Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Evolution and Ethics

I have some questions for those who are disposed to link morality and evolution -- those who think that "morality" is an evolved sense of right and wrong that we have acquired through the process of natural selection.

Question 1: Why is moral change is faster than physical evolution?

Some of us are disposed to see slavery as evil, and our disposition to do so seems to be unrelated to genetics. If any of us look back on our family trees, we do not have to go through too many branchings to discover ancestors whose moral opinions were quite different from our own.

In fact, I would like to see a show of hands. How many of you have moral views that differ from those of both of your parents?

This suggests that there might be a problem with this whole evolution/morality link.

Also, if you take identical twins, you separate them, and raise them in entirely different cultures, you cannot prevent them from looking quite a bit alike. However, are they going to grow up to have identical moral sentiments as well? If not, then this would suggest a serious problem with the idea of linking morality and evolution as well.

Question 2: What is a "criminal"?

Of course, there is one sense in which a "criminal" is simply somebody who has violated the law. However, societies do not pick their laws randomly out of a hat. I do not know of a society where laws are determined entirely by somebody throwing a set of prohibitions into one hat, punishments into another, drawing one item from each hat, and making a system of laws out of it. Laws, rather, must have justification. One of the justifications that are required for making a certain activity criminal is that those people "deserved to be punished". This quality of "deservedness to be punished" is a moral quality -- we do not find it by looking at existing laws (otherwise, laws would never be changed).

So, from whence does this "deservedness to be punished" come from? How do we account for it?

Those who link evolution and ethics explain that it is an evolved disposition to punish.

An evolved disposition to punish?

What is the difference, then, between an 'evolved disposition to punish' and 'an evolved disposition to do harm?' The semantic difference is that 'to punish' suggests that the harm is somehow justified. Yet, 'to harm' simply talks about the effect of one's actions on another. So, how does evolution give us concepts of 'deservedness' or 'merit' that actually make sense?

Where does the 'deservedness' of punishment or the 'merit' of reward come from?

Question 3: Is capital punishment genocide?

Let us assume that there is a link between evolution and morality such that, for evolutionary reasons, some of us are not disposed to simply slaughter our neighbors. WE are disposed to view this type of activity as 'wrong.'

Some people do not feel that way. They can slaughter others without any remorse.

It's not that they are sociopaths. They have a sense of 'right' and 'wrong'. It's just that their sense is different from others. So, for example, their sense of 'right' and 'wrong' does not prevent them from slaughtering all of the Jews, for example, or from lynching an uppity nigger from time to time.

If we assume that there is a link between evolution and morality, then these divergent moral opinions must be different evolutionary paths. They are, somehow, branches on the evolutionary tree.

If this is the case, then attacking bigots, murderers, thieves, Nazis, rapists, and the like and the attempt to create a society in which these beings do not exist must be interpreted as a type of genetic warfare. It is a war against, and an attempt to exterminate, a genotype, or genocide.

Unless, of course, morality has nothing to do with evolution, in which case what we are doing is trying to eliminate certain learned dispositions that have nothing to do with genetics or evolution.


The view that I defend in this blog is precisely the view that morality concerns the molding of learned dispositions -- the shaping of desires that can be shaped through social conditioning such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Because we are dealing with learned dispositions, moral attitudes can change much more quickly than evolution would allow.

Because we are dealing with the practical use of use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, then "deserved to be punished" simply means "having a disposition that it it is generally prudent for society to discourage.'

(Note: There is a clear distinction between having a disposition that those in power have reason to discourage, and a disposition that people generally have reason to discourage, so, there is such a thing, on this model, as an 'unjust law.' It is also possible for people to have mistaken beliefs about what dispositions they have reason to discourage. For both of these reasons, we can have 'unjust laws' and 'bad laws.')

Because morality is concerned with learned dispositions (dispositions that can be molded through social conditioning) there is no 'genocide' involved in punishing wrongdoers.

In fact, if we discover that a disposition to harm others is fueled by a genetic trait, this model suggests that we should remove those cases from the criminal law (they do not deserve to be punishment), and move it into the field of medicine where the applicable concepts are not 'guilt' and 'punishment' but 'sickness' and 'cure'.

Which, I suggest, makes a lot a sense.

But not to the person who begins with the assumption that there is some sort of link between evolution and morality.


Anonymous said...

While I think cultural patterns are very similar to evolutionary ones, they are not so alike that vague references to biological mechanisms sufficiently explain behavior. This is especially true where we consider biological circumstances in isolation from other overt behaviors. Rather, our culture has a development all it's own, with the many members of the society intermingling and creating growth through overt behaviors, like bacteria breeding in a petri dish.

Sure, it all boils down to biology, then physics in the end. You could certainly claim a link between them, and it would be hard to argue once your premises get sufficiently vague. Still, it's a gross oversimplification of matters to directly compare evolution with morality; how anyone expects a practical moral model from it is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

As I understand some of the arguments for morality as an evolved trait it is that emotional responses related to morality such as empathy, shame, and a sense of fairness are what is the result of evolution, not neccessarily the specific ideas of what is right and wrong such as the example of slavery. These various emotional senses are a part of the greater repertoire of traits related to social intelligence that allows individuals to live socially with others. Evolutionarily speaking, it is most plausible that a sense of moral obligations and empathy are felt towards those that one sees as the most closely related, i.e. immediate kin, one's ethnic group etc.. Thus the prevalence of what can be termed "in-group morality", explains moral concern towards insiders, and indifference or even outright hostility to the interests of the "other".

Of course, now from this point in history it is hoped that at least some of us are moving towards moral concern for the interests of all of humanity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There may be arguments for the claim that evolution may favor some of the same ends that morality also promotes. But parallelism is not the same as identity.

You still have the problem of how, from evolution, you can get the concepts of moral (as opposed to causal) responsibility, blameworthiness, merit. How can one person's genetic disposition to harm another imply that the other is, in fact, evil and deserving of harm?

The inability of evolution to handle basic moral concepts suggests that this is all we get from evolution -- a disposition to go in the same direction as morality for a little while.