With Freud, I assume the unconscious is timeless and that group life for Homo sapiens sapiens 75,000 years ago was very much like ours. Then and now, we are first and foremost group animals. Then and now, the group is the chief means of our survival. Then and now, a group’s future depends on its adherents remaining obedient. How many Republicans cross Mitch McConnell as he bellows, “Do as you’re told!”
No one recognized submission to the group leader better than Darwin. “Obedience is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.” So much for Tea Party nonsense about the individual going it alone.Through countless ages, the group enforced allegiance. Darwin makes an astonishing observation, “The social instincts possess greater strength, or have, through long habit, acquired greater strength than the instinct of self-preservation, hunger, lust, vengeance.” He claims allegiance to the group, expressed as the social instincts, rides roughshod over every other instinct, even hunger and lust.
And what is the great enforcer? What is more powerful than sex and hunger? The Moral Sense. This biologic structure genetically wired somewhere in the brain and passed on through DNA evolved for a group’s survival. It’s been around a long time. Darwin took note of the fact that “When the baboons in Abyssinia plunder a garden, they silently follow their leader; and if an imprudent young animal makes a noise, he receives a slap from the others to teach him silence and obedience.” In cousins as distant as baboons, the first stirring of the Moral Sense commands submission.
Darwin maintained that “any animal whatever, endowed with well marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well, developed as in man.” David Hume provided support for Darwin’s belief that the “social virtues” are part of our instinctive makeup. “We must, a priori, conclude it impossible for such a creature as man to be totally indifferent to the well or ill-being of his fellow creatures.” The social virtues exercise a natural appeal to “uninstructed mankind long before we receive a precept or education.”
Alfred Russell Wallace suggested man was “social and sympathetic by nature: early in the development of human societies the capacity for cooperation and sympathy which leaves all in turn to assist each other benefited each community and was favored by natural selection.” In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul observes, “The truth about God is known to mankind instinctively. Since earliest times men have known of God’s existence and great eternal power. God has put this knowledge in their hearts.” Neuroanatomically, “knowledge in their hearts” refers to a system hardwired in the brain, built-in. It is not a product of learning, not evolved through personal instruction. By any other name – moral sense, moral intuition, natural law, conscience – the truth about God, claims St. Paul, is known to mankind instinctively. Like all animals, we come equipped to register fear and pursue sex, but we’re the only animal that comes into this world with a moral sense. All children, Pascal Boyer observes, arrive with moral intuitions. Conscience functions prescriptively.
So what is the problem? How does the moral sense make sense of Mitch McConnell’s 400 filibusters? Or Krugman’s austerity mania and its visceral appeal? Stay tuned.