Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Immorality of "An Evolutionary Basis for Morality"

One of the tricks that evolutionary psychologists use to defend the claim that they have an evolutionary basis for morality is this:

They take a bunch of things for which they have an evolutionary account, draw a circle around it, and call it "morality". They then brag to each other, to the press, and to the world that they have found an evolutionary basis for morality.

In calling this a "trick", I am not saying that there are evolutionary psychologists sending secret emails back and forth that say, "I know how we can fool the public into thinking that our work is more important than it is." It is a trick in the same sense as, "My eyes are playing tricks on me." it s as much self-deceptive as other-deceptive.

Evolutionary psychologists like to think of their work as important - all researchers do. Consequently, they want to believe themselves that they are studying morality. Furthermore, there is enough similarity between what they study and morality to let the mind wall-paper over the cracks.

Common powers of rationalization then come into play to protect the illusion. These include simply ignoring objections. The agent does not allow them to effect one's thinking on the subject. Instead, they psychologically dismiss these objections while business goes on as usual.

It's the same techniques theists use to protect their belief that there is a god. They do not question their belief, and simply dismiss objections with the passive thought, 'Obviously, they are wrong, but I am not interested in spending the time thinking about those things right now. It is much more exciting and interesting to think about these other things."

The crack that this verbal wallpaper covers is the fact that evolutionary psychologists cannot tell us anything about what we ought and ought not to do. While morality, properly so called, is the study of "ought" statements. Consequently, what the evolutionary psychologist studies is not morality. It is something else - related to but different from morality - that they call "morality" because it makes them feel good.

Unfortunately, this trick has some harmful side effects.

When the evolutionary psychologist steps in front of the public and claims to have discovered an evolutionary basis for morality, the public at large hears this as a claim about an evolutionary proof of the truth of "ought" claims.

Evolutionary psychologists do almost nothing to prevent this misconception precisely because this is the error that is responsible for much of the interest the people have in their work.

This has two effects.

There are those who see through the error, who then see evolutionary psychologists as delusional and dismiss everything else the evolutionary psychologist says. This error feeds into - and thus feeds - a set of beliefs that seek to dismiss evolution itself. "Evolutionary psychologists do not see this obvious crack; we can infer that there is a host of other obvious cracks that the evolutionary theorist has wallpapered over as well."

And there are those who do not see the error who then think, "My evolved dispositions tell me what I ought and ought not to do." They then read into evolution their own likes and dislikes and do as they please, thinking, "Because evolution disposed me to be this way, it must be good and right."

A few who truly understand the field will admit, "Oh, what we are studying does not tell people what they ought and ought not to do." However, I do not know of any who thinks it worthwhile to go to the effort to oppose these mistakes - fighting the misunderstanding where people take, "The evolutionary account of morality is not an evolutionary proof of ought claims." They admit this only in the obscure corners of discussion and in exclusive discussions among themselves, or as a passing comment while they quickly move on to "the important stuff".

There is a moral dimension to this willingness to confuse the public on matters of morality. This type of behavior is morally negligent - it ought not to be done.

Causing people to be confused about what they ought and ought not to do cannot help but cause people to do what they ought not or not do what they ought. It causes them to misdirect the course of their lives in ways that are harmful to themselves and others.

To prevent this, the morally responsible evolutionary psychologists would want to invent a different set of terms - a set that does not invite this confusion between morality and eat the evolutionary psychologist studies. The best way to avoid this confusion is for the evolutionary psychologist to come up with a different term for what they study - a term other than "morality" - and to disavow the claim that they have found an evolutionary basis for morality.

The evolutionary psychologist can answer, "I don't care to go to the effort of preventing these consequences - they mean nothing to me." However, that is the essence of negligence. The negligent person simply is one that lacks concern over the harms her actions may cause others and takes no steps to prevent those harms.

Or the evolutionary psychologist can say, "I have searched my feelings and note that my evolved sense of empathy simply does not motivate me to take these effects into consideration; therefore, your claim that I ought to consider them must be rejected."

To this, I answer, "Thank you for illustrating my point."


David Pinsof said...

Fair enough. It may be that a lot of people are confused, perhaps perniciously so, by evolutionary psychologists' use of the word "morality" to describe what they're studying. Or it may be that you are going out of your way to confuse yourself, stubbornly rejecting any alternative definition of the word "morality" other than the normative definition. I don't know which interpretation of the situation is correct. I'd need to see some evidence that it is difficult for people generally to disentangle the two senses of the word "morality" -- i.e. the normative sense and the descriptive sense -- before I could be persuaded. Alternatively, I'd need to see some evidence that the descriptive sense of the word is rarely, if ever, used among lay people.

I also disagree with your claim that "evolutionary psychologists do almost nothing to prevent this misconception." A lengthy discussion of the naturalistic fallacy is found in every evolutionary psychology (EP) textbook, and it is also found in the major popular EP books, including "How the Mind Works," "The Moral Animal," and "Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life." Indeed, one of the leading evolutionary psychologists the age, Steven Pinker, wrote an entire book about the moral implications (or lack thereof) of evolutionary psychology and human nature, "The Blank Slate" (highly recommended). As a researcher in this field, I can attest that most evolutionary psychologists are very cautious of the dividing line between "is" and "ought," sometimes to the point of tedium.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinsof

On your response to my objection that "evolutionary psychologists do almost nothing to prevent this misconception."

Tell me . . . who reads these books?

David Pinsof said...

I don't understand your question. "The Blank Slate" was a new york times bestseller and pulitzer prize finalist. "The Moral Animal" was a national bestseller. I believe "How the Mind Works" was a bestseller as well. If your question is meant literally, then the answer is "millions of people."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinsof

Even calling this "descriptive morality" is a misnomer.

Please, give me a description of an "Ought". What is it?

(I would argue that I can give you a description of an "ought". But the description I would give you does not allow even for the possibility of an evolutionary basis for morality.

An "ought" describes a relationship between a state of affairs and a desire, where "ought to do X" means "to have a reason for intentional action to do X". Practical "ought" looks at the desires of the agent, while moral "ought" looks at the desires that agents generally have reason to promote and inhibit.

Now, our desires have been molded through a long evolutionary history. We are disposed to acquire those desires that promote evolutionary success. However, there is not now nor will there ever be a direct inference from the evolution of a particular desire to a moral-ought. The only straight-forward inference is between a desire and a practical "ought")

David Pinsof said...

If "descriptive morality" is a misnomer than is "moral psychology" a misnomer too? What about "moral cognition"? What about "moral emotions"? What about "moral intuitions"? What about "the morality of the Hadza of Central Africa"? What about "the twisted morality of the middle ages"? It seems to me that the use of the word "morality" has a perfectly intelligible meaning within these phrases, and it is clearly being used in the descriptive sense. But if you want to pretend that this usage doesn't exist, be my guest.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In the cases of "moral psychology", "moral cognition", "moral emotions", and "moral intuitions", the term "moral" is being used as an adjective - modifying something that people recognize to be prone to mistakes or defects. For example, moral psychology is understood to include defects in making moral judgments.

The case of "the morality of the Hadza of Central Africa" has the same sense as "Ancient Greek science" - which identifies what the particular people think is true, which may deviate from what is true in fact.

However, as I argued in an earlier post, start a study of astronomers thinking about planets and stars, observe how they go about forming theories and testing those theories, the types of arguments that are effective, and the like. It might be interesting stuff. However, the researcher is researching brain states - not starts and planets. She is not an astronomer. The same is true of the person who studies brain states of people using moral terms. To say that she is studying morality is as much a mistake as claiming that the first person is studying astronomy. It is simply an invitation to confusion and equivocation.

David Pinsof said...

This is an interesting linguistic debate that is probably not worth it to get into, save to say that I still think morality has two uses, one descriptive and one normative.

As for your astronomer analogy, that poses some potential problems for desirism. It implies that, when we make moral judgments, the brain is really performing computations about reasons for action in the same way that the brain performs computations about stars when we do science. It implies that the brain is really analyzing the desires of the perpetrator, simulating possible interactions between the perpetrator's desires and other people's desires, evaluating the "goodness" or the "badness" of the desires based on how well they fulfill or thwart other people's desires, computing the optimal amount of praise or condemnation in response to those desires, and then producing as output behaviors and utterances we'd label as "praise" or "condemnation." If the brain is really doing this, we should be able to conduct controlled experiments to confirm that this is indeed what is going on when we make "moral" judgments. Unfortunately, most of the work in moral cognition, including the experiments I've cited, indicates that this is not what is going on.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinsof

you wrote:

This is an interesting linguistic debate that is probably not worth it to get into, save to say that I still think morality has two uses, one descriptive and one normative.

Fine, but let us remember where this series started.

With yet another quote from an atheist organization saying that the evolutionary account of "descriptive mirality" is proof that the theist objection that evolution cannot account for prescriptive morality is a myth.

It is an invitation to equivocation that permeates the atheist community and which evolutionary psychologists seem uninterested in correcting - except in private conversations among themselves.

@blamer said...

I get that the OP is a general criticism, but the comments show that we need to see the concrete examples. Do these scientists really make those icky statements when they're supposed to be teaching folks about their profession? or just when riffing after a few beers down the pub?

A few minor points in the OP to object to:

"the same techniques theists use to protect their belief that there is a god. They do not question their belief, and simply dismiss objections"

Over-reaching. Those employed in the accelerating Science professions of today most certainly DON'T reject each other's modern writings & new ideas with that same blinkered defensiveness as the holymen of monotheism.

"evolutionary psychologists cannot tell us anything about what we ought and ought not to do" Moralizing? Sure they can, in their scientific journals if their peers let them get away with it. Otherwise after a few beers down at the pub (which describes the state of clergymen 24x7 since they're only expertise is biblical fictions).

"morality, properly so called, is the study of ought-statements" Working definitions? That's science 101. It can be as nuanced as THEY like ... that is, for whatever "evidence" based "theories" the experts like best. And again moralizing clergymen & their laity will continue using the old world definitions of Theory (just a theory), Evidence (it's in the bible), and Morality (yhwh needs us to win this game of life by subjugating thy neighbourly anti-christ).

Randy said...

"evolutionary psychologists cannot tell us anything about what we ought and ought not to do"

I have not been following the series, but it seems that no person can tell anyone else what ought to be done in a general sense, because there's no objective basis for such a decision. It's why we have philosophical and legal arguments about it. There can be no correct answer.

However, science can lead us to some non-zero-sum games where there is a correct answer. It seems that evolutionary psychologists, or other scientists, may have a good chance at describing those to us. Barring the supernatural, what we do can only come from what we are (although perhaps in hard-to-trace ways) and that is described in our biology.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I would recommend reviewing the whole series.

Helian said...

@David Pinsof

"Or it may be that you are going out of your way to confuse yourself, stubbornly rejecting any alternative definition of the word "morality" other than the normative definition."

I agree. So far I've never run across any suggestion by an evolutionary psychologist that their work amounts to normative claims about morality, nor have I found anything in the standard textbooks, popular science books, etc., that would provide a credible reason for anyone to be confused about the matter.

I find it interesting that, while the author of this blog claims he is developing a "prescriptive" morality, once he has added the final touches to his system, he uses it to begin raining down anathemas on the evolutionary psychologists.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The issue has nothing to do with me "stubbornly rejecting any alternative definition".

The internet is filled with examples of atheists asserting that evolution explains (prescriptive) morality. We can look at our evolved dispositions to discover what we ought and ought not to do.

This series began with one such example.

One of the comments referred to an article by Michael Shermer that provides another example.

The suggestion comes from evolutionary psychologists simply from the fact that they are studying morality which, for a great many people, simply means prescriptive morality. And the evolutionary psychologists have made little or no effort to avoid this misinterpretation. In fact, I think some of them welcome this mistake.