Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Desirism, Evolution, and Morality

A moral theory needs to be compatible with what is known in other fields of study.

What is known in the field of biology is that humans are the result of billions of years of evolution. What desirism tells us about moralitymust be compatible with that fact.

What desirism tells us about morality is that a moral system has very few requirements.  Those requirements are easy to meet, and they are all true of the human organism.

Morality requires a creature capable of intentional action - of basing its behavior on goals (ends) with action plans designed to realize those ends. Humans use a system of beliefs and desires where desires identify the ends of human action and beliefs are used in the creation of action-plans for realizing those ends.

A system of morality requires that the ends be malleable. They must be capable of being changed. More specifically, agents need the capacity to acquire new desires or, at least, to have existing desires modified by interaction with one's environment.

Humans have a reward system, where desires that produce rewards for the agent aversions that avoid punishment (in the biological sense) are reinforced.

Once these conditions are met, a creature has the ability to adopt an action plan for reaching its ends by manipulating another's interaction with the environment so as to acquire useful desires.

In a sufficiently large community, there are desires and aversions that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.

Evolution and the Content of Moral Claims

Some people argue that the content of our moral attitudes can be grounded in our evolved  dispositions. For example, they argue that since evolution supports certain types of altruism and altruism is morally good, then evolution makesus morally good.

A similar story is told about parental affection for their children and other forms of sacrifice.

This type of view is deeply confused.

Without questioning the fact that we evolved some dispositions towards altruism, what makes altruism a virtue? Evolution supports a great many things - not all of them qualify as virtues. Our capacity to rape can be found in our biological heritage. Our disposition towards tribalism and tribal warfare as well as our capacity for prejudice and bigotry are no less compatible with our evolution as our altruism. What makes altruism a virtue?

An evolutionary explanation of altruism is not sufficient. We need an evolutionary defense of the proposition that altruism is a virtue.

Here, the argument may state that altruism is a virtue, while these other dispositions equally compatible with our evolution are not, because we evolved a tendency to feel a particular way about altruism.

This ad hoc answer faces a number of challenges.

First, is it true? Again, without questioning that we evolved some form of altruism, defending that claim does not defend the conclusion that we evolved a particular attitude towards altruism. We have evolved to have an appendix. However, our appendix works just fine without an additional pro-attitude towards having an appendix.

Second, evolved altrism in specific, and evolved morality in general, leaves no role for praise or condemnation. Desirism explains praise and condemnation as tools for molding malleable desires. Evolved morality seems to suggest that we praise or condemn people for their genetic makeup.

Third, if it is true that we have an evolved attitude of approval, would this make it the case that what we approve of is good. If this implication was valid, it would imply that rape and tribal violence would also be virtues if we adopted similar attitudes towards them. Perhaps, like lions, we could evolve a sense of approval over the killing of our step children so we only spend resources on our own children. Perhaps, like certain insects, we could come to approve of killing and eating our mates. Perhaps we could come to have a sense of approval over enslaving those with dark skin, imprisoning women in breeding pens, and discarding those who do not produce children.

Nothing in the theory rules out these possibilities.

Desirism notes that we can still evaluate evolved dispositions by their tendency to objectively satisfy or thwart other desires. Then, by noting the degree to which they are malleable or can be augmented or countered by other desires that are malleable, use social tools to sculpture the character of its members accordingly.

Fourth, attempting to account for the content of moral propositions by appeals to evolution plays havoc with the logic of moral claims. "I have evolved a disposition to kill people like you and feel good about doing so; therefore, you deserve to die," would have to be considered a valid form of moral argument. If evolved dispositions determine moral facts and genetic tests show that people have an evolved sense of satisfaction at killing homosexuals, then homosexuals deserve to die.

Fifth, moral attitudes simply change too rapidly to have a direct basis in genetics. We cannot explain the abolition of slavery or the shift from the divine right of kings to the sovereign right of individuals in genetic terms. These shifts in attitude were not inherited. They were learned.

This is not to say that evolutionary theory has nothing to say about morality. We evolved malleable brains. We evolved the capacity to make plans and to execute intentional actions. The methods by which interactions with nature alter our desires has been subject to evolutionary pressures. 

Evolution has a lot to say about the capacity to use social tools to promote desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. However, it has nothing to say about the content of moral claims. Evolution may make us altruistic, but it cannot make altruism a virtue - not directly, at any rate.


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David Pinsof said...

Hi Alonzo,

I am an aspiring evolutionary psychologist and am a big fan of your blog. I thought I'd take this opportunity to pose you a question, as it is related to the topic of evolution though not necessarily this post.

One question I'm interested in is how moral cognition evolved. Clearly, there is a lot of complex cognitive machinery that is recruited when we make moral judgments. Many subtle contextual factors can radically alter our moral judgments, and any cognitive system capable of sifting all these inputs and producing nuanced outputs must have been quite costly to produce, implying that the system must have provided some compensating benefit at the individual level. There is also evidence that infants and even babies show signs of moral judgment, suggesting that the cognitive underpinnings of morality are at least partly genetic, and thus there must have been some evolutionary reason for their being.

What I'm wondering is whether desirism makes sense from an evolutionary perspective -- that is, whether or not individuals who were more inclined to condemn bad desires (and praise good desires) outreproduced those who were not so inclined. The reason this seems uncertain to me is that condemning bad desires is a public good. Everyone in my group is better off if I condemn bad desires, but every time I do so I put myself at risk (people might get angry and try to retaliate for instance). It's thus hard to see how condemning bad desires is evolutionarily beneficial at the individual level (as opposed to the group level). In other words, could condemners outreproduce noncondemners, even when noncondemners reap the benefits provided by the condemners without paying any of the costs? Anyways, it would be very cool to try to ground desirism in game theory so that a plausible story could be told about how the cognitive mechanisms of desiristic morality evolved. I understand that this isn't your field, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts or ideas about this.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinoff

First, i would deny that a lot of complex are used in making moral judgments. Usually, we simply snap and snarl at things we don't like and smile and make pleasant noises at what we like. When a whole community does this, the result is to promote aversions to behavior that causes snarling and desires for behavior that produces more pleasant reactions - for the most part.

Second, all one is doing in this is using a tool to fulfill their desires. At a basic level, using rewards and punishments tp promote certain behaviors in other is a lot like using a stick to pull ants out of a tree or using a rock to open a clam. These are tools for objectively satisfying other desires like securing food, the well-being of offspring, and the benefits of the herd.

Third, actions that produce a harm are pecisely those to which creatures learn an aversion. If the consequence of an act type is a threat (of anger or retalation) then these are acts that people become averse to performing. This is actually how morality works - by responding to behavior eopke generally have reason to promote aversions to with anger and threats of retalation.

Condemnation simply IS a response of anger and a threat of retalation.