Saturday, January 14, 2006

Evolutionary Ethics and Meta-Ethics

Perhaps this is nothing new, but it just struck me that there are two very different ways one might try to ground ethics upon biological evolution. They differ in whether evolution is considered to have substantive or methodological significance. That is, evolution might come in at the level of normative ethics, or else meta-ethics.

The 'substantive' approach takes the evolutionary telos to underpin ethical normativity. It makes the normative-ethical claim that we ought to share and promote Mother Nature's "purposes". We might further distinguish 'forward-looking' and 'backward-looking' versions of this thesis. On the former, we ought to do whatever will promote the survival of our species, or our own genes, or something like that. On the latter, we ought to behave in ways that have previously been selected for by natural selection. Either variant seems terribly misguided, since there's no reason to think that evolutionary functions have any moral significance, or that humans are subject to such arbitrary 'externally imposed purposes'. (Though of course these goals might happily correlate with genuine values; survival of the species clearly bears some connection to human wellbeing, for example. They just aren't foundational to ethics, is all.)

Further, note that there's nothing particularly scientific about this view. There's nothing in evolutionary theory which says what humans morally ought to do. Rather, this view is a substantive philosophical thesis which (seemingly arbitrarily) claims that the moral good is tied to evolution in the ways described above. It's not good science, and it certainly isn't good ethics.

How about the 'methodological' approach? Rather than trying to build evolutionary considerations into the content of our moral theories, this meta-ethical approach remains neutral on the content and instead makes higher-order claims about the nature of ethical discourse itself. In particular, it suggests that, to gain insights into our ethical practices, we should look to their evolutionary origin. Suppose our moral behaviour evolved for the (biological) purpose of creating more stable societies and thus boosting our biological fitness. This explanation makes no mention of moral facts, and so might be used as the basis for a nihilistic 'error theory'. (I suppose this is not so much grounding ethics upon evolution, as using evolution to argue that ethics is groundless.) [Update: see comments for another, non-nihilistic, example.]

While attempting to build evolution into normative ethics is transparently stupid, its methodological use is much more interesting. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, actually. I'll explore the underlying ideas some more in my next post.


  1. Personally, I think any meta-ethical approach to morality which allows what is right and what is wrong to evolve is obviously flawed.

  2. surely morality is always and forever driven by perceived values of the time which offers opprtunity to develop flexible process and framework to hold morality within?

  3. Consider option number 3.

    Morality has nothing to do with evolution. Morality has to do with learned dispositions -- namely, the dispositions we can be caused to have as a result of social conditioning.

    In this way, evolution provides constraints to morality -- it determines what is within the realm of social conditioning and how it works. However, it does not tell us anything about the content of morality -- only what morality is not.

    In the same way, the laws of physics provides constraints on morality. An individual is not held morally accountable for teleporting a child out of a burning building because it is not physically possible for social conditioning to give him the ability to do so.

    "Ought" implies "can". Evolution (like physics) help us to define the boundary between "can" and "cannot". However, within the realm of "can" it tells us nothing about "ought" and "ought not".

    Alonzo Fyfe
    The Atheist Ethicist

  4. This paper [PDF] makes interesting use of a methodological appeal to evolution. Rather than using it to undermine normativity generally, they use the evolution of self-interested tendencies to undermine the intuition that we have special reason to care about ourselves. (The intuition can be "explained away" via our evolutionary history, so we no longer have any reason to think that it is rationally supported, or a reliable guide to philosophic truth.) They instead argue for the sort of extreme neutralism one finds in utilitarian moral theories. Much better :)

    Don Jr: I don't think the meta-ethical option discussed in the post commits one to the view that morality itself evolves. It rather attempts to use the fact of evolution to shed light on what the (perhaps immutable) nature of morality is.

  5. Richard, I said, "Personally, I think any meta-ethical approach to morality which allows what is right and what is wrong to evolve is obviously flawed" (emphasis in bold added). The meta-ethical option you discussed does allow for this. It also allows for a nihilistic error theory, as you noted, which I think would also indicate a fundamental error.

    The only way I see for evolution and morality to be legitimately linked is if one says that over time we have come to better understand what is right and what is wrong, so that our understanding has "evolved." Now I might very well agree with this, but this is not a meta-ethical statement. It says nothing about the nature of right and wrong, just about our understanding of right and wrong. That is to say, it makes no metaphysical or ontological statement concerning morality, only an epistemological one. (Moreover, divine command theorists and cultural relativists can both agree on this point; thus I don't think it's really a meta-ethical statement.) So if you were meaning to merely say that evolution can explain our understanding of right and wrong, then I don't think that that, by itself, qualifies as a meta-ethical approach to morality. It looks like maybe you would need to be more specific about the meta-ethical, evolutionary approach to morality you were meaning.

    (Were/Are you meaning to present the meta-ethical, evolutionary approach to morality you discussed as assuming that right and wrong are non-existent and, subsequently, that evolution explains our erroneous creation of those concepts, which would be, as you mentioned, a sort of nihilistic error theory? That would, I think, qualify as a meta-ethical approach to morality, but I think it would be just as flawed, if not more, than claiming that right and wrong evolve.)

  6. 1. Okay, thanks for the clarification, though I think it's a bit strong to criticize an approach simply for being consistent with something false. Any problems might be avoided by supplementing the general approach with further restrictions or guidance that would prevent it from going down the wrong path. In light of this, it might be fairer to call the original claims "incomplete" rather than (intrinsically) "flawed".

    2. What I've called 'methodological' or 'meta-ethical' uses of evolution (I'm struggling to think of a better label) don't necessarily assume or entail nihilism. I offered a contrary example in my above comment, for instance. But the specific example discussed in the main post does seem to assume that if we can explain our moral sense without reference to moral facts, we should endorse an error theory. So it doesn't assume nihilism right from the start, but it does at least seem predisposed towards it. (I think it's the above conditional assumption that's the real problem, rather than any 'methodological use of evolution' per se.)

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  8. For me, the most illuminating statement helping to show how to make sense of the fact of natural selection came from a famous evolutionary theorist named George C. Williams. He stepped out of his lifetime role as a biologist understanding natural selection to explain it in human moral terms. I have found his insights so helpful that I have summarized them into "Williams' Lament".

    "Natural selection maximizes shortsighted selfishness no matter how much pain or loss it produces and, from a human point of view, is grossly immoral.

    So, not only is nature not a good model for morality, the very force that formed us actually is a horrific process that at times rewards most deplorable actions-- genetic success proceeds by whatever means necessary.

    I'm not a philosopher, but I consider this insight, from one of the world's foremost authorities on natural selection, to be one of the most profound and potent insights on how to make sense of the fact of evolution via natural selection.

    Williams felt that human morality was an "accidental by-product" of natural selection. By accidental by-product, I think he meant that once our brains got big and complex enough, we could start seeing that others suffer, as we do. This is accidental from the "perspective" of (wicked) natural selection because any resources spent on improving the welfare of non-related others is potentially a waste of opportunity in improving one's OWN genetic success.

    Incidentally, Williams' contemporaries Hamilton and Trivers provided enormous insights into the origins of morality by showing (mathematically) how altruism can emerge via "kin selection" and "reciprocal altruism".

    Some people (Lopreato) define morality as whatever natural selection isn't- as opposed to short-sighted selfishness- perhaps morality can be considered broad-based compassion.


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