I have a question from the studio audience.
Beepbeepitsme asked, “What do you think about morality/ethics as a result of natural selection?”
Answer: About the same as what I think about round squares. The concept is incoherent.
Okay, let me back up a moment.
Natural selection has certainly had an effect on our dispositions to desire. We are disposed to acquire those desires that tended to keep our ancestors alive and reproducing. This includes an aversion to pain, a desire for sex, a ‘comfort zone’ regarding temperature, thirst, a desire for high-calorie foods, affection for one’s children, and the like.
These dispositions are morally relevant. That is to say, any moral theory that ignores these facts would go as far as a theory that concludes that an agent ought to alter the gravitational constant to one that better maximizes utility, or ought to ignore the second law of thermodynamics in case of extreme emergencies.
However, when people talk about morality itself being a result of natural selection, they tend not to be talking about the fact that evolutionary pressure has shaped the desires we are disposed to have. They tend to be talking about something more specific – the evolution of what our ‘moral sentiments’ pick out as good or bad.
The claim is that evolution caused us to develop moral sentiments (in the same way it caused us to develop eyes, nipples, and an appendix) and to link those moral sentiments to objects that tended to promote genetic replication. In other words, we are disposed to perceive something as being wrong because the perception that it was wrong helped our ancestors reproduce, and we acquired the same dispositions.
The ‘Is’/’Ought’ Problem
My first question is: What does it mean to ‘perceive that something is wrong’? What is the ‘something is wrong’ that we are allegedly perceiving something to be?
What concerns me is the implication, inherent in the concept of “ethics as a result of natural selection, that says, “I have evolved a disposition to value killing people like you. Therefore, you deserve to die.”
It’s the basic invalidity of this inference that I am referring to when I compare “morality as a result of natural selection” to “round squares”. The two concepts of , “I have an evolved disposition to value killing people such as you,” and, “You deserve to die,” has as much in common as the concepts of “round” and “square”.
This is not a new argument. This is simply an application of David Hume’s ‘is’/’ought’ argument. Hume said that those who attempt to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ need to explain how the ‘ought’ relationship is related to the ‘is’ relationship. It is an inference that he finds inconceivable. My objection above simply asks Hume’s question of those who accept the idea of morality as a result of natural selection to explain the inference from “is disposed to value killing people such as you” and “deserves to die.”
People who have followed my writing know that I think that the ‘is’/‘ought’ problem can be solved. I argue that if we had to choose between ‘is’/‘ought’ dualism and ‘is/‘ought’ reductionism, we need something a lot stronger than, “I don’t see how it can be done” to force us into dualism. Reductionism is the default position unless we are forced into dualism. Even then, we at least need a theory that starts to explain how something not a part of the ‘is’ universe can have any influence or relevance in the real ‘is’ world.
Yet, the inference form, “I have an evolved disposition to value killing people like you,” to “you deserve to die” does not solve that problem. It exemplifies the problem.
The Euthyphro Problem
The idea of morality as a result of natural selection suffers from the Euthyphro problem.
“Wrongness,” in this case, consists in being the type of person that others have an evolved disposition to kill (or to harm in other ways). If this is what “wrongness” is, then “wrongness” could be just about anything.
Above, I mentioned the fact that evolution has given us (even men) nipples and an appendix. It has given us a fondness for high calorie food, to store excess as fat, and to store as much fat as possible (because our ancestors were those that actually survived those frequent famines).
In short, evolution has given us traits that are useless, and traits that are positively harmful now that our environment has changed. We even have very real reason to worry that our evolved dispositions will ultimately lead to our extinction through war or global environmental catastrophe.
Even if it made sense to speak about an “evolved disposition to view something as wrong,” we still have to ask the question, “Is it such a good thing that we have this evolved disposition?” Perhaps it is an evolved disposition that we are well advised to get rid of. This, in turn, invites the question, “How do we determine if an evolved disposition to view something as wrong,” is, itself, a good or a bad disposition?
For example, it may be the case that we have an evolved disposition to value ridding land of people who “do not look like us” so that it can be populated by people who “look like us”. It is not outside the realm of possibility that we are the descendents of ancestors who had this disposition and who, because they were successful at ridding the land of rivals and populating it with like-minded people, actually ended up winning the war of natural selection.
It might also be the case that we have more ancestors disposed to rape than we may want to admit. As such, men might have an evolved disposition to force sex on women, rather than wait patiently for their consent and possible rejection.
Yet, I suspect that many people would see problems with the argument, “I have an evolved disposition to kill those who do not look like me; therefore, those who do not look like me deserve to die,” or, “I have an evolved disposition to value sex with you whether you want it or not; therefore, you have an obligation to let me have sex with you.”
These are not idle possibilities. Male lions, for example, have an evolved disposition to value killing their step children when they take over a new pride. This is evolutionarily useful – since they then devote their resources to raising their own genetic offspring, rather than the offspring of the pride members they drove off or killed.
Plus, of course, evolution has not given lions any altruistic attitudes at all towards antelope. Indeed, evolution has selected lions to value the hunting and killing of antelope. There is a long list of very obvious observations that easily falsify the idea that there is some necessary link – even conceptual link – between ‘evolved disposition to value’ and ‘altruism.’
Some people look at the results of brain research that shows what happens in the brain when people make moral judgment to argue for a biological – and, from there, an evolved foundation for morality. Yet, these inferences are also flawed.
We can inevitably expect that some sort of brain process is going on when people make moral judgments. This is not a surprise. Moral judgments are a mental process – we knew this before we started the experiments.
However, the fact that we can take a picture of what happens in the brain when a person processes some information is not proof that the processes are valid.
I could, perhaps, take a picture of what goes on in the brain as a subject is converted to Christianity. Yet, the fact that I have data describing the mental process does not, in any way, prove the legitimacy of the inferences and implications that were a part of it. In fact, every time a fallacy has an effect on a listener, I should (theoretically) be able to generate data on the mental processes that result. Yet, the existence of physical evidence does not prove that the arguments were, in fact, valid.
If we were taking an MRI of Bush’s brain when he decided to attack Iraq, or that global warming was not a threat, or that the only people qualified to be judges are those who believed that our rights come from God, we would find that some mental process had to take place.
Not a very good mental process, but a mental process nonetheless.
And that’s the point. An MRI or similar brain experiments will show us what the mental process was. However, we have to do a lot of extra work to determine the quality of those brain functions and the relationships of the results to that which is true.
A research-oriented bio-ethicist points to a brain scan and says, “Ah ha! There’s my proof! I was right!”
Right about what? Do you think that I deny that moral judgments are brain function? That is something I am not going to deny. In fact, it is something I readily agree to. Yet, we still need a theory to distinguish good brain functions from bad brain functions, and that is what I am seeking to offer.
Effects of Evolution
One of the things that natural selection has given us is a malleable brain – one that changes as a result of experience.
This makes sense. If our survival depends entirely on genetic factors, then we need to hope that there are enough members of the species that has the right genes to fit into the new environment every time the environment changes, or that’s the end of its survival. When the environment shifts again, it needs enough members with a gene to fit it to that environment. In each instance, the genes that fit it to the new environment need not have given any special advantage in the original environment.
With a malleable brain, we do not need this type of luck. As the environment changes, it gives different feedback, which modifies our behavior to fit the new environment without any need for any genetic shift whatsoever. Furthermore, we can adapt others to the new environment without changing their genetics – simply by changing the (malleable) structure of their brain to match the new circumstances.
A round peg can only fit in a round hole. However, a malleable peg can fit in a round hole if the hole it encounters is round, or a square hold if the hole it encounters is square.
Natural selection has not only given us malleable brains, but a form of malleability where changes are more likely to promote survival over extinction. That is to say, there must be a way of making sure that changes in brain structure actually fit the creature to the environment. Of course, a history of environmental change, with only those whose malleable structure fit it to the new environment surviving, gives us this.
If you have a malleable brain whose structure is affected by environmental factors, and I wish not to be killed, then all I need to do is ‘figure out’ ways to modify the structure of your brain in ways that make it less likely that you will not kill me. Better yet, I might find ways that will cause you to care for me when I am sick or injured.
Meanwhile, you are doing the same to me.
Please note, we left “natural selection” behind once we had malleable brains influenced through interaction with the environment. At that point, we can start asking questions about how to influence the environment in order to generate useful brain states. If, as I argue elsewhere, desires are the only reasons for action that exist, then we only have ‘reasons for action’ to mold brain states to promote those that fill other desires and inhibit those that thwart other desires.
Now, let be briefly revisit my claim that “morality as a result of natural selection” is like “round squares.” Ultimately, this rests on the idea that moral questions are questions about how we are going to use environmental factors to influence mental states. In other words, morality is about social selection. Natural selection (except insofar as it makes social selection possible) has nothing to do with it.