From the perspective of evolutionary game theory, moralism presents something of a dilemma.
Evolutionary game theory is a branch of mathematics that seeks to explain the behavior of animals and humans based on the assumption that all behavior ultimately must arise from the imperatives imposed by natural selection. From this perspective, human behavior originates largely in selfish motives and true altruism becomes the most difficult behavior of all to evoke.
Moralists exist in all cultures and in all cultures the moralist seeks to persuade or coerce other members of the culture into obeying the moral codes of the culture. Moralists concentrate on suppressing behaviors that do not cause immediate harm to others. Indeed, most moralists target self-destructive behaviors. Both individuals and societies spend a great deal of time and energy moralizing.
The evolutionary game theorist is forced to ask: Why bother? What is in it for the moralist?
We can dispense with altruism straight off. True altruism only occurs in individuals and then only rarely. No behavior that relies on altruism persist for long because altruism provides too many opportunities for cheaters to prosper. Stable, long term, cross-cultural behaviors only arise because they grant a survival advantage to the individual who engages in them.
What advantage does the moralist gain by trying to force others to engage in beneficial behaviors? At first glance, it would seem that they should hoard beneficial behaviors to themselves. If person A gains benefit from the moral codes he should be glad that person B doesn’t gain an advantage. People hoard other types of information, such a secret formulas, so why not try to hoard information about the best behaviors?
Viewing moralism as a grab for dominance on the part of the moralist doesn’t tell us anything. A lot of prominent moralists do gain individual power, but they only do so because large numbers of their fellows who do not gain the power and prestige agree with their moralizing. If a lot of people didn’t think that amoral behaviors needed suppressing, then no one could acquire power by trying to suppress them. We end up back were we started.
I think the answer lies in the ancient observation that the transgressions which outrage us the most are the ones we most want to commit ourselves. We usually view this as hypocrisy on the part of the moralist but I think it arises from the feeling on the part of the moralist that the amoral cheat on an implicit social contract.
Moral codes evolved to control our genetically defined behavior. If our innate impulses alone produced the best results, we would not need culture and morals in the first place. No culture makes elaborate rules to force people to breath. Moral codes focus on preventing people from engaging in immediately pleasurable acts or on forcing people to carry out unpleasant tasks. In general, moral codes trade the long-term good of the collective for the short-term pleasure of the individual.
If everyone follows the moral code, everyone benefits from the advantages that cooperation and collective action bring (such as division of labor). However, if compliance with the code remains voluntary, then we create a classic free-rider problem. If most people follow the code, then a minority can receive both the benefits of the collective and the benefits of engaging in behaviors forbidden by the code.
I think moralism exists to suppress this free-rider problem. People who sacrifice for the collective good feel cheated by those who do not. Everyone would like to party around the clock, have sex with cute strangers and consume all resources immediately, but if everyone does so, no works gets done. Enough individuals in the population must sacrifice their fun for the collective good, otherwise everyone starves.
The anger of the moralist ultimately arises from resentment at the amoral free riders. A lone non-drinker in a group of drinking friends soon feels resentment because they always end up the designated driver and get to end their evenings chauffeuring their intoxicated pals around and pouring them into bed. People who invest the enormous sums of time and money into raising up the next generation of humans soon resent the childless who spend their time and money in pursuit of personal pleasures and consumption. People who drive smaller cars to reduce CO2 emissions resent those who drive large vehicles. In each case the moralist feels cheated, because they made sacrifices that benefit everyone but don’t receive any greater benefit than those who did not.
The seeming rampant moralism of this age appears to arise from political doctrines that grant individuals the right to choose actions but which also shield them from the consequences of those choices. For example, in the ’60s we dismantled the legal and social restrictions against teenagers having sex, thus giving more individual choice. At the same time, however, we began paying money to teenagers who became pregnant. This creates a situation wherein a person who forgoes the pleasures of sex and delays child bearing ends up paying for the consequences of choices of those who showed no such restraint. As a result, moralistic arguments about “welfare queens” and “deadbeat dads” abound.
Moralism represents a threat to a general culture of liberty, because people so often turn to the coercive power of the state to solve the free-rider problem. Social conservatives focus on using the state to discourage or punish behaviors which lead people to parasitize others by dysfunction or dependency. The welfare state itself may have evolved due to resentment on the part of those who voluntarily assisted the poor against those who did not.
Only in systems which closely link individual action to individual consequence will we see low levels of moralism. We don’t see a lot of debate these days about the morals of land ownership because we have long since tied individuals closely to land ownership, but we do see a great deal of moralizing about communally owned resources such as rivers or the atmosphere.
Everyone moralizes and everyone hates moralizers. Ending moralism and its corrosive effect on individual liberty requires ending the free-rider problems that drive individuals to moralism in the first place.