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‘It was Auguste Comte who identified morality with icily disinterested “altruism”, thereby rendering all interests selfish. This is incoherent’

Now that God is dead — or at least moribund — how can we establish the authority of a decent public morality in a plural society? Such is the question that post-Christian secularists have set themselves to answer. In their front rank stand celebrity authors such as Matt Ridley, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. But discernible some way further back, and a little to the side, is the profile of the Coalition government's Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts.

In his 2008 Oakeshott Lecture, "Renewing Civic Conservatism", Mr Willetts embarked in search of an effective social matrix of the non-market values upon which a healthy market depends — values such as community and compassion. Reckoning that Christianity in Britain no longer has the authority to provide a public rationale for such things, he turned instead to recent work in evolutionary biology and game theory. One of his main authorities was the UCL economist, Ken Binmore, who is contemptuous of appeals to metaphysical "skyhooks" and "injunctions from above". Another is the Harvard mathematical biologist, Martin Nowak, who happens to be a practising Roman Catholic.

The ethical challenge taken up by evolutionary biology and game theory is how to conjure altruism out of genetic selfishness. It appears that evolution proceeds by way of a competition for survival, in which nature prefers the fittest. This implies that living beings, at their most basic level, are moved first and foremost by one thing only: the impulse or desire for the preservation of the self or its genes. If the basic nature of living things is thus, how can we get from fundamental selfishness to social co-operation?

Enter game theory, which theorises in mathematical terms the competitive strategies of (selfishly) rational individuals and the conditions of co-operation. According to Nowak's reading, under the social condition of sustained relationships enlightened self-interest can make co-operation rational — that is, it can make it rational to bear a cost in benefiting others in the reasonable expectation of reciprocity. It can even make forgiveness rational, insofar as it can pay an individual not to punish a non-co-operator or "defector", so as to build a reputation for co-operative intent, to elicit trust, and to achieve co-operation over time. The answer to the challenge taken up by secularists, then, lies in the discovery that selfishness is in fact the matrix of altruism via the "mechanisms" of direct reciprocity and indirect reciprocity, whose "engine" is fuelled by the "money" of reputation (to use Nowak's tellingly mechanistic and monetary metaphors).

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