Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality

I recently read a book entitled Nature’s Virtue by James Pontuso, a professor of political science at Hampden-Sydney College. He informs his readers that his goal in writing the book was to demonstrate a foundation for virtue. In his words,

It is in taking up the challenge of anti-foundationalism that I hope this book will contribute to the on-going dialogue about the place of virtue in human life. It will attempt to define virtue in the course of a discussion of its friends and adversaries.

Pontuso then takes us on a rambling discussion of what the postmodernists, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, and several other thinkers had to say about virtue. All this may be enlightening for students of philosophy, but it is neither here nor there as far as establishing a foundation for virtue is concerned. In fact, the last two paragraphs of the book are the closest he comes to “taking up the challenge.” There he writes,

It is almost as natural for human beings to make value judgments about their own and other people’s behavior as it is for them to eat. Those judgments are the foundation of nature’s virtue.

Does nature command us to seek virtue? Command implies domination, but the diversity and complexity of human behavior indicates that we are not easily swayed. It might be better to say that nature beckons to us, and we are free to accept or reject the invitation. Nature’s virtue does not call to us loudly, but it does call.

I would certainly be the first to admit that “It is almost as natural for human beings to make value judgments about their own and other people’s behavior as it is for them to eat.” I also agree that our moral behavior is not rigidly programmed. Rather, it is a manifestation of predispositions that may or may not be overridden by other motivators. However, it seems to me more parsimonious to explain these facts in terms of evolved behavioral traits than reflections of “nature’s virtue.” Indeed, it appears that Pontuso has actually heard of Darwin. He mentions him quite prominently in Chapter 5 of his book, which he devotes to addressing the question, “What is virtue?” He notes that,

According to Darwinians, species disseminate traits that allow them to survive and flourish. Individual members of a species that thrive are more likely to live long enough to breed and to pass on these genes to their progeny. Even though individuals seek only to spread their own genes, natural selection chooses those attributes that best suit the continuation of the species.

Well, not exactly, but at least he gets the gist of the Darwinian argument.  However, he dismisses it after a few pages. Why? Pontuso is obviously an intelligent man, and yet he jettisons Darwin and continues chasing his Will-o’-the-wisp of “nature’s virtue.” What is his justification for chasing after a ghost? It turns out that his argument is not completely without merit. As he puts it,

Darwinians do not stop at using natural selection to explain human behavior. They argue that genetic coding can be prescriptive as well. For example, (Larry) Arnhart maintains that evolution can show us that virtuous actions, private property, family values, and small local government are the proper way for people to live.

If Darwinian teleology is natural, why do the advocates of Darwinian teleology differ so much about the goals that people should pursue? MacIntyre argues that Darwinism leads to social democracy in which the most successful have a moral duty to care for the weak. Ridley maintains that limited government, protection of property rights, and voluntary cooperation are the evolutionary goals of the human species. As Robert Richards points out, Darwin’s ideas have been used to justify the free market, Marxism, the social welfare state, and even the Third Reich.

Pontuso has a point. Other than myself, I know of not a single proponent of evolved morality who doesn’t either implicitly or explicitly support some grab bag of Goods and Evils that are described and supported as objective things-in-themselves, existing independently of what any individual happens to think about them. Alas, dear reader, if the truth be told, even I, all too human as I am, have occasional weaknesses in that direction. And that’s just the problem. If morality is really a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits, than it cannot possibly exist for a purpose, or have a goal. Morality is, and this “is” cannot imply an “ought.” Pontuso’s error isn’t in pointing out that natural selection provides no “ought” for his “virtue.” His error is in insisting that “virtue” exists as an objective thing to begin with. It doesn’t. His belief that it does is an illusion.

The fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits eliminates the possibility that it can support any objective “ought” whatsoever. It certainly eliminates the conjecture that a God is in charge of morality, but that does not imply that all things “ought” to be permitted, nor that all things “ought not” to be permitted. It does not imply the correctness of moral relativism, nor does it imply the correctness of moral absolutism. It does not imply the moral superiority of socialism to capitalism or vice versa. That which “is” does not imply that which “ought” to be for the simple reason that, objectively speaking, there is no “ought,” there is no “good,” there is no “evil,” and there is no “virtue.” These categories do not exist objectively, as things in themselves. They exist as things imagined in the minds of individuals by virtue of predispositions spawned by natural selection.

Does that imply that we can do without these illusions? No, I very much doubt it. We are not nearly smart enough for that.

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.

11 thoughts on “Is, Ought, and the Evolution of Morality”

  1. Evolution explains our behaviour, where people fall, is we want to tinker with the reality that the natural systems present us with.
    Having just feed the local birds their morning grain I’m struck at how quickly they start to fight, reminded of course, that the natural systems control population through the harshest of all tools, death. Death by competition, by predation, by attacks by others more dominant of the same species etc. Population booms and then population crashes.
    Fast forward to the human experience, most of our moral and ethical ‘dilemmas’ are around these natural systems.
    We are faced with more complexity, our linguistic ability, our varying group dynamics, our ability to lie and deceive, these add to the soup.
    When we come to our ‘illusions’, Tinbergen showed that animals have natural drivers that can be manipulated with false ‘stimuli’. These illusions we could well do without, religion with its false authority could go, the nation state with its over reach should be wound back, the difficulty we face is that the natural human condition is to remain in the submissive role until the alpha group loses its grip.
    In tribal groups of 50-250 the numbers who would reach full maturity would be a percentage point or two, now its almost zero, people are never faced with the reality of having to support themselves and their small tribe with nothing other than their skill and bravery. The result is a infantilised population, living in various false and fantastic realms, insulated by the vast and all embracing authority of their church and or state.

  2. “Infantilised” isn’t an overly harsh term. To add insult to injury, even most of those who accept the Darwinian origins of morality think that the result of blindly responding to a “moral sense” that evolved eons ago in a radically different environment is somehow guaranteed to be “good.”

  3. I use the term deliberately. It’s actually not harsh enough, not only are they treated as infants, they remain in the infant stage.
    Thousands of years ago when there was a break in the group, lets say due to success and growth, a part of the group would strike out on their own. No safety net, no fall back nothing. The challenges would have been tremendous. Psychologically this would have created a tremendously strong response in the individuals ‘leading’ the group.
    Compare and contrast to our modern ‘fellow travellers’, good grief, they wouldn’t last a fortnight.
    As an aside, I wonder if there has been any studies of ‘primitive groups’ re this type of phenomena?

  4. I’m getting “Invalid security token” when I try to leave a comment. Let’s see if it might be because I used HTML.

  5. That which “is” does not imply that which “ought” to be for the simple reason that, objectively speaking, there is no “ought,” there is no “good,” there is no “evil,” and there is no “virtue.” These categories do not exist objectively, as things in themselves.

    What exists objectively, as a thing in itself? Even the wavefunction of a particle will depend on what is around it. Physicist David Bohm writes,

    Indeed, when this interpretation is extended to field theories,[7] not only the inter-relationships of the parts, but also their very existence is seen to flow out of the law of the whole. There is therefore nothing left of the classical scheme, in which the whole is derived from pre-existent parts related in pre-determined ways. Rather, what we have is reminiscent of the relationship of whole and parts in an organism, in which each organ grows and sustains itself in a way that depends crucially on the whole. (Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, xi)

    It would appear that you’ve simply presupposed, at a metaphysical level, that some “neutral point of view” is the … “most true” view. This, despite the fact that no human being possesses a “neutral point of view”. The NPOV is a myth, like the social contract. To suggest that what is “most true” or “most real” is that which is closest to the NPOV is in fact a metaphysic. But why should anyone accept such a metaphysic?

    P.S. I used to have non-breaking spaces to indent the paragraph of the blockquoted text; if this posts, that was the problem.

  6. @Luke

    I assume that there is a universe full of things that exist objectively, independently of my mind or consciousness. I can’t prove it to you, nor do I know with absolute certainty that it is true. I base my ideas, goals, conclusions, etc., on what I consider to be most probably true. I possess no philosopher’s stone that allows me to tell you infallibly what is true. If you don’t accept my “metaphysic,” so be it. We have nothing more to talk about.

  7. I don’t think that David Bohm would disagree with “there is a universe full of things that exist objectively, independently of my mind or consciousness”. Nor do I. The contention is whether those things are necessarily value-free and purpose-free. The mechanistic concept of classical physics made it very easy to argue that ultimate reality is value-free and purpose-free. Machines, after all, stand at the ready for us to use them, however we want.

    Now if you say that you look out there and can’t see X, you are only warranted in thinking that X may not exist if you could possibly see X. For an example, see all the work done at CERN to guarantee that if the Higgs boson had been at a given energy, they would see a signal rise above the noise with the amount of collision data they collected. Well, can you demonstrate that you could see value and purpose in “external reality”, if it were there?

    To the extent that the optimal scientist becomes like a machine, it seems obvious that said scientist would be terrible at discerning value or purpose, qua scientist. Our minds are not tabula rasa, collecting every iota of incoming information. Nor do we always become conscious of the patterns that we do collect: Grossberg 1999 The Link between Brain Learning, Attention, and Consciousness. We are the instruments with which we measure reality, are we not?

    It seems entirely possible to me that the reason we cannot discern purpose and value out there in reality is that we are like telescope lenses which are constantly morphing in shape and index of refraction—in the moral domain. What could one possibly observe with such an lens? It’d look like a fuzzy, blurry mess. Any good experimental scientist knows that having stable, characterized instruments is critical. What if we are far from either in the moral domain? By the way, this can make much use of constructivist ideas about morality. It simply does not necessarily mean that there is no value and purpose discernible external to my mind and all human minds.

  8. Dear Helian,

    Having re read your original comment can I ask you the following.

    To what extent is our inability to identify our ‘natural’ group, a contributing factor to the missfire of the empathy emotion? What would have been the characteristics of our evolved ‘group’?

    Originally the empathy emotion would have been displayed inside this evolved group, we have now a complexity of ‘groups’, (I visualise a Venn diagram) some of which are real, ie family, some of which are part real, and some of which are fantastical. Do you think this confusion contributes to many of the misdirected comments re ‘empathy’?

  9. @David

    The mental traits that are responsible for the existence of what we call empathy probably evolved in the context of groups of hunter gatherers numbering 50 to 150 in an environment unlike anything that exists today. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say the “empathy” trait is misfiring, but it certainly cannot be assumed that the relevant emotions will accomplish the same thing today as they did when they evolved. The same can be said of virtually our entire repertoire of emotions. It follows that our continued failure to understand ourselves is potentially dangerous, regardless of what our personal goals happen to be. Since the comments you refer to are simply blind responses to emotions without reference to the reasons those emotions exist to begin with, it can be safely assumed that they will often be “misdirected,” if by “misdirected” you mean likely to result in outcomes that threaten rather than promote the odds of survival.

  10. Thank you for your response.
    Thinking over some of your latest posts, combined with the overall direction over the last few years, I considered a mental exercise.
    What is the block, why are people seemingly unable to understand what is really just simple brutal logic based on fundamentally a brief extension of the thinkers such as Darwin who looked at nature and reported what they saw?
    I was reminded of a ‘people reader’ I saw interviewed and he made some fascinating points. Firstly, when people talk, they tell you what they think, if they ask a question they can only ask that question based on what they think, ie they can’t ask a question about something that they don’t know. This is so simple yet so interesting.
    Secondly, he made the point that as people as a rule follow others, (I’ll add Authority figures/group etc) after one or two questions, he could pick the answers to other questions by association. He stressed that most people are incapable of not having an answer to nearly every issue, no matter how absurd the Q or A are.
    Further, if we agree with people we tend to feel warmth towards them, disagreement creates hostility.
    The point of this ramble, really to highlight that the MSM and in particular the University system are locked into this cycle.
    So a question if I could, historically, who do you think were the people who were most fundamentally responsible for the emergence of the genius of Lorenz, Tinbergen, Tiger, Ardrey and that broader group? And by extension is there any sign of the influences that freed them from the above prison?
    On a side note, I’ve been reading some of the latest on ‘Group’ selection vs ‘Kin selection’ and sense that one of the many problems is that the ‘group’ part of the theory is caught in the difficulty we have mentioned re some groups are not based on evolutionary drivers, therefore I am more accepting of Dawkins point of view, however, I think he arrived there for different reasons. Group Theory really makes the head ache.

  11. @David

    There are many reasons why people refuse to see or accept what seems to us so obvious. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, our minds portray good and evil to us as real, objective things, even though they are not. For most of us, the illusion is overpowering. As you point out, accepting the obvious can also result in banishment from ingroups that happen to be defined by ideology. It can alienate respected authority figures who are invested in maintaining the illusion. Those who have become “expert” in explaining the qualities and nature of these imaginary things, and whose livelihood may depend on maintaining the charade, have a strong interest in propping up the illusion.

    Who inspired the genius of Lorenz, Tinbergen, Ardrey, and the rest is a good question. In the case of Ardrey, Sir Arthur Keith certainly had a profound influence. Of course, Ardrey made a point of recognizing Keith in his books. If you look at the footnotes in Keith’s “A New Theory of Human Evolution,” you will also find the names of Elliot, Marais, and many others who were later mentioned prominently by Ardrey. I don’t think Europeans like Lorenz and Tinbergen were ever as invested in the Blank Slate as the Americans.

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