Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Darwinian Blinkers

Oh dear. Via Robin Hanson, a "moral puzzle":
Consider two men, A and B. Man A steals food because he’s starving to death, while Man B commits a rape because no woman will agree to have sex with him.

From a Darwinian perspective, the two cases seem exactly analogous. In both we have a man on the brink of genetic oblivion, who commandeers something that isn’t his in order to give his genes a chance of survival. And yet the two men strike just about everyone — including me — as inhabiting completely different moral universes. The first man earns only our pity. We ask: what was wrong with the society this poor fellow inhabited, such that he had no choice but to steal? The second man earns our withering contempt.

Befuddled by his genes-eye view, Scott asks: "can any of you pinpoint the difference between the two cases, that underlies our diametrically opposite moral intuitions?" Of the 80-odd responses, only two or three struck on the answer (though no-one listened): try looking at it from a human perspective.

Many noted the obvious point that rape generally inflicts far greater harm than stealing a loaf of bread. But this is an inessential point, as Robin notes: "it might help to imagine a society where the person who lost the food was also in some, though less, danger of starving. But even then food and sex seem to be treated differently."

A related reason is that - consequences aside - they're actually very different kinds of acts. It's misleading to describe both merely as an instance of "commandeer[ing] something that isn’t his", because very different kinds of 'ownership' are being violated. Our intuitions reflect the fact that material property rights are - in a sense - "socially constructed", and if not done right they may fail to yield genuine (reasonable) obligations. In any case, there's no question that the actual distribution of material wealth in the world is historically contingent. A person's self-ownership, by contrast, is a more essential matter. Rape is not just "theft of a body", but a deeply personal violation.

But the central mistake, I'd suggest, is to think that there's any relevant similarity between the motivations for either act. A person does not really act "in order to give his genes a chance of survival." This simply illustrates the all-too-common confusion of biological and psychological teleology. What matters for moral assessment are the real psychological motives of people, not the metaphorical "motives" we attribute to their genes.

From a person's perspective, then, the "analogy" is a non-starter. The starving man needs to eat in order to survive -- a likely precondition for realizing any of his other values. The vital importance of this is beyond question. The second man's "need" for sex is hardly comparable. (It's perfectly possible for the celibate to still lead worthwhile lives.) So, only one of them has a genuine need that could reasonably justify imposing such burdens on others.

It's worth emphasizing that genetic 'goals' don't really have any moral significance, as ethics is instead concerned with the welfare of persons (psychological beings). I'm amazed by how easily evolutionary psychology can lead otherwise intelligent people to lose sight of this basic fact.

But, this particular pseudo-puzzle aside, I do think Robin is right to note that "our concern about inequality is not very general": we focus almost entirely on material inequality, even though non-financial factors arguably have a greater impact on welfare once our basic needs have been met. Should we also be concerned about the distribution of popularity, status, attractiveness, charisma, etc.? How about discrimination due to eccentricity, social awkwardness, or simple introversion? (There's no denying it's an extrovert's world!) It's harder to imagine how to address these matters, I suppose...


  1. It is a puzzle in evol psych, if nothing else, that our moral intuitions evolved to put less weight on fitness consequences.

  2. I think that Scott was not really asking for an ethical reason to treat the two cases differently, but rather more to answer the question: "Assuming that our ethical intuitions have been shaped by Darwinian imperatives, why do they treat these cases differently?" With respect to this, your answers seem to beg the question. Sure, from a person's point of view the rapist's need for sex is hardly comparable to the starving man's need for bread. But the question is, why do we regard this "personal" stance (instead of the genetic stance) as the relevant and important one?

    This "why" asks for causes, not for reasons. Reasons seem to hit a bedrock close to where we are: we regard ourselves as persons, not as bags of genes, and it is the person's goals we value; period. But (assuming that our general patterns of thought have evolved in Darwinian ways) the question of why we take this personal stance as so natural even when it runs contrary to the genetic one can be worthwhile to think about.

  3. but the question is, why do we regard this "personal" stance (instead of the genetic stance) as the relevant and important one?

    isn't the easy answer simply that morality conduces to fitness by facilitating social interaction and cooperation, which require a "personal" stance? your neighbors would presumably be disinclined to support you if you did not think of and treat them as people. since morality is fundamentally social, it requires empathy to be effective.

  4. Robin-
    Who says (besides Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault) that our moral ideals evolve? One might also argue that some identifiable moral attitudes (like: "hmm, that unmotivated-killing-other-humans thing doesn't look right") serve definite evolutionary purposes. But is that because we recognize other humans as humans consciously, or perhaps the ill repute of murder is a biological function, i.e., at some point during evolution built into the brain's sub-conscious activities.

    In case someone wants to argue the Nietzschean angle, which in his later work does take a cue from Darwin, let me point out that the exclusion of "evil" does not also exclude "bad". Even with Nietzsche, murder does not lack inherently "bad" qualities. Nietzsche does not explain why bad things like murder remain bad even after the overthrow of moral ideals; what he does do is question the formation of ideological systems from what is original to one's psyche. Thus, Nietzsche thinks that we are right to respond to a murderer rather than simply let him go, but he forbids setting up systematic responses. The message being, let's all do what we can but not force what we cannot; i.e. we cannot will universally that everyone should not murder, because those who do murder are exercising a will original to his character. Murder sucks and the overwhelming majority of understand that fact, but it might be worse to set about trying and punishing murderers for something we have or begin to take for granted.

    So Richard, isn't there something a little more basic to our saying, "rape is bad" than our recognizing that a person's personhood is being violated? I mean, in the truly unwelcome event in which I may witness a rape, I don't have to think about the victim's personhood to feel uneasy. In addition, the folk belief is that the rapist maintains some kind of hatred towards the victim, either generalized or specific. The same goes for murderers.

  5. I should append to the above my assumption that feeling hatred towards a specific or generalized victim ("Shelly" or women, respectively) recognizes that the victim is a person. Granted, not the normatively defined "person" who would necessarily require our respect, but still I think the criminal recognizes that the victim is a human being much like himself. Otherwise, if the criminal cannot recognize that his victim is a human being with emotions, desires, and whatnot, then, under US law and I suspect many modern legal systems, the criminal is considered insane and thereby unanswerable for his crimes.

  6. Robin - "It is a puzzle in evol psych, if nothing else, that our moral intuitions evolved to put less weight on fitness consequences."

    Fair enough. Though even so, do we need to assume that evolutionary pressures directly shaped such specific aspects of our psyches? I would have thought that evolution equipped us with the general ability to reason (which is of great adaptive value, after all!), after which point the specific conclusions we reach are better explained by what's justified than by what's adaptive.

    Jared - I'm not sure I understand your question. I mean, you can recognize that the victim is a person automatically, without "hav[ing] to think about the victim's personhood." And it doesn't seem like rape can be wholly separated from personal violation -- it's not as though one could rape a doll (and if one could, it surely wouldn't have the same moral significance).

  7. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the tendency to make assumptions about what is involved in the 'genetic stance' that are simply unwarranted, and are due merely to an overly crude model of selection. (In effect, the 'puzzle' here is one version of the old chestnut about how biological selfishness led to biological altruism; part of the reasonable response to which is that calling the first 'selfishness' is tendentious in the first place, and presumes much more than was ever shown.) Genetic fitness, which is an ambiguous phrase in the first place (are we talking about the fitness of species, groups, or individuals) is compatible with an immense range of behaviors, some of which are directly conducive to it, some of which are not, but none of which conflict with it unless they lead to extinction (which is clearly not happening here). Thus it is a mistake in the first place to assume that the course in question is contrary to the genetic stance; at least, before we can even get so far we must have done a great deal of proving. In other words: it is controvertible to say that from the Darwinian perspective the two cases are analogous. This is what would have to be proven in the first place, and as Richard noted, the reasoning given for the two cases being analogous involves equivocation, and so cannot be the proof required. And, indeed, I think there is reason to think Richard right in holding that the difference in our intuitions here is learned as part of our education into what it is to be human and rational.

  8. >But the central mistake, I'd suggest, is to think that there's any relevant similarity between the motivations for either act. A person does not really act "in order to give his genes a chance of survival."

    I don't think people usually steal because they are starving (maybe they steal because their tummy feels empty but that is a totally different thing) - but regardless it is "cheating" because you are changing the hypothetical by suggesting that rapists dont do it to keep their genes going the hypothetical put that forward as one of the basic asumptions!

  9. G., the opening ("From a Darwinian perspective") suggests that they're merely talking about genetic rather than psychological explanations. So I think my interpretation was right. But suppose not. If we stipulate that each man is really acting solely and explicitly "in order to give his genes a chance of survival", then we no longer have any sympathy for the thief. (Though of course the rapist is still much worse, for the other reasons discussed in my post.) So there's still no "moral puzzle" here.

  10. Let me know if this clarifies the question. Imagine a simpleton walking down the street and seeing a scurry of activity, but not being able to make out what is happening. What clues will enable him to say, "This is rape"? According to what you write above, I imagine the simpleton saying in succession: "something is happening", "two or more people are involved", "some of the participants are violating the rights of others", and "the violations are of a certain kind", at which point our simpleton calls the police and reports in summary, "someone is harming someone else!"

    But I would think that the recognition that "someone is harming someone else" does not need to rely on a cognitive understanding of "someone" or "harm". Instead the response is to a situation, and as such it is biologically motivated. Of course, if our simpleton is somehow mistaken and it is a doll, then I suspect he will be relieved, his excitement will abate, and he will go on with his business. But I'm pointing at the initial response, asking if it is first linked to moral behavior and not simple psychology, and then stipulating that morality--in so far as it reflects on yet is not limited to basic psychological states--is an extra-biological function.

    Thinking about this temporally, the difference between a pre-meditated and a secondary murder seems to be that a person was chosen as a victim in a mostly cognitive fashion. Whereas in the secondary murder, one responds to a situation according to a predisposition towards aggressive behavior. I would think Robin's moral puzzle should be between these two distinctions. The puzzle revised: Consider three men, A, B, and C. A is starving and steals food. B is learns of his wife's infidelity and kills her. C is confronted in a tense situation and kills someone. The three cases are not analogous; but neither are they completely divisible--society would condemn them all. Does Darwin change how we weigh each crime?

    A and B are premeditated, but A is excusable "from a Darwinian perspective" and other perspectives as well. B and C violate personhood, but B only does so knowingly whereas C is questionable. A and C may be justified according to a reading of Darwin, but A could be celebrated as a survivalist choice whereas C still carries some weight to it. My answer to this puzzle would be that a consideration of evolutionary biology suggests that the weight attached to C's unplanned murder comes from an un-meditated response to the act, which can later but does not initially touch on normative definitions of "person", "right", and "wrong".

  11. Speaking of Darwin, have you seen this video yet?

    It's amazing; the buffalo herd seems to have been watching the lions for some time!

  12. then is the difference in how he phrased the initial question with a direct concequence to the starving scenario (death) and no concequence to the sex scenario?

    ie if your starving to death you can do anythign up to (and maybe including) kiling a single person - if you are needing sex you can do anything up to and possibly including inflicting a lack of sex on another guy. there is a lot of daylight between those two things.

    BTW I am actually the sort of person who might act in a certain way in order to give my genes a chance of survival (not rape of course), which doesn't seem all that much more weird than any other driver. I dont suppose many people would think of it that way. Then again.. I don't know...

  13. jared,
    yeah those lions are on the fast track to genetic oblivion if they don't figure out that the cape buffalo are a bit stronger than they are and its just a lack of courage that keeps them from getting slaughtered every other day.


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