More on Evolution and Ethics

My recent post, “Evolution and Ethics,” elicited a particularly thoughtful response from an expert in the field. He began by suggesting further readings on the subject including:

The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics by Paul Lawrence Farber
The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition by Robert Axelrod
Evolution, the Extended Synthesis (MIT Press) by Massimo Pigliucci
Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy” by Oliver Curry, and
Bridging the Is-Ought Divide” by Ed Gibney

He then responded to a few points I made in my piece. (My writing is designated by -> followed by his comment.)

-> The modern theory of evolution resulted from one the greatest scientific achievements in human history, the Neo-Darwinian or modern synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s worth mentioning the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis being debated now too. The wiki entry gives a good quick overview.

-> biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either scientifically illiterate or lying to you.

I believe this is a derivation of a Richard Dawkins quote, no?

[Possibly, but I just wrote it.]

-> Can we derive moral obligations from evolutionary facts?

Considering the scope of evolutionary studies, a better question to me would be, are there any other facts at all from which moral obligations can be drawn?

-> Huxley thought that natural processes always conflict with artificial ones.

Huxley’s “artificial” processes are, of course, natural ones too.

-> The first clue to understanding this came from research showing that the beneficiaries of altruistic behavior in non-human animals were generally individuals who shared many genes with the altruist.

What does “kin selection” really mean, however, when all of life shares many genes now and all genes originally? Kin might be just artificial divisions.

-> Natural selection sometimes favors cooperative behaviors that increase chances for a species survival; self-interest is often served better by cooperation than competition. Thus, ethical behaviors can be selected for.

Here is where “The Evolution of Cooperation” by Axelrod really proves this robustly.

-> Instead, Wilson and Ruse forge a connection between ethics and evolution without committing the naturalistic fallacy.

And here is where “Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy” would ask, which one? There are several common errors that are made here, but none rule out the derivation of values from nature. It just has to be done properly.

-> They begin with two scientific premises: 1) social behavior of animals is under the control of genes; and 2) humans are animals. Since both premises are true, we are led to a distinctively biological human morality based on kin selection.

I didn’t think this conclusion was accurate, but I’m not sure which Wilson / Ruse argument you are trying to portray. Maybe you are right that they said this. (Although I think it’s an error to jump all the way to kin selection from the genetic control of social behavior.)

-> However there are no absolute foundations for ethics, moral beliefs simply serve our reproductive aims and help us survive. Ethics is essentially an illusion our genes use to get us to cooperate.

Why an illusion? I think these are identical. I believe ethics are just rules for survival, and they are right or wrong depending on the thing chosen for survival.

-> What evidence is there that genes control specific social behavior? Gould says there is none, and even if there were our large brain can potentially overcome biological determinism.

I haven’t read Gould in his original works, but this seems off. Our large brains are nothing but physical matter built by genes. At least to an evolutionist.

-> First, inasmuch as moral norms differ between cultures and across time without a corresponding difference in biology, the theory that morality depends upon biology is flawed. This evidence suggests that culture, not biology, plays the largest role in shaping behavior. Second, human intellectual abilities have the power to go beyond biology.

I think there is some difference of definitions here between biology and culture. A physicalist would say they are both products of biology. A dualist would say culture is *somehow* separate. To me, a physicalist, I would then say that these cultural differences across time and place are merely the trials and errors of evolutionary beings attempting to survive. Biology is flexible and diverse like that.

-> On the other hand, moral altruism concerns intentions and motivations, with the regard we have for others; they have nothing to do with biology. Behaviors may look similar from the outside, but we distinguish them by the moral agent’s conscious intentions. So Ayala affirms that reciprocal altruism in non-human animals isn’t moral behavior any more than we would describe social insects which die for their community as morally heroic.

Ayala has to go a long way down the evolutionary chain of complexity to find a morally distinguishable difference. Where exactly does moral intention and motivation enter into things then? He’s a former priest so I have my suspicions what he thinks about this. Again, what is there in us but biology?

-> Biology determines this capacity for ethics because of the presence in human beings of three necessary and sufficient conditions for ethical behavior which themselves derive from human consciousness. First, we anticipate the consequences of our actions because we can create mental images of unreal or imaginary possibilities. Second, we make value judgments about actions, ends, objects, and behaviors which we consider valuable. Third, we choose between courses of action.

Nonhuman animals are capable of these three things too. Just not with as much information. The same can be said across differences in human morals.

-> Turning to the question of whether evolution determines “particular” moral norms, Ayala claims that any attempt to justify particular moral norms with biology commits the naturalistic fallacy.

Which one? Read Curry’s paper and my own for full rebuttals to this.

-> However, there is one general criticism of the attempt to derive moral values from facts of nature that we have previously discussed—the naturalistic fallacy. The idea is that we can’t derive values from facts, or ought from is. In this case, it means that just because of ethical behaviors arise in nature doesn’t mean we should value those behaviors.

No, but we can choose from among the behaviors in nature to decide which ones work best for our goals. And those goals can be natural too. In fact, supernatural goals or behaviors are impossible to use.

-> In other words, we must not only explain the nature and genesis of morality, we must justify it. But evolutionary ethicists have a hard time doing this. If they explain the genesis by saying that facts justify values, they supposedly commit the naturalistic fallacy. If they say that facts elicit values, they supposedly mistakenly read purposes and ends into evolution that evolutionists assure us aren’t there. In short, it may be that evolution explains the origin of morality, but can’t justify morality. Or it may be that these objections aren’t valid.

In my own paper and work, I say that we living beings have our own purposes (to survive) that naturally justify our actions. These, of course, have to be modified with as much information and survival as possible, but we’re still working on that. “Evolution” isn’t a thing or entity that can have goals; evolution is merely a process that describes what happens to us things and entities. So we evolutionary ethicists are not reading purposes and ends into evolution, we’re reading purposes and ends in our natural selves, and using evolutionary history to inform our ethics to understand, evaluate, and reach those ends we think are correct.

-> My own view is that too much is made of the naturalistic fallacy. While we may not be able to deduce morality from evolutionary considerations, there is no way to develop a moral theory without considerations of our nature. And we can’t do this without understanding our evolutionary history.

A sensible conclusion. Especially since there is no other information to use beyond our full evolutionary histories. At least, according to evolutionary epistemology…

(I appreciate the time and effort that Ed Gibney took to make these informed comments.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *