Thursday, February 12, 2009

Euthyphro and Evolutionary Ethics

While I am on the subject of atheists debating the possibility of (moral) value without God, without a sufficient understanding of their subject matter, I should add a word about those who think that we have an evolved set of moral dispositions.

One thing I expect any atheist, who steps into the debate ring with a theist to discuss the issue of morality, to know is the Euthyphro dilemma. This was Plato's argument (attributed to Socrates) that is thought to destroy any possibility that morality comes from God,

In the dialogue called Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates talking to a fellow citizen named Euthyphro on the nature of the good. Euthyphro tells Socrates that what is good is that which is loved by the gods. Socrates then asks whether it is good because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is good.

If it is good because it is loved by the gods, then anything loved by the gods would be good. The torturing of a young child for pleasure would be good, if only the gods named it so. Furthermore, there is no reason for the gods to choose goodness in something other than the torturing of a child for pleasure, because there is nothing outside of what the gods like for even the gods to appeal to.

On the other hand, if it is loved by the gods because it is good, then goodness exists independent of whatever it is that is loved by the gods. Even the gods have to ask, “What is good?” before they can determine what deserves their love and what does not. So, we have not answered the question of what goodness is by appeal to what is loved by the gods. We have only said that, whatever goodness is, the gods love it.

The evolutionary ethicist goes into his debate with the theist knowing this objection to divine command theories of ethics in most cases, and yet utterly ignores this same problem when he presents his own theory.

When asked, "What is good?" the evolutionary ethicist effectively answers, "What is good is that which is loved by the genes."

Against this, a 21st century Socrates can ask, "Is it loved by the genes because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the genes?"

If it is good because it is loved by our genes, then anything that comes to be loved by the genes can become good. If humans, like lions, had a disposition to slaughter their step children, or to behead their mates and eat them, or to attack neighboring tribes and tear their members to bits (all of which occurs in the natural kingdom), then these things would be good. We could not brag that humans evolved a disposition to be moral because morality would be whatever humans evolved a disposition to do.

If, instead, it is loved by our genes because it is good, then we have not yet answered the question of what goodness is. We could not even defend or prove such a claim unless we had an independent criteria for determining what is good, and then looked at evolution to discover if it identified the right things. How can we demonstrate (or how can we attempt to falsify) the thesis that what is good is loved by our genes if we have no account of what goodness is that is independent of what is loved by our genes?

This, in itself, should be sufficient to destroy any evolutionary account of morality - just as the original argument should be sufficient to destroy any divine command account of morality.

Unfortuantely, in these debates, the evolutionary ethicist will go on to morally condemn the theist for their "willful ignorance" of such a fool-proof objection to divine command theories of ethics that the Euythyphro argument provides. In doing so, he asserts, at least implicitly, that he is too good of a person to do anything like that himself - that he would never simply ignore an argument that is fatal to his position because he loves the position to much to consider objections.

The evolutionary ethicist ends up being wrong here as well.

In fact, the evolutionary ethicist is exactly like the theist in this regard. So much so that when the two debate each other on questions of morality, we really are not given much of a choice.

9 comments:

Makarios said...

Mmm, I was going to clear something up for you on this subject but since it makes up the bulk of what I'm going to post tomorrow I think I'll just do it there.

Frederic Dumont said...

Hi,

I am not sure the evolutionarist position fails the Euthyphro challenge that badly. Or that the Euthyphro is actually such a good argument.

I will for the sake of the argument assume that morality evolved pretty much as described in Pinker's the Moral Instinct (New York Times 2008-01-13).

What makes the Euthyphro argument convincing is the sincerity of our moral judgments and the feeling that they are universal. As Pinker said in The Moral Instinct, "no one would say, “I don’t like killing, but I don’t care if you murder someone.” So any suggestion that they might be arbitrary is shocking.

But this does not imply that there is anything universal to our moral judgments. Indeed, the variety of moralities across the world is proof that what we believe is universal might not be shared by our neighbours. Even if everyone agrees that torturing a children for fun is immoral, the persistence of female genital mutilations in many countries (and other kind of similar practices) split the (western) world in two: on one hand those who find this barbaric and repulsive, and those who consider it a basic element of the cultural tradition and identity of some people, which we should only judge according to these people's standards. Yet each side would consider themselves moral, and their moral judgment not arbitrary.

The fact is, if everyone was brainwashed to consider child torture fun, there would be no one to call it immoral. Morality is a judgment, and requires someone to make that judgment. In that sense, it is subjective.

The real failure of the god argument as a source for morality is not Euthyphro (gods could have made us so that we would be unable to even think about morality being different from what they want), but the diversity of moralities (implying their are man made). There is no objective morality, outside the communities of people.

The evolutionist position actually give us some way out of arbitrariness. The moral instincts evolved to improve each individual's benefit from the existence of a community. We are social animals, the preservation of the community is paramount, so it makes sense that we would have instincts to protect the community.

Using Haidt's sphere language, your position on morality seems to rest on "fairness" and "harm" mainly. The existence of similar instincts in people give your arguments strength. These moral spheres are the raw desires that shape your morality and convince those who listen to you that what you propose is the right thing to do. But notice that few challenge (unless one is a theologian and wants to win a debate) the basis that fairness and a reluctance to cause harm are in any way arbitrary. And yet, why are they good? Why do they feel good? If we weren't social animals, maybe they would not.

Now, I happen to think that, given out set of often confusing moral and other instincts, your proposal is less arbitrary and in that sense better than pretty much anything else.

I also happen to think that despite the subjective nature of our morality, it aims at universality and we should use any mean compatible with it to advance and propagate it. If there are indeed moral instincts, we can hope to find a potentially fertile ground for these ideas everywhere.

Bacopa said...

I have to mostly agree with this post, but I think it somewhat misses the point. I agree the anyone who agreed that "good"="what our evolved moral senses think is good" would face the Euthyphro Problem exactly the way some theists do. However, I think that there is a better way to view this issue.

Theists often ask how we might have morals without god. While I am uncertain how bringing God into things resolves the issue of how we have morals and Euthyphro is part of the reason I don't see how postulating a God or gods could resolve this issue; I do think proponents of evolved ethics are on the right track.

I think Alonzo is saying that evolved ethics proponents are presenting a stronger case than most of them do, though I think that some are as careless as they would have to be if Euthyphro would apply to them. Evolutionary ethics cannot answer the question "What is good?", but it can answer the the question "Why do we have a moral sense at all?".

It is plausible that as a social animal we might have an innate sense concerninng norms of reciprocity. Our ancestors who did not have them would either never share or give everything away. Wolves and vampire bats do this as well.

There is some evidence that humans are very good at detecting those cheating social norms. Look up the Wason Selection Task. People do badly when the task is framed in abstract terms like "If a card has an 'A' on one side it has a '7' on the other". They do somewhat better with cuse and effect examples such as "If the car runs it has gas in the tank". But the score almost perfectly if the question is framed if terms of meeting a social norm, even if the test contains such nonsensical rules as "You must bring rootka nodules to attend the plagal-feast of Thortle".

I think evo-psych, as much as I dislike most of it, could answer the theist's question about how we might have come to have the capacity for moral reasoning. We needed a reciprocity detection system in our brains to maximixe fitness.

But is recipricoty really good? Plato himself questioned this in Gorgias with the example of the loaned dagger. I'll update it: Suppose I borrow a friend's gun on the condition that I return it when he asks. Am I really doing the right thing if he comes to me in a fit of depression or rage and return it to him when he asks? And consider Glaucon's "Gyges' Ring" case from bk.II of The Republic: Maybe reciprocity is a norm we agree to out of mutual weakness and that anyone who were to acquire a decisive advantage over others out to do what is naturally good, to get as much as he could for himself whatever the costs to others were.

But getting back to the original point. There is some evidence that babies have an innate sense of how the physical world works. If an object moves behind a curtain and two come out, the baby has a startle reaction. If it has different velocity, startle reaction. If an object goes behind the curtain and a different object comes out at the same velocity, no startle. In our innate physics number and speed count more than other qualities. So humans have an innate sense of physics. But no one supposes that whatever conforms to these innate norms is the "right" physics.

Likewise, humans might have an evolved sense of a few kinds of moral norms, but there is no reason to suppose that's all there is to morals.

Justus said...


We could not brag that humans evolved a disposition to be moral because morality would then be whatever humans evolved a disposition to do.


Why is it necessary to brag about this?

Do we also need to brag about having evolved a menstrual cycle instead of an estrous cycle?

David said...

I think you drew some brilliant connections here.

Granted, not everyone who talks about evolved ethics is actually advocating evolution as a moral code, but I have definitely argued with people who propose helping evolution along as the basis of morality, or theists who equate that mentality with atheism (e.g. Ben Stein).

Ed Darrell said...

In chapter 5 of Descent of Man Darwin noted the rise of morality in humans, and described how a sense of morality is essential to the survival of some species, especially our very social species. In some detail he described the way in which certain traits would lend themselves to selection. That is, Darwin described how morality evolved, instead of "was dictated from the gods."

Socrates notwithstanding, there is a lot of research in apes and humans to show Darwin had it essentially right. The "evolutionarist" position would be that we should stick with what research confirms to be accurate. Philosophy is entertaining, but it is no substitute for solid research.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ed Darrell

What you call "philosophy" is actually logic.

The position that you claim is proved true is, in fact, an incoherent and inconsistent jumple of terms that do not, ultimately, make any sense.

That is what the Euthyphro argument shows - that what you claim has been "proved true" makes no sense.

It is tempting to hold onto a nonsense position by finding some way to simply brush aside the logic that shows the position to be incoherent.

But the desire to do so is not a justification. It does not make an incoherent position coherent.

Ed Darrell said...

I love that about philosophy! We can take hard reality, facts as solid as the rhythms of atomic decay, and philosopers will say "not so!"

Xeno's paradox all over again: You can prove that the arrow won't beat the turtle to the target.

Of course, when it comes battle time, no one will want you next to them in the battle lines.

Seriously: How can you "logic" away reality? Former acid heads want to know.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

I'm sorry, but your argument seems biologically naive.

If humans, like lions, had a disposition to slaughter their step children, or to behead their mates and eat them, or to attack neighboring tribes and tear their members to bits (all of which occurs in the natural kingdom), then these things would be good. We could not brag that humans evolved a disposition to be moral because morality would then be whatever humans evolved a disposition to do.
Ahem. All these things occur in nature. But not all in our species. Let's take the middle one as an example: Tearing the head off your mate (presumably after copulation, such as in mantids). This might actually happen - if we were mantids. It might actually be viewed as morally acceptable - if we were mantids. But we are not mantids. Compared to mantids, we have a smaller brood size, a lenghty mammalian gestation period, a need for parental care of the young etc. that would make this practice evolutionarily nonviable if practiced in our species. An evolutionary view of the origins of morality would state that our view of what is right is contingent upon our evolutionary history, i.e. a series of events over the last 3 or 4 billion years which actually happened. If a different series of events had happened for us, i.e. if we had a different lineage, then our concept of what is morally good or morally acceptable might very well be different. The "objections" you raise actually illustrate the position you are attacking very well.

If, instead, it is loved by our genes because it is good, then we have not yet answered the question of what goodness is. Unfortunately, an account of goodness is a prerequisite to making and defending this theory of value. How can we demonstrate (or how can we attempt to falsify) the thesis that what is good is loved by our genes if we have no account of what goodness is that is independent of what is loved by our genes.
The evolutionary view of morality is pragmatic, and you are criticizing it because it is not idealistic. It seems to me a complete missing of the point. Since we come from a lengthy lineage which has valued survival and reproduction of our genes for 3+ billion years, it is not an accident, it is not mere coincidence, that survival and reproduction receive high values in our moral systems. To think otherwise would be biologically naive.