t propagate itself. Thus given sufficient time, systems with information transfer and reproduction emerge. Once systems with information content that governs their behavior emerge (say, something about as complex as a protein or RNA), evolutionary theory suggests that certain behaviors will increase the chances that the system can propagate itself. What those behaviors are will depend on the system and its environment.

In very complicated systems (e.g. organisms), seemingly “moral” behavior may increase the chances of survival or propagation. For example, giving one’s food to others may encourage them to be nearby, and thus provide safety in numbers when attacked, thus leading to organisms with that gene propagating disproportionately. The mechanism through which such behavior can evolve can be highly complex and mathematical, too, and not immediately apparent simply by considering the obvious consequences of an action. The accumulation of small changes can lead to highly complex behavior arising—up to and including moral (or immoral) behavior.

In essence: Why do “moral” instincts exist? Because they keep people (and their genes) alive.

There are several key points here.

  1. Evolution does not distinguish between conscious moral reasoning and unconscious instincts.

    As long as an impulse is sufficiently advantageous for the propagation of a system, it is likely to become more common over time. Unconscious instincts (e.g. bacterial instinct to transfer genes) and conscious moral reasoning derive from the same process.

  2. Moral behavior is not determined by biology, only influenced by it.

    Evolutionary theory doesn’t, generally speaking, hold that people have a biological disposition to, say, believe in deontological ethics, or that genes obligate honesty, any more than it argues that humans are biologically predisposed to like Star Wars and not John Carter of Mars. Not everyone will have the same instincts, or to the same degree, and what morality these instincts ultimately lead to will depend heavily on society.

    Rather, morality comes from the interactions of biologically-influenced values with upbringing and other social experiences. A single instinct (not wanting to see people injured, say) could lead one person to try to preserve human life, whereas it could lead another person to try to kill people who are suffering, depending on how that instinct interacts with the moral philosophies they’ve been exposed to.

    Or people might be biologically disposed to protect their “family,” say. But those instincts might be hugely generalized depending on societal context, so that mechanisms that evolved because they ensured the survival of genetically similar individuals are extended through moral reasoning to an entire country, or species.

  3. Moral reasoning may itself be advantageous.

    Ultimately, evolutionary theory holds that reasoning and other conscious processes exist because they are beneficial to propagation. That is, an organism that can develop new rules for new situations may be much more likely to survive, or to propagate its genes, than an organism that doggedly applies the same rules to different situations.

    But evolution is no guarantee, and moral reasoning may cause individuals to take actions that are not evolutionarily beneficial. For example, biological immortality apparently was not adaptive for humans, but survival instincts and moral reasoning abilities acquired through evolution may motivate humans to eventually arrest aging, possibly at the expense of actual evolution. Or protective instincts meant to prevent being killed by competitors may lead an unstable dictator to declare nuclear war and annihilate themselves and their relatives.

  4. Evolution is not a moral justification in itself.

    Evolution cannot say what is right, only why it originated. Human moral behavior may have originated for evolutionary reasons, but ultimately individual moral behavior is not tied to a specific goal. There are people who believe every different moral philosophy imaginable, and they’re all still human beings. While there are genetic differences that contribute to this, the likelihood is that people’s specific experiences contribute at least as much to their moral philosophies.

  • People often fail to distinguish between the representation of information content and the content itself. Just about anything can qualify as representation as Sherlock Holmes demonstrates, but content, on the other hand, is especially problematic. Wilfrid Sellars said, "The idea that epistemic facts can be analyzed without remainder—even 'in principle'—into non-epistemic facts,... is, I believe, a radical mistake." Your claim that content can simply emerge by random processes neglects to take this into consideration and thus doesn't address one of the key difficulties of the question.
    – user3017
    Jan 9, 2018 at 9:51
  • @PédeLeão - I’m sorry, perhaps I misunderstand what you’re saying. Perhaps there exist some “ideals” out there that are the true form of any information, and not its representation in our reality. But what’s the relevance of that to the question or answer?
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 9, 2018 at 9:53
  • The relevance is that the question concerns the evolution of moral instincts, so the content of those instincts can't be "some ideal out there"; rather, we have to have some on-board access to it. Otherwise there's no way that it could govern our behavior. DNA might be thought to represent information, but it's hard to fathom how it could contain it, especially since molecules are non-epistemic entities.
    – user3017
    Jan 9, 2018 at 10:13
  • @PédeLeão - Assuming you don’t believe that evolution led to morality indirectly, perhaps you’re a little confused by quoting Sellars? His arguments were a little more subtle than that, I believe,
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 9, 2018 at 10:22
  • But fortunately, I have no obligation either to Sellars or Kant. I believe information to be a real physical entity, which is limited in propagation speed, conserved, etc. And yes, which is carried by (among many other things) DNA. I don’t view a distinction between “epistemic” and “non-epistemic” entities, at least in the sense you mean, as meaningful. And I don’t particularly care about the Wittgensteinian problem of determining the precise relationship of the construct of thought to the molecular processes that even Sellars believed underlay it in some sense....
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 9, 2018 at 10:24

E.O.Wilson used his lifetimes study of social insects, towards understanding the parallels to human behaviour. He popularised and extended the definition of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eusociality

Quite compelling if you read up, how bees and ants give up individual reproductio interests for those of close relatives, at great benefit. This plays out in our preference to help family and those we know well, rather than rational Singer-style altruism eg. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/charity/duty_1.shtml


(I am new to StackExchange so I’m probably placing this in the wrong area. It’s more of a counter addition to the E.O. Wilson reference. I believe though, it can aid and contribute to answering the question at hand. I am very excited about this thread and hope we can come to some sort of truth for this question.)

Bees, ants, termites, are all of the same family; wasps. None of which "give up individual reproductive interests". They are not born with them. In a bee colony, if pheromones given off from the queen are missing, or she is aging, dead, or the population is over crowded, they will produce queens. Queens have been fed royal jelly, which is a nutrient rich food source which allows the larvae to produce ovaries capable of being fertilized. The majority of the rest of the hive is made up of infertile worker bees; females. If a colony is queen-less past the stage in which a larvae could be fed to produce these ovaries capable of fertilization then a worker, or a few workers, will produce over sized ovaries and begin laying eggs. It's a strange phenomena. But because these eggs have not been or capable of being fertilized by a drone, which a queen would do on her maiden flight, all of the eggs produced by the worker will only hatch as drones; males. Drones are without stingers, fat and incapable of work and feeding themselves. Their only true purpose is reproduction. With only these drones taking over the majority, eventually the colony will die unless a queen is placed by a beekeeper within the hive while the worker/female population is still high. Initially bees also produce multiple queens, the queens fight and kill each other off until only the strongest survives. Nature at its finest. As for altruism, it is completely absent within a hive. But in human error we look for connections to validate our ideas of it. It's a false presumption to believe, that since wasps and bees have realized through evolution that their best way of survival (for multiple reasons) is to work in a community, it is not altruistic. Living this way is for the survival of the individual bee, of its self. And to carry on its self the only way bees know how. The colony works as a whole, just as each individual cell in our bodies work together to produce one output; reproduction. Each bee carries out it's objective to survive for its self and as a member of the whole. Without attaining to the whole, the bee would bee thrown from the hive to survive on its own, which it can not for very long; nor aid in carrying on its genes. There are so many fascinating things we can learn about ourselves and our relation to the natural world and our existence and meaning through bees. And so many mysteries still yet to be uncovered. Which is why I became a beekeeper many years ago.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .