Sunday, January 08, 2006

Morality and Evolved Sentimets

Over at "Unscrewing the Inscrutible", Brent Rasmussen made the claim in his posting “Gametes, Gods, and Monsters” that:

3. My morality comes from thousands of years of social evolution. Morality is the social lubricant that allows people to live together in a society without killing each other. No big mystery. If it wasn't there, then we would not be the dominant species on our planet and we would not be having this oh-so-stimulating conversation.

I beg to differ – not in the sense that this is wrong, but that it is vague and ambiguous and makes some suggestions that do not hold up to reason. I simply wish to give the idea some more careful deliberation.

Evolved Sentiments

There are some who hold that we have a “moral sense” that tells us right from wrong that has come about by evolution. If we contemplate a particular type of action, such as doing harm to others, we . . . or at least many of us . . . get this feeling that it is wrong. From this feeling, we decide not to do that action.

This theory is a bit too quick and easy, and leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

Such as: What makes this sentiment a “moral” sentiment?

We get this feeling. We interpret this feeling as a feeling that something is wrong (as in, immoral – something that ought not to be done). However, all we perceive – all we can perceive – is the feeling. From this feeling, how do we get to the conclusion “it is wrong”?

Did evolution not only program into our sentiments this feeling, but a necessary connection between the feeling and the belief “it is wrong”? Is this connection something that nature has hardwired into us?

This option raises its own issues.

(1) A hardwired connection is not yet a justified implication. If nature hardwired into us a disposition to believe “God exists” each time we see a beautiful sunset, this would not yet justify the implication “Beautiful sunset; therefore, God exists.” Whoever wants to base morality on an evolved sentiment still needs to explain more than the fact that there is some natural connection between the sentiment and the conclusion we draw from it. He has to explain that relationship in such a way that it justifies that implication.

On this issue, I am going to assert that what the evolutionary ethicist needs to do cannot be done. There is an unbridgeable logical gap between having a particular feeling or sentiment and the belief “X is wrong”. The only legitimate conclusion that an agent can draw from having a particular sentiment is a conclusion of the form, “I do not like that” or “that displeases me.” However, it is a completely unwarranted leap of logic to go from “that displeases me” to “that is wrong.”

(2) If we associate morality to evolved sentiments, we still have to accept the possibility that our evolved sentiments could have been different. Just as we could have been born a species with six limbs rather than four, or without ears, or unable to digest meat, only an accident of nature gave us the sentiments that we have.

Rasmussen makes the rash claim, “If we did not have these sentiments, then we would not be here having this conversation.”

That is simply not true. There is justification for making the claim, “If our sentiments were different than they are, then we would not have been here.”

We could have had sentiments like those of lions. Among lions, when a pair of male lions takes over the pride, the first thing they do is kill off all of the cubs. The females then go into heat, and the new males can impregnate them, thus devoting their energy to raising their own children, rather than somebody else’s.

The idea that morality is based on evolved sentiments suggests that, under these circumstances, the killing of step children would not only be permissible (something one may do), it may be obligatory. One can infer directly from the desire to kill the step children that it was the right thing to do, that one had an obligation to do it.

Along these same lines, perhaps sex with one’s step-children is an evolved disposition – a way of promoting the male’s genetic representation in the next generation. Would we accept the argument, “We have discovered that male incest with stepdaughters has an evolutionary component; therefore, we were wrong to say that this is wrong.”

Racism itself could be defended on the basis of a genetic disposition. Perhaps our interest in promoting our own genes gives us a disposition to favor those who look like us. The people who look like us are more likely carrying more of our genes, so the disposition contributed to our genetic survival. Could it be that the KKK and the Nazis had the moral truth, and the rest of us somehow became misguided?

(3) A third problem with this point of view is that our moral sentiments change, sometimes very rapidly. They change too rapidly to be attributed to biological/evolutionary considerations. The abolition of slavery went from being something widely accepted by a huge segment of the population to something widely rejected by that same population in two generations. We can hardly explain this in terms of a genetic disposition.

(4) Along these same lines, if we link morality to moral sentiments, then does this provide a moral foundation for homophobia, or a revulsion at interracial relationships? We have every reason to expect that those who are repelled at the thought of interracial or same-sex relationships have sentiments that are no different than those that we have at the things we take to be wrong.

If we are willing to say that our sentiments justify the conclusion “X is wrong”, then are we not forced to say that their sentiments (a) have a basis in their own genetics, and (b) not only cause but justify their claim that interracial and same-sex relationships are wrong?

(5) A genetic explanation leaves no room for debate. All over the place, we see people engaged in debate over issues such as whether abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, homosexual relationships, the eating of meat, are right or wrong. If our morality is based on evolved sentiments, these debates are nonsensical. It would be like debating hair, eye, or skin color. Either we have a trait, or we do not. Discussion as to whether we should or should not have that trait would be off-base.

(6) What if somebody does come along with sentiments that are different than ours. Perhaps they are the next step in our moral evolution. How would we know? How could we even talk about the possibility? Let us say that somebody comes along with an evolved disposition to slaughter children. He "senses" that this is permissible. The evolved disposition theory would have us say that his slaughtering children is, in fact, permissible if it is an evolved sentiment of the right type. We have to wait to see if his type survives or dies out to determine its success. The large number of predatory species in the world suggests that it is possible that his type could survive.

An Alternative

There is an alternative to Rasmussen’s original claim that avoids many of these problems.

3. I have particular moral sentiments because, as I was growing up, the culture in which I was raised caused me to react to particular things – such as doing harm to others – in particular ways.

Why is my society engaged in this practice of training its children to acquire particular sentiments? Because society is made up of people who are seeking to fulfill their own desires. The way that they fulfill their own desires is by manipulating the world in which they live. They build shelter, tame fire, construct clothes, and form hunting parties because these activities best fulfill their desires.

One of the ways in which people can better fulfill their desires by manipulating the world around them is by causing others to have desires that will tend to fulfill their desires. This is a simple formula. If I can cause you to have desires that tend to fulfill my desires, I get more desires fulfilled. Everybody in society is involved in this practice of causing others to have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. They are also seeking to inhibit desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. By doing this, each of us will tend to get more of our own desires fulfilled.

The way in which we manipulate the desires that others have is through the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. Praise or reward an action, and the desires that give rise to that type of action are strengthened. Condemn or punish an action, and it inhibits the desires that give rise to that action.

We have both the means and a motive to manipulate the desires that others have. The practice itself is called “morality”. It consists in praising and rewarding actions as a way of promoting desires that fulfill the desires of others, and condemning and punishing actions as a way of inhibiting desires that tend to thwart the desires of others.

This model avoids all of the problems attributed to the “thousands of years of social evolution” model.

(1) Our sentiments might not actually be those that tend to fulfill the desires of others, so there simply is no direct inference from “I have this sentiment” to “X is wrong”. There is no relationship like this to be found.

(2) Morality is associated with what is beneficial to others, not as an accident of evolution, but by definition.

(3) Our moral sentiments are learned through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, so they can change quickly over the course of a couple of generations.

(4) A person can learn sentiments that actually tend to thwart the desires of others, such as racial bigotry or homophobia. When they do, the fact that he bases his claims on those sentiments does not imply that the claims are automatically legitimate. We still need to evaluate the sentiments from which they spring.

(5) It is reasonable to debate whether a particular desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires, so debating moral issues makes sense.

(6) Moral sentiments are learned, so the presence of a new individual with different moral sentiments raises no new questions about what is wrong or right.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the idea of morality as evolved sentiments -- and the reason that I think it is worth writing about -- is that it “justifies” the idea, “I have a particular sentiment that makes me want to do something; therefore, it is right that I do it.” It allows people to infer right from wrong by looking only at their own likes and dislikes, without asking questions about whether it is good or bad to have those sentiments.

It is a tempting theory because it makes each individual morally infallible. All one needs is a sentiment, and the action is justified. As a shortcut to moral infallibility, it is also a bit too easy.

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