Friday, February 08, 2013

The "Necessity" Of an Evolved Moral Sense

"Evolution cannot account for morality" is no myth. It is a fact.

This week, I am responding to a statement calling the proposition, "Evolution cannot account for morality" 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.

It should be sufficient to show, "We have evolved a disposition to punish those who do X" does not imply "X is wrong" (which can be done with a long list of counter-examples). This shows that we cannot, in fact, account for wrongness in terms of an evolved disposition to punish - even if it were true that we had an evolved disposition to punish.

But what of this claim that we have an evolved disposition to punish?

The quote above states that "It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense." This is a lot like saying that life could not have come into existence without a designer. It requires a lot of faith.

Ant colonies exist. Yet, I have not seen the proof that they could not exist unless ants had a moral sense. While it is true that they are not a primate species, they at least show that cooperation without a moral sense is possible.

If one want to suggest that ants have a sense of duty, then let us look at the human body - with its many and different organs, as an example. Many different cells in the body all work together to promote the survival of the whole, yet none of them operate on a "moral sense".

The rich and varied animal life in any wilderness also continues to survive, with different parts of the system contributing to the welfare of other parts and obtaining benefits in return - again wholly independent of any type of "moral sense".

I remind the reader that the quote says, "It would not be possible. . . " Declaring impossibility is a very big claim - particularly in a universe where we have clear examples of different types of possibilities.

Next, let us look at this claim that we have an evolved disposition to punish

Let us assume that, in place of this evolved disposition to punish liars, we merely had an evolved disposition to harm liars. Clearly, to punish is not synonymous with to harm. A hurricane can harm property on the coast without punishing it.

Yet, in evolutionary terms, to harm would accomplish everything that to punish accomplishes. There is, in fact, no need to have an evolved disposition to punish. In every case where a person asserts such a need, we can substitute a disposition to harm and reach the same ends without all of the moral baggage.

It is relevant to note that to punish has a moral component - that it is a moral term, while to harm has is amoral. In fact, when the defender of the thesis that evolution can account for morality applies the concept to punish, she is actually begging the question - sneaking the moral concepts in through the back door. "How do you determine that this is an evolved disposition to punish, and not just an evolved disposition to harm?

Look at our ant colony. Ants do not need to punish ants that engage in behavior harmful to the colony. They only need to kill those ants - no "moral sense" is required.

As another example, take a mother's disposition to care for her child. No "sense of duty" is required to bring about this behavior. It is sufficient that the mother evolve a disposition to like taking care of her child - or to like those things that result in her child being better off. We do not need a sense of obligation to avoid pain. And, I assure you, I can be biologically driven to eat chocolate without suffering any pangs of guilt at not doing so.

There is no behavior that requires a moral sense. In every case, there is a set of likes and dislikes that will accomplish the same results. We do not need a sense that lying or adultery deserves punishment - all we need is a taste (a fondness, like the fondness for chocolate) for harming liars and adulterers.

In fact, this brings up another problem with the idea that an evolved disposition to punish is necessary for survival. Really, for every evolved disposition to punish we can substitute an evolved distaste for the type of behavior being punished. If people reacted to adultery and lying the way they react to the smell of a rotting corpse, an evolved disposition to punish would not be necessary at all.

Like I said, the claim that a primate species needs a moral sense for survival is a very big claim to make - and one that is far from being proved.

10 comments:

David Pinsof said...

Could you define what you mean by "moral sense"? I don't see what the difference is between a "disposition to punish adulterers" and a "taste for harming adulterers." And I'm not sure that our moral sense is anything other than a "set of likes and dislikes."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinsof

If I were to accidentally drop a hammer I was using on the roof of a building, and it hit you on the head, then I have caused you harm.

However, I have not in any sense committed an act of punishment. The claim that I am punishing you by hitting you on the head with a hammer requires that there be a prior act that only caused me to hit you on the head, but is a particular type of reason for hitting you on the head. Somehow we would have to say that I at least believe that some prior action warrents or justifies my hitting you on the head.

I could have a disposition, for example, to drop bricks on people who wear red sweaters. This does not imply that I have a "moral sense" where those who wear sweaters "deserve punishment". It's just something I like to do.

The Vicar said...

Okay, I stopped reading when you equated ants, which are extremely simple creatures with effectively no consciousness whatsoever, with primates, which are large and sophisticated and highly individual. If you're making that kind of error, I can't trust your reasoning elsewhere.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The Vicar

How is that an error? Doesn't it simply prove that cooperation does not need consciousness?

You are building some unnecessary assumptions into your objection. The fact that ants have "effectively no consciousness" is irrelevant. Or, perhaps, rather than waving your hands and protesting you can try to explain its relevance.

David Cortesi said...

Wow, I had never seen the cited site. Having seen it, it's a case of "with friends like these, who needs enemies?" because those are some weak arguments.

Especially dead-horse-like is the one you are flogging. That paragraph is a string of broad assertions without a trace of substantiation. It should have [citation needed] inserted about every 5th word.

The whole notion that we "evolve" any trait whatever in order to live in a group is suspect; that's "group selection" which is controversial and not the majority opinion among evo. biologists.

Group selection doesn't apply to colonial insects, where the "individual" is best seen as the colony itself; all the members share the same genes. Ants are not the best counter-example; you might find some kind of altruism among e.g. wolves or herd animals.

Jesse Reeve said...

Let us assume that, in place of this evolved disposition to punish liars, we merely had an evolved disposition to harm liars.
...
In every case where a person asserts such a need, we can substitute a disposition to harm and reach the same ends without all of the moral baggage.


This is incorrect.

One key difference between malice (the disposition to harm) and vengeance (the disposition to punish) as a response to, e.g., lying, is that vengeance is specifically targeted against those who have lied to the agent. Malice is directed at liars in general.

A vengeful agent is a less attractive target for liars, because lying to a vengeful agent will incur vengeance. However, a liar may as well lie to a malicious agent as a non-malicious one-- because the malicious agent will attack him even if he lies to someone else.

Furthermore, the malicious agent ends up spending a lot of resources defending other people from liars. From an evolutionary perspective, a better approach is to be vengeful, thereby redirecting liars toward other, softer targets (who are also your competition for limited resources).

How is that an error? Doesn't it simply prove that cooperation does not need consciousness?

It's not so much an error as a non sequitur. The original quote doesn't claim that cooperation requires consciousness, or a moral sense; it claims that cooperation between social primate species requires a moral sense. The way that ants cooperate is very different from the way that primates cooperate. And it seems to me that it would be hard for a group of sociopathic primates to cooperate.

The problem with the original quote is that for this evolutionary purpose, an "immoral moral sense" will suffice and may even be more effective. So for example, an evolved "moral sense" that includes an urge to kill primates from other bands may be more evolutionarily advantageous than a "moral sense" that urges tolerance and peace.

Hence your claims to the effect that "I have evolved a desire to do X" does not entail "X is good."

David Pinsof said...

@Alonzo Fyfe

"I could have a disposition, for example, to drop bricks on people who wear red sweaters. This does not imply that I have a "moral sense" where those who wear sweaters "deserve punishment". It's just something I like to do."

I still don't see punishment as any different than this. Here, let me use your quote and substitute a few words:

"I could have a disposition, for example, to impose costs on people who exploit me or other people I care about. This does not imply that i have a "moral sense" where those who exploit me or other people I care about "deserve" punishment". It's just something I like to do."

Here, it seems that this disposition would reflect a kind of moral sense, and I think our dispositions to punish are basically nothing more than this, except for "liking" isn't quite the right way to describe it -- "motivated" would be more accurate. For a thorough look at the evolutionary psychology of punishment, I recommend the following article:

http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/papers/CriminalJustice2010.pdf

Morgan Lamberth said...

Alonzo, Frans de Wal notes that other primates have an inchoate sense of morality. It is the notion of empathy which we have to extend from our
" tribal " groups to, as the late great Paul Kurtz admonished, to make a planetary ethic. No Go gave any evolving moral code; humanity learned that slavery is wrong due to empathy. This empathy is inchoate in some and very strong in others.
No, this does not prove morality, but shores up the Euthyphro that we need no God for guidance.
With the late great Albert Ellis, I find that we do more good than bad most of the time, and that irresponsible immoral ethicists find us sinners, as though the evils of the few outdraws that fact. More good comes forth daily, but the evil receives amplitude.

Why should any amplify the evil of the few onto the many, thereby distorting reality?
With Socrates, I find that ignorance undergirds such evils as bigotry. Thus, in refining morality, all need to come up to speed.
http://epilamb.blogspot.com

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Morgan Lamberth

Your points do not protect the idea that "evolution accounts for morality" from the Euthyphro dilemma.

What makes empathy good?

Is empathy good because we evolved a disposition to favor empathy? If this is the case, then anything we evolved a disposition to favor would be good. If we evolved a disposition to kill gays or those who do not look like us, then that would be good.

Or, did we evolve to favor empathy because empathy is good? If this is the case, we still need to find an account of how empathy can be good. We cannot look to evolution to account for its goodness.

Evolution might be able to explain a certain amount of empathy, but it still fails to explain why empathy is good. Evolution also explains malaria, but it does not make malaria good.

Francois Tremblay said...

Alonzo, there is no particular reason for you to posit that there must be a justification for why empathy is good (unlike God, which did not evolve). There must be foundational judgments, and the output of empathy could be some of them. But you don't even think of that possibility.