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Week 9-The Evolution of Morality

Anne Dalke's picture

Where does morality come from?


Empathy for others?

Reasoning about our obligations to others?

"Only" connecting? How might that work, as a basis for morality?

How well does it work, as a basis for morality in Forster's novel?

Is it literal? Ironic? Symbolic?

What needs to be connected here?

One critic has said that Margaret's position "is finally meant to relieve us of the burden of guilt...engendered by seeing systemic connections...."

What are you thinking?


kaleigh19's picture

Playing well with others

Even though I'm coming to this topic a few weeks after we hit it, I'm still puzzled.  For most of my life, I probably would have argued that people are innately immoral, that what drives us is not an urge to cooperate and make things easier for other people, but rather the selfish drive to look out for ourselves.  Isn't that why when we go to kindergarten and elementary school we have to *learn* how to play well with others? Sure, some kids may take to sharing the firetrucks better than others, but doesn't someone still have to tell them to share? Maybe some adults are more moral than others because they had better moral educations, that they've been more effectively constructed to be moral.

At the same time, I think that the evolutionary theories of morality that Sarah suggests make a lot of sense.  Organisms do often need to cooperate to survive, and so it follows that those organisms best suited to play well with others would have the easiest time surviving.  I especially like the idea of selective altruism, because I have yet to meet a person (or organism, period) who/that is entirely altruistic.

I guess what I'm getting at is that in my mind, morality is in direct opposition to our innate selfishness.  But it's also true that morality, the social glue that holds everything together and prevents us from killing each other, also makes it easier for us to get that which we desire.  So in some ways, agreeing to live under some kind of moral code in which we ostensibly sacrifice for the greater good is really a selfish choice.  Maybe an example are the Bryn Mawr and Haverford Honor Codes: we agree not to cheat and plagiarize, but what we get in return is trust from our faculty and peers.  This trust translates into a great deal of academic flexibility, as manifest in self-scheduled finals and generous extensions, and the upshot of it all is that we have an easier time at two very rigorous schools than some people do at far less demanding institutions.  So perhaps, in some way, morality is a tool for reconciling the selfish self with the selfish community.

Katie Baratz

Student's picture


Why do we stop at red lights?  We stop at red lights so that we don't crash into another car.  Who decided that we have to stop at red lights?  Someone who saw the problem that if two cars are going in opposite directions, and they don't stop, they'll crash.  Why do we follow this rule?  Because we don't want to get hurt.  Who follows it?  Pretty much everyone... it's pretty accepted, in our country at least.  I think morality is something along similar lines.  Most of us know murdering is wrong, and it's against our morals to kill someone.  We accept this, because we wouldn't feel good about it, most likely, and because there are consequences, much like running a red light.  But who was the person who realized this in terms of morals?  Or was this something a society needed to evolve- a set of morals?  I think laws are one of the grounding principles in creating an effective society.  Laws set morals- I think, they're more official morals, rather than our individual opinions.  Where did morality come from?  I'd guess somewhere, someone realized that a group of people can never coexist unless they agree upon terms to coexist with.  I'd be interesting in finding out, if we have any record of it, the first morals, the first laws, that we can trace...

I.W.'s picture

morality as a social construct

In my anthropology class everything always comes back to the “socially constructed”. Gender is socially constructed. Emotions are socially constructed. Senses are socially constructed. It gets very tiring. But when asked the question of where morality comes from all I can think about is how it must be socially constructed. All this means is that it isn’t an inherent aspect of humanity; that it is something learned. We may not even be able to recognize that we are teaching it to the next generation, but we are in our actions and words. I personally don’t think that “morality” is an inherent aspect of human behavior. I do believe humans have an innate desire to protect those that possess similar genes as themselves, such as siblings and children, but I don’t think the desire to protect those outside of that circle is something we are born with. I think that like so much of how we act it is based on a story that has been passed down from the generations and generations that have come before us. I just find it impossible to believe that genetics could have selected for something so seemingly detrimental as morality. It goes against the whole concept of survival of the fittest. If not for morality the strong humans would be able to easily out compete the weaker ones. But I think the use of morality comes in that it allows humans to move forward intellectually. By removing the constant competition it gives an opening for people to think less about surviving and more about exploring the world around them. But this is something learned by children when they discover that it is so much easier to share then get yelled at by adults or told that they shouldn’t laugh when another child is teased because they could be next.

Anne Dalke's picture

Forster's ongoing relevance

According to the 4/26/07 NYTimes, The English Can't Just Give Up that Class Folderol....

CT's picture

Morality in the brain

From "The Five Biggest Neuroscience Developments of the Year" in

"2. The neural alteration of morality. Six people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex were presented with moral dilemmas (e.g., would you smother a baby to prevent bad guys from finding and killing people in hiding) and were found to be two to three times more willing to kill than people without brain damage. The advertised conclusion is that such willingness to kill is objectively immoral. The feared conclusion is that if brain design determines what's moral, you can change morality by changing the brain—and once technology manipulates ethics, ethics can no longer judge technology."

CT's picture

Where does morality come from?

I am still unresolved as to how morality 1) arose and 2) what relativity is involved.

This course has directed me to think of morality and society in more relative term. What is considered alright here is not considered acceptable elesewhere, and that is due in part to the conditions which helped those morals become established.

In the US, we like to discuss the issue of equality. Every human is equal. Contrasting this with Howards End, we react against the classist attitudes. We see an alternative, where people have a more equal economic footing, where people have opportunities based on skills- not to whom they were born.

We feel that people should be judged on the essence of being people, not on status. But this is a method that works for us. And while we see that it would have worked for Howards End, they couldn't. We are limited by what we are familiar with, not by what is possible,

If there is a true "reality", is there a true morality? And can we possibly see it?

LS's picture

The moral of the story

I know that people think that the characters in Howards End are not moral or have all different morals, but isn’t this true of all of us.  If we didn’t have different morals there would be no need for the term or the idea of morals, it would just come installed in humans like a computer.  By showing that not all character are moral and do not consider the same things moral perhaps Forster is really displaying us as we truly are.  We talk about this book as not being generative because it is so stuck in time but these issues over morals are not.  Perhaps Forster did not intended the story line of Howards End to be completely understood and cherished through the ages but rather the underlying themes about morality are the true message.  Just a heralding back to the bipartide brain part of this course, it’s all in our brain and morality is just our brain telling stories to other parts of our brain, therefore can we really expect morality to be the same for all?

J Shafagh's picture

I think everyone has his or

I think everyone has his or her own standards for morality, and that this can both isolate and connect people.  It can isolate them, for people have varying beliefs which do not coincide.  And it can also connect people, for common beliefs and a sense of morality in people will create an environment for "mutual benefit." In other words, if everyone had morals, we would all mutually benefit from eachother, for we obviously depend on eachother for survival.  And an overall balance of both connecting and not-connecting, in relation to morals, inevitably keeps life going. 

marquisedemerteuil's picture

morality: forster and trump

i think all the characters try to be moral but forster shows that they all screw up. so while he seems to put forth a moral code in his book, about connection and all that, he is also making the question more complicated. people are moral by their own standards, but not by each other's. this isolates people so they can't connect. a really good contemporary example of this is that show, so supposedly low-brow that no one can believe i watch it (religiously): the apprentice. all the businessmen and women on this show, who are trying to show that businesspeople are cool, are well aware of the reputation their group has of being immoral and cutthroat. so they make a big deal of talking about how they have integrity and the other players don't. in one episode, the teams have to sell side by side and one team lies that their price is cheaper when the prices are the same and they win the task. the other team accuses them of being immoral, but they say they did what they had to do to sell and that the other guys are sore losers. trump sides with this team. so they all feel they have integrity as they make sales and the other team thinks they're the ones with integrity because they would not resort to devious methods and consequently made fewer sales. i think that everyone is petty and morally dubious on the apprentice, but the fascinating thing there is that they don't know it.

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

evolution of morality

Most evolutionary biologists feel that morality was naturally selected for, because it allowed for what Darwin terms “group selection”, which is the ability of a group to work together to get a selective advantage over another group.  In this sense, morality increased the ability of a group to work together in order, making every individual in that group more fit.  A similar theory called the reciprocal altruism theory argues that natural selection selected for individuals who helped others some of the time and received help some of the time.  This is opposed to those who never help anyone, and therefore, never get help, and those who always help others, and therefore, never help themselves. 


While both theories seem reasonable from a biological evolutionary account, our experiences with morality seem much deeper rooted than the theories suggest.  In “Howard’s End” we see how morality plays a roles in individual’s daily lives.  From pressing moral issues such as Mr. Wilcox withholding Mrs. Wilcox’s letter from Margaret, to small constant issues the Schlegel’s poor treatment of Leonard, morality seems to drive the novel.  While morality may have evolved, because it gave its beholders a selective advantage, in the modern world it plays such a grand role.  Almost all decisions have a least some moral basis, or can be looked from a moral perspective.  The organizations religion, government, and law originate from morality.  In, fact our entire culture seems to have originated from morality.  There is so much morality influences, that it makes believing the simple explanations of its origin almost impossible.  In the very least, if morality did come about through natural selection, it just goes to show how one small thing (morality), can make such a massive impact.  


Here’s my question: Can you imagine the human species, or a species as intelligent as us without morality?  What would it look like?  And, could the species survive?  My answers are in short: not really, absolutely chaotic, and probably not.  Therefore, I think that morality may just be linked to superior intelligence.  It seems from research on other species, that the more intelligent they are, the more altruistically they act.  This leads one to believe that the two are genetically linked.

Shayna or Sheness Israel's picture

Is Morality Another Story by the I-function?

I wonder if morality is just another story from the I-function. Thus to disucss the evolution of morality one has to discuss and address the evolution of the I-function--the story teller.

When did humans begin telling stories?


Shannon's picture

Autism -- "Never Connect"

I had been thinking in my head about relating autism to the characters in Howards End for some time now, and coincidentally Professor Grobstein mentioned it in Thursday's discussion section.

First of all, Margaret tells Helen that everybody must embrace each other's differences in order to live happily (to successfully connect). It seems that the characters in Howards End who are unable or unwilling to meaningfully connect with others are doomed... which stresses the importance of the words "only connect". They cannot embrace life in its entirety. There are minor examples (such as Charles' refusal to befriend the Schlegal sisters/ is convicted of manslaughter) of this notion, but I think the paramount example is Mr. Leonard Bast (the man can't catch a break to save his life -- literally).

It sounds to me like Leonard Bast is autistic in the way that he goes about his life. He just is not able to accept or connect with his reality. He is a hopeless "has-been" yet seeks comfortable relationships with no one. It would seem like anyone would want to form relationships given his circumstances, but Leonard is retrained from doing so. He doesn't realize that there are people that reach out to him (such as Margaret & Helen).

Similarly, my 3-year old cousin was diagnosed with autism. He now has a feeding tube in stomach because he refuses to eat (he will only 3 things). He cannot verbally connect with his parents or anyone else -- he grunts & cries. He does not even point to what he wants because his brain can't process that gesticulating connection.



J Shafagh's picture

I'm glad you mentioned this

I'm glad you mentioned this in class on thurs, Shannon, because I also had thought that Leonard seemed somewhat autistic.  Interestingly, it seems like the actual theme in the book was not connecting.

cevans's picture

avoiding hyprocrisy

I find the morality in the phrase only connect,as taken from Margeret's speech to Mr. Wilcox, in the avoidence of hyprocrisy. By only connection experiences and examples you can make the connections between events and prevent yourself from creating different codes of morality for different groups. To me the importance of class distinction, in having characters from other classes, and in the differences Margeret points out between the sexes is to show that the different groups are all held to different standards without making connctions baout the universiality of any actions.

Jenn Dodwell's picture

Morality and Connections

I think that morality has a lot to do with connecting, because I think that to be moral is a conscious choice and that this overall choice involves many smaller decisions.  For example, what if:

 -Someone had not studied for a test that was the next day, that there was no chance of passing unless he cheated and that test was one half that person's entire grade...

-That person knew he needed to pass the test in order to not flunk out of school

-He knew that it would be possible to cheat and never get caught....

 This would be a situation in which lots of intermediate decisions would  be made to solve this dilemma.  Firstly, that person would have to decide between the two extremes: passing the test and knowning he cheated, or failing the test and knowing he wouldn't graduate.  Next, once he made his decison whether or not to cheat, he would have to make a series of decisions as to what he would do next in either case.  He would also have to decide if it was possible to talk to someone and see if he could get some help/advice, and so on.

 In any case, the person's decision to be moral or not to be moral would involve many smaller decisions, all of which are connected to each other.  They all lead to the same ultimate purpose, which is either to "do what's right," or to "do what's wrong."  

Finally, I think a key component of morality is continuity, or connection, between one's thoughts and one's actions. For example, if this person realized that it would be immoral to cheat, but did it anyway, would that be moral?  I don't think that it would be.

tbarryfigu's picture

Tabla Raza and Other Thoughts

If you consciously make an immoral decision, that decision will never become moral. You become immoral.

I've had a hard time talking about the origin of morality with regards to Howard's End, especially after writing my last paper about it. I approached the subject in a truly evolutionary manner, and find that I am not interested in the development of the moral code of these characters. The origin of morality is more than its singular application in the life of one, or a group of people. It is a slowly integrated "process" of ideals, one which, in Howard's End, was largely the result of the already founded English class and culture structure (It's been said before, no one is surprised here I'm sure). People find morality at different rates (if at all) in their lives. What makes Margaret, or Mr. Wilcox, or Leonard Bast so special? Why does an "origin" of morality lie with their character development? Is it possible that they just woke up one day and had changed their outlook on life, had heard a symphony that made them want to be better people? If so, good for them. However, I find it hard to identify such a turning point when I cannot even identify my own "origin" of morality. Are we all born with tabla raza? Or did I hear some song along the way...  

ekorn's picture

Some thoughts on immorality

There is an interesting segment on page 252 of Howards End that deals with the notion of morality in combination with evolution. It is at the point where we meet Margaret in her process of thought on how to react to Henry’s affair with Jacky. The passage reads:
“Are the sexes really races, each with its own code of morality, and their mutual love a mere device of Nature to keep things going? Strip human intercourse of the proprieties, and is it reduced to this? Her judgment told her no. She knew that out of Nature's device we have built a magic that will win us immortality. Far more mysterious than the call of sex to sex is the tenderness that we throw into that call; far wider is the gulf between us and the farmyard than between the farmyard and the garbage that nourishes it. We are evolving, in ways that Science cannot measure, to ends that Theology dares not contemplate.”
The term immorality is what struck me the most in the passage, though it is full of other sticking points for analysis. The term immorality here is used to refer to sexual misconduct. Its interesting that Forster links this form of morality with sex because in the natural world sex is used for the good of evolution (to pass on ones on genes). It’s hard to say that it is morally wrong (immoral) or that it implies misconduct of any sort. In a broader sense it vaguely links back the article Anne posted on the origins of human morality through the study of primates, because based on what I know of the animal kingdom sex is extremely important and is unlikely to be considered an immoral act (in fact it may be incorporated into the “social rules” primates are said to adhere to).

rebeccafarber's picture

At first I would have had to

At first I would have had to agree with the notion that the characters in Howard’s End place too strong an emphasis on the importance of culture and intellect. After giving it some thought, however, I see this as another instance of me imposing my beliefs on an outside situation. A few weeks ago in our group discussions in class, we explored the notion of imposing one’s culture on someone else’s; we specifically discussed the FGM tradition, and how, although it may seem barbaric to us here, it is sacred to those who perform it in other parts of the world. I see the connection here, it seems, between these two thoughts: if Helen’s priority is art and culture and intellect, and she chooses to base her life around it, then as an outsider I must submit.


I have to argue, however, that Helen or Margaret, or any of these members of the higher class, would not possess such culture and appreciation for the arts if it were not for their social status. It is because they were born with the luxury of living this way, reading early, being exposed to culture, that they possess this. Some may argue that they did not control their cultural destiny, but rather only maintain it. Perhaps we should give more credit to someone who works his or her way up after starting from the very bottom.

I feel that Henry is emotionally crippled, going through the motions of life and as cited by Danielle, is “eternally tired.” The characters are weaving some mysterious and tangled webs, and it is causing me to question the financial stability of some of them..


danYell's picture


I don’t find the majority of the characters in Howard’s End to be ‘moral’. Maybe the problem is that they all have different ideas about morality and none is moral in the eyes of another. Henry’s lack of morality comes from his lack of emotionality and his inability to clearly see. Margaret says he is “eternally tired. He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing. Those are the people who collapse when they do notice a thing.” I think Henry has been blind to what is right and wrong, and living a somewhat scripted life. He only realizes that he has been immoral after Margaret spells it out for him, and he becomes ‘eternally tired.’

Leonard Bask suffers so much in this novel that maybe he is meant to be the only one experiencing true morality. Morality is a concern for right and wrong behavior and he is always chewing on some idea of right and wrong. Leonard ascribes moral weight to class placements; his failure in class position becomes a moral failure that he can’t free himself from. He is certainly upset by his own affair, more so than anyone in the upper classes is concerned with their affairs. The upper classes are more concerned with actions of others than with their own actions. Henry cannot see the similarity of his situation to that of Helen’s. Charles is so angered by Leonard’s lack of morality that he kills Leonard.

“Only connect…” may be Forster’s way of urging us to recognize one another with compassion before passing judgment. I would argue that Helen is more of a moralist than Margaret as she doesn’t sway from her desire to help people and it is from her that we get the idea that ‘personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever’ (181).

For Leonard, the only way to come clear of his immorality was to confess. I found it interesting that the only place religion is mentioned it is also said to be “un-English,” and the desire to confess is “proof of a weakened nature,” though ‘Leonard has a right to decide upon it” (334). This desire to be moral and see Margaret to confess is what gets Leonard killed.

…still thinking…


Elise Niemeyer's picture


Morality as a motivation for human interaction is a major part of this novel.  As Forster creates interlocking situations the reader is asked to question the moral problems within them, the relationship between the Schlegels and Leonard Bast, Mr. Wilcox’s relationship with Margaret, Helen’s relationship with Paul, etc.  I do think that Forster is suggesting that moral clarity can only be achieved through connecting, not between two individuals, but within oneself.  On Thursday, in Professor Grobstein’s group, we discussed connecting the prose and the passion as a beneficial step, one that many of these characters refuse to make.  While Forster may not be saying that people more associated with prose or passion are superior, just as the merits of intellectuals and practicals are mixed, he may be suggesting that a connection between the two is important.  This idea makes me think of the scene in which Charles and Mr. Wilcox are dealing with Mrs. Wilcox’s last request.  In this extremely emotional situation, they are described as almost brutal in their reduction of the issue to its parts.  It is “disposed of … item by item, sharply” (102).  Through this depiction, it seems that Forster is highlighting the morally inferior position that results from compartmentalizing elements of an emotionally complex situation.  Surely, it is better to connect practicality and emotion, to see life both whole and steady, than to break everything up into discrete and meaningless units.  

ttruong's picture

Buying Culture

To me it seems that in Howard's End the characters place too strong an emphasis on the importance of culture and intellect, and to teh extend that it is overrated and almost frivolous, though such things are not.

When Mrs. Munt found out about Helen and Paul she questioned about the Wilcoxes, saying "Could they appreciate Helen....Do they care about Literature and Art? That is most important when you come to think of it. Literature and Art. Most important." (23) Upon reading that I couldn't help but think what a silly, shallow, pretentious woman she is for there are much more important things in a mate than being culture, such as things like integrity, kindness, etc.

 I feel like the girls also share the same thinking. Margeret once expressed that she would support Helen even if she loved someone poor, but I think that is only because she failed to take into consideration that someone poor would most likely not have the luxury of time to invest into being cultured. The correlation in lack of culture and poverty is most pronounced in the situation of the young man she met at the concert. while her talk of culture was "fluttering away from the young man like birds" (52) he was thiknin " Oh, to acquire culture!....But it would take one years. With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to cath up with leisured women, who had been reading steadily from childhood."

azambetti's picture

The Mystery

There is an underlying mystery in Howards End that I can not quite figure out.  This mystery appears to start when Mr. Wilcox, a supposed very wealthy man who has acquired a fair amount of real estate, asks Margaret, a woman with money but not enough to pay for her current house, to marry him.  Every since that moment in the book I have wondered what Mr. Wilcox’s intentions are.  At one point in the book, when Margaret is trying to discuss finances with her fiancé, Mr. Wilcox says “I assure you; you’re marrying a poor man” (Forster 188), after he has avoided her questions concerning how much money he makes.  In addition, the couple’s first kiss was also very intriguing.  Margaret had noticed that after their first kiss, Mr. Wilcox had “hurried away as if ashamed” (Forster 192).  This suggests that Mr. Wilcox had thought he was doing something wrong.  Perhaps it was about keeping the truth from his future wife about his financial circumstances? 

Andrea Zambetti

tbarryfigu's picture

The Mystery Solved?

I find it interesting that you question the intentions of Mr. Wilcox while his son Charles seems to do the same with Margaret. He is utterly convinced that she wants nothing more than to aquire Howard's End when, preceding and following their marriage, no mention is made of the estate with regards to the new couple's residence. Additionally, I find Mr. Wilcox to be much more than "a poor man" and Margaret knows that, as he owns numerous estates. He is an odd man, much like the other members of his family. As for the kiss, there is a huge connection between the happenings of  Paul and Helen with Margaret and Mr. Wilcox. In the same manner that the former couple rushed into a relationship, Mr. Wilcox rushed into his first kiss. He also was very quick to call off the engagement once Margaret learned of his errrr, "relationship" with Jacky, the former prostitute and current wife of Leonard Blast. I don't know how I feel about this guy yet.  

Julia Smith's picture

Paul vs Mr Wilcox

It kind of bugs me how Paul and Helen couldn't possibly have a relationship, but Mr. Wilcox and Margaret can. I'm beginning to wonder how different their relationships really are...