thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Evolutionary morality

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What have we become?

What have we become?

I have just participated in a blog discussion on ‘Evolutionary Morality’. But what I said can also stand as a self-contained post.

‘Evolutionary Morality’ can refer to at least three things which it is important to keep very distinct.

One is the view that the moral behaviour, judgments and attitudes human beings have are open to an evolutionary explanation. The view would be that if we can explain why people have legs and birds have wings by giving accounts in terms of evolution by natural selection, perhaps we can do the same for why social animals like humans have moral behaviour and relate to each other as moral agents. This makes no ethical judgments about the actual values humans express, or about the kinds of choices they might make. But it would make the claim that at least one of the reasons why humans have a moral sense is because they have evolved as rational, self-conscious social beings.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Another possible meaning of ‘Evolutionary Morality’ is related to the classic ‘evolutionary ethics’ position. One flavour of this is the one associated with Herbert Spencer, for whom evolution was part and parcel of a ‘universal natural law of progress’, applicable not only in biology, but also in the physical and cosmological sciences, psychology, language, art, music, religion, politics, economic activity and many other aspects of reality. On this view ‘progress’ is good; biological evolution is one of the things which manifests progress; and therefore the direction evolution proceeds in is good.

A slightly different flavour of ‘evolutionary ethics’ removes or downgrades the concept of progress. On this view what is ‘good’ is what survives, or what contributes to the survival of a particular species.

A third possible meaning of ‘Evolutionary Morality’ is the view that humans happen to see as ‘good’ those things which support survival. So for example sex is good because it effects reproduction, and so is child care because it promotes the survival of offspring to adulthood.

Again one variant of this would see ‘what humans see as good because it supports survival’ as itself subject to ethical judgment. So for example, rape might be judged as wrong even though there may be some humans who regard it as good (where for example those humans regard it as good because it promotes genetic survival).

Another variant would be the view that survival is literally all there is to ethics, and to ask whether survival is itself a moral good is meaningless.

The point of introducing all these possible interpretations is that holding one of the views above does not commit one to holding any or all of the other views.

In particular, one could be of the view that the moral behaviour, judgments and attitudes human beings have are open to explanation in terms of how humans have evolved as rational, self-conscious social beings, but reject all the other views above. This view would therefore be that we have evolved to be able to (and to need to) make moral choices, and also to feel moral emotions like guilt, shame and empathy. But that nothing in evolutionary science will tell us what is good or what is bad.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

10 September 2010 at 3:34 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks Terry,

    You’re right of course. The last paragraph is closest to what I think.

    I’m not sure the balance of evidence supports the Herbert Spencer ‘progress’ view. Much of what appears like progress can be explained – in theory at least – by natural selection. Sometimes increased ‘complexity’ aids reproductive survival, sometimes increased ‘simplicity’ does.

    I’m also very struck by the huge number of design bodges in natural organisms – including humans. (I wish I’d coined the phrase ‘unintelligent design’ but it was someone else!) Real progress would have involved going back to the drawing board – which as far as I know never happens in nature.

    Thanks again, Chris.

    Chris Lawrence

    2 October 2010 at 8:34 am

    • Thank you, Chris. As I’ve more or less said before, I find the fact that you can be hard-nosed without being pig-headed quite stimulating. It gives me more room to actually listen to what you are saying rather than rushing blindly to defend my own position against attack.

      I tried to say it as tentatively as possible, but it even makes me nervous to read my comment that I’m open to the possibility that the universe has an intrinsic direction. I am, but I am not speaking code for some ersatz divine plan. When I say intrinsic, I do mean intrinsic – reflected in the laws of the universe, not discovered through “faith.” Nor do I think there is any goal that the universe will ultimately reach. It seems to me to be eternal process, never-ending change. Would you understand if I said my question is whether the process is a circle or an arrow?

      On my optimistic days, I can make a case for the arrow. But there are other days when even running around in circles seems more than we can hope for.

      Thank you again.

      Terry Sissons

      3 October 2010 at 4:00 pm

      • Addendum: the reasons I am open to the possibility that the universe has an intrinsic direction are two-fold. The first is that there seems to be less chaos in the universe than one would expect if there is no intrinsic directionality – in other words, if everything occurs by chance. On the other hand, that may be an illusion. We may simply see more coherence or focus on it more clearly than we do the chaos.

        The other reason is that occasionally it does seem to me that our sense of morality is not just changing but actually making progress. Concepts of human dignity and basic equality have never been understood to actually apply to every other human being before. We were not outraged by genocide or slavery. But that too may be more of question of whether the glass if half full of half empty. I see it as no more than a tentative possibility.

        In fact, I found myself just today arguing against the concept of progress. I fear the best way to convince me that we are going in circles rather than in a sustained direction is to argue for the latter.

        Oh, and just to clarify my position in case there is any doubt: there is no question in my mind that evolution is one of the strongest theories in our entire scientific armament – up there with gravity, relativity, and quantum mechanics. And evolution occurs as the result of natural selection – not through any predetermined force or plan.

        Enough. Thank you again.

        Terry Sissons

        3 October 2010 at 9:38 pm

  2. Chris

    I went to the blog which you have noted to read the discussion on evolutionary morality. I left with the hope that you yourself will continue with the exploration of the options you discuss in this post. I don’t think I will get a lot of benefit from regularly reading Always Have a Reason.

    My guess, based on what I have already read of your writings, is that the closing paragraph comes closest to your personal position at this time. I’m sure I would find it instructive to learn more about why. Or why not. My own leaning is toward what you describe as Spencer’s position, because, as I said before, I’m open to the possibility that the universe possesses an intrinsic direction.

    Thank you again for continuing to share your ideas that I inevitably find stimulating and incisive.


    Terry Sissons

    26 September 2010 at 10:07 pm

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