Evolution and Ethics

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 15, 2015)

I have been interested in the above topic since taking a wonderful graduate seminar in the subject about 30 years ago from Richard J. Blackwell at St. Louis University. Recently a friend introduced me to a paper on the topic, “Bridging the Is-Ought Divide: Life is. Life ought to act to remain so,” by Edward Gibney who argues (roughly) that the naturalistic fallacy has no force. Gibney is not a professional philosopher, but I found myself receptive to his argument nonetheless.

Like most philosophers I was introduced early in my career to the naturalistic fallacy—the idea that you can’t get an ought from an is—but I have never found the argument convincing. This quote from Daniel Dennett expresses my view clearly.

If ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is,’ just what can it be derived from?…ethics must be somehow based on an appreciation of human nature—on a sense of what a human being is or might be, and on what a human being might want to have or want to be.

While it is obvious that our moral behaviors arose in our evolutionary history, philosophers typically object that this is a fact about ethics that doesn’t imply any values. But again, I have never found this objection satisfying. If facts about our nature don’t tell us something about what we should value, then where might we get ethics from? I understand that a straightforward deduction of ought from is doesn’t follow, but surely we can infer something about what we ought to do from what is. However I acknowledge that I am in a minority on this question, as most philosophers accept the naturalistic fallacy. Perhaps they just don’t like more of their field being taken over by scientists!

In the end evolutionary ethics is an extension of evolutionary theory into another realm. Our bodies and our minds are now understood best from an evolutionary perspective, and so too should our behaviors in the moral realm. I think that evolutionary epistemology helps resolve the mind/body problem, and now evolutionary ethics helps resolve the is/ought problem.

Still philosophers would object to a number of issue in the paper, including Gibney’s basic syllogism:

1) p exists
2) p wants to continue to exist, thus

3) p ought to act in aid its continued existence.

First, they might object that “just because p is doesn’t mean that p ought to be.” By simply stating this, Gibney is begging the question.

Second, they might say, “if p wants to exist it should act so in ways that help it to continue to exist, but this is a survival imperative and not a moral imperative. And those aren’t the same thing.” In other words Gibney is confusing what behaviors help us survive with moral behaviors. While the two sometimes coincide, often they don’t. (Killing you quickly before you kill me might aid my survival but not be moral.)

I agree that there are more to moral imperatives than survival imperatives; nonetheless survival imperatives are a prerequisite for moral imperatives. In other words, oughts that aid survival are necessary but not sufficient conditions for morality. So while we cant deduce morality from human nature, we can infer a large part of it.

2 thoughts on “Evolution and Ethics

  1. John, I think we both find Ed Gibney’s naturalization of normative morality unconvincing due to what can be described as a category error (the one Hume warned about) in mistaking an idea in the ‘is’ category for an idea in the ‘ought’ category.

    But I have been wondering if Hume’s ‘is’/’ought’ barrier is necessarily as big a barrier to deriving normative moral principles as has been traditionally supposed.

    What if we defined what is normatively moral as “what would be put forward by all rational persons” (as in Bernard Gert’s definition of normative in the SEP’s Morality article) or, in other words, what is universally moral? Then, normativity could be dependent only on what ‘is’, which is part of the domain of science, not what mysteriously ‘ought’ to be, which may be forever part of the domain of speculations.

    For example, suppose science could, based on both empirical work and theoretical considerations, identify the underlying principle for the entire universally moral subset of all descriptively moral behaviors (those behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present moral codes). My candidate for that universal moral principle is “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploitation are universally moral”.

    Then, if we truly have identified what is universally moral as a matter of science, then we have necessarily identified what would be put forward by all rational persons as universally moral. Gert defines such a moral principle as normative.

    But is Gert’s definition actually culturally useful?

    Yes. The universal basis for moral codes that would be put forward by all rational people must be useful in resolving moral disputes by rational argument. But perhaps more importantly, this same science tells us that the benefits of cooperation in groups is what selected for the biology underlying our ancestor’s moral sense that made people the remarkably cooperative social species we are. Due to this potential match between cultural moral norms and our biology, norms based on this moral principle may be innately motivating. Finally, defining morality as a means for increasing the benefits of cooperation, rather than as a burden, can make moral behavior appealing to even pure egoists.

    Where does this understanding of normativity as what is universally moral leave Ed’s proposal and, for that matter, virtue ethics, Utilitarianism, and Kantianism? Science shows that none of these alternatives are universally moral. So these proposed moral system’s normativity must be based on mysterious oughts, and must show how they get across the is/ought barrier. No has ever convincingly shown how to do that,

    In summary, what science shows is universally moral is normative by Gert’s culturally useful definition independently of the is/ought barrier. Intellectual constructs such as virtue ethics, Utilitarianism, and Kantianism (and even Ed’s proposal) may be talking about subjects that are important to human flourishing but cannot be normative till they rationally explain how they crossed the is/ought barrier – which may be impossible.

  2. Ah Mark, did you actually read my paper? It’s entirely about how to get from the category of *is* to the category of *ought* using a *want* statement in between – as Hume prescribed. I’m not mixing the categories; I’m trying to logically deduce the bridge that crosses them to get to a universal morality.

    As for your candidate for a universal moral principle: “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploitation are universally moral”, I find this entirely unconvincing because I have yet to see you define what those benefits are (or what exploitation is for that matter). Can you give an objective definition for them?

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