Monday, February 11, 2013

Evolution, Altruism, and Morality

Today, I want to add some specificity to the claim I have been defending recently - "evolution cannot account for morality" is no myth. It's a fact.

I will start by specifying what does account for morality.

Morality is accounted for by the fact that we are intentional agents - we have goals (ends) and we create and execute plans to realize those ends. Plus, those goals or ends are malleable. Our interactions with the environment can change those ends.

From this we get the fact that agents, in the pursuit of their goals, can change the ends or goals of others by altering their environment. Agents, in the pursuit of their goals, have reason to alter the environment in ways that cause agents to have ends (goals) that help to promote their own ends.

We humans have desires - expressed as propositional attitudes of the form "desires that P" - where"desires that P" provides a motivating reason to realize any state of affairs in which P is true.

Yet, our "desires that P" are malleable. Interactions with the environment can strengthen or weaken a desire, alter it's object (change a desire that P into a related desire that P'), or create or destroy desires. We have a "reward system" that makes this possible. By rewarding and punishing others, we can alter their malleable desires, promoting useful desires and inhibiting harmful desires.

A critic can assert at this point, "Well, evolution accounts for the fact that we are intentional agents with a reward system." This is true. However, it is not a recent and exciting discovery. This is not what those who claim that recent research shows that evolution can account for morality are claiming. They are claiming something more direct and specific.

Clearly, evolution can account for our ability to use language. However, this is different from claiming that evolution can account for Russian literature. Without the capacity to read and write in a language there would be no Russian literature, but a full account of Russian literature requires more than evolution alone can provide.

It is important to note that the account given above focuses on malleable desires - desires that are not fixed by evolution or any other means. This provides the sharpest break between what evolution can explain and morality.

To the degree that evolution fixes our desires, to that degree those desires reside outside of morality. What is account for here is not even a basis for morality. The very fact that evolution accounts for these desires is sufficient to show that moral terms do not apply to them.

For example, one argument states that evolution accounts for morality because evolutionary forces, under common circumstances, will select for altruism at the individual level. Some assert this itself to be evidence, even proof, that evolution can account for morality.

I do not deny that we have evolved a capacity for a certain types of altruism. However, this tells us nothing about morality.

I hold that it is almost certainly the case that evolution favored mothers who took care of their children, raising them to become biologically successful adults - qualities that their children then inherited.

However, we can also note - looking at statistics on child abuse and neglect - that these natural sentiments have their limits. There are many and strong reasons to promote an interest in the welfare of children that is stronger - far stronger - than evolution itself has provided us with. That is to say, to the degree that interests that affect the well-being of children are malleable, we have reason to promote those with interests that contribute to the well-being of children and inhibit those whose interests are harmful to children. Among the tools we have available is to offer rewards, such as praise, to those whose behavior helps children and punishment, such as condemnation, of those whose behavior harms children.

To the degree that the care for children is evolutionary determined and fixed, automatic rather than learned, moral terms are not even applicable.

Let us imagine that nature gave us a perfect universal disposition to care for children. It would not follow from this that nature has given us perfect virtue - all of us equally deserving of the highest praise and the greatest pride. In fact, praise and pride would be entirely misplaced and unjustified. Evolution, in this case, would remove child care out of the realm of morality entirely.

Moral terms will not be applicable precisely because praise and pride are not applicable - precisely because the interests are fixed and not learned.

We can make the same point about altruism generally. Evolution has almost certainly caused us to have a certain amount of empathy contributing to the well-being of others - to treat others as we are treated.

However, browse through the news headlines on any given day, or just recall your past and expected future interactions with other humans, and you will quickly see that natural altruism has its limits. Nature might have (in fact, did) give us a certain amount of altruism, but not nearly as much as we have reason to hope for.

Since we have reason to want more empathy and more kindness than nature alone provides, and empathy and kindness can be learned by interaction with the environment, we have reason to reward items and condemn selfishness. It is this additional empathy and kindness where praise and condemnation are applicable. It is this additional, learned, empathy and kindness that fits within "morality".

That portion of altruism that evolution accounts for is not morality. That portion of altruism where praise and pride are applicable is a portion that evolution does not account for.


David Pinsof said...

There may be another portion of morality that evolution can account for, aside from the fact that we are intentional agents with reward systems, and that is the actual content of moral systems. Moral systems cross-culturally contain norms about regulating status hierarchies, caring for the vulnerable, remaining loyal to one's coalition, dividing resources equitably, reciprocating kindness with kindness, punishing cruelty with cruelty, and safeguarding the community from contaminants (e.g. food taboos, purification rituals, etc.). A strong case can be made that these content domains were not discovered through rational deliberation about what desires we ought to promote or inhibit, but rather were inherited from our primate ancestors and have clear evolutionary functions that are consistent with evolutionary game theory. This isn't to say that these cross-culturally recurring content domains are good for us, that we ought to perpetuate them, or that their existence promotes good desires. My point, rather, is that evolutionary psychology contributes far more to our understanding of morality than the mere fact that we are intentional agents with reward systems.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinsof

What about other "content domains" - the disposition to frm rival tribes and to treat tribal members better than non-tribal members - to g to war with, take from and enslave rival tribes, or to wipe them out entirely. Or to treat women as property, or the male disposition to rape.

I would suspect that you are not using our common traits to determine moral content, but instead using moral content to determine which traits qualify to go on the list.

You can't get from any item on ths list to moral content because, "We have evolved a disposition to kill those who have quality Q" to "Those with quality Q deserve to due," remains an invalid inference, ths inference has to be valud to go from evolved dispoition to moral content.

However, we can go from mral content to an valuation - good or bad - of a disposition. Though if a dusposition is a product of evolution and unalleable - and bad - it qualifies as an illness rather than a moral failing, precisely because concepts of punishment and condemnation are only applicable to that which can be changed.

David Pinsof said...

@Alonzo Fyfe

Yes, evolution can explain both the good and bad aspects of morality; I was not trying to cherry pick the good aspects. In fact, your examples fit neatly into my content domains: tribal warfare fits under "loyalty to one's coalition" and the oppression of women fits under "regulating status hierarchies." Again, my argument is not that evolution can tell us what we ought to praise or condemn. My argument is that evolutionary psychology explains the specific texture of morality -- the way norms are conceptualized and acquired, the how nurture interacts with nature for moral change to occur, the specific categories of norms that crop up in all cultures, the emotions and intuitions that constitute moral cognition. My argument is that evolutionary psychology's explanatory power extends far beyond the fact that we are intentional agents with reward systems, and to say as much contradicts a wealth of evidence from the behavioral sciences.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinsof

Yes, evolution can explain both the good and bad aspects of morality;

But can evolution explain which are good and which are bad?

Because THAT is what must be done to say that evolution accounts for morality. It means providing an account of "These are good - and here is why they are good. And those are bad - and here is why they are bad."

If you cannot account for what we ought to praise or condemn, then you have not accounted for morality.

Because those who claim that God accounts for morality is saying precisely that - that they CAN account for what what we ought to praise or condemn.

And when I say that evolution cannot account for morality, I am saying that evolution is on the same footing as religion when it comes to morality. That NEITHER can account for what we ought to praise or condemn.

If you cannot account for that, than you cannot account for morality. You are merely inventing "something else" that you can account for and calling it "morality".

Which is like shooting at a barn, then painting a target around the hole.

Unknown said...

Indeed. My system is eclectic. I find Kant's point as you do. Mine is similar to Carrier's goal theory. Google covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism.