Ethics: A Philosopher Ponders Darwin

Darwin didn’t waste many words on morality when he published The Descent of Man in 1871, but what he did write rendered all the thousands of philosophical tomes that had been previously written on the subject obsolete. In fact, the same can be said for most of the thousands of tomes that have been written on the subject after his time as well. In short, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits that are as much a result of natural selection as our more obvious physical traits. A number of seemingly obvious conclusions follow from this fundamental fact. For example, morality is subjective. Because it is the result of a natural process, it cannot have any goal or purpose. Sentient beings like us can have goals and purposes, but natural processes have none. As Hume pointed out long ago, there is no path from the “is” of natural processes to the “oughts” of morality. Our firm belief that “oughts” are real things that exist independently of what anyone happens to think about them is the result of a powerful illusion that happened to increase the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce.

It seems to me that, in spite of the above, philosophers could still make themselves useful in dealing with the reality of human morality. We really can’t get along without it. The emotions that give rise to it are too powerful for us to ignore. We also lack the intelligence to rationally analyze every move we make in our relations with others of our species. Taking the biological realities of human behavior into account, philosophers might take up the task of suggesting what kind of a morality we might adopt that would minimize friction and maximize cooperation in the societies we live in today, and yet be more or less in harmony with the emotions that are the root cause of our moral behavior. It seems at least plausible that they could come up with an improvement over the chaotic manipulation of moral emotions that we currently rely on to cook up the latest recipes for what we ought and ought not to do. I think that’s what E. O. Wilson had in mind when he suggested that we come up with a “biology of ethics, which will make possible the selection of a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values.”

For some reason, this seemingly obvious suggestion has never been popular with philosophers. Perhaps the gatekeepers who determine what may or may not be published in the academic journals have simply been too hidebound and inflexible to accommodate something so novel. All their epistemologies, ontologies, and teleologies never prepared them to deal with something that renders all the “expertise” in morality they’ve spent their careers acquiring as irrelevant as humorism in medicine or the phlogiston theory in chemistry. Many of them realize they can no longer simply ignore Darwin. However, instead of considering some of the more obvious implications for moral philosophy if what he wrote was true, they have seemed more intent on obfuscating the subject under a thick smokescreen of philosophical jargon.

Consider, for example, a recent book on the subject entitled, An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, by Scott M. James. James seems to grasp some of the more obvious implications if our morality is, indeed, an artifact of natural selection. For example, he writes,

The psychological mechanisms that evolutionary psychologists claim fill the mind did not evolve in response to problems we confront today. They may help in solving similar problems today, but that’s not why we possess them. We possess them because they solved recurrent problems confronting our distant ancestors. And since they haven’t been “selected out” of the population, current populations still possess them. As evolutionary psychologists like to say, our modern skulls house stone-age minds.

James warns his readers against many of the familiar fallacies associated with biological explanations of behavior. These include conflating explanation and justification. The fact that innate tendencies may influence a particular behavior does not imply that the behavior is either good or evil. James also mentions genetic determinism, the false notion that we are forced to act in certain ways and not in others by our genes. Beloved as a strawman by the Blank Slaters of old, no serious evolutionary psychologist has ever claimed anything of the sort. He makes short work of the notion that the diversity of human moralities excludes the influence of evolved behavioral traits. In fact, if Darwin was right, that is exactly what one would expect.

Given this promising start, a scientist might expect James to accept the most “parsimonious” explanation of morality; that Darwin was right about morality, and that’s the end of it. But James is a philosopher, not a scientist. At the end of his book, we gaze from a distance as he wades back into his philosophical swamp. In the final chapter he writes,

Finally, building on the work of others, I have offered a moral constructivist position, according to which moral rightness and wrongness consist in what agents, (from a particular standpoint) would accept as rules to govern behavior. Unlike the other options outlined in this chapter, my position is an explicit attempt at a tracking account. I’m prepared to say that the reason we evolved to make moral judgments has precisely to do with the fact that the preponderance of these judgments were true.

In other words, James is an objective moralist, and seems to believe that natural selection is somehow capable of caring one way or the other about the moral rules he happens to prefer. If Darwin was right, then this is only possible if the “objective moral law” varies drastically from species to species, as noted in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man. A bit later James writes,

My proposal has two parts. The first part involves a refinement of the story we told in part I about how we evolved to think morally. I argue that we developed a special sensitivity to how others would view our behavior (from a particular standpoint). The second part is a metaethical story, that is, a story about what moral judgments are and about what makes true moral judgments true (and, yes, I believe some moral judgments are indeed true). As I argue, these two stories together could be read to imply that the evolution of our particular moral sense was the result of the recognition of facts about hypothetical agreement. An early human, disposed to judge that others could reasonably object to what she was intent on doing and motivated by that judgment, enhanced reproductive fitness partly because such judgments were sometimes true. And this, by the way constitutes a moral realism worthy of the name – or so I maintain.

And so on. James does not explain how his version of “true” moral judgments is compatible with the universal human tendency to identify and hate the members of outgroups, or our tendency to compete for status, regardless of what we deem others might consider “reasonable.” Neither does he explain why, once we are aware of the natural processes that account for our existence, and have formulated personal goals and assigned ourselves a purpose taking that knowledge into account, we should care one way or the other whether our actions conform to what James considers “true” moral rules as we pursue those goals and purposes, unless, of course, James happens to be holding a gun to our heads.

Imagine, if you will a world conference held to formulate a universal system of morality. It goes without saying that anyone suggesting a particular version of morality would be required to reveal what his personal goals in life happen to be, and why he values those goals. In my case, I would explain that my goals include my own survival and reproduction, the survival of my species, and the survival of biological life in general, and that I have those goals because I deem them in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. I would prefer a system of morality that facilitated those goals. James might then step up to the podium and suggest that we adopt his proposed moral rules, because they are “true,” regardless of whether they facilitate anyone else’s personal goals or not. I can only hope that such a proposal would be met with peels of laughter, and deemed grotesquely “unreasonable” by our fellow attendees.

I realize that extravagant “tracking” accounts of morality such as the one proposed by James are far more likely to be published in the journals of philosophy than anything as simple as a straightforward Darwinian explanation. That hardly constitutes a good reason for the rest of us to take them seriously. One must hope that eventually a few philosophers will attempt to wade back out of the swamp. However, given the realities of what constitutes “reasonable” behavior for any philosopher who wants to remain gainfully employed in academia, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

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.

2 thoughts on “Ethics: A Philosopher Ponders Darwin”

  1. A difficult piece that I had to read several times. Heavily loaded with assertions about fundamental issues in a small space. Kudos for the effort. Daoists would say (or not) that philosophers overthink and thereby obscure the simplicity of the way of nature. Interesting how Darwin without the benefit of all of our technology was right in so many enduring ways. Also interesting that you quote David Hume a kind of latter-day philosophical myth buster. Surprisingly, Mark Twain wrote a controversial but unfortunately little read essay, “What is man?” It is a thoughtful and therefore deemed irreligious examination of motives, free will and false ideas of morality. When in my poetry writing face, I was amazed at the seemingly countless styles that were considered poetry. And by all the attempts to define poetry. I decided the simplest definition was that poetry is whatever a person who calls him or herself a poet writes. I think the same simplicity can be applied to morality. Morality is a set of contrived rules that a particular community believes will work best for the survival of the community. Behavior is a whole other story and where Mark Twain attempts his contribution.

  2. I haven’t read Twain’s essay, but will definitely put it on my reading list. You’re right about moral rules. Some “community” decides what they will be, but that begs Lenin’s question of “Who, whom?” Who gets to make up the moral rules, and on whom does the burden of their assumed moral authority fall. At the moment the Left is the who, and the rest of us are the whom. That’s not how morality worked when it evolved, but it’s obviously a possible outcome in the societies we live in today.

    As for poetry, it’s amazing how profound it can be. For example, I don’t know of a better critique of Islam than Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat”. He was actually the author. To call it a “translation” is a bit of a stretch.

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