Monday, November 02, 2009

Evolution's Ethics Part II: Gene Command Theory

Divine Command Theory says that right and wrong came about as a set of principles written on our soul by God telling us what is right and what is wrong. Gene Command Theory says that right and wrong came about as a set of principles written on our psyche by evolution telling us what is right and what is wrong.

Both theories are equally absurd, and they are absurd for the same reasons. Both fall victim to exactly the same objections.

On the theist side, we ask, "Is X good because it is loved by God, or is it loved by God because it is good?" If it is good because it is loved by God, then anything loved by God - no matter how horrendous - can be good. If God wants us to slaughter our neighbors and take their resources for our own, then the most virtuous among us are those who slaughter our neighbors and take their resources as our own. Yet, on the other hand, if God loves something because it is good, we are forced to conclude that the theist has not yet given us an answer to the question, "What is goodness?"

On the evolutionary ethicist side, we ask, "Is X good because it is loved by our genes, or is it loved by our genes because it is good?" If it is good because it is loved by our genes, then anything that comes to be loved by our genes is good. If our genes tell us to kill or to rape our step children, then the most virtuous among us are those who kill and rape our step children. Yet, on the other hand, evolution has selected particular ends because they are good, then this tells us that evolutionary theory has not yet given an answer to the question, "What is goodness?"

The reason both systems fall victim to the same objection is because they both commit the same mistake. They are both systems that allow agents to assign their sentiments to an external entity and then attach a special prescriptive force to that external entity.

The Euthyphro question used above exposes this sophistry. It asks those who make these arguments to justify assigning a special prescriptive force to this reservoir of the agent's own personal preferences to justify that assignment of special prescriptively. They both point out that this assignment of special prescriptively is unjustifiable.

And without it, divine command theory and gene command theory end up in the same dust bin.

These theories are probably embraced for the same reason. They give us a way to cloak our own desires and sentiments in an illusion of moral legitimacy. Both the divine command theorist and the evolutionary ethicist are actually seduced into a theory that says that they can take their own likes and dislikes and claim that they are moral laws by assigning them to a "greater power" - God or evolution, take your pick.

For many theists, God provides a legitimizing agent for doing what one pleases. One assigns one's sentiments to God and then, as if by magic, one is no longer acting so as to fulfill one's own desires. Now, one is acting to serve a 'higher purpose'. If anybody should be harmed in the process, they are not being harmed 'because it pleases me to do that which turned out to cause harm'. They were harmed 'in service to a higher purpose that justifies whatever sacrifices we may require of others'.

If we look at the way evolutionists face the subject of morality, they do the same thing. They take their own sentiments and they assign them to an 'evolved moral sense'. Then, as if by magic, one is no longer acting so as to fulfill one's own desires. One is now acting in service to moral principles refined through countless ages of natural selection. If anybody should be harmed in the process, then they are being harmed because we acquired desires to do things that tend to result in harm to others. They are being harmed because we are obeying a moral code written into our genes that gives us these moral commandments and justifies whatever harms may result.

Both views are equally mistaken. Yet, at the same time, both views are equally attractive because of their usefulness. However, the fact that these inferences get agents to the desired conclusions blinds the agents to the fact that they have thrown logic out the window. The goal, after all, is to coat acts grounded on personal preferences in an illusion of legitimacy. "God told me to do it," and "Evolution told me to do it," both serve that end quite efficiently. They both absolve the agent of personal responsibility and places the responsibility on an outside entity – something that the person making the statement can call a ‘higher purpose’.

As a result, evolutionary studies has now given us the cult of the evolved moral trait.

Over and over again, I see atheists embarrass themselves when confronting theists on matters of morality. When atheists reach to evolution to explain morality, they make logical leaps so broad and unfounded that they are not difficult at all for the theist to notice. The atheist does not notice them because he does not want to see them - in exactly the same way that theists blind themselves to the flaws in their own religion.

However, each can see the flaws that the other makes clearly enough. Each openly mocks the other for those mistakes, and the other dismisses the mocking as unfounded.

I want to take a moment to stress this fact. Many atheists openly mock and ridicule theists who brush aside objections to their view. PZ Myers is one of them. Yet, evolutionary ethicists brush aside the very same question. This is not an example where, "Here is something that evolutionary ethicists do that is similar to what they accuse theists of doing." This is a case of evolutionary ethicists doing exactly the same thing as they ridicule and mock others for doing.

There is no evolved moral sense, just as there is no God. The 'gene command theory' is just as absurd as 'divine command theory' and falls victim to exactly the same objections. The sooner that atheists recognize this fact the sooner they can stop appearing as nonsensical moral idiots in front of theists.

13 comments:

My Thoughts said...

Very thorough and thought-provoking. Thanks for the post.

Christof said...

"there is no evolved moral sense".
This doesn't sit right with me. I think it should rather be this: "yes evolution has equipped us with some basic moral sentiments, but - like most products of evolution - they are often haphazard and quirky. So we should not just accept our evolved moral sentiments; instead, we should find a reasonable and defensible moral theory (aka desirism) and judge our inborn sentiments against that theory.

faithlessgod said...

Alonzo

Excellent

Christof

Please explain how "evolution has equipped us with some basic moral sentiments".

Christof said...

@faithlessgod well take "empathy" for example. empathy is good (it fulfills more desires that it thwarts).

Now, there seems to be some evidence (read Frans de Waal) that our capacity for empathy has come about be natural selection. That's what I meant by "evolution has equipped us with some basic moral sentiments".

But maybe Alonzo and I are not really in disagreement. Maybe what Alonzo is saying is that empathy is not good just because it's in our genes. If empathy is good, it's because it fulfills more desires that it thwarts.

Whatever desires evolution has equipped us with, we must test them against desirism before concluding they are "good".

faithlessgod said...

Christof

I find the use of the term "Empathy" loading the dice somewhat.

Certainly there are neurological grounds for this in mirror neurons. However having the capacity to put oneself in another's shoes does not indicate whether having this ability can be used to help or hinder others (such as in the improved ability to deceive). Or I could say why mention empathy without antipathy. The argument looks question begging.

Further most would regard someone as more moral if they stand up for someone they have no empathy for (a slight Kantian bent in this thought but true nonetheless). It is far easier to be empathetic to one's own kind than to others and how much this lack of empathy contributed to out-group hostility and worse?

SO I remain unconvinced by empathy based evolutionary arguments (in addition to the particular desirist ones) as all I see that only by selective bias - in choosing certain cognitive or connative features and ignoring the equivalent but adverse others - can one even make an argument to this effect.

Mark Frank said...

Evolution cannot be the justification of moral sentiments it can be (and I believe is) the cause of moral sentiments. This is not subject to Euthyphro. I think people still confuse the two. I suppose someone could argue that God was the cause but not the justification of our moral sentiments - which would be a kind of intelligent design of morality.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Alonzo,

PZ Myers isn't a philosopher, but he knows good and well that evolution is responsible for putting us in the ballpark of moral behavior. As I said in the comments on your previous post, our species wouldn't generate moral philosophers such as yourself if that wasn't true. You are always going to throw folks like Christof here for a loop as long as you are ultra rigid on your talking points here.

I'm assuming any rhetoric in the direction of "gene command theory" (which is very clever, btw) sets off your polemical sirens and perhaps nine times out of ten people really are trying to codify uncritically however they feel about a moral issue without giving it more thought. All I'm looking for is some sensibility here on your part since *complete* denial of a genetic disposition towards moral behavior makes no sense whatsoever. Evolutionary selective pressures have had their amoral unintentional hands all over the framework of your moral facts for a lot longer than you've been thinking about it. And you're pretending like there's just no connection there like morality drops out of memetic heaven. It's truly baffling. It's like you are trying to keep n00bs from making n00b mistakes but then you over do it to protect us from being lazy with our moral discernment. Why can't we recognize evolution's contribution and then not be lazy with our moral discernment? Too obvious? *sigh*

The PZ Myers of the world do say some embarrassing things, but your dissensibility here is equally embarrassing to our movement, imo.

Ben

Alonzo Fyfe said...

WAR_ON_ERROR

All I'm looking for is some sensibility here on your part since *complete* denial of a genetic disposition towards moral behavior makes no sense whatsoever.

Actually, I hold that "a genetic disposition towards moral behavior" makes no sense whatsoever.

It implies that we are to be morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on the sequence of our DNA - something over which (as far as I can tell) most of us have absolutely no control.

I'll develop this argument further a couple of posts down the road.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Alonzo,

"Actually, I hold that "a genetic disposition towards moral behavior" makes no sense whatsoever."

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So...you believe in libertarian free will then? Probably not, but it seems like the irrational psychological reasons why libertarians reject determinism hold true for why you reject even a weak form of "gene command theory."

I'll look forward to your post (no rush), but it would be helpful if you would address why it is that we have to be able to control *every* aspect of what makes us moral agents in order to be praiseworthy. Of course, we don't even control our control, or our desires to make ourselves any other way, so it seems that nothing we do should be praiseworthy if we accept your standards.

It also sounds like you are rejecting a lot of evidence that could be brought up from the animal kingdom that is analogous to what we would ordinarily label moral behavior (like altruism in monkeys) in order to maintain this denial. Not cool. Not consistent. And not necessary. I don't think animals are following some high brow moral theory they thought up. They aren't blank behavioral slates any more than we are.

May the best abductive argument win though. Good luck.

Ben

Mark Frank said...

Actually, I hold that "a genetic disposition towards moral behavior" makes no sense whatsoever.

It implies that we are to be morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on the sequence of our DNA - something over which (as far as I can tell) most of us have absolutely no control.


This is precisely the error I was talking about above. Our genes cause us to behave morally (sometimes). But that is quite different from saying it is moral to favour our genes or that our genes control what we do. Our genes also gives us disposition to eat sweet things (presumably because once upon a time high calorie foods were good for our biological fitness and sweet things are usually high calorie). However, that disposition does not favour our genes in the current environment and we can elect not to eat sweet things.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

WAR_ON_ERROR

Nope. I do not believe in libertarian free will. That, also, makes no sense.

In fact, desirism requires determinism. If some sort of libertarian free will exists, desirism could not handle it.

It also sounds like you are rejecting a lot of evidence that could be brought up from the animal kingdom that is analogous to what we would ordinarily label moral behavior (like altruism in monkeys) in order to maintain this denial.

I am not going to question the evidence. I am going to question the conclusion, however. The inference from evidence to conclusion is invalid.

It's a lot like the case of a person who 'feels God's presence'. The person who 'feels the wrongness' of a particular act is making the same mistake. The evidence is there - but it does not support the conclusion the speaker wishes to impose upon it.

Anyway, I have an "Apollo +50" post I need to write for tomorrow. then I'll explain why evidence of evolved altruism or empathy is no evidence of evolved morality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Oh, and there IS morality among animals. It's just not where the evolutionary ethicist is looking. Their mistaken assumptions cause them to see morality where none exists, and causes them to fail to see morality where it does exist.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Sounds interesting (and wrong).

Ben