Friday, February 13, 2009

The Evolutionary Ethicist's Problem of Evil

Atheists generally are familiar with the argument from evil concerning the existence of God. Evolutionary ethics has its own problem of evil – a problem that shows that the thesis that humans evolved some sort of moral sense is barking up the wrong moral tree.

Clearly, humans have the capacity to do evil.

If one gets caught up in the evolutionary view of ethics, one could almost come to the conclusion that humans are incapable of doing evil. After all, evolution has given us a "moral sense" to guide our actions – to make us kind and altruistic. The main assertion made when an atheist presents an evolutionary account of ethics seems to be that we do not need to worry about humans doing evil even if there were no God. Our evolutionarily evolved moral dispositions would prevent us from doing evil even if there were no God.

Only, it hasn’t worked all that well so far.

Whatever one wants to say about an evolved moral sense and capacity to perform kindness, we also have, within our nature, the capacity to do great evil. In fact, every act of tyranny and injustice committed in human history – genocide, torture, tyranny, racial injustice, slavery – all of it is within our evolved nature.

We know this merely because of the fact that it has happened.

This leads us to a question that is by definition outside of the realm that any evolutionary ethicist can answer.

What do we do about the evils that are clearly within our evolved nature?

I then want to combine this with an observation. That this is the issue that people are concerned with when it comes to the issue of morality.

People are not concerned with those evils that we have no capacity to perform. The idea of a person fearing the possibility of somebody doing evil that it is impossible for him to do would, actually, be a paradigm example of irrationality.

The evils that people are concerned with when they think about the issue of morality are evils that surround us – the abduction and rape of our children, the slaughter of our neighbors while shopping in a mall or going to work, the lynching of man because of his race, the enslavement of thousands of people, and the imprisonment and slaughter of those who would dare speak in opposition to the current realm.

The evolutionary ethicist's response, "Don't worry. It is in our genes not to do these things," is simply false.

This may appear to be a straw man – that no evolutionary ethicist would ever say such a thing. However, my argument is not that this is a claim of the evolutionary ethicist. My argument is that the evolutionary ethicist is caught in the horns of a dilemma.

Either he must make such an absurd and false claim.

Or he must admit that evolutionary ethics has absolutely nothing to say about the questions that people are really concerned about when they address the issue of morality – the evils that surround us every day and that are clearly within our nature to perform.

How do we minimize those evils?

11 comments:

Christopher Geiser said...

Hey can Theists post on here? I am a Theist myself.

Eneasz said...

Of course. There are several theists who post here occasionally. This is a blog primarily about ethics, not about atheism.

Christopher Geiser said...

OK cool. Ethics are very good to talk about. I like this blog of yours. It looks like you have good intentions with it.

When you wrote, "The main assertion made when an atheist presents an evolutionary account of ethics seems to be that we do not need to worry about humans doing evil even if there were no God." and the rest of your blog, reminded me of a documentary called "obsession." it is about Radical Islam's war against the West. They do great evil. People such as Abraham Lincoln did great good. On earth we cannot lower the amount of evil another person does, but we can with ourselves. I learned that recently. I struggle with being judgmental we people do something wrong or sort of evil, but I just need to be the change I want to see. Do you follow me on that?

As a theist I determine evil and good by the Ten Commandments. I see my evil when I look at them and my good too. But I deal with my evil by turning from my evil and turning toward the good.

Steelman said...

"This may appear to be a straw man – that no evolutionary ethicist would ever say such a thing. However, my argument is not that this is a claim of the evolutionary ethicist. My argument is that the evolutionary ethicist is caught in the horns of a dilemma."

Alonzo, if no one is saying that evolutionary psychology is in any way prescriptive of moral actions, but rather descriptive of the development for moral capacity, how are they on the horns of a dilemma?

It seems to me that the theory of an evolved moral sense (kin altruism, reciprocity, the rewarding of cooperation and the punishing of cheaters) is an explanation of why we have the sentiments that Hume regarded as the impetus for moral decision making, not an argument for what actions we should take when experiencing these feelings.

Are they saying more than what I've stated above? Something different?

By moral sense, I mean the ability to feel that actions are right or wrong (descriptive ethics). Not the considered moral "correctness" of the feeling itself (i.e., the prescriptive sense that gut reaction = right moral decision), just the ability to feel that something is right or wrong.

These instinctual feelings, these gut reactions, are in our genes. Whether or not, and to what extent, we should obey our emotions is, I take it, one of the concerns of morality.

I think "evolved evil" (i.e., the informed, intentional harm of innocent beings by those who are not mentally unbalanced) comes, in part, from a drawing of the circle of moral concern between in-groups and out-groups.

The defining of "us" and "them" is evolved behavior; it springs from an evolved moral sense, and is observable in a variety of animals. It is a reason for action in human beings as well, with the difference that we have also evolved the ability to consider the consequences of our actions, and to control our reactions (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on an individual's ability and culturally instilled beliefs).

While I think it's true that human beings and other animals have evolved a moral sense, along with many other instincts, I haven't heard of any "evolutionary ethicist" recommending uncoupling that sense from rational consideration.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Steelman

"While I think it's true that human beings and other animals have evolved a moral sense, along with many other instincts, I haven't heard of any "evolutionary ethicist" recommending uncoupling that sense from rational consideration."

(Not sure about a distinct "moral sense" but we certainly have the capacity to operate over moral issues).

Anyway in numerous conversation when I challenge evolutionary ethicists in a similar way that Alonzo here, no-one - yet - has come back with the (independent) grounds for "rational consideration" - what is the basis of this, since it cannot be evolutionary ethics itself without being question begging by being unjustifiably selective over what counts as moral behaviour. The whole point is what is this "rational consideration" is the hidden bias behind evolutionary ethics selection of certain behaviours (e.g caring) over others (e.g. rape) and this is what needs to be discussed.

In general they may be careful to make the descriptive/prescriptive distinction but when a theist challenges an atheist the challenge is about prescriptions and not descriptions and would you therefore agree that if they do respond with evolutionary ethics arguments they are not answering the challenge?

Makarios said...

“People are not concerned with those evils that we have no capacity to perform.”

I wonder if such an evil exists. I don't think so. As I watch humanity, especially from within the context of a counselling situation, and as I inventory my own thoughts and motives, a more accurate statement might be,

“those evils that we have no OPPORTUNITY to perform.”

I remember a story that I heard about a Jewish man who was sitting in on the Nazi War Crimes trials. After a day of testimony, describing the slaughter of several dozen men, women and children, the man sat sobbing in his bench. A reporter asked the man if he was crying tears of rage. The man replied that he was crying because he recognised that the evil that lived within the heart of the perpetrator of this crime also existed within himself.

I don’t think we will make any progress until people can honestly answer the question, “What is wrong with the world?” with the accurate answer, “Me.”

Steelman said...

faithlessgod said: "(Not sure about a distinct "moral sense" but we certainly have the capacity to operate over moral issues)."

Agreed. I'm using "moral sense" as shorthand for those evolved attributes and capacities I outlined previously.

My view is that the collection of attributes and capacities that I term "moral sense" stopped being just an instinct, and began to be a useful tool for ethical consideration, when human beings began thinking about whether or not they should do whatever it is they felt like doing at any given moment.

"In general they may be careful to make the descriptive/prescriptive distinction but when a theist challenges an atheist the challenge is about prescriptions and not descriptions and would you therefore agree that if they do respond with evolutionary ethics arguments they are not answering the challenge? "

I think there are two questions here. There are the origins of moral capacities, and the method of deciding what to do with them. If the writings of genetic researcher Francis Collins are any indication, Christian theists who accept the theory of evolution give the same answer as theists who don't: God gave us the good propensities, and sin gives us the bad ones. I find this position strange for a geneticist, who would undoubtedly contend that the physical and mental capacities of living things are a result of evolution. But, hey, it's a free country.

As to how to decide what constitutes ethical behavior, generally you can:

1) Engage in a social conversation about what is best, critically weigh the evidence from all sides, including scientific evidence, take action, analyze the results, repeat.

2) Uncritically accept that ancient nomads, and the medieval scholars who admired them, were somehow infallible, and just do what your religious leaders tell you those first two parties meant when they wrote all that stuff they wrote.

3) A more or less reasonable combination of 1 and 2.

I think option 2 results in the least just society. Whichever group is in power runs afoul of Euthyphro, carries the arrogance of supposed human infallibility, almost always engages in persecution, and stunts the intellectual growth and discovery that comes from human curiosity and questioning. Option 3 may contain allies or enemies depending on content, and one's demands, or lack thereof, that all parties agree on metaphysical propositions. Personally, I'm up for the first option, as part of a liberal, secular democracy which respects both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, among other important civil rights.

So, to summarize for the purposes of theist/atheist ethical debates: ethics is like any other important decision making process that deals with a huge number of gray areas; you have to work things out, talk about it. And having a rule book of "absolute morality" doesn't solve the problem, as the doctrinal differences of thousands of Christian sects demonstrate.

Steelman said...

Makarios said: I don’t think we will make any progress until people can honestly answer the question, “What is wrong with the world?” with the accurate answer, “Me.”

Walt Kelly had it right half a century ago:
"There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us."

Kevin Currie said...

I agree with Steelman on the issue that evolutionary ethics is not prescriptive and never pretended to be. Therefore, the dilemma as Alonzo frames it is false - trying to get evolutionary ethics to asnwer a question that it never suggseted it could answer.

Faithless God takes evolutionary ethics to task for not being able to account for prescriptive ethical judgments in the here and now.

"what is the basis of this, since it cannot be evolutionary ethics itself without being question begging{?}"

I don't see why it can't be independently justified without contradiction. We evolved tastes in certain foods because they were evolutionary beneficial, but like to eat good food because it tastes good. (Why we eat can be justified, then, in two different ways without contradiction.)

In the same way, it seems very obvious that evolutionary ethics - a very emotive theory, far from the "rational considerations" Faithless God talks of - endowed us with certain "fellow feeling" emotions that proved successful at fostering group cohesion and survival. When we reason ethically today, we use those emotions as premises, and those emotions allow us to intuit results that we see as good (and evil).

Thus, this is a justification that relies on evolutionary explanations in an ultimate sense, but departs from them when talking about ethical reasoning in the here and now. This is not problematic, in the same way that justfying our love of certain foods can have an evolutionary explanation in an ultimate sense, while answering "why do we like to eat?" does not have to get into an evoluitonary explanation.

David said...

I agree with the others saying that evolutionary ethics is usually descriptive, not prescriptive. If our desires and reason are the product of evolution, then evolution has shaped our ethics regardless of whether it should continue to. In fact, nothing about evolution indicates we don't need to worry about evil, because the worry is evolved, too.

I actually think that evolution fosters "evil" within moderation, because the idea of evil derives from pain, pain is an impulse to change, and change is the meat and potatoes of evolution. (I say within moderation because extreme pain is crippling, not compelling). Desire, fear, and guilt can be considered moderate aspects of pain that are particularly compelling.

Phoesune said...

Just as morality is relative, so is evil. Our morality is shaped by many things, environment, culture, family, and experience to name a few. When we consider evil do we consider it as a thing which springs from natural causes. Is a hurricane evil? Is it evil when it results in the deaths of hundreds? No a hurricane is not evil. Yet if there were a being controlling that storm and caused it to kill people then the storm would become an instrument of evil and the being controlling it would be evil.

The Atheist should have no problem with the question of evil as the only evil identified by the atheist is that which has a being to associate with the act of evil. Yet we change our definitions of evil as we change to our environment.

The question of overcoming evil is not one that can be answered. As our morality changes so also do our evils. I would think the evolutionary ethicist would say, that the evil we face today will shape the morality we have tomorrow and that in turn will shape the evil we face the next.