Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Relationship Between Evolution and Morality

In my last post I criticized atheists who debate theists on issues of morality without God who assert that we have an evolved set of moral dispositions. I answered that, just as the Euthyphro dilemma provides a fatal blow to divine command theories of ethics, it provides a similarly fatal blow to genetic command theories of ethics.

Socrates' question to Euthyphro, "Is it good because it is loved by the Gods, or is it loved by the Gods because it is good?" forces the divine command theorist to either argue that anything loved by the gods is good no matter what it is, or that there is a standard that even the gods must appeal to in determining what to love and what not to love.

The same question can be applied to evolutionary theories of ethics. "Is it good because it is loved by the genes, or is it loved by the genes because it is good?" And it leads to the same dilemma.

There is a relationship between evolution and morality. However, the evolutionary ethicist gets this relationship wrong, and their error is what leads to the Euthyphro dilemma.

Our desires have clearly been under the influence of evolutionary pressures. We are the descendants of those ancestors disposed to desire that which brought about genetic replication. Where a disposition to desire brought about a pre-mature death or disinclined an individual to mate or to care for kins’ offspring, any genetic influences to those dispositions ended up in the evolutionary garbage bin.

So, we have desires for sex, for certain kinds of food, for water, for an environment with a comfortable temperature, and the like.

However, at some point along the line evolution gave us the capacity to acquire desires, not through genetic hard-wiring, but through interaction with the environment.

It was a very useful trait.

If you have a square peg, you can only fit it into a square hole. There is only one environment that the peg will fit in. If the environment should change, the square peg loses its fit.

On the other hand, if we had a peg that had the ability to modify its shape, then it does not matter what environment the peg finds itself in. It can adapt its shape to fit into that environment.

This is the advantage of malleability.

Even here, evolution will continue to have an influence, Evolution will work to fine tune the types of lessons we learn given different types of environment. Evolution will tell us what we learn when we experience pain. How does a dog, for example, come to associate his punishment with the prior act of urinating on the carpet? Or how does the trained dolphin come to realize exactly which sets of actions result in his getting a fish?

These examples of training illustrate another feature of malleable desires. If Creature A's desires can be molded by his interaction with the environment, then Creature B gains the power to influence which desires A gets simply by altering A's environment. B's own desires provide the motivating reason to mold A's desires. Specifically, given the fact that A will always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of A's own desires, B has reason to mold those desires so that the actions also, and at the same time, aim to fulfill (or at least fail to thwart) B’s desires.

So, B has a reason to promote in A those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. At the same time, A has reason to promote in B those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Each has the power to influence the desires of the other by manipulating the environment – by creating an environment in which each will tend to acquire those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, and to avoid those desires that tend to thwart the desires of others.

So, morality comes into the world. Morality is the institution of manipulating the environment (using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment) to promote those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart the desires of others.

Morality itself is not an evolved disposition to favor or disfavor certain actions. Morality is a consequence of the fact that we evolved malleable desires, thus we evolved the capacity to influence the desires others acquire by altering the environment, and that we have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.


Salazar said...

I am confused by the disparity of expressions that are used interchangeably and that to me, apparently, do not have the same meaning.

The expressions are "that tend to fulfill the desires of others" and "tend to fulfill other desires" (not other's desires, which would make the expressions equivalent.)

So I ask, do they mean the same or not? And if they do, then you are really saying that morality is about me living as a sort of tool for other people's desires, which sounds like altruism, where my standard of value is other's life instead of my own.

So I'd just like to understand how to really read "fulfill other desires", because I never ever read that as if meaning "fulfill the desires of others"

Thank you :)

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Mea culpa.

I know that I tend to switch back and forth between "other desires" and "desires of others" as if they are interchangable.

There is a difference. "Other desires" = "desires of others + other desires of self."

Ultimately, it makes little difference in the final calculation. The result that we get from 6.5 billion people is not going to be substantially different from the result we get from the desires of 6.5 billion people + 1.

Technically speaking, there is no reason to exclude one's own other desires from the calculation. Practically speaking, it makes little difference.

Still, I really should try to be more technically correct

Anonymous said...

The Euthyphro dilemma does not apply to evolutionary morality. Morality is loved by the genes because it promotes survival. End of story. There's no chicken-and-egg problem. Survival is always the ultimate (indeed, only) biological good, and never needs to be defined in terms of another higher purpose. The inverted phrase ("Morality promotes survival because it is loved by the genes") is clearly absurd.

Martin Freedman said...


The Euthyphro argument can be asked of most moral systems. How the question is dealt with shows whether it is a dilemma or not.

You have given an tentative answer to the Euthyphro argument with respect to gene-based morality.

You said "Survival is always the ultimate (indeed, only) biological good" The Euthryphro arguments makes it explicit to question how this relates to moral good. You can only answer the argument your way by assuming that moral good= biological good (note also that your formulation is not quite correct as it is really to do with successful differential reproduction). However it is not enough to assume or stipulate this, you need to empirically show this to be the case. I do not believe that you can but you can try.