Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0028 - Against Evolved Moral Sentiment Theories

The problem with moral theories that ground morality on sentiment that I discussed in my last posting also applies to theories that try to explain morality in terms of an evolved moral sense.

Our proto-moral community is made up of individuals with an aversion to pain, who have the opportunity to use condemnation to promote in others an aversion to that which causes pain in others. They use the verbal habit of saying, "causing pain to others is wrong" to both report the fact that this is something that people generally have reason to condemn, and as a statement of condemnation of anybody who causes pain to others.

The "wrongness" of causing pain to others does not depend on any particular sentiment on the part of the person making the judgment. Nor does it require, in any way, that the beings in this community have an evolved moral sense that causing pain to others is wrong. The widespread aversion to pain, combined with the ability to use condemnation to promote an aversion to doing that which causes pain in others, is sufficient.

The evolved moral sense theory is actually quite similar to sentiment theories in that they base the wrongness of an action on the sentiment of the person making the assessment. The evolved moral sense theory merely adds that these sentiments are the product of evolution, and their existence can be explained in terms of the evolutionary benefit they provide.

However, we can ask, can these sentiments - whether evolved or otherwise acquired - be wrong?

In other words, is X wrong because we have a (possibly evolved) disposition to sense that it is wrong? Or is X wrong for some other reason?

If it is wrong because we have a disposition to sense that it is wrong, then whatever we acquire a disposition to sense is wrong, is wrong in fact.

But nature tells us that there are few limits to what we may sense to be wrong or permissible or obligatory - even when we write evolution into the equation.

We are lead to believe that evolution favors cooperation. This is not true. Every predator and parasite found in nature has survived the evolutionary test. Evolution not only created these entities, it perfected them. It has made lions and killer whales ever more efficient at killing. It has selected bacteria and insects that are ever more efficient at living off of others (without their consent). The lion's relationship with the antelope is not one of cooperation for mutual benefit, it is one of predator and prey.

We can well imagine that evolution has not only given the lion the physical qualities that make it a successful hunter, but the psychological qualities as well. It has given lions a desire to hunt - as well as other likes and dislikes that make it more efficient at hunting. The stalking behavior of cats gives us a window into its mind - it's beliefs and desires that control its behavior. Cats and killer whales like to do that which would count as torture if done by humans.

This means that even if we had a moral sense, there is a chance that evolution could attach that moral sense to any type of behavior - including parasitical and predatory behavior - that promoted genetic replication. Rape could be permissible, as well as a disposition to have sex with one's (fertile) step children. Similarly, we may have become disposed to kill our step children if it would cause the adult partner to want to have replacement children with the new spouse. We could be disposed to form small bands with strong sentiments of internal loyalty and sentiments of hostility to neighboring tribes that motivate us to kill them and take their resources for our genetic offspring.

Evolved moral sense and sentiment theories would have to conclude that these behaviors were, then, permissible or even obligatory, depending on the (evolved) sentiment attached to them. Neither slavery nor genocide would be wrong if we evolved to approve of either enslaving or wiping out those who were less genetically related to us.

The alternative, then, is that the rightness or wrongness of an action consists in "something else". Consequently, such things as genocide or slavery will remain wrong regardless of our sentiments or "evolved moral sense". This would allow us to determine if our sentiments or "evolved moral sense" has gotten morality right.

The "wrongness" in our hypothetical proto-moral community does not depend on sentiment or an evolved moral sense. It is found in the simple fact that people generally have reasons to use condemnation to promote an aversion to causing pain to others. A sentiment of approval in causing pain to others - whether it came about through evolution or some other means - would not change this fact. In fact, it is specifically the case that the aversion to pain and ability to bring about an aversion to causing pain through condemnation provides reasons to create a sentiment of moral disapproval of any action that causes pain.

Another way of expressing the same problem rests in the claim that a discovery of evolved altruism equates with a discovery of the foundation of morality. However, even where it is the case that we can come up with a story of the evolution of altruism, what is the story of the goodness of altruism? The fact that we evolved to be altruistic in some areas - to sacrifice ourselves for our genetic offspring and other kin, for example - does not make altruism good any more than the fact that we evolved to be racially prejudiced or to coerce others into having sex would make them good.

The beings in our proto-moral society have not evolved a disposition to refrain from causing pain to others. They do not even have such an aversion. They have an aversion to pain and an ability to create an aversion to causing pain through condemnation. That is all they need.


Unknown said...

Alonzo, there is an issue with your argument against the idea that evolution favors cooperation. You tend to use a straw man. That is, the argument is specifically that evolution tends to favor cooperation *within the same species or group*, as it would for humans. Your "comparable" are animals from different species not cooperating with each other (though even that is not true in the case of symbiotic relationships, but this is more of an exception rather than the rule).

The fact is that cooperation within the same species or group does in many cases contribute to the fitness of the individual. However, I agree that this is just happenstance and does not make any difference to what "ought" to be done. That would be an example of an appeal to nature fallacy. I would rather you give an example like ducks and their forced copulation or the black widow spider's tendency to eat her partner. These are things we consider "anti-cooperative", yet were favored by evolution.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I may need to add some specificity to this.

There are these two types of cases.

(1) Tribalism - a disposition to favor members of one's own group and to attack - quite violently - the members of other groups of the same species - is quite common. It is thought to be a root cause of our tribalism (racism, nationalism, and other dispositions to form groups of humans in violent conflict with other groups of humans).

(2) Nature also contains examples of insects that devour their own mate, animals where adults are the biggest threat to offspring of the same species. For example, one of the biggest threats to the survival of tiger cubs are adult tigers other than their mother.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Of course, the greatest counter example comes from human beings themselves.

Ghengas Khan, the Holocaust, genocide of the Native Americans, slavery, the subjugation of women, rape (including the rape of children), terrorism, and countless examples of everyday activity tell us that the claim, "Don't worry about these things; evolution has given us innate cooperation" is a non-starter.

It is not just that these things happened (though that is all that we need to show that these behaviors are at least compatible with evolution), it is that whole populations have viewed these activities as perfectly legitimate.

Furthermore, evolution is a matter of random chance and contingent facts. There is nothing in evolution that rules out even a harmful trait "riding on the coat tails" is a different, beneficial trait, or becoming the beneficiary of blind luck that eliminated genetic competitors.

Consequently, the question, "If we acquired an evolved sense that murdering one's step children is morally permissible, would that then make it morally permissible?"

The people in our proto-moral community have a way of describing that which causes pain to others as wrong - and that people generally have reason to condemn such acts (which, in their language, is the same thing) - without having a moral sense. They did not need it. And even if they did have such a sense - if that sense did not identify "causing pain to others is wrong", then the sense itself would be mistaken. This is quite different from making the sense infallible.
Yet, even where evolution has promoted cooperation within a species, there is still the problem that,