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Charles Darwin

Darwin On Moral Intelligence

Vincent di Norcia applies his mental powers to Darwin’s moral theory.

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have… evolved.” Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, p.470.

“Moral concepts are embodied in and partially constitutive of forms of social life.” Alasdair MacIntyre, Short History of Ethics, p.1.

Darwin had an evolutionary view of ethics ‘from the side of natural history’ which connects with MacIntyre’s insight into morality’s connections with social life. This article will show how Darwin argued in The Descent of Man that the moral sense evolved from a combination of social instincts and well-developed mental powers. If this is so, moral philosophers will need to pay more attention to Darwin’s views, and in response, rethink morality along naturalistic lines. The result, I suggest, can be a rich concept of moral intelligence. (All unidentified page references are to The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation To Sex, Princeton edition, 1981.)

The Social Instincts

The social instincts, Darwin wrote, are “the prime principle of man’s moral constitution” (p.106). The moral sense “is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community.” (p.97). Darwin offered extensive evidence that we are social animals, and that we share our moral sense with our primate evolutionary predecessors.

The social instincts, Darwin held, have evolved through “numerous slight, yet profitable variations.” (Origin, p.223). Associating in groups improves the chances of survival compared with solitary existence. Sometimes, he admitted, one can not determine whence a specific social instinct originated – natural selection; other instincts such as sympathy; reason; imitativeness; or ‘long continued habit’. Moreover, different instincts have different degrees of strength – but the social instincts are stronger and more enduring than many others. Darwin said the social instincts are not like instinctual behaviour, viz, a bird’s drive to migrate and build nests. However, he added, the disposition to associate may be innate in the higher animals. In evidence he observed that many animals are unhappy if long separated from their fellows, also noting “man’s dislike of solitude and his wish for society beyond that of his own family.” (p.84). Indeed an individual who showed no trace of social feeling would be “an unnatural monster.” (p.90).

The Moral Sense

The moral sense, Darwin claimed, “first developed, in order that those animals which would profit by living in society, should be induced to live together” (p.80). It is “fundamentally identical with the social instincts” (p.98). Furthermore, Darwin interpreted “the imperious word ought” not just as a Kantian sense of duty, but also as reflecting an instinct, be it innate or acquired. This moral sense is essentially utilitarian, reflecting the greatest happiness principle, being directed as it is to the general good of the community. Moreover, over time “man [regarded] more and more not only the welfare but the happiness of his fellow-men” (p.103). This social utilitarianism, Darwin added, was reinforced by psychological factors such as the “strong retentiveness of former states of pain or pleasure,” which helped humans to participate in the pleasures of others, care about their sufferings, and to develop social emotions like love and sympathy. In stressing the importance of beneficial outcomes, Darwin’s utilitarian social ethic utilizes but goes beyond subjective factors such as motives and intentions. Darwin did momentarily lapse into proto-idealism, in stating that “the highest stage of… moral culture” lies in controlling our thoughts (p.101), but he never reconciles this aside with his core utilitarianism, naturalism or his support of altruism. How ever, morality does require significant mental powers (see below).

But how did the moral sense evolve from the social instincts? On the one hand, the near-identity of morality with the social instincts would suggest that morality is innate too; but Ruse’s view that “we are moral because our genes… fill us full of thoughts about being moral” seems overstated (Ruse, in Evolutionary Ethics, Nitecki & Nitecki, p.148).

Darwin did see the moral sense as inherited and evolutionarily transmitted. But moral conduct is also greatly influenced by social approval. He cited Herbert Spencer’s view that experiences of utility were consolidated over the generations, adding that morality is first learned “from habit, following on beneficial expression, instruction, and example” (p.102, cf Aristotle: Ethics, II.6). Indeed the repeated performance of moral actions would, Darwin wrote, make them indistinguishable from an instinct. But this Lamarckian-like explanation is not compatible with the core principle of natural selection.

Human cultures and animal species each follow widely different notions of morality, but the ‘most important’ social virtues must be practiced if association is to be possible. Darwin distinguished between higher, social virtues, and lower, ‘self-regarding’ virtues. He held that individuals would gratify their desires unless they “interfere... with the good of others” (p.93).

Morality makes society possible, Darwin explained, by minimizing criminal behaviour and social conflict:

“No tribe could hold together if murder, robbery, treachery, &c., were common; consequently such crimes within the limits of the same tribe ‘are branded with everlasting infamy’; but excite no such sentiment beyond these limits.” (p.93)

In truth, social life does wither in regions of high crime and violence, as people tend to avoid high risk interactions and threatening situations. In prohibiting harm to others, and in condemning and punishing criminal conduct, the moral sense reduces the risks and encourages association. With the help of such ‘moralistic aggression’, the moral sense enables the wider spread of reciprocal altruism. The result is that in normal functioning social life, violence and criminal conduct are relatively rare. Indeed, our sense of justice and fairness may be an evolutionary result of reciprocity supported by a socially-interactive moral sense. Of necessity everyday social life must be low risk. The incidence of aggressive behaviour is much lower in social animals than the shop-worn Hobbesian myth about an allegedly ‘natural’ tendency to warlike violence would lead one to predict. The countless peaceful interactions of everyday social life far outweigh the incidence of violently aggressive behaviour, as even the most rudimentary observation shows.

For Darwin, morality is altruistic. Trivers defines altruism as “behaviour which benefits another organism, not closely related” (Natural Selection and Social Theory, pps.18-19). Individuals, Darwin felt, would risk their lives and endure torture for the welfare of the group. Yet while originally costly, it is important to note that altruism likely benefits the agent over the long run. Indeed, ‘hard-core altruism’, in which the agent does not benefit at all from acting morally, is neither sustainable nor intelligent. Self-sacrificing hard-core altruism, like selfish egoism, cheating and violence, neither encourages nor rewards social interaction. On such harsh, punitive bases as these, social relationships could not emerge, would not be sustained, and would not have survived and evolved as they have. Any hard-core-altruistic social animals that emerged would soon become extinct. It follows that hard-core altruism is not a viable, or intelligent, social option. Altruism needs to be mutual.


Altruism must be reciprocated if social life is to be sustainable. Or – to be sustainable, social interactions must benefit all social actors. However, reciprocation can be immediate or over time, specific or general, unequal or equivalent – as long as an intelligent altruistic agent’s expectation of reciprocal advantage is credible. Moral intelligence, then, is needed, to assess equivalences in benefits. On this assessment, reciprocal altruism is not only morally intelligent, it represents a recipe for sustainable social symbiosis.

Reciprocity takes both active and passive forms. Both are essential to the continuance of social life. Passive reciprocity is the sense of social interactions in which no one is harmed or threatened. It builds on the low risk, low crime foundation created by an effective moral code, reinforcing moral norms that prohibit harm to others. Thus we see a minimal tacit morality of non-threatening coexistence with anonymous strangers on urban streets, in buses, trains and other social spaces. To the extent that this minimally moral conduct is (passively) reciprocated, social life becomes peaceful and non-threatening.

But for social life to prosper, spread and endure, people must gain from coexisting and interacting with others. Active, mutually-beneficial reciprocity is needed. From now on, when I say ‘reciprocity’, I will mean this positive, mutually-benefitting sense. Reciprocity so defined is in fact evident in much social behaviour: sex, friendship, dining, work, communication, games, negotiations, politics and trade. Since the benefits of benign interaction outweigh the benefits of avoidance, active reciprocity emerges and soon spreads: mutually-beneficial reciprocally altruistic social interactions reinforce associating with others. It is a robust force for social cohesion and continuity, and much more evolutionarily sustainable than mutual threat and strife. With the help of moral aggression in punishing violators, it suggests a solution to the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma, where altruism is not reciprocated: Act peacefully or altruistically until the other person acts threateningly or selfishly. Then respond in kind, and punish violators. This last, I note, constitutes a negative form of reciprocity. But one should try to restore peaceful interaction as soon as possible, for we are intelligent social actors, not prisoners.

Trade, for example, is inherently an actively reciprocal, mutually-beneficial exchange relationship. For millenia, great trade routes like the Silk Road, and regions like the Mediterranean, have brought diverse peoples together. Trade lays the foundations for a peaceful, prosperous society when combined with the division of labour and personal property rights. For Matt Ridley, trade probably lies at the origin of morality (See his The Origins of Virtue, Ch. 2).

The core moral norm inherent in reciprocity is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The social instincts and the moral sense, Darwin maintained, naturally lead to the Golden Rule (p.106). It calls for reciprocal altruistic responses from everyone, benefiting all partners to an interaction, and so it embodies the essence of morality.

The more that altruistic behaviour is reciprocated by others, the more social interaction spreads and endures, among strangers as well as kin and neighbours. (Indeed full mutually-beneficial reciprocity also occurs between different species, such as the cleaner fish and its host.) Darwin argued that taken together, morality, sociability and intelligence enable individuals to “extend their social instincts and sympathies” beyond their kin “to men of all nations and races.” The widespread diffusion of reciprocity and moral recognition may be a rare instance of moral progress in history:

“As man gradually advanced in intellectual power… his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, so as to extend to men of all races, to the imbecile, the maimed, and other useless members of society – and finally to the lower animals – so will the standard of morality rise higher and higher” (p.103).

There are several preconditions for the emergence of reciprocal altruism: a long life, spatial proximity, mutual dependence, mutual defence, parental care, and a dominance hierarchy. The spatial proximity and temporal continuity of small communities for example facilitate both social interaction and the detection and punishment of violators and cheaters. Thus primates such as chimpanzees who tend to live in small communities demonstrate reciprocal altruism. But in modern times technology and culture have enabled humans to vastly increase in population and territorial range, helped by faster communications media. As the size of the group one can live with in peace increases, so do the intellectual powers required by the moral sense.

Morality and Intelligence

The moral sense, Darwin held, requires extensive mental powers:

“The following proposition seems to me highly probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers become … nearly as well developed, as in man” (pps.71-2).

“Conscience,” he said, “is by far the most important… of all the differences between man and the lower animals” (p.70). Still, he said dogs may have a conscience (p.78). Indeed, Darwin held that there were differences in degree rather than in kind between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties (p.83). He reiterated the point a few pages later. The standard of morality improved “as man gradually advanced in intellectual power and was enabled to trace the more remote consequences of his actions; as he acquired sufficient knowledge to reject baneful customs and superstitions … as from habit... instruction and example” (p.103). Moral actions, then, need not all be deliberate: they can also be habitual, and even impulsive.

Moral intelligence demands a rich suite of mental powers, for a moral being is “capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives and of approving or disapproving of them” (p.88), and of adapting to changing conditions. Darwin also cites other mental powers: memory, foresight, evaluation, reflection, self-command, learning from instruction, example, impulse, and developing habits. Linguistic and mathematical competences, I note, are necessary to pursue “the complex trains of thought” involved in moral decisions. Emotions, such as honour, shame, sympathy, self-interest, beauty and other natural feelings are also operative. The ‘inward monitor’ of conscience functions mostly through an emotional feeling of remorse for doing wrong (p.91). Only an animal endowed with a large brain and a rich, sophisticated intelligence could develop the human’s powers of social interaction, self-awareness, abstraction, and (therefore) an equally-intelligent moral sense.

A Sense of Darwin’s Morality

Darwin’s theory of the moral sense, its close connection with the social instincts, and the extensive mental powers it demands, is well-argued, and based on extensive study and observation. The moral sense, one is led to conclude, is not only a product of evolution, it also implies an objective normative ethic (that is, practical knowledge about right and wrong). If the moral sense, like sociability, is innate, it might be something like a predisposition due to a deep moral code. That deep code would include only a few general ethical norms, such as care for the survival, reproduction and well-being of oneself, others, one’s community and one’s habitat, and a bias for reciprocity. It might be said to constitute a minimal objective normative ethic.

Such an evolutionarily-grounded deep moral code would not imply that evolutionary adaptations or advantages either determine or justify specific moral choices. On the contrary, individual decisions reflect complex, intelligent interactions between individuals, their cultures, and the changing environments and situations in which they operate. (The relationship between the deep code and surface morality might be like that between deep grammars, linguistic competence, different languages, surface grammars and specific utterances that some language theorists have hypothesized.) Those myriad choices contribute to the species’ future evolution more than they are determined by our evolutionary past. Humanity’s social evolution seems after all more cultural than genetic – if indeed the history of human cultures traces an evolutionary path at all.

A weak link in Darwin’s moral theory is that the extensive mental powers he correctly indicates as essential to the moral sense’s operations seem inadequate to the complex social tasks required by the social instincts. Interpreting and assessing the moral significance of others’ behaviour and negotiating mutually-beneficial relations, requires additional, specifically social abilities beyond the essentially reflective moral powers required by Darwin: social skills such as verbal communication, interpreting another’s body language, empathetic projection, and understanding other’s social mores, customs and norms, and negotiating good relations with others. These social competences go beyond any private thinking. Instead, they call for socially-oriented developmental flexibility in the brain and mind. Reciprocal altruism, a central component in human morality according to most naturalistic theorists – this writer, for instance – therefore requires a set of complex cognitive and social powers. Dealing with violations of reciprocity such as violence, theft, and cheating, by, for example, imposing sanctions or negotiating reconciliation, represents further complex challenges. It requires all the above social powers, and moral aggression, to direct our emotions and actions to identifying, and correcting, injustices.

So there can be no doubt that the multiple requirements of Darwin’s moral theory demand well-developed intellectual powers – powerful and sophisticated social and moral intelligences. Howard Gardner’s well-known theory about multiple intelligences is helpful in clarifying how this conclusion goes beyond traditional logical and linguistically-driven notions of moral reasoning. In Frames of Mind (1983), Gardner argued for several kinds of problem-solving practical intelligences, each with neural underpinnings: social (interpersonal), psychological (intrapersonal), bodily kinaesthetic, spatial, musical, logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences. I would add temporal and emotional intelligences. The first is demanded by Darwin’s own stress on memory (viz, comparing past and present experiences) and on foreseeing outcomes. The second comes from recent research on the emotions and the brain. A distinctive characteristic of each intelligence is its ability to solve a different kind of problem. Gardner is clear that each intelligence accesses the other intelligences as needed.

On this reading, moral intelligence is a moral-problem-solving intelligence. It likely draws on all the other intelligences, since they’re usually needed to ever understand, let alone solve complex, situationally-varied moral problems. Inasmuch as moral intelligence’s evaluative and prescriptive capabilities do not seem to be part of the other intelligences, it would seem to require its own specific set of powers – one closely related to social and emotional intelligence, I suspect.


Darwin has presented an elegant naturalistic ethic, whose lineage goes back to Aristotle, Hume and Spinoza. His evolutionary understanding of human morality does not entail its reduction to anything simpler, living or inorganic. On the contrary, human morality’s social and mental complexity implies an unpredictable emergence from earlier primate morality and intelligence. As Darwin showed, our moral intelligence is part of humankind’s evolving social nature as an animal species. Darwin also claimed, presciently, that the moral sense should extend beyond humans to care for ‘the lower animals’ and ‘all sentient beings’. It has taken over a century for us to learn how profoundly right he was. Morality, we now understand, should reinforce the ecological interdependency of humans and other species.

The time has come for philosophy to fully recognize the depth and grandeur of Darwin’s naturalistic view of morality, society, intelligence and evolution. For it can help us understand our moral obligations, not only to each other but also to the “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that evolve around and within us.

© Vincent di Norcia 2009

Vince is an Ethics and Sustainability Consultant and an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at The University of Sudbury, Canada. He is currently working on neuroethics and a book on 21st century naturalism, provisionally entitled The Owl and the Canary. He thanks Ron De Sousa for his helpful comments.

Further Reading

Bernstein, William, 2008, A Splendid Exchange – How trade shaped the world, Atlantic Monthly Press.
Boulding, Kenneth, 1970, Beyond Economics, Ann Arbor.
Damasio, Antonio, 1994, Descartes’ Error, Avon; 2003, Looking for Spinoza, Harcourt.
Darwin, Charles, 1871, The Descent of Man.
De Sousa, Ronald, 1990, The Rationality of Emotion, MIT.
De Waal, Frans, 1996, Good Nature: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Harvard.
Gardner, Howard, 1983, Frames of Mind, Basic Books.
Maienschein & Ruse, eds, 1999, Biology & the Foundation of Ethics, CUP.
Midgley, Mary, 1994, The Ethical Primate, Routledge.
Nitecki, M.H. & D.V. Nitecki, eds, 1993, Evolutionary Ethics, SUNY.
Ridley, Matt, 2000, The Genome, HarperCollins; 1996, The Origins of Virtue, Viking.
Ruse, Michael, 1986, Taking Darwin Seriously, Blackwell.
Trivers, R. 2002, ‘Reciprocal Altruism’, in Natural Selection and Social Theory, OUP.
Wilson, E. O. 1978, On Human Nature, Bantam; 2000, Sociobiology – The New Synthesis, Harvard.

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