This series’ topic has been the biological function of moral principles, in the sense that the circulation of blood is the biological function of the heart. (See Ruth G. Millikan (1984) Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories.) I claim moral principles function to create habits that minimize decision fatigue by making automatic the otherwise ego-depleting subordination of short- to long-term interests. Automatization comes at the cost of choices that from a self-interested perspective are less than best—when you omit considering the usefulness of the moral habit itself. Although automatization is costly, it’s worth its price, as proven by the harsh consequences psychopaths face due to their disability for adopting moral principles to form habits of integrity.
I introduced the habit theory of morality to explain—without supposing that moral judgments are objectively true—why we do what we ought, but most moralists with naturalistic world views see moral principles differently. Their view—as will be seen—doesn’t successfully explain why we ought to act in accord with any moral principles, and it loses on general merits as an explanation. According to my habit theory, the only incentives for conforming to moral principles are avoiding effortful decision-making, for your present benefit, and (much more importantly) strengthening or at least not weakening the habits constituting moral character traits, for your future benefit. The moral sentiment, guilt, is anxiety about your moral integrity, so the incentive to avoid guilt is only strong to the same degree that the prudential need to maintain integrity is threatened.
The dominant conception, on the other hand, is that ultimately we conform to moral principles to avert guilt, conceived as an automatic reaction to our moral transgressions. Moral principles, on the dominant conception, are installed during the process of childhood socialization as an internal policeman serving the greater society. Freud’s theory of the super-ego is often taken as a prototype of this conception, although the super-ego is a mostly unconscious structure responsible for neurotic guilt, whereas the principles of explicit morality reside in Freud’s less-discussed ego-ideal. The role of moral affects as prime movers of explicit morality can be seen more clearly in neobehaviorist theories about learning moral values. John Dollard and Neal E. Miller explained moral values as classically conditioned responses, which the culture can arrange because they’re formed by the mere temporal contiguity of stimuli. (Dollard & Miller (1963) Personality and Psychotherapy: An Analysis in Terms of Learning, Thinking, and Culture.) Philosopher John S. Wilkins incidentally expresses this conception of conscience, “If you ever contemplated a murder, you would dread the horrible memory of your victim’s last moments or lifeless corpse.”
A theory of moral principles as society’s beachhead within the individual might explain how moral principles influence behavior, but it doesn’t explain why we should conform to them, since they impede their bearers. The theory unwittingly implies you should try to escape the grip of any moral principles, which offer only guilt pangs. It doesn’t counsel cultivating your moral character. The dominant theory defies evolutionary considerations, where today’s moralistic tenets purport to benefit humanity rather than kin. Society’s beachhead prevails as the leading conception of morality much as the evolutionary selection of entire species for complex adaptive traits persists in the popular mind.
Next in series: "Unraveling the mystery of morality: The unity of comprehension and belief explains moralism and faith"