A history of morality from the African savannah of two million years ago to the current polarization, extreme right and movement woke included. Hanno Sauer (1983), professor of ethics at the University of Utrecht, publishes The invention of good and evil (Paidos). A book that covers how we began to cooperate out of necessity in an environment populated by large predators that was turning into a steppe that no longer allowed our ancestors to take refuge in the treetops, and how since then the history of morality can be told through the leaps in size of human societies, from small family groups to clans and tribes, cities and modern societies. Whether thanks to punishment, which fostered self-control and social peace, to the Catholic Church and its marriage policy, or to the welfare that followed World War II.
“The Catholic prohibition of certain types of marriage gave impetus to modernity”
Is morality born in the savannah?
Basically. There were climatic changes and a part of our ancestors was left in a drier and flatter area that was more dangerous. And he found protection in increased cooperation. That ripped out evolution and our morality.
The us and them in which we continue today appears already at the beginning.
The critical phase for the human brain was a million years ago and once you have certain types of brain structures they no longer change, evolution puts others on top of them that inhibits them, but our way of thinking has many characteristics selected for the environment in which we evolved: small groups with limited resources and intense competition. He has the heritage of thinking in terms of who is on my side and who is on the other side, us and them. Thought still very easy to activate. And it’s a huge problem. Much of the moral progress of modern societies has been due to annulling to some extent that tribal thinking to allow the formation of larger structures. Humans are better off cooperating on a larger scale.
Today there seem to be great divisions between societies and countries.
There is polarization, but we should not overestimate it. It has always happened, it just changes form. It was because of religion, nation, ethnicity… I don’t think we are more divided than before. Today there are moral divisions, progressive and conservative activists, but the polarization comes from sonorous voices that do not represent the whole, there is space to overcome the divisions and face the problems.
But either Trump or Orban is elected.
These phenomena do not tell us that right-wing populism wins but that it loses. If they are, it is because in recent decades the liberal project has always won. They know they can win votes by exploiting anxieties about social change by talking about toilets and trans people. But it is a desperate move. And sometimes its result stems from strategically stupid decisions by progressive movements.
Go to the Catholic Church key to the leap into modernity.
We wonder why this jump occurs only in some places and today it seems clear that when in the Middle Ages the Western Church prohibited certain forms of marriage, for example between cousins, and inheritance, this changed the shape of society in the opposite direction. the structures of kinship, of clans, and in favor of the markets, the cities, the voluntary associations between individuals. It was very beneficial for prosperity. Once people have it, they want to keep it. And they think about how to maintain political stability. And with both, you have the liberalizing effect.
But religions, he says, appear to cope with the inequalities of agrarian societies.
In a sense they are born out of economic conditions, yes. In the Middle East, humans transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and livestock. For the first time in history there is a surplus, and when a small group grabs most of it and one claims to be king, you have to tell a story to the rest of society that that’s fair, because they don’t like to give their labor to other. The intellectual elites that co-evolve with the economic and political elites have the job of finding a narrative of why that inequality is okay. We still have secular narratives that justify capitalism, they don’t talk about God but about productivity, efficiency. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but when the haves are a small group, you can only maintain it with a small group of intellectuals finding justification. It was something like the first work of the philosophers.
Because it ensures that we have an aversion to inequality.
Chimpanzees are highly unequal, with a pyramidal structure and the alpha male that terrifies the rest. Humans when they get more socially intelligent and more able to cooperate develop the ability to think that ten together can easily kill that guy and have a more equal situation. It is the reverse dominant hierarchy and that is why human life was never totally equal but quite equal, even in terms of gender. And we probably still have that aversion to inequality. Then, in the last 10,000 years, with changes in the economic structure, more hierarchical and militarily powerful groups emerged that ended up absorbing or destroying the more egalitarian groups.
He says that the markets do not produce more selfish societies, but that today there is an urgency for equality, a moral overheating.
It’s a widespread idea that modern markets and capitalism make people more instrumental and cold towards others, but it doesn’t seem like it. In earlier societies there is strong altruism in small groups and hostility to outsiders. In modern ones less altruism in your group but more cooperation with strangers, good in many ways. At the same time, today people believe that they should have the same opportunities and that can lead to an overheating of moral discourse because societies change slowly. Anti-black laws were removed in the US in the 1960s and there are still huge economic disparities. That leads to frustration and conspiracies to dismantle are sought.
He says that human history has led to the survival of the most peaceful. And Ukraine?
Self-domestication has played an important role in human history. Societies cooperated better if they solved the problem of the most aggressive individuals. Many times they were killed, they did not reproduce. Being more cooperative and compliant had a competitive advantage. But that attitude was restricted to his own group. At the same time, the ability to wage war on outsiders, who were demonized, developed. Compared to other great apes, we are very good at controlling our impulses, thinking long term, being strategic and prudent… but that makes us very good at rationally and calmly organizing violence. It is depressingly unsurprising that people again think “we are the Russians and this is our land, and they are the Ukrainians”, somewhat made-up distinctions, which are only in people’s heads, a fetish many die for. .