Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Concerning Evolution and Morality

I am going to spend this week going over some of the comments made to my post last week about the relationship between evolution and morality.

Namely, I objected to the claim that we can respond intelligently to the challenge, "Evolution cannot explain morality" by saying that evolution gave us a moral sense without which we would not have survived as a species. The specific quote, in a posting on 10 myths about evolution, says:

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.

I offered a number of objections to this post, including the fact the response ignores 10,000 years of human history filled with horrors beyond imagining, that evolution also invented the concepts of predator and parasite, that our evolved dispositions also contribute to such things as racism and rape, that while evolution can explain some of our altruism it cannot explain why altruism is good, and that it makes no logical sense to say "I have evolved a disposition to kill people like you and feel justified in doing so; therefore, you deserve to die", and that it makes no sense to ground moral responsibility on genetic makeup.

Ben Pace responded:

[A]n understanding of evolutionary psychology can be helpful in figuring out our desires, but if we did know our desires perfectly well, then it would not be required.

This is entirely true. Nothing I wrote should be taken to imply that evolutionary psychology is not useful. It helps us to understand the desires that we are disposed to have and how our (widely different) interactions with the environment help to shape those desires. This, in turn, gives us useful information about how to arrange the environment in which people live (society) in order to promote virtue and reduce villainy.

This is an important truth, and I will return to this at the end of this post.

However, Ben Pace also wrote:

[T]he response contained in the post above is not the most charitable reading of the quoted passage. The quotation appeared to be responding to (something like) the following argument: "Evolution does not explain why we have such incredibly powerful moral emotions/why an objective morality exists, therefore God exists and science is wrong" or something else equally confused.

Actually, I think that there is no more than a handful of people actually concerned with explaining "why we have such incredibly powerful moral emotions" - particularly given that those moral emotions also "justify" the horrors mentioned above.

The real concern with those who interested in the relationship between evolution and morality on the one hand, and god and morality on the other, is a very simple and pragmatic concern.

"How are you going to keep me, my family, and those people I care about safe?"

In the face of this question, the answer, "Evolution" can be seen as . . . well . . . jaw-droppingly stupid.

Are you saying that, thanks to evolution I do need to worry about people doing harm to me and those I care about because we evolved to be perfectly kind and altruistic creatures? Because I can think of few things so idiotic.

Seriously, this is how the quote above reads - as if to say that we have no reason to worry about evil because we are evolved to a point to have eliminated it.

Or is it your plan to do nothing and let natural selection eliminate this villainy slowly over time?

My suggestion is that we answer the question asked - not change it to a different question we can answer.

The worry behind the question is not over the evils we avoid because of our evolutionary history, but with the evils that obviously continue to exist in spite of our evolutionary history.

We see in the news a mass shooting at a school or movie theater. Parents live in fear of their children being raped or murdered - or ending up on drugs or with some deadly venereal disease. We see whole populations living in fear and poverty under a dictatorship.

The accusation that evolution cannot account for morality is the claim that evolution fails to prevent these things - an accusation that is entirely true.

At least the theist has a potential answer to this problem. It is to teach people to value the love of a god where that love is dependent on their good deeds, as well teach them that their rewards and punishments in an afterlife is determined by their behavior in this life. It is not a non-sensical response. In fact, it is a response that evolution has made possible.

We point go on from here to point out the failures and the costs of this proposed solution. We can discuss how the theistic plan stifles learning, that its lessons come from the imaginings of fallible and substantially ignorant human and are substantially wrong, and that they have been taken over and reinterpreted by self-serving individuals who have and who continue to use it as a tool of exploitation. We could continue to point out the historical fact that, rather than protect people from harm, religion has been used to justify harm.

That is to say, we can try to change the subject. However, the objection still stands - no matter how skillful we get at misdirection.

Besides, the theist can sensibly blame atheists as one of the reasons for the failure of theism. Atheists are constantly sabotaging efforts to provide for safe community by undermining the beliefs and attitudes that the theist thinks will keep them and those they care about safe. Evolution threatens public safety the same way.

This is the story behind the message that removing prayer from school and from government is a threat to society. A society in which everybody is properly concerned with pleasing God in this life and avoiding punishments in the next is a safe and secure society. Undermining those beliefs and attitudes undermines that security - or so the argument goes.

At this point, I want to return to Pace's first comment and how it gives us a real answer to the question asked.

Our plan is to use science to figure out how to organize society in such a way so as to reduce these types of threats.

We know that some desires are learned - they are acquired through an interaction between the brain and the environment. By altering the environment we can reduce the prevalence of harmful desires and promote useful desires. In doing so, we can create greater safety for you and those you care about.

Towards this end, evolutionary psychology has some useful things to say about the desires we tend to acquire and how different environmental factors influence those desires. Also, given the fact that we do not all interact with the environment in the same way, perhaps we need different environments for different people. Evolutionary psychology will help us to figure this out.

One of the best things about this method is that we can improve over time. As we learn more we can do better. This is different from religion, which keeps us locked in a primitive and substantially ignorant mindset. The difference between these two options is like the difference between modern medicine (and the information that evolution provides to this field of study) and believing that everything Hippocrates wrote on the subject more than 2000 years ago is literally true. The second option is decidedly NOT our best option.

In this, we have a positive answer to the concerns that are at the root of questions about the relationship between morality and evolution. We are not going to say that evolution has already made us virtuous and we have no reason to be concerned. We are going to say that evolutionary psychology gives us information useful in organizing society in such a way so as to promote virtue and reduce vice.


Unknown said...

I quite completely agree with the above post - I may be linking to often it in debates, I quite enjoyed reading it.

However, I would like to clarify the point I was making, as I was a little unclear. Often when someone professes the belief that God does not exist, people unacquainted with non-religious ethics ask, "But what about morality? Why is anything right or wrong? What about values?". There is the idea that the natural, physical world is entirely disjunct from feelings, desires, and experience.

I think your quote was an atheist attempting to say "Actually, evolution gives us good reason to expect strong pragmatic/ethical impulses/feelings. (I don't think it's a very well written argument however.)

(I suppose I'm responding to your phrase 'a handful of people'.)

The particular argument I had in mind came to me in the form proposed by, arguably, the world's most prominent (and Luke Muehlhauser's favourite) theistic debater. His argument for moral value presupposes that value just cannot exist without God.

You can hear his excellently confused and badly argued case here, starting at 11:11


And, part of that same debate, an excellent rebuttal, starting at 3:12


In short, Lane Craig just declares that 'objective moral values do exist, and deep down inside we all know it'. Therefore God exists. This is a problem with people's assumptions, and is a battle that needs fighting too.

Oh, and thanks for the response Alonzo!

Francois Tremblay said...

This has to be by far the weakest entry of yours I've seen so far.

By that token, you should therefore discount science as a valid method, because for centuries, despite the operation of science, we didn't know about genetic evolution, and in fact many scientists advocated racism, slavery, and so on. But this is obviously silly reasoning. Evolutionary ethics are no more disproven by human fallibility than science.