Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Evolution and Two Conceptions of Morality

I am using this week to answer comments concerning my post on the relationship between evolution and morality.

I am responding specifically to what atheist resources claims to be one of ten "myths of evolution".

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

This is no myth. Evolution, in fact, cannot account for morality. It presents some facts that are morally relevant - but, then, so does chemistry, physics, and astronomy.

This does not imply that we must postulate a god. Evolution also cannot account for the fact that water ice floats on water. However, this does not imply that we must postulate a god to explain this fact. It is simply assigned to a field of study other than evolution.

Some people have responded to my objections by saying that there are two different definitions of morality. One concerns the prescribing of rights, duties, obligations, virtues, vices, justice, and injustice. The other is a purely descriptive account of what goes on in the brain during events that share some elements in common with moral thinking - descriptions that say nothing about what is right or wrong.

However, this does not save the quote above. If we employ this distinction, then the correct answer to the challenge that evolution cannot account for morality would be:

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: Actually, this is no myth. It is true, evolution cannot tell us what we ought or ought not to do. However, let me point you to something else that we have decided to also call 'morality' where evolution has some interesting things to say.

Instead of getting this honest answer, we get equivocation between the two definitions of morality. These answers contain a verbal sleight-of-hand, slipping from one definition to the other when convenient, admitting only when challenged that these are two different things that the descriptive "morality" that evolution can talk about is not the same thing as the prescriptive "morality" that evolution cannot account for.

I will go so far as to say that atheists embrace this new definition of morality precisely because it is useful in generating these verbal sleights-of-hand when discussing morality with theists. This is not to say that atheists do this consciously. A theist can believe in god because of the promise of an afterlife without admitting it, even to himself. Similarly, an atheist can embrace an awkward second definition of morality because of its use in verbal sleights-of-hand without admitting it, even to themselves.

Let's look at the awkwardness of this alternative definition.

Imagine that a group of scientists have decided to adopt the project of studying what is going on in the bodies of agents as they engage in the practice of astronomy. They take brain scans of astronomers thinking about planets and stars. They present accurate descriptions of the eye and the paths that signals take as it travels from the telescope and through the eye and into the brain. They study what parts of the brain lights up as these observations are taken either to support or falsify a belief - say - about planet formation.

All of this represents a real and perhaps important field of study. Yet, it would make no sense at all to say that these people are, themselves, "astronomers." Astronomy concerns the study of planets, stars, and galaxies. These people are not studying planets, stars, and galaxies. They are studying brains.

If these people tried to call themselves "astronomers", we would have reasons to discourage them - reasons grounded on the confusion this would generate.

Similarly, much of the research being done on "morality" has to do with studies of people as they think about moral terms or engage in moral debate. It is even admitted that these studies are not looking at rights, duties, justice, injustice, vice, and virtue themselves - but at brains of people contemplating these terms.

For these people to claim that they are studying morality is like the first group of scientists saying they are astronomers. In the case of astronomers, this leads to the false impression that the researchers are studying planets, starts, and galaxies. In the case of these researchers into "morality" it leads to the false impression that these people are studying actual rights and duties.

Perhaps a clearer way to express this problem is to ask whether the researcher looking at these brain states qualify as "ethicists" - people to go to when wondering "What should I do?". The researcher into brain states has cannot answer this question - it is not her field of study. She can make assumptions about what certain duties and obligations are, but she cannot prove whether those assumptions are correct.

Of course, language is an invention – and people are free to invent a new language. The scientist can take this study of what happens in the brain while the astronomer uses astronomical concepts and call it “astronomy” if he wants. Or he can take the study of planets and stars and call it “biology” if he wants. He can invent his own language and write all of his papers in that language. It violates no law of nature to do this.

However, these types of inventions create problems. They make language decidedly inefficient. They create all sorts of confusion as people slip back and forth from this new invented use to the traditional use – particularly when the researchers themselves constantly claim that their term IS the traditional use – when researchers into brain states of people thinking about stars and planets make the false claim that their study is, in fact, "astronomy" as traditionally understood.

The study of morality is, in fact, the study of what is, in fact, right and wrong, good and evil, virtuous and vicious, obligatory and prohibited, just and unjust. It is the study of who deserves to live free and who deserves to go to jail.

To the person who says that "evolution can't account for morality" is a myth - here us your challenge:

Take what you know of evolution and prove one - just one - moral principle. Prove the principle of the separation if church and state. Describe the types of observations predicted by this hypothesis that we can then test for, and the experiments and observations that would disprove this hypothesis.

Until you can do this -and I am confident that you will never succeed - then "Evolution can't account for morality" is not yet shown to be a myth - except through a verbal sleight-of-hand that tries to substitute one definition for another without being noticed.


Jesse Reeve said...

Take what you know of evolution and prove one - just one - moral principle. Prove the principle of the separation if church and state. Describe the types of observations predicted by this hypothesis that we can then test for, and the experiments and observations that would disprove this hypothesis.

Challenge accepted!

Separation of church and state is not a good candidate for a moral principle based on evolution, because "church" and "state" are historically recent concepts. For the vast majority of human history, there was no such thing as a "church" or a "state" in the modern sense-- and those institutions may not last. So, advising a "separation of church and state" to a modern human is rather like advising a prehistoric human to climb a tree if he sees a smilodon-- good advice, but only relevant in a limited epoch of human history.

The Golden Rule is a better candidate. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" is probably the best-known moral principle of all, the type specimen of moral principles. But reciprocity only works if the way you want to be treated, is more or less the same as the way others want to be treated. If compliments make you happy, and compliments make me sad, then it is not in fact the case that you should treat me (with compliments) the way you want to be treated. That is to say:

The golden rule is a good moral principle (one which people in general have many and strong reasons to promote), if and only if people in general have similar needs and desires.

This is an experimentally-confirmed prediction of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology predicts that people will have the same sorts of needs and desires for the same reason that evolutionary biology predicts that people will have the same sorts of organs and bodily functions.

See also

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jesse Reeve

I have not had time to do the additional reading you referenced in your post yet . . . this weekend, I hope.

Still, there is a difference between explaining a morally relevant fact (e.g., similar interests) and explaining wrongness itself.

I am certainly not going to deny that the capacity to feel pain and the "reward system" that allows for the molding of desires based on experience can be accounted for by evolution. Or that they are relevant to the conclusion that people generally have a strong reason to cause people to have an aversion to actions that tend to be painful for others.

However, this is not the same as claiming that evolution accounts for wrongness itself. Well, at least it is not the sense that I meant in my challenge - the sense in which having an evolved dispositoin to see something as wrong directly makes it wrong.

I can't raise a challenge to the kind of response given above. But it is not the type of thing we find people who advocate that "evoluation accounts for morality" to be claiming.

As it turns out, I would raise objections to your claim that we have sufficiently similar interests and that this justifies "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Even referencing your claim about similar organs - is it the case that men ought to treat women the same way that men want to be treated - or does morality instead require that we take into account relevant differences?

Which is why I use the "pain" and "reward system" example above in its place.

You are correct to point out that I have no objection to this type of relationship between morality and evolution. Only to the claim of a more direct relationship that postulates a "moral sense" that, itself, makes certain behaviors right or wrong.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jesse Reeve

You may also be intersted in a post of mine showing that under many circumstances people have an interest in promoting a diversity of desires, and the moral category of "non-obligatory moral permission" is built on the value of diversity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I forgot the link . . .

Francois Tremblay said...

I don't believe in separation of church and state, so I can't really answer your question.