Category Archives: Ethics – Evolution

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.

Implanting Moral Chips

(This article was republished in Humanity+ Magazine, May 6, 2014)

In a recent post I argued that humans need to become more intelligent and moral if they are to survive and flourish. In other words, they must evolve.

A few perceptive readers raised objections about the nature of morality and the techniques to be used to maximize moral behavior. As for the nature of morality, I claimed that “the essence of morality lies in … the benefits of mutual cooperation and the destructiveness of ethical egoism.” I think this is right and a careful analysis of many ethical systems including religious ones points to such a conclusion. (I admitted previously that this view is controversial, and I cannot adumbrate a theory of ethics in this limited space.) Still the idea that human morality is an extension of biologically advantageous behaviors like kin selection and reciprocal altruism is the putative view among most scientists and many philosophers. Morality can in large part be understood as arising from the evolution of cooperation.1

As for actually getting people to be moral I argued that “we need to utilize technology … including education, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and the use of artificial intelligence (AI). This would include controversial techniques like implanting moral chips within our brains.” The moral chip was not necessarily meant to be taken literally since the problems with such an approach are apparent. Who implants the chip? What does it do? Can you refuse it? Rather it was meant to convey the idea that humans must make serious choices in order to survive and flourish. An ape-like brain prescribing ape-like behaviors to creatures armed with nuclear weapons is a prescription for disaster. Nonetheless a moral implant like a happiness or intelligence-boosting implant is an idea to be considered.

Low-tech means of making people moral—coercion, education, religion—have not entirely achieved their purpose. They might if given enough time, and Steven Pinker has recently argued that we are becoming less violent.2 But whether our moral evolution will keep pace with our power to destroy ourselves is questionable. Ideally, as stated previously, “As we became more intelligent, we would recognize the rationality of morality.” However there are no guarantees that our intelligence will evolve quickly enough or that rationality will ground morality. At some point, if we are to survive, we will probably be forced to use every technology at our disposal to change our natures.

But if we engineer ourselves to be more moral are we still free? This questions deserves a book-length response, but remember, none of us are very free now. We are genomes in environments, with no more than a sliver of free will. Perhaps we can design free will into our cognitive systems–although I admit this is a strange and counter-intuitive idea. Or perhaps this so-called freedom–if it even exists–isn’t worth the havoc it causes. Better to be wired and get along than free and at each other’s throats.

At any rate, I still agree with the basic idea of my previous post—to survive and flourish we must evolve, ultimately by transcending our current nature. The following books touch on this evolution:

1.  The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition

2. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined