Monday, January 04, 2016

Anger, Evolution, and Morality

I have objected to the way that many people relate “evolution” to “morality”. They say that we have evolved a “moral sense” - an ability to detect rightness and wrongness in things. This moral sense is then passed down from one generation to the next because of its contribution to biological fitness.

But . . . on what basis can one argue that whatever contributes to biological or evolutionary fitness is moral?

I argue that this makes no sense. Evolution has certainly molded our disposition to like certain things and dislike others. However, it is a huge and unwarranted step to claim that what we have evolved a disposition to approve of is good and what we have evolved a disposition to disapprove of is bad. 

I think that, if we look at anger, we can an idea of what actually does make sense concerning the relationship between evolution and morality.

The first thing to note is that anger involves a judgment.

You apply for a new job – but you get turned down. That may cause disappointment, but not anger.

Then, you learn that your neighbor called up the people who were hiring and said a lot of harsh things about you. They may be false. They may be true but still nothing that the neighbor had any good reason to mention. They may be personal things that are none of the employer's business in that they have no relevance to the employee's ability to do the job.

NOW there is cause for some anger.

Anger is an evolved disposition. Animals can get angry, and we inherited the basic components of anger from our animal ancestors.

If animals can get angry, and anger involves a moral judgment, are animals making moral judgments?

I would argue that, if you want to see the fundamentals of morality in animals, the place to look for it is not in acts of “altruism”, but in "anger". The facts about anger are not, strictly speaking, a moral system, but anger contains all of the elements found in a functioning moral system.

This anger response can be seen as much better than a violent response. If the animal responds with violence, there is a threat of injury or death. If, instead, the other creature experiences the anger and backs off, then the boundaries remain intact and nobody has gotten harmed. Anger can lead to violence, but this does not change the fact that an anger response is sometimes a useful way to avoid violence.

These anger responses can be particularly effective in a community, where animals interact repeatedly. These may be animals in the same tribe, though they may be animals from different species who interact often.

One animal crosses the boundaries established by another, which responds with displays of anger. After a few interactions of this type, the animal knows where the boundary is at and can avoid it in the future. It does so, not merely as a means for avoiding an anger response – which would require a sophisticated means-end rationality. Rather, the animal becomes averse to crossing the boundary itself, without knowing why. This is far more efficient.

Animals are not as good at perceiving the relationships between means and ends as humans are. We have the capacity to establish much more complex boundaries. Humans also have the capacity to evaluate those boundaries – declaring that some boundaries are better than others. When we relate anger to these boundaries, we can distinguish between anger when it is a response to the crossing of a legitimate boundary (a boundary that people generally have reason to establish and defend), versus anger as a response to crossing an illegitimate boundary (a boundary that people generally have reasons to reject).

When we start talking about legitimate versus illegitimate anger, we turn anger into a component of morality. We link our anger-response to behavior that crosses moral boundaries, and we evaluate those boundaries according to where people generally have reasons to set those boundaries.

This brings up an important distinction between anger, as it is understood here, and "moral sense" theories.

There is an independent standard for determining where the boundaries should be – for determining when anger is legitimate and illegitimate. We do not say that “whatever causes anger” is bad or that badness consists in whatever it is that causes an anger response. Instead, we look to a different standard – at where people generally have reasons to establish boundaries – and then try to mold the anger response to be triggered by what crosses those boundaries. Anger is not a "moral sense" that tells us what is right and wrong.

Yet, in anger, we find all of the elements of a proto-morality. We see a disposition to respond to the crossing of boundaries with threats and warnings. Here, we can think of the anger response when crossing a boundary as a type of condemnation. These responses then teach a lesson – it tells other creatures with which one interacts where the boundaries are and creates an aversion to crossing those boundaries. Those who cross the boundaries anyway may be subject to worse treatment.

Humans take these basic components and add an intellectual component. We can debate and discuss where we have reason to place these boundaries for our mutual benefit. Once we have done this, we then tune "anger” so that it responds to what crosses the boundaries. Anger directed against that which crosses a good boundary is seen as legitimate. Anger at those who do not cross these boundaries is illegitimate.

We then use this as a part of the building blocks for an institution of morality.

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