Thursday, February 07, 2013

Evolution, Morality, and Objective Values

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.

What is it that makes lying, adultery, and stealing wrong?

It isn't wrong because we evolved a disposition to harm those who do it. If it were, then it would be equally valid to argue that homosexuals would deserve to die, if we evolved a disposition to kill homosexuals and feel justified in doing so. We would have to argue that murdering or raping one's stepchildren, or slaughtering those who looked different from us (because that is taken as a sign that the share fewer of our genes than those who look like us) would be moral - if we evolved a disposition to do these things.

The implications are totally invalid. You cannot account for the wrongness of things by looking at what we have evolved a disposition to punish.

Interestingly, this is the Euthyphro argument atheists use against religion turned against evolution. If X is wrong because we evolved a disposition to harm those who do X, then anybody who we might have evolved a disposition to harm would deserve it on those grounds alone. Many atheists ridicule and condemn theists for ignoring the Euthyphro argument when applied to God, yet at the same time prove equally capable of ignoring it (and deserving of just as much ridicule and condemnation) when it is applied to evolution.

If it is possible for something to be permissible even though we evolved a disposition to harm those people, then we cannot account for morality in terms of an evolved disposition to harm (or punish). We have to find something else to account for the wrongness.

God, perhaps?

Well, no. This option does not work either. However, these two do not exhaust our options. Proving that Sally did not kill Jim does not prove that Ralph killed him. Not if there is a their option that is neither Sally nor Ralph.

In the comments on this debate there are those who make gestures towards the idea that there is no objective wrongness to account for.

I disagree with this position. However, even if it were true, it certainly cannot be used to defend the claim that "evolution cannot account for morality is a myth". In fact, if true, it would support the hypothesis that evolution cannot account for morality.

Evolution cannot account for angels. Evolution does not need to account for angels because angels do not exist. Because of this, a list of myths about evolution would not and should not include, "evolution cannot account for angels." It is no myth.

Similarly, if objective moral values do not exist, then "evolution cannot account for morality" is fact, not myth.

However, this argument from "objective values" - even though it supports my position - is fatally flawed itself.

I have found that those who argue that there are no objective moral values use a distorted sense of "objective". Their defense of this claim is almost always a defense of the claim that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist - as if intrinsic prescriptivity and objective values mean the same thing.

Science, which is said to provide the paradigm of objectivity, does not allow the fact that a property is not intrinsic to imply that it is not objective.

The property of "orbiting the sun at an average distance of 150 million kilometers" is not intrinsic to the earth. Yet, it is objectively true. Proving that it is not an intrinsic property (which is easily done) is not proof against it being an objective fact.

Nor is it the case that a claim ceases to be objective when we are talking about brains. "Jim's brain weighs more than 1 kilogram" is objectively true (or false), even though it could not be true in a universe in which Jim did not exist.

Even statements about beliefs and desires are objectively true or false. "Jim is an atheist" or "Susan would really like to visit Greece" are not matters of opinion, even when spoken in the first person. "I would like to go to Greece " spoken by Susan is as true (or false) as "I am 42 years old" spoken by Susan.

So, the denial of objective value not only fails to support the claim that "Evolution cannot account for morality," it fails to be supported by the claim that there are no intrinsic values.

I, for one, hold that there are no intrinsic values - but that there are moral facts as objectively true or false as any claim in science.

I also hold that "We evolved a disposition to punish those who lie; therefore lying is wrong," is an entirely invalid argument. If we want to account for the wrongness of lying we will not account for it in terms of an evolved disposition to punish (evolution cannot account for morality is no myth). Furthermore, we cannot account for it as a intrinsically prescriptive property (intrinsic prescriptivity is a myth). Nor will we find our answer in the existence of some diety (because no such deity exists).

But there are a lot more places where we can look.


DarkTango78 said...

Evolution accounts for a "moral sense" but not for morality in the same way that it accounts for a visual system but not for the existence of light and its properties.

Just as the evolved visual system is susceptible to optical illusions and other perceptive dysfunctions, the "moral sense" is susceptible to mishandling of moral questions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


With vision, I can explain the eye and how it interacts with photons to generate information about the external world.

How does the "moral sense" work?

What does it pick up? How does it work? What type of entity would morality have to be in order for us to "sense" it?

Our "sense of morality" is like our "sense of the divine". We are giving an interpretation to a set of impressions that no ontology can support. There is no "moral sense."

DarkTango78 said...

The analogy isn't perfect and, when taken to the extreme, it does break down. That is why I place "sense" in quotation marks to indicate the abuse of the term. However, I meant for it to illustrate how evolution can account for why we feel something without having to account for the existence of the external entity responsible. Moreover, I meant for it to illustrate that, just because evolution can account for a feeling, it neither means that the sensing is fully perfect nor fully illusory.

I would say that the "moral system" is composed of several modules necessary for morality, assuming the desiristic account, which I accept as the best one. We need, at a minimum, an aversion to condemnation and an attraction to praise. Empathy is also helpful in determining the desires of others.

An evolutionary account of how those modules came to be is possible, and I think this is usually what is meant by "an evolutionary account of morality." The phrase equivocates on "morality" between the feelings and the cause of the feelings.