Finding our morality in footbinding

Why Good is Good
April 11, 2003

It is not unusual for successful academics nearing the end of their careers to break free from their discipline and bring their wisdom to problems that have engaged specialists in other fields. It is rarer that the results fulfil the publisher's hyperbole. After a career as a biologist, Robert Hinde has written two such books. His Why Gods Persist (1999) explored religious belief, and this volume develops an integrated account of the origin of morality. In each book, he brings the insights of evolutionary biology to bear on social and philosophical issues. But his approach is broader than this implies, drawing on anthropological, psychological and sociological literature. The breadth of references is extraordinary, and the ambition of the enterprise makes the reviewer's task harder than usual.

Possibly the best place to start is the conclusion, which summarises the approach and insights in a succinct 15 pages. Hinde's thesis is that "moral precepts arise from biological predispositions, however indirectly", the previous chapters having elaborated this principle with reference to kinship, relations with non-kin, and the sources of ideas about status, rights, sex and gender, society and religion. In each chapter, "an attempt is made to relate the way in which people actually behave, or are expected to behave to the behaviour, and behavioural differences, that would be predicted from the principles of natural selection".

So far, this sounds like a manifesto for the kind of evolutionary psychology popularised by Robert Wright or Steven Pinker. However, Hinde is no reductionist. He argues that "natural selection has acted not to promote rigid characteristics but ability according to prevailing circumstances" and that "moral codes come ultimately from human nature in interaction with the experienced world". The distinction is crucial. Hinde takes time to examine the role of environments in influencing the development of moral systems, and the importance of socialisation in human behaviour. The individual internalisation of moral precepts is central to Hinde's argument, as is his concept of the "self-system", meaning individuals in relationship to their context, culture and society. While the idea of "human nature" plays an important role in his theory - in particular, the competing basic psychological propensities to pro-social behaviour and to selfishly assertive behaviour - Hinde is able to account for cultural diversity and the moral and social complexity of human societies, as well as providing space for human agency and free will, often with great subtlety.

There is plenty to argue with in this account, partly because Hinde does not always achieve the high standards he sets himself. For example, while he maintains, after a discussion of foot-binding in imperial China, that "caution in the interpretation of such practices is essential, and that distinctions must be made between the origins of the practice, its current consequences, and its perceptions by those involved", in other places he seems guilty of rather cruder functionalist analyses. The book deploys a wide range of examples, including Argentine football, abortion and the law code of Hammurabi, but perhaps it would have been better to have worked through fewer cases in greater depth, rather than providing brief reference to such disparate phenomena. His frequent resorts to generalisation mean various of his statements would be contested by specialists, and his insights are sometimes so over-general as to become commonplace rather than profound.

Stylistically, Hinde makes no attempt to compete with science popularisers.

It is not easy to make headway with a book containing sentences along these lines: "Thus the view taken here is that 'moral sense' is a rather loose term useful for describing the tendency to differentiate 'good' from 'bad', constructed in parallel with the acquisition of content, on the basis of pre-existing predispositions to respond appropriately primarily to the comments, positive or negative, of parents or other authority figures, and perhaps to avoid certain situations." Academic shorthand - for example, "the much used 5-factor test" and "certain visual illusions such as the Muller-Lyer" - may leave many readers in the dark.

These drawbacks are a shame, because so much of the content of the book is exhilarating. Readers from the social and life sciences will find themselves entranced and provoked by Hinde's arguments. For example, the chapter on sex and gender differences is both wide ranging and more sophisticated than existing biologically inspired accounts, and it challenges social scientists to rethink their attitudes to the role of biological factors in gender relations. While the book avoids engaging directly with philosophical literature, philosophers will find here an interesting adversary who is careful to avoid the naturalistic fallacy.

Hinde insists that just because conventional morality may ultimately be rooted in biology, this does not mean that it is right, and nor does it imply a deterministic approach to social behaviour. However, when he discusses ways of resolving the clash of competing cultures and moralities, he is on shakier ground, concluding that "we may judge the moral systems of other cultures to be wrong, but should not condemn the actions of individuals in such a culture if they have had no opportunity to know another". In an age of international criminal courts and aircraft mobilised as missiles, this approach is inadequate.

There is an urgent need to draw together the insights of different specialisms in contemporary thought. The split between the life sciences and the social sciences and humanities remains problematic. Too many sociologists, for example, show no understanding of evidence from evolutionary biology or biomedicine. Attempts to rewrite social understanding from Darwinian principles have historically been crude, and often reactionary. Hinde signals a way forward via this ambitious, uneven, but enormously useful volume.

Tom Shakespeare is director of outreach, Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute, University of Newcastle.

Why Good is Good: The Sources of Morality

Author - Robert Hinde
ISBN - 0 415 752 3 and 0 415 753 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 241

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