Ethics as a product of evolution
[The post below is my draft research proposal for a philosophy PhD at a UK university. Any feedback would be more than welcome!]
The question I want to examine is one which is formally hypothetical, but has more than hypothetical significance.
I am not assuming that human moral sense and behaviour are products of evolution. But I am assuming it is at least possible that they are. If that assumption is unsound, I want to understand why.
Assuming the assumption is sound, I then want to consider what its impact might be on the branch of philosophy we know as ethics, if it actually turned out to be true.
I want to explore one thread in particular: If it could be established that some core ingredients of human ethical sensibility and behaviour were likely to be products of evolution, how would that affect our understanding of moral values (for example whether moral values are or are not objective and/or universal)?
Core ingredients such as empathy, trust, shame, reputation, kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, and awareness of free will as initiating voluntary action, do seem to be candidates for evolutionary explanations. (I am referring here to the logic of why they should have been selected for, not necessarily the full scientific detail of how they developed.)
But the logic and grammar of our language and concepts about what ought to be transcend our descriptions of what is.
Even if we have evolved as sentient, communicative, self-aware, empathic social beings whose top priority was still genetic survival (ie to maximise the chances of transmitting the individual’s genetic material into future generations), that would not mean the morally right choice for any individual in any relevant scenario would be the option which maximises genetic survival.
Our ethical language does not work that way. We may have good reason to believe an option will maximise our genetic survival, but we can still ask if that option is the morally right one.
The assumption that evolutionary explanation has to mean reducing moral values to survival calculations exposed the ‘evolutionary ethics’ program to justified criticism (TH Huxley, GE Moore, et al). But the assumption is unnecessary. Many different positions can be adopted by those sympathetic to evolutionary explanations in ethics.
We could for example think that, if we can explain why people have legs and birds have wings by giving accounts in terms of evolution by natural selection, then perhaps we can do the same for why social animals like humans have moral behaviour and relate to each other as moral agents. We do not need to speculate about the source of the actual values humans express, or about the kinds of choices they might make. But we could still claim that at least one of the reasons why humans have moral values is because they have evolved as rational, self-conscious social beings.
This is different from classic ‘evolutionary ethics’ positions. One variant is associated with Herbert Spencer, for whom biological evolution was part and parcel of a ‘universal natural law of progress’. For Spencer ‘progress’ is good; biological evolution is one of the things which manifests progress; therefore the direction evolution proceeds in is good.
Another variant of ‘evolutionary ethics’ removes or downgrades the concept of progress, but what is ‘good’ is still what survives, or what contributes to the survival of a particular species.
There is then 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.
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.
Holding one of this cluster of views does not commit us to holding any or all of the others. We could consider that what humans know and employ as their self-conscious free will could be an evolved faculty. So could their understanding of the impact their choices have on other humans’ happiness and welfare. Even their sense of an imperative to choose the morally superior option over the morally inferior option (and their sense of shame at picking the latter) could be a product of how humans evolved as rational, self-conscious social beings.
But none of these either singly or in combination implies that the moral values humans actually employ must be translatable into algorithms of survival or natural selection. So we could still reject any implications evolutionary explanation might seem to have for the moral values we actually employ – or ought to employ. The view would therefore be that we have evolved to be able to (and to need to) make moral choices, and to feel moral emotions like guilt, shame and empathy. But that evolutionary science will not tell us what is good or what is bad.
A view like this opens up some interesting lines of questioning.
For example, if these ‘core ingredients’ of moral behaviour could be given an evolutionary explanation, does that therefore cover the whole of human moral sensibility and behaviour, or is something still missing? What exactly is missing, and why does it matter? If for example we have no evolutionary explanation for moral values or aspirations, is that a fatal blow to the evolutionary approach?
Another set of questions concerns incrementalism. In the Judaeo-Christian perspective (for example) man has been seen as unique and distinct from other animals. An evolutionary account of human moral behaviour opens the possibility of the gradual development of morality, both within the single species of Homo sapiens, and within other species, both still existent and extinct. Can our ethical concepts accommodate extension to chimpanzees or dolphins or elephants, or to ancestors of Homo sapiens? Or are they only tailor-made for humans as we know them in human history as recorded by humans?
Finally, there are intriguing parallels between the logic of reciprocal altruism in evolutionary theory (Robert Trivers et al) and both Kant’s Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule, as formulated across a variety of religions and social codes. Both the Categorical Imperative and the Golden Rule are abstract universal formulae which often need to be supplied with specific content before they can apply to actual living scenarios. The survival success of reciprocal altruism as a behavioural strategy has been demonstrated in computer simulations. This has required algorithms of reciprocal altruism to be expressed also as abstract universal imperatives to apply in interactions between simulated reproducing individuals.
I would particularly like to explore the philosophical significance of those intriguing parallels.
© Chris Lawrence 2010.