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.
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.