Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Evolution's Ethics: Altruism and Empathy

Members of the studio audience have attempted to bring up evidence that there are evolved dispositions towards altruism and empathy as evidence that there is an evolved morality.

However, there are a lot of problems associated with any attempt to apply moral concepts to genetic dispositions. Ultimately, any attempt along these lines has to be understood as saying that we are morally responsible for our genetic makeup. Applying moral concepts to the genetic trait for altruism means that if we do not have the trait then this is our moral fault. Somehow, we are to be blamed (or praised) according to the genes that we have.

That is nonsense.

It is not nonsense to say that we may have evolved some altruism or empathy. In fact, the available evidence quite clearly supports those conclusions. The problem arises when people point to this and claim that they are studying morality. Pointing to genetic makeup and calling that morality is the same as saying that we are morally responsible for that genetic makeup. That's the part that is nonsense.

Morality has to do with the use of social institutions to help to mold or tune our biological dispositions. We may well have an evolved disposition to be altruistic. However, that evolved disposition is outside of morality. Morality comes in when we ask whether we should use social institutions to tune these natural dispositions - to make them stronger or weaker, or to direct them towards particular ends or away from others.

Moral responsibility - praise and condemnation - are an integral part of morality. The reason it makes no sense to apply moral concepts to genetic dispositions is precisely because genetic dispositions are, by definition, outside of the control of the social forces of praise and condemnation. It makes no sense to praise or condemn people for their genetic makeup because all of the praise and condemnation in the world is not going to have any effect on genetic makeup. It is best to reserve praise and condemnation for those things that praise and condemnation can actually influence. What they have the ability to influence are the strength and direction of malleable desires.

Here, I want to take a quick step into the free will debate. Moral responsibility, in this sense, does not require libertarian free will - the ability to cause matter to move in violation of the laws of nature according to a will that exists outside of those laws. Moral responsibility requires that moral praise and condemnation applies to things that praise and condemnation can influence. The concept of moral responsibility does not apply to any area where moral praise and condemnation can have no effect - such as to our genetic makeup.

Praise and condemn people all you want, it is not going to have an effect on their DNA. Therefore, there is no such thing as genetic morality. On the other hand, praise and condemnation can have an effect on malleable desires.

Let me illustrate this with some specific examples:

Let us assume (which I already agreed is a very safe assumption) that we have evolved some disposition towards altruism. I'm not questioning that. I am saying that it makes no sense to apply moral concepts to genetic altruism, not that genetic altruism does not exist.

Morality takes this biological disposition towards altruism and asks, "Did nature give us a disposition that is as strong as it should be?" Perhaps nature's altruism is not as strong as it should be. We have reason to augment it - to add to the strength that nature provides. Morality is concerned, then, with fine-tuning what nature has provided - with organizing the social institutions with modifying altruism so it is closer to the level that people generally have reason to establish. It has nothing to do with the altruism that is outside of social control.

Nature gave parents a disposition to care for their children. It also gave males a disposition to have sex with their stepdaughters.

With respect to care for one's children, it seems reasonable to conclude that this trait is not as strong as we have reason to want it to be. Too many children are still being neglected and abused. So, we are going to engineer moral institutions to strengthen this trait.

On the other hand, the disposition to have sex with one's stepdaughters is a trait we have reason to inhibit, due to the harm that it causes. We have many and strong reasons to put up aversions and other barriers against the behavior motivated by this desire. So, we direct our moral institutions to molding those desires.

In neither case do moral terms apply to the basic disposition that nature has given us. In both cases they apply to the use of praise and condemnation to mold those desires, to promote and strengthen those desires we have reason to strengthen, and to inhibit those desires we have reason to inhibit.

Evidence suggests that nature probably gave us a disposition to attack people from other tribes. It may have given us dispositions towards gangs, racism, nationalism, and other types of groups that are disposed to act violently towards non-members. (In this respect, I have some fear of the formation of an atheist tribe that cultivates these types of sentiments towards non-members.)

Nature did not give us a moral obligation to attack people from other tribes. It only gave us a disposition to do so. In this case, the disposition is one we have many and strong reasons to inhibit - particularly in other tribes - as they have reason to inhibit those desires in us. Consequently, we set up moral institutions to condemn this behavior with the aim of putting learned desires and aversions in the way of these natural desires.

Perhaps a useful test for this theory is that it suggests that a useful desire can be condemned, or that a harmful desire can be praised. This is true because morality is not concerned with the basic strength of the desire that nature gives us, but in what direction we have reason to take these desires given their natural (pre-moral) base.

Nature has given us a desire to eat. However, our desires for food - both in terms of what to eat and how much - have a strength and direction that, in the current environment, tend to thwart other desires. Consequently, we have reason to inhibit these desires and direct them towards ends that better preserve our own well-being as well as the well-being of those we care about. Gluttony is recognized as a vice. We are not evaluating the (genetic disposition) to be hungry, but the usefulness of social institutions for molding our desires for food.

I wrote in an earlier comment that animals have morality. However, evolutionary ethicists who claim they have found morality in animals are looking in the wrong place.

Animals, like humans, not only have genetic dispositions towards altruism and empathy. They, like humans, also have malleable desires. Plus, they have enough intelligence to use tools - including the tools of reward (in terms of food, sex, grooming, and play) and punishment (including nonlethal violence and the withholding of rewards). They cannot use these moral tools as well as humans can, but they can use them.

People who study morality in animals should not be looking at evolved dispositions to behave in particular ways, but in the development of social tools to tune what nature has provided. I am not objecting to the study of these natural dispositions. In fact, it is a useful and important scientific project. However, it is NOT the study of morality. It is NOT the study of morality in the same way that the study of astronomy is NOT the study of morality. They are discovering the natural laws of the universe in which moral institutions operate, but that is not the same as studying morality itself.


Martin Freedman said...

I found an interesting quote relevant to this whole debate see Quote of the Day: Tannsjo on Evolutionary Ethics

Robert E. Cobb said...

Subject: Evolutionary Panaltruism: Building Life-Centered Cosmologies in the Age of Cosmic Genealogy

History of Science Program
Oregon State University -

Louis Pasteur in 1859 disproved spontaneous generation of life, thus beginning the age of cosmic genealogy meaningfully defined and characterized by evolutionary panaltruism: underlying and shaping life-centered cosmologies. Universal forelaws of empathy and compassion - empirical attributes of cosmic genealogy seated within the genome of humankind and all intelligent life - form the foundation of evolutionary panaltruism.

In projecting new vision and new direction for humanity during a critical period for all life on Earth, life-centered cosmologies build upon ongoing scientific research and discovery merging astrobiology and astronomy as pioneered and led by the late Sir Fred Hoyle, by N.. C. Wickramasinghe, Brig Klyce, Halton C. Arp, and others.

"Life comes from space because life comes from life." . . . . . . . . . . "But in order for life to climb the tree to a higher level, new genetic programs are required - which mutation and recombination alone cannot supply. When they are supplied, a major advance may ensue. Thus, in strong panspermia, the problem of punctuated equilibrium is also resolved. . . . . . . A consequence of this reasoning is that life on Earth can have descended only from life elsewhere that was at least as highly evolved as it is here."

- Brig Klyce, Astrobiology Research Trust

Evolutionary panaltruism highlights NASA's Kepler Mission and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) aided by recent breakthrough technology suppressing the light of stars - benchmarks in life-centered cosmologies. Launched in March of 2009 to monitor 100,000 stars for orbiting Earth-size planets (adding to the number of exoplanets (400) already discovered), Kepler will be followed by Terrestrial Planet Finder, 2012-2015 and Darwin, 2014.

Intelligent life reciprocally propagated from infinity to infinity by intelligent life, from habited sites to habitable sites, is a natural consequence of evolutionary panaltruism keyed as well to global water equilibrium and to intrinsic needs of all intelligent life, i.e., to know from whence we came, safety and security, meaning and purpose. Exemplifying "concern for others and for those who will succeed us . . . . ." (Center for Naturalism), evolutionary panaltruism and holistic forelawsship at the core of life-centered cosmologies (and global water equilibrium) speak volumes for human unity, indefinable potential, and optimism, in the age of cosmic genealogy on Earth.

In forelawsship on board,

Robert E. Cobb
Forelaws on Board