Evolution and the Morality Gurus

Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause of human morality.  We perceive the world in terms of good and evil, not because good and evil are real things that exist on their own, independent of human minds, but because it is our nature to do so.  This means, among other things, that a legitimate basis for declaring some things good and others evil, a holy grail of philosophers for millennia, doesn’t exist.

This truth is particularly inconvenient for the legions of “experts” in ethics and morality of a secular bent.  Their whole trade is based on the assumption, whether implicit or explicit, of objective good and evil.  If there is no legitimate reason to claim that what they consider good is not just their own subjective opinion or intuition, but applies to others as well as themselves, their entire basis for claiming superior knowledge and authority in such matters evaporates.  So much is obvious to their religious brethren, who base their own claims to authority on the existence of imaginary super beings.  In such matters, at least, they are a great deal more clear headed than the unbelievers.  They immediately recognize that, when their super being is lacking, the legitimacy of moral claims disappears with it.

In fact, so much was obvious enough a few years after Darwin published his famous theory.  Given what we have learned in the last couple of decades about the relationship of moral emotions to processes in the brain, the existence of similar behavior  in other animals, and the revelations of Haidt and others about the manner in which moral judgments are actually made, it would seem there is no basis for any lingering doubts on the matter.  Of course, human beings have always been good at ignoring such truths if their profession or their ideology requires it, and the ethics “experts” have been no more behind hand about it than the corner chiropractor.

To illustrate how this works in practice, let us consider an essay composed by one of the expert tribe entitled Did Morality Evolve?  I don’t mean to pick on its author, Steve Steward-Williams, in particular, but he happens to describe himself as a lecturer in evolutionary psychology, which makes his conclusions that much more remarkable.  As such, he cannot well deny the evolved component of morality, noting, for example,

…there’s little doubt that evolutionary theory can shed light on the origins of some of the behaviours that fall within the rubric of morality, including altruism, empathy, and our characteristic attitudes about certain kinds of sexual behaviour.

This, however, is immediately following by,

On the other hand, the morality-as-adaptation hypothesis faces some serious challenges. If morality were a direct product of evolution, why would people constantly argue about what’s right and wrong? Why would we spend so much time teaching our children to be good, and inculcating in them virtues such as generosity? Why would we experience inner conflict between what we think is morally right and what we really want to do?

Cutting to the chase, Steward-Williams informs us that he has no “snappy answers” to these questions, concluding that,

…morality is not a direct product of evolution. Instead, and to some extent, it is a humanmade system of favouring those evolved tendencies that facilitate group cohesion, while disfavouring those that are socially divisive. Morality is a way of controlling our evolved natures, rather than a mere reflection of those natures.

One might call this a statement of the “reformed” version of the Blank Slate.  According to this version, there is, after all, such a thing as human nature, and it even influences morality, but it doesn’t matter, because there is another, “good” morality which serves to “control our evolved natures.”  Presumably our “evolved natures” include the “bad” morality.  Unstated but implicit in all this is the assumption that an objective good exists, and that it is associated with something like what Sam Harris might call “human flourishing.”  Voila! The role of the “expert” is restored.  It is to uncover the details of this unevolved morality for the rest of us so that we can “control” our evolved natures so as to serve the legitimate and true “Good.”

Steward-Williams’ “proofs” that some aspects of morality are not evolved are of the flimsiest.  For example, morality can’t be directly evolved “because people constantly argue about what’s right and wrong.”  This is a revised version of the “genetic determinist” argument of the Blank Slaters, according to which “human nature” could only consist of traits as rigidly programmed as the instincts of a bird building its nest, or a spider spinning its web.  Morality can’t be directly evolved, “because we spend so much time teaching our children to be good.”  More of the same, archaic, nature versus nurture stuff.  Morality can’t be directly evolved, because if it were we wouldn’t “experience inner conflict between what we think is morally right and what we really want to do.”  Really?  Why?  What, exactly, is it about evolved traits associated with moral behavior that requires that they immediately be completely self-consistent and in accord with all our other appetites, as perfect as Athena stepping forth from the brow of Zeus?

Why do I have a problem with these self-declared experts who are busily cobbling away on the details of future “other, unevolved” moralities?  After all, I’m tolerant enough of the corner chiropractor, and times are hard.  Well, as it happens, we’ve already tried the manipulation of morality on numerous previous occasions in order to, as Steward-Williams puts it, favor “those evolved tendencies that facilitate group cohesion, while disfavouring those that are socially divisive,” often with disastrous results.  Every morality implies an out-group.  To cite a couple of recent examples of the manipulation of morality, Communism “facilitated group cohesion” by murdering 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take.  Nazism “facilitated group cohesion” by murdering six million Jews.

I have a better idea.  It’s basically an adaptation of the old, “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” philosophy.  Let’s stop inventing new moralities.  Instead, let’s promote a thorough understanding of the behavioral traits that are the basis and precondition for the existence of them all.  Armed with that understanding, we might stand a chance of controlling our more destructive tendencies by relying on reason instead of novel and more perfect pieties.  It seems to me we’ve suffered from the strutting and posing of the pathologically pious long enough.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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