Social Evolution: The Origin of Ethics

Short Version

Where do ethics come from? I am not asking this question in a personal, deductive sense. I am not asking how an individual determines what is right and wrong. Determining how to act as an individual is unquestionably difficult. However, we have what I have called an ethical imperative to be deliberate and mindful as we make our choices. Divine mandates are woefully insufficient to guide us. We need an answer to the question of how to choose right behavior, but I haven’t yet in my essays developed the tools necessary to answer that question, so we will be coming back to it in a later essay once we have the tools in-hand.

No, I am asking this question from a social perspective. How can we describe and understand the development of common standards of ethics at a societal level? If we can demonstrate that all choices are not equal at a societal level, then that will give us a starting point for evaluating personal choices. Such a demonstration would be a direct rebuttal to the commonly-misquoted version of Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamozov, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” a mistaken sentiment that is often believed of and attributed to atheists.

The essential answer to the origin of ethics is social evolution. Some ethical standards work, and others don’t. I mean this in a specific sense. A society that adopts the former standards will thrive, and thus be able to pass on to others (be they outsiders that come into contact with the society or the next generation of their own society) their ethics, whereas a society that adopts the latter won’t thrive, and thus their standards will fail to propagate. This is survival-of-the-fittest as applied to ethics.

In this essay I will walk you through a series of thought experiments that illustrate how societies develop ethics, using killing as a case study. As with most thought experiments, these are going to be quite simplified compared with real situations. In fact, we will start with insanely simple thought experiments, but will gradually add sophistication to them until we reach a point where the essences of ethical practices with respect to killing emerge.

Biblical Morality Concerning Killing

Before we begin the thought experiments, though, let’s look for comparison at biblical morality as it relates to our case study, killing. It might seem that the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” would be the end of the story. Pretty clearly, according to that commandment at least, killing is wrong and must be avoided.

And yet, many self-professed Christians consider killing to be perfectly acceptable in some cases. Swatting a mosquito is acceptable. Slaughtering animals for food. Hunting. All of these practices kill a living thing, and yet seem to be acceptable to many Christians. “Killing,” in the context of the commandment, seems to refer to killing humans, not anything else.

There also, within the bible and within common Christian practice, seem to be significant exceptions to the proscription against killing people. Killing in the context of war seems to be acceptable. Killing when God specifically instructs you to is ok as well. Many Christians consider killing in self-defense or in the defense of others to be allowed. Killing as punishment for crimes is also seemingly approved, at least according to some self-professed Christians. In fact, many translations of the original commandment read as, “Thou shalt not murder,” rather than, “Thou shalt not kill.” Clearly murder is a subset of killing, but what exactly distinguishes the two? From what I can tell, it is defined in something of a circular manner… murder is that type of killing that is not otherwise allowed. Given the variety of interpretations that different sects have concerning which are allowed and which are not, this commandment that originally seemed so cut-and-dried ends up revealed as quite ambiguous.

Nonetheless, it is my contention that the common understanding of, “Thou shalt not murder,” is a direct result of social evolution. Even religious mandates often have explainable value in terms of the survival of the society or propagation of the religion.

Thought Experiment 1: Isolated Villages

Ok, on to the thought experiments. We will be looking at what seems likely to happen within hypothetical villages. We will start with villages where every villager thinks the same way, and where the villages don’t come into contact with each other, but will, over the course of the thought experiments, start to add in some greater sophistication. Here are our starting villages:

Village A: Thou shalt not kill.

Village B: Thou shalt kill.

In the pictures, I will highlight the killers red. The expected results are pretty obvious.


To look at this from a social evolution perspective, consider a region that has a hundred villages, half of them with an ethical system like Village A and half with an ethical system like Village B. Very quickly, all of the B-type villages will die out, leaving only the A-type villages behind. In evolutionary language, the B-type ethic has been selected against.

Ok, it’s time to add a little sophistication. Clearly, there will be some diversity of ethical thought within a given village. If we flip the ethics of one villager in each of our two villages, again, the outcomes are rather obvious.


A single killer in Village A will decimate the town. A single nonkiller in Village B will have no effect at all, except in ensuring that that particular individual isn’t the sole survivor.

Here we already see an example of context-dependent survivability. If the entire environment consists of people who don’t kill, then “Thou shalt not kill” is a highly-successful ethic. If just a single individual disagrees, however, then it fails just as badly as “Thou shalt kill” does.

Clearly, our villages need a way to stop a lone killer. We don’t want our thought experiment to get too complicated, however, so we’re going to restrict our responses to killing the killer, and just add some sophistication to the situations under which the killing happens. A natural first attempt would be “Thou shalt kill only those that you have seen kill.” I will highlight individuals with that ethic yellow.


Oops! That didn’t work at all! The person exacting justice turned into a killer, and thus was killed by someone else. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. So let’s throw out the yellow option and try something else. How about, “Thou shalt kill only those that you have seen kill another person whom you have not seen kill”? The wording is starting to get confusing, but the idea is hopefully clear. Only kill killers of nonkillers. I will highlight individuals with that ethic blue.


And now we have an ethic that seems workable at a village level. If we have a hundred villages, each where the majority (but not all) of villagers have a common ethic statements about killing, but where each village has a different ethic statement, villages with the blue ethic statement, or something similar to it, will survive to the next generation much more effectively than most others. It looks like social evolution naturally leads to the survival of ethics that include killing, but only in a limited sense that minimizes overall killing.

Of course, as I stated at the beginning, this is an oversimplified case. Perhaps it is possible to stop a killer without killing him/her. Perhaps the majority of villagers could follow the “Thou shalt not kill” ethic, with only a few policemen following the blue ethic (hmmm, it looks like I might have picked blue for a reason, doesn’t it?). There are a wide range of alternatives, but it should nonetheless be clear that some ethics just simply work, and others do not, where by “work” I specifically mean “allow the ethic to survive to the next generation.” Why do some ethics, such as mostly nonkilling yet justice-seeking behavior, seem to be so common? Simply because they work, and alternatives don’t.

Thought Experiment 2: Interacting Villages

Let’s see if we can take these thought experiments a bit further by introducing interactions between the various villages. Consider the development of real villages far back in human history. Resources were scarce, and villagers would frequently die of disease, hunger, and many other causes other than being killed by fellow villagers. In such a world, other villages could be seen as competition for the limited resources that are available. Let’s imagine now two such villages that are close enough to each other to interact. One of them applies the blue ethic to everyone, and the other, we will label them orange, applies the blue ethic to themselves, but freely kills members of other villages. Also consider that in the interactions between villages, not all killings will be witnessed by a member of your own village, and so the blues will not always know to exact justice.


Both villages will suffer great losses, but the blue village will be decimated, while the orange village will still have survivors. Clearly, tribalism has a survivability advantage under these conditions.

Incidentally, this is a reasonable model for the conditions that were prevalent as the old testament was being written. It should be no surprise, then, to read within the old testament stories that make sense within the context of warring, jealous tribes. We also see the origins of a survivability advantage to there being a difference between domestic policy and foreign policy.

So what would the natural outcome be from hundreds of competing villages, each with different dominant ethics, interacting with each other? It seems clear that limiting contact with outsiders would lead to higher survivability, as would hostilities to outsiders if the odds were good.

But, different villages probably have differing access to resources. Trade would be beneficial in such situations, but not at the expense of security. If some villages try out trading resources and others don’t, then those willing to trade with each other while keeping the peace with each other will be stronger, and better able to survive than those that are more warlike. Again, the context matters. In a world without trade, avoidance and hostility leads to good survival, but in a world with trade, careful trade with trustworthy partners leads to even better survival. And remember, survival of the village leads to propagation of that village’s dominant ethic. Ethical approaches that don’t work wither through the lack of success of their proponents, and possibly even die out.

In a world where trade becomes dominant rather than simply incidental leads to a greater willingness to treat other villages as part of the tribe. Cooperation leads to greater economic success, which leads to not just survivability, but expansion. Villages join to become states, which join to become countries. Ethics that have worked well thus far become codified into law or custom. Killing becomes even rarer, because the outside threats are minimized through treaties, and inside threats are dealt with, again by custom or law. “Thou shalt not kill” starts to have fewer exceptions, and requires fewer people (judiciary or military) to perform the limited, but still required, duties of killing those that are dangerous.

And all of this happens without the necessary mandate of religious morality. It’s all a function of what works. Social evolution naturally results in the ethics that work surviving.

Drawing Conclusions

The examples I have gone through are ridiculously simplified. There are more possible reactions to killing than (a) nothing and (b) killing the killer. There are more ethics simultaneously evolving than one about killing. More variation-of-thought exists within each village than I have illustrated (though probably not much more; group-think is a powerful thing, and is possibly an evolved trait itself). Differences in ethics may lead to more subtle survivability differences than the decimation of an entire village. But, counterbalancing these complexities, real social evolution has occurred over thousands of generations, rather than the not-even-one generation shown in my examples.

And so we have our answer. Societal norms evolve based on what works, in a context-sensitive sense. In some cases, there is still significant variation among different societies. Contexts may be different, or the evolutionary process may have not yet yielded a clear “winner.” In other cases, there is definitely a clear winner. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a clear example of this. Most of the major world’s religions have some version of the Golden Rule prominent within their sacred texts. Even the Jean-Paul Sartre quote that I used in an earlier essay is a version of an atheistic Golden Rule. Clearly, the principle of reciprocity works, in a social evolutionary sense.

What I have developed in this essay is a framework for understanding how ethics are developed at a social level. This development follows the standard pattern of evolution by natural selection: a diversity of traits is developed (in this case, by original thought), and those traits that lead to better survivability tend to successfully propagate, whereas those that do not tend to diminish or even die out. Wash, rinse, repeat. It should be clear from this development that ethical ideas are a natural consequence of social existence (a society without ethical standards of any kind will clearly lose out to a society that has workable ethical standards). It should also be clear that all ethical choices are not equal. Without God, all things are not in fact permitted. And in response to my sister’s claim that I must think murder is ok, I can now not only say, “Of course not,” but also I can explain why I believe this. From a societal perspective, murder as an allowable ethic simply doesn’t work.


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