Sunday, February 15, 2009

What Evolutionary Ethics Cannot Do

In a series of posts on evolutionary ethics, one of the responses that I have received is the claim that evolutionary ethicists never claimed to be able to do what I argued it cannot do.

If this is true . . . if the accusations are false . . . this does not affect my main point in the least. I am still correct in what I say evolutionary ethics cannot do.

However, that thing that evolutionary ethics cannot do is answer the theist's concerns about the possibility of morality without God. It cannot provide us with an account of really is right and wrong. It cannot account for morality itself.

It can, perhaps, explain a "sense" of right and wrong. However, without an independent account of what right and wrong is in fact it can never say anything about how to calibrate that sense. It cannot tell us when our sense misfires and tells us that something is right when it is actually wrong, or tells us that something is wrong when it is actually right.

A fallible sense that cannot be calibrated is pretty much a waste of energy.

If this sense can be calibrated, then what is it calibrated to? What is "right" and what is "wrong" such that we can tell when this sense misfires?

Now, the fact is, since we are speaking in evolutionary terms, this sense, even if it existed, would never be calibrated to true right and true wrong. It would be calibrated to genetic survival.

If true right happens to be harmful to genetic replication, then it is not the creature whose sense is calibrated to true right that will survive. It is, in fact, the creature whose sense is calibrated away from true right - a creature that is blinded to true right - that will have genetic fitness.

Unless, of course, we make the claim that "true right" corresponds directly to genetic fitness.

On this account, we take everything else we know about evolution and we add the following. Genetic fitness also happens to be infused with an entity that we can call "true right". And, as it turns out, humans evolved a faculty to perceive "true right". In doing so, humans have increased their genetic fitness, and that is one of the reasons we are still around today.

However, we can take Occam's Razor and cut out this entity of "true right" and lose nothing from the theory of evolution. The mother who suckles her child does not do so because suckling her young has this quality of "true right" that she has the capacity to sense. She suckles her young because she wants to suckle her young.

The person who risks his life to save his neighbor does not do so because this act of self-sacrifice is infused with a quality of "true right" that the agent seeks and responds to. The agent sacrifices himself for another because he wants to.

Now, what happens when we cut this essence of "true right" out of our ontology?

This leads to one of two results.

Option 1: We are back to square 1. We have a "sense" of right and wrong, but we still do not have an idea of what "true right" and "true wrong" is. Therefore, we still lack any way to determine whether this sense is correctly calibrated. Furthermore, we have reason to believe that this sense has been hijacked to sense genetic fitness instead of "true right".

Option 2: We do not have a "sense" of right and wrong to calibrate.

In the context of this discussion, it does not matter which option we choose. We still have nothing to say to the theist about the possibility of "true right" and "true wrong" without the existence of God.

Perhaps it is a mistake to say that evolutionary ethicists claim to be able to give us a God-free account of "true right" and "true wrong". However, even if this was a mistake, my original point stands. When atheists debate theists on matters of ethics, the vast majority of them cannot even begin to give a sensible account of "true right" and "true wrong."

They cannot answer the question that the theists are asking.

10 comments:

Russell said...

I'll ask for forgiveness up front for jumping in with an overly long post addressing a variety of points related to multiple posts over the last few days that I've just caught up on reading.

1) Maybe evolutionary ethics is prescriptive and it just doesn't fit with what people would like morality to be. Perhaps we're all behaving immorally when we act in ways that limit our evolutionary success. If one is looking for solid justification for a set of morals, finds that justification in evolutionary facts, and doesn't like what those facts are, one can't simply wish these facts away. This would be akin to discovering that there actually was a god or gods who clearly demanded a certain set of behaviors defined as moral or good and then trying to argue that the god was wrong. Reality just doesn't care if you disagree, and if the reality is that evolutionary ethics is the basis for morality then we all need to start behaving that way, at least if we wish to be considered "moral."

2) Given that there is a widespread sense that certain behaviors are moral or immoral and that these do not always seem to correlate well with what evolutionary ethics would seem to prescribe, it is likely that the moral prescriptions suggested by evolutionary ethics are simply more complicated than they appear. Perhaps evolutionary ethical principles are not simple rules, or perhaps the rules have unanticipated consequences that create the appearance of contradictions, or perhaps we understand the rules imperfectly, or maybe there is room for individual variability in the evolutionary expression (there are many genetic traits, including physical ones, that exhibit variability even when the genes are the same between individuals.) As Richard Dawkins and others have described evolution may not always, or even often, act on the level of an individual. While there has been plenty of criticism of the concept of memes, one does not even need to invoke memes to suggest that morality may be the manifestation of a successful gene that is passing itself along without regard to the overall evolutionary success of the individual that is carrying it.

3) Maybe what we consider morality is genetically predetermined, but it is so complicated that we can't (yet) calculate or see all variables in the same way that some people argue that there is no free will, just a very high degree of chaos that we can't yet manage to predict.

4) As Steelman alluded to in one of his comments, evolution is long term process and what what has been effective over the course of evolutionary time may not be effective today (I believe he used the affinity for sweets now causing obesity as his example.) So what might have once been a very effective moral decision now leads, in a modern context, to moral "mistakes." Bear in mind that evolution does not look where it is going. It does not have some paradigm of perfection toward which it attempts to travel. It merely reacts to the environment in which each individual finds itself.

5) Just because evolutionary ethicists can't currently demonstrate a mechanism by which humans "sense" morality does not mean that they will never be able to do so. This is a "god of the gaps" type argument.

6) Perhaps the god myth itself is an evolved mechanism humans use to influence others to "do right" in the desire utilitarianism sense. I.e. god itself is is used to reward that which tends to fulfill the greater and punish the thwarting of desires. Maybe that is why there are so many parallels between religious morality and secular morality, and the theists simply get wrong which came first.

Teleprompter said...

Could you give us your answer to the question?

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo wrote:

"If this is true . . . if the accusations are false . . . this does not affect my main point in the least. I am still correct in what I say evolutionary ethics cannot do."

That is true. My, and others,' points were simply that your criticism is trivial and that you are, in effect, making a one-person argument (like the philosopher who successfully argues that postmodernism cannot justify substantive natural law; easy, because no one said otherwise).

You also write that in the wake of evolutionary ethics' inability to give an account of "true right," we have two options:

(a) " We are back to square 1. We have a "sense" of right and wrong, but we still do not have an idea of what "true right" and "true wrong" is."

(b) "We do not have a "sense" of right and wrong to calibrate."

Anyone whose introspected knows that (b) is false. We do, each of us, have a sense of right and wrong (fuzzy as it sometimes is).

I go with option (a) with the caveat that there is no good reason to suppose that "true right" actually exists. There have been many great arguments, all unique, as to what is "right" and "wrong," but, as with religions, none of them seems convincing in any absolute sense (convincing to all who read them).

This is why I am so frustrated that you are "taking evolutionary ethics to task," for a task that they never set out for. To my eyes, you are not only faulting them for a "fault" that its adherents wouild readily admit to, but for something that is not really a fault. The only way one can fault evolutionary ethics for failing to give an account of "true right"" is if one holds the possibility that such an "true right" exists.

For someone, like myself, that does not see such an entity existing, it seems like you fault evolutionary ethicists for not doing what cannot be done.

faithlessgod said...

Alonzo said: "If this is true . . . if the accusations are false . . . this does not affect my main point in the least. I am still correct in what I say evolutionary ethics cannot do."

Kevin Currie said:"That is true. My, and others,' points were simply that your criticism is trivial and that you are, in effect, making a one-person argument (like the philosopher who successfully argues that postmodernism cannot justify substantive natural law; easy, because no one said otherwise)."

I disagree. I have repeatedly crossed swords over many years with people who use evolutionary ethics in exactly the way that Alonzo has complained about both in responding to me and to theists. So it is not trivial nor is this is a one-person argument.

Anyway since you acknowledge our point, how would you respond to a theist on this topic?

Eneasz said...

Faithlessgod - Based on his comments, I'm assuming Kevin is a subjectivist and doesn't believe there is any right or wrong.

Kevin - If I am correct in my assumption, I have a few questions I generally ask everyone who makes that sort of assertion.

There is no right or wrong - let's accept that for now. Are there still desires? (things that people want, that motivate them to act)

If so, is it true that some desires tend to thwart other people's desires, and some tend to fulfill other people's desires?

And if so, is it not in the interest of people-in-general to attempt to encourage those desires that fulfill other's desires, and to attempt to inhibit the spread of those desires that thwart other's desires?

Eneasz said...

Ack, I see Alonzo tackled this in the next post. I should have read ahead. :)

Kevin Currie said...

Faithless God wrote:

"I have repeatedly crossed swords over many years with people who use evolutionary ethics in exactly the way that Alonzo has complained about both in responding to me and to theists. So it is not trivial nor is this is a one-person argument."

My apologies, then. Without attempting to sound crass, I was assuming that we were discussing the "credentialed" world of academic publications and and the like. (I have never seen an academic publication that attempted to make a moral case based on evolutionary principles since Spencer and Sumner. Have you?)

Again, I DON'T mean to sound crass when i say that. I am merely suggesting that anyone who WOULD make that case is likely some sort of amateur, and would be suprised if they thought they had much of a case.
------------------
"Anyway since you acknowledge our point, how would you respond to a theist on this topic?"
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Eneasz is correct. I am a subjectivist, not because I love being one - I am not a nihilist - but because I have yet to see any great argument for the objectivity of morals (and agree with JL Mackie by saying I am puzzled at what such entities would look like).

Is 'the topic' you refer to how we know right from wrong?

If so, my answer is similar to Hume's. I believe that we have a moral sense, and that there is every reason to suspect that it is a product of evolution (groups that cooperate were likely more successful than were simlpy consisting of self-interested individuals.)

I think that 'moral senses' are like any other biological product - noses, for instance - in the sense that if you "averaged" them together, most of us have significant overlap. Like noses, though, all are different, and some are quite different.

When we say that x is 'objectively right,' I think we are erroneously confusing our strong conviction that x is something that no one with half a brain would disagree with. But, as an 'error theorist' like JL Mackie and Bertrand Russell, I still think that "objectively right" is an error, because morals don't exist "out there" but are subjectf of psychology.

Kevin Currie said...

Eneasz wrote:

"Based on his comments, I'm assuming Kevin is a subjectivist and doesn't believe there is any right or wrong."

Yes, I am a subjectivist. It is a bit more complicated than that I don't believe in right and wrong. That would make me a nihilist, which I assure you, I am not.

Read the post above for clarification. In brief, I believe that we have a moral sense that was likely the product of evolution and that if we "averaged" all of our moral senses together, there would exist a nice bell-curve of overlap, but that there are still many "outliers."
____________________________
"There is no right or wrong - let's accept that for now. Are there still desires? (things that people want, that motivate them to act)"
---------------------------

Yes, I will play along. I do not deny that there are desires, and some desires of some people conflict with other desires of others.
_______________________
it not in the interest of people-in-general to attempt to encourage those desires that fulfill other's desires, and to attempt to inhibit the spread of those desires that thwart other's desires?
-----------------------

Fyfe and I are in some agreement on this score. I find the best model is rule utilitarianism, and he finds that it is desire utilitarianism.

But I am under no pretense - as you are hoping to catch me in - that any justification of the "best way" of morality is anything but an opinion statement. I may have strong opinions in favor of rule utilitarianism (and, as it happens, Galstonian pluralism), and you may have strong opinions about the rightness of some Christian natural law theory.

But these, as strong as they are, are opinion statements. "

Eneasz said...

Hello again Kevin!

In brief, I believe that we have a moral sense that was likely the product of evolution and that if we "averaged" all of our moral senses together, there would exist a nice bell-curve of overlap, but that there are still many "outliers."

I think we can both agree that senses can often be mistaken. To the senses, the world looks flat. When a pencil is put in a glass of water, it appears to be bent at the point of insertion. These illusions have universal overlap, everyone agrees that this is exactly what their sense of sight returns. But just because there is universal agreement, does not mean that the sense input is correct. There are ways of verifying if our senses are giving correct data or not. Trusting a single sense perception because it is universal is naive, it is much better to verify the data via several methods, including other senses, logic, and previous experience (among others). To simply say "there is significant overlap in everyone's senses in this matter" is certainly a point in favor of the conclusion, but a better answer should be sought, if one is possible.

Two oft-used examples are the fact that rape is evolutionarily advantageous, and is present as a desire in humans; and that out-group hostility is as well. Our moral sense may say that one or both of these are acceptable. This may very well help propogate one's genes. Does that mean they are good? One is generally viewed as a universal evil, and the other is possibly the single greatest cause of human suffering. I therefore propose that our moral sense is very fallible, especially when confronted with genetic fitness.

Given the fact that our moral sense is so easily compromised, perhaps it is a good idea to look to the real world (not our intuitions) to try to find the facts of the matter. Afterall, this is how we (as a species) discovered that the world isn't actually flat, and that refraction can cause us to see solid objects as being bent.

That's kinda step one: accepting that senses (even a moral sense) are highly fallible, and should always be tested against the real world.

Fyfe and I are in some agreement on this score. I find the best model is rule utilitarianism, and he finds that it is desire utilitarianism.

At the risk of speaking for Alonzo, I would ask how you determine which rules are good and which are bad? It is a bit of a simplification, but it's not entirely incorrect to say that "rules that tend to fulfill desires are good", which upon further exploration leads one to desire utilitarianism.

But I am under no pretense - as you are hoping to catch me in - that any justification of the "best way" of morality is anything but an opinion statement.

:)

I take a practical view of such things. As I've said a few times before, I am not a fan of philosophers. They often fail to check their ideas against reality. Sure, they check against the rules of logic and so forth, but verifying against reality is the only measure that *really* matters. Because reality is what we are stuck with.

Therefore, I don't care much about opinion. I don't care much what someone thinks is the "best way" to do something. What I focus on is the fact that in the real world, there are real people, with real desires. And they will act to fulfill those desires. Therefore, everyone around them (which in our modern world is a VERY large sphere of people) has reasons to promote in them (and everyone else) desires that will tend to fulfill the desires of others. And likewise, everyone has reasons to inhibit in others desires that tend to thwart other's desires.

This is merely a statement of fact. It has nothing to do with "good" or "evil". One would be hard-pressed to argue that people generally have reasons to promote in others desires that will tend to thwart their own desires!

And that, in a nutshell, is what desire utilitarianism states.

In the English language, people call "desires that we have reasons to promote" Good Desires. They are things to be encouraged, and praised. There are reasons to promote these desires. Thus the term "good".

The same applies to "bad" or "evil", except in reverse.

However, the words that you choose to apply to "desires we have reasons to promote" and "desires we have reasons to inhibit" do not matter. You could call them "salty" and "sweet" and it would make no difference. The sounds used to describe them don't matter. The fact remains that there are reasons to promote some desires, and inhibit others.

And that makes it NOT an opinion statement. That makes it a statement of observable fact.

This post is long enough as it is. I'm sure there are things I've failed to convey convincingly, please let me know what they are and I'll try to address them.

lukeprog said...

BTW, theistic philosopher Mark D. Linville (who studied under William Lane Craig) has also argued that we have no reason to think we should trust our evolved moral intuitions. The latest update of his arguments will appear in the upcoming Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.