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Ethics as a product of evolution

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[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, William James 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.


Written by Chris Lawrence

7 November 2010 at 6:02 pm

20 Responses

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  1. Chris, on the chance you are still interested at this late date in responses to your post I will provide my 2 cents worth.

    I see a large pitfall with the approach that you are describing here.

    First, you seem to be largely following EO Wilson’s and David Sloan Wilson’s leads in the following hierarchy of causes of morality (the reasons morality exists):

    1. Genetic evolution selected the moral emotions of empathy, guilt, shame, a sense of fairness, righteous indignation, and willingness to risk injury and death to defend family and friends based on these emotions ability to increase reproductive fitness.

    2. These moral emotions somehow combined with people’s rational choices to select cultural moral standards.

    3. People’s ideas about philosophical moral foundations, what the ‘ends’ of moral behavior ‘ought’ to be (such as ‘good states of affairs’, rights, and obligations) are shaped by our moral intuitions (products of our moral emotions and cultural moral standards) and rational thought.

    Unfortunately, the above misunderstands the hierarchy of causes. You will never be able to untangle step 2 in a way that will enable you to achieve your goal of understanding the “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”.

    I suggest you consider the following hierarchy of causes of morality:

    1. The mathematics of game theory shows that our universe is such that in environments where there are synergistic benefits of cooperation between independent agents (virtually all environments occupied by people), those synergistic benefits can be exploited by strategies that require ‘unselfishness’.

    2. Our pre-cultural ancestors began exploiting these synergistic benefits of cooperation to increase their reproductive fitness by evolving our moral emotions, which all motivate unselfish behaviors.

    3. After the emergence of culture, cultural norms that advocated unselfish behaviors could be selected for based on their ability to also exploit just those synergistic benefits of cooperation. We call those cultural norms moral standards. But their benefits could be material goods or even emotional goods. The emergence of cultural norms unhitched morality from reproductive fitness.

    Then philosophical moral foundations (concerning ‘good states of affairs’, rights, and obligations) were conceived as products of our moral emotions, cultural moral standards, and rational thought.

    The first advantage of the second hierarchy of causes is that it appears to be right. Perhaps more importantly, you can immediately proceed to show “the philosophical significance of those intriguing parallels” without getting tangled up by the misunderstanding that the ultimate source of morality is genetic evolution.

    I promise, everything will go so much more easily if you assume that the ultimate source of morality is the universal strategies requiring unselfishness as revealed by game theory to exploit the benefits of cooperation.

    Mark Sloan

    29 December 2010 at 3:08 am

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond in such depth.

      At first I wondered if you had identified a move I wasn’t conscious of making (ie the ‘large pitfall’), because I don’t think I disagree with what you are suggesting. But I might not have been clear enough. Or perhaps I was making an unwarranted assumption. Either way thanks indeed.

      As far as your ‘step 2’ is concerned, I don’t think I’d need to untangle it in order to achieve what I am trying to achieve. My question is fundamentally hypothetical, ie: IF it turned out that human moral sense and behaviour were products of evolution, THEN what would the impact of that be on the branch of philosophy we know as ethics? I’m not setting myself up to prove whether or not human moral sense and behaviour were indeed products of evolution – although I do find the idea persuasive.

      One big reason I find it persuasive is the one you mention, ie the algorithms of game theory. I can’t pretend to understand the mathematics, but I think I understand the logic enough to see how populations of competing and replicating entities subject to random variation in their genetic inheritance could evolve behavioural strategies of cooperation and reciprocal altruism, and supporting emotions like empathy and shame.

      I certainly had game theory very much in mind when I referred to The survival success of reciprocal altruism as a behavioural strategy … demonstrated in computer simulations.

      I am not trying to come up with a complete biological-cum-social-anthropological theory to explain how morality developed. If for no other reason, ‘morality’ has meant different things at different times and in different social and developmental contexts. I wouldn’t want to claim that all aspects of what we in the 21st century understand as moral behaviour can be explained by natural selection of randomly varying inherited characteristics.

      But plausible evolutionary explanations of cooperation and reciprocal altruism seem (to me at least) to abolish much of the ‘mystery’ of moral behaviour. Moral behaviour has ceased to be something ‘against nature’, and standing in need of explanation in terms of divine intervention, timeless forms, imposed authority or contracted social convention. I’m not aware that any of these alternative explanations have come in fully worked-out form, so if there isn’t a full explanatory trail from evolved emotions and/or evolved behavioural strategies to (eg) our awareness of conscience and the rightness of justice, then that’s not a special failing of the evolutionary explanation. For my money, the evolutionary explanation seems easily the most plausible on the market.

      I’ve read through your response several times to try to identify the precise point at which you differ from what I could be taken as saying. And it’s possible that I might start to apply moral terminology at an ‘earlier’ point than you might. So for example one view might be that a philosophically significant ‘morality’ only emerges at step 3 – on either hierarchy of causes. But I don’t think I was assuming that. I think I would see the beginnings of morality in step 1 – again on either hierarchy of causes.

      ‘Beginnings’ could of course be a bit of a weasel word. A big problem that I see is that to get from the ‘beginnings’ of cooperative behaviours to the fully-fledged human morality we know and love we’d have to factor in the arrival/evolution/emergence of consciousness and self-consciousness. Consciousness and self-consciousness are generally (and rightly) seen as having much broader relevance than just to moral behaviour. But I cannot quite see how we can get a full explanation trail from evolved cooperative behaviours and supporting emotions to self-conscious moral awareness and voluntary action without explaining how consciousness and self-consciousness enter the picture.

      And that would be a minefield. We may never get a completely convincing explanation of how consciousness evolved, and therefore a scientifically valid ‘proof’ that it did evolve. But that does not deter me from accepting an evolutionary account as more convincing than others on offer (eg consciousness = divine ‘gift’, consciousness = irreducible feature of the universe etc).

      Thinking back to my hypothetical question, I admit I do say IF it turned out that human moral sense and behaviour were products of evolution…, without qualifying what I mean by ‘human moral sense and behaviour’. I don’t think I mean the whole of developed social morality in its fullest sophistication, just moral sense and behaviour at the most minimal level that would qualify for being described as such.

      It’s not obvious to me that we have clear enough criteria for distinguishing ‘pre-cultural’ from ‘cultural’ phases of human development so as to be able to locate phenomena describable as ‘human moral sense and behaviour’ only in the ‘cultural’ rather than also in a ‘pre-cultural’ phase.

      A telling feature of moral thinking is that it is self-referential. We can evaluate the values we happen to employ. We can ask whether something seen as right or good ‘really is’ right or good. We can consider whether our personal ethical values can or should be reflected in social and political values and aspirations – and vice versa. It seems therefore at least possible that once the germ of moral awareness exists it can lead to more sophisticated structures of behaviour and thought.

      As to what that germ is, I think that is a question I would like to research. I think it qualifies as a philosophical question rather than (say) a psychological or biological or anthropological one – because it asks for a definition and criteria. For example I think it’s theoretically possible for a living entity to be conscious and self-conscious, but not to have any moral awareness or moral sense. Such creatures abound in science fiction for example. We also assume I think that at least some of the animals which exhibit cooperative behaviours are not self-conscious. A provisional suggestion as to what that germ is would be the self-conscious awareness of being subject to behavioural imperatives related to existence as a social being.

      There are many animals who live socially and cooperatively, and it is assumed their genetic inheritance is still subject to variation and natural selection. So it would be reasonable to assume humans were still evolving subject to natural selection while living as social beings. As mentioned before, it seems at least plausible that consciousness and self-consciousness evolved rather than existing or arriving in the universe in some other way.

      Putting all this together, I would suggest that the antecedent of my hypothetical question should be interpreted as something like: IF it turned out that the necessary and sufficient conditions for the ‘germ’ of human moral sense and behaviour (where that ‘germ’ = self-conscious awareness of being subject to behavioural imperatives related to existence as a social being) were products of evolution…

      I hope this clarifies what I was trying to say, and thank you again for your valuable response.


      Chris Lawrence

      31 December 2010 at 11:55 am

      • I was so glad to see your comment to Mark. I was beginning to fear that perhaps you were no longer going public with your thoughts on this topic. And since I’ve been reading your blog, I’ve become increasingly aware that although as a cognitive psychologist I spent significant time and energy researching the development of moral reasoning, there is this deeper question: what is the source of moral or ethical value?

        Like you, I cannot think of any other possibility that appears tenable to me besides evolution. But as you make so clear, that it just the start. I don’t know enough about philosophy to make any statements about that approach, but as a scientist I find myself asking how I define moral or ethical behavior. In other words, how do I recognize it when I see it? Given some rather astonishing research recently into animal behaviour, I think certainly the beginnings of altruism are evident in life that evolved well before Homo sapiens.

        But my guess is that only Homo sapiens has developed principles of moral behaviour, because I don’t think any other species of which we are aware is capable of the kind of abstract thinking that principles require. For that reason, I would put my chips on the development of a level of abstract thought rather than the development of self-consciousness as the single factor required for the development of human morality.

        It would also explain our human tendency to impose our own moral values on the entire human race. For better and for worse.

        And because it is sometimes for so much better and sometimes for so much worse, this question you are asking about the source of moral/ethical principles is so important. How can we validate what we are so convinced of?

        Again, I can only think that the answer must lie somehow in the exploration of evolution, in the exploration of what works in the long run. But I do appreciate that I am suggesting the exploration at this point of a morass.

        Thank you for listening, Chris. As you can see, I’m thinking out loud. At the very least, it will let you know that you’ve got me going on the subject. For which I am most grateful.


        Terry Sissons

        31 December 2010 at 3:17 pm

        • A further thought and clarification. First, I may have given the impression that the source by which we might validate our moral judgements is the same as their source. But of course, reaching a moral judgement and validating it are two quite different processes.

          I would also like to add two more reasons why I think the development of abstract thought is the essential sine qua non of moral judgements rather than self-consciousness. First, there is evidence that other animals besides us are capable of self-consciousness. Even birds have been shown to be able to distinguish between images of themselves in a mirror and those of another bird.

          Second, and for me more convincing, moral development around the world and in all cultures develops in stages that parallel cognitive development. Young children base their reasoning on punishment and reward — whatever their parents may try to explain to them. That gradually is augmented and even replaced by social concerns: what will other people think? how will society function if there are no rules and everybody always does what they want. It is only with the emergence of adult and abstract thinking, usually in adolescence, that principled thinking per se in relation to moral judgement develops.

          Hope you have a good 2011. I’m looking forward to your continued posts.


          Terry Sissons

          31 December 2010 at 8:29 pm

          • Thanks again Terry.

            You may be right about abstract thought versus self-consciousness. It may need to be abstract thought in the context of self-consciousness though? Is it possible to conceive of abstract thought outside the context of self-consciousness? I mean is it possible to think of an entity capable of abstract thought which doesn’t ‘do’ that abstract thinking in the context of its own self-consciousness?

            If abstract thought entails or presupposes self-consciousness, then self-consciousness might be a necessary but not sufficient condition of the moral sense?

            Your example of birds recognising themselves in the mirror is an interesting one. It helps to clarify what I mean by self-consciousness. I have no idea what it is like to be a bird, but I would be surprised if a bird which behaved in such a way that its behaviour could only be described as recognising itself, was at the same time aware of itself recognising itself?

            Thank you also for the input from cognitive/developmental psychology. A thought though on punishment and reward etc. I’m intrigued by findings in ‘experimental ethics’ (eg relating to the ‘trolley problem’ and judgments about cheating) which seem to indicate general patterns in the way people praise and blame. Punishment and reward represent a familiar and common regime which growing children are exposed to, and the absence of such a regime may well be associated with observed deficiencies in moral development. But does that necessarily mean that the moral values adult people employ, and the feeling or awareness that adult people have that they are under moral obligations can only arise via exposure to such a regime?

            I guess what I’m pondering is a parallel with language development. A child cannot learn to speak English without being exposed to the English language. Yet the modern consensus seems to be that crucial features of the language faculty like the fact that it is used for social communication, the fact that it has a grammar, and even the distinction between nouns and verbs, do not have to be supplied externally by the child’s environment, in the way that the actual phonemes and their relation to what they signify, do have to be. This is very different from a ‘blank slate’ paradigm, and what I think I’m suggesting is that the development of the adult moral sense may be no more ‘blank slate’ than language development. But I’m not suggesting you and I are in disagreement on any of this.

            Thanks again – and happy New Year!

            Chris Lawrence

            1 January 2011 at 12:06 pm

            • My first thought about a distinction between abstract thought and self-consciousness was that it is purely theoretical because we humans possess both. But the more I think about it, the more I think this may be significant, because we certainly do not possess these capacities equally. There are people who are severely deficient in one or the other. I would be interested in any research which explored moral judgement as it relates to either or both of these differences. A highly abstract thinker with little self-consciousness might reach some pretty cold-blooded conclusions.

              Yes, we are agreed that the development of moral judgement has a lot in common with the development of language. I think we find in both patterns that exist in all cultures, and at the same time, characteristics that must be learned specifically from the culture in which we live.

              I am familiar with the trolley problem and have always found it both intriguing and agonizing. Nor have I “solved” it to my own satisfaction. I do think there are some situations in which there is no fully acceptable answer – that “right” does not unambiguously exist in one course of action and not another. I’m sure you would agree that real life is often like this as well. My own conclusion is that, even in situations like these, our moral reasoning may reflect different levels. So I don’t think that analysis in terms of a sheer utilitarian approach is sufficiently subtle.

              I am now going to return to Mark’s latest comment to think about it. It’s quite tantalizing, but I know too little yet to know whether I might agree or not.

              Thank you for the New Year wishes. And to you too. Or as one of my more exuberant friends put it, happy 20!!


              Terry Sissons

              1 January 2011 at 4:42 pm

            • I do keep mixing up the question of whether a judgement is intrinsically a moral/ethical judgement at all and the question of the validity or level of a particular moral judgement. It’s the psychological perspective I’ve been working in all my life. One of the things I find intriguing about your questions is that they are fundamentally philosophical.

              Don’t let me muddy the waters.

              Terry Sissons

              1 January 2011 at 5:04 pm

            • Chris –

              It occurs to me that the chief reason I feel the need for a definition of ethical/moral judgement and why I keep conflating the ultimate source of moral judgement, the validity of a judgement, and the level of reasoning used to reach it is because in real life they are so often conflated.

              E.g: when an animal behaves altruistically, or when an animal “teaches” behavior to its offspring using what certainly looks like reward and punishment, how are these behaviors different from similar behaviors in humans? Why isn’t the animal behavior considered moral? is it the forerunner of human morality?

              Are there essential differences between the same behavior done for different levels of moral reasoning? E.g: Is there a difference if I don’t support capital punishment because a) I’m guilty of a crime for which I might be given a death sentence, b) an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth doesn’t reduce the murder rate or create a safer society, c) we can never be absolutely sure of another person’s guilt in the sense that they were fully responsible for their behavior, and so taking their life which can never be given back can’t ever be justified.

              Or: I might be against having an abortion because a) I believe I will be condemned to hell if I have an abortion, b) my religion says abortion is wrong, c) I believe all life, even fetal life, is sacred.

              And what of those moral values that differ in different cultures and religions? they might even be directly opposite. In some societies it is perfectly acceptable for a man to sleep with several women living in his household; in other societies it is considered adultery and the basis for divorce. In other words, are all moral judgements equally valid if I hold them sincerely and with the support of the society in which I practice them?

              As I have said before and am keenly aware, I’m not closely acquainted with the rules of philosophical discourse. But it does seem to me that if you are going to tackle either of the questions you have posited, some of these issues have got to be disentangled.

              For better or worse, as you see, I find this whole question of morality indefatigably fascinating.

              But now, I do promise to stop.


              Terry Sissons

              1 January 2011 at 8:45 pm

      • Chris, perhaps we can get to the heart of where we differ if I state how I would phrase your original question and antecedent assertion differently. I would state the original question as follows (and would be interested in your results):

        “If it could be established that the ultimate primary source of human moral intuitions and all past and present practiced cultural moral standards is a universal aspect of physical reality revealed by game theory (the synergistic benefits of cooperation that can be exploited by ‘unselfish’ strategies), how would that affect our understanding of moral values? For example, if the ultimate primary source of moral values is objective and universal what does that mean for the objectivity and universality of cultural moral standards?”

        Since the above question is already based on the fundamental nature of physical reality as revealed by game theory, it would not make sense for me to talk about antecedents because there can’t be any.

        If “the ultimate primary source of human moral intuitions and all past and present practiced cultural moral standards is a universal aspect of physical reality revealed by game theory”, as I believe I can show it is, then your task of how that affects our understanding of moral values is both simple and direct. Everything will fit together nicely.

        If the above is assertion is ‘true’ as a matter of science, then the attempt you have described in your original form of the question is doomed to producing unproductive answers. Those unproductive answers are the pitfall I mentioned. Sure, you can evaluate “If X, then what is the effect on our understanding of Y?” But if X is false, then your conclusions about Y are not going to be that useful.

        I expect that EO Wilson and David Sloan Wilson (both very bright guys) would say that your original version of X is probably true. But from my personal work at the matter over the last several years, I agree with what I understand the thinking to be of Robert Axelrod and Herbert Gintis.

        Perhaps you cannot be certain which version of ultimate source of moral intuitions and cultural moralities is ‘true’ when you start. However, I have been looking at just at the kinds of questions you are trying to answer. Everything fits together like a hand in a well fitted glove if the source is the basic nature of the universe as revealed by game theory. If I assume that the ultimate source is genetic evolution, almost nothing ‘works’ as far as understanding the nature of moral behavior.

        I wish I could give you a good reference from the literature that describes the hierarchy of sources for moral behaviors as I have described them. Unfortunately, I cannot. Most serious people working the science side of morality often seem reluctant to use words like moral in their publications, even when it is obvious that is what they are talking about. I suspect they have calculated that the resulting harassment from the philosophy department would make it not worth the trouble.

        You might find it beneficial to look over, if you have not already:

        Robert Axelrod’s classic 1986 book (classics are not very old in game theory related to morality) for a general audience The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition

        And David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. I particularly like the remarkable case of ‘unselfish’ behavior of a particular bacteria in adverse conditions. Most of the bacteria in a group sacrifice themselves in order to give a few a better chance for survival. Since in this book, DSW only talks about cooperation in animals, not people, the source of all the behaviors he talks about ARE genetic evolution.

        Martin Nowak’s survey paper available for free online:
        Nowak MA (2006). Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science 314: 1560-1563. PDF This is a full up professional paper, but I expect you will find it understandable.

        Also, Herbert Gintis has a good website with a lot of material

        Finally, I will be posting my own arguments (my fullest exposition to date) supporting my assertions on a new on-line forum in the next few weeks (the forum is still under construction). The forum’s sponsor is the Institute for Science and Human Values

        I understand the forum will focus on discussions concerning increasing culturally useful moral wisdom with an emphasis on how science might contribute to that process.

        I encourage you to watch out for the forum since your interests appear related. The success of such a forum depends on attracting and keeping interested high quality posters like yourself.


        Mark Sloan

        1 January 2011 at 4:27 am

        • Thanks again Mark for all the input & pointers.

          It’ll take some chewing over, so for now I’ll keep this brief. I’m aware of some of the names you mention, eg Robert Axelrod & Martin Nowak, but haven’t studied them in depth. I’m also glad to see Steven Pinker’s name on the advisory council of the Institute for Science and Human Values. I see both there and in what you have written a huge amount of parallels with the kind of thinking which seems to me to be going in the right direction & the kind of priorities which seem to me important.

          You may have seen from my blog that I have two potential topics for a research thesis, the other being The ethics of belief. The two are obviously linked, and they are both attempts to identify topics specific and focused enough to get the ball rolling. I haven’t decided which one to offer yet, and it’s going to be a difficult choice.

          Thanks again,

          Chris Lawrence

          1 January 2011 at 12:30 pm

          • Chris, thinking about it some more, Herbert Gintis might be the most directly useful to you of all the sources I mentioned.

            If you run into trouble with “Ethics as a product of genetic evolution” (assuming you even go in that direction) I encourage you to go up one more level of causation to “Why did ‘ethical’ behavior increase the reproductive fitness of our ancestors?”

            That would then be something like “Ethics as a product of the synergistic benefits of cooperation”.


            Mark Sloan

            2 January 2011 at 4:04 am

  2. […] proposal for a philosophy PhD at a UK university. It overlaps a bit with the previous one, on Ethics as a product of evolution. I thought I would work both to a finished state before making a final decision. Again I would be […]

  3. Chris –
    I have been following these comments with interest, and am rather surprised to discover how thoroughly I am a scientist and not a philosopher. I don’t mean that I don’t value philosophy – I do. But on reflection, it has become apparent to me that I haven’t the feintest idea how a Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy would proceed, while I would feel quite at home discussing a dissertation on morality within almost any of the social sciences.

    Which may be one of the reasons I find your blog so stimulating. You come at things from a perspective that is just different enough from mine to be new.

    Whether it is scientific or philosophical, one of the questions about morality that fascinates me most is that of inter-species altruism. Darwin often reflected on the problem of intra-species altruism (sterile worker-bees, for instance), and there is enough thought out there on the problem now to put it securely within the confines of evolutionary theory.

    But so far I haven’t seen any convincing theory of intra-species altruism. Why do we care? why do we see inter-species altruism among other species besides ourselves? how can we explain this without doing violation to the theory of evolution? Not that I’m trying to dethrone evolution. I just see it as one of those problems that does not yet seem to have been adequately addressed but which someone feels important.


    Terry Sissons

    20 November 2010 at 4:24 pm

    • Its an interesting question, and the answer, I suspect, is that it is a spandrel. Empathy is a sense or emotion that evolved probably from mother love to concern and anguish for the suffering of others in the social groups of social animals. The value of it is that it motivates mutual help within the group and the group is those animals’ particular survival strategy. So it benefits social animals, but once it has evolved sufficiently, seeing suffering in other animals evokes the same emotion of empathy. The emotion is not beneficial between species but is evoked incidentally as a consequence of its presence within a social species.

      Mike Magee

      20 November 2010 at 9:56 pm

      • Thank you for the insight into inter-species altruism. As I think about it, I think you may be only partly right – inter-species altruism might actually benefit the altruistic species, just as the Price Equation illustrates that altruistic intra- species behavior might benefit the whole group. Even if the altruistic member perishes without direct offspring, his/her genes may survive among relatives as a result of the altruistic acts.

        It’s easy to imagine that Homo sapiens may very well benefit from altruistic behavior in relation to other species, and so help preserve our own genetic legacy.

        Again, thank you for the insight. It’s the first time I’ve heard a plausible explanation from within evolutionary theory.


        Terry Sissons

        21 November 2010 at 4:05 pm

  4. Is your proposal a philosophical study or a scientific one? If science shows that the core of the complex we call morality is an instinct, an evolved behaviour, then what you will be doing is trying to figure out how human cultures varied the basic instinct into the aspects we now see. Isn’t that anthropology?

    I haven’t read Harris’s book either, but the basis of morality is the instinct towards sociality in social animals. Yes, it relates to survival because we depend upon the group to survive. If we did not need a group, we should have remained a solitary animal. Morality is to do with being able to live amicably together and incorporates the emotions you mentioned, all of which support group living by making us aware of how others feel, and inclining us to help each other by sharing and mutual defence. Whence the Golden Rule, common to most imperial religions, and many of the practical commandments of the Christian God, Christ.

    Pure survival therefore is not the issue because it would have left us as solitary creatures, but we have evolved to be able to survive more efficiently in a group. Morality therefore facilitates our sociality to preserve our survival mechanism. The real question in my mind is how morality in this sense can be squared with the economic system we have chosen which pushes us to disregard our neighbours in favour of exploiting them, if we can. It is opposed to group cohesion, and therefore ultimately our survival, and contrary to the practical teaching of Christ. Who is addressing this?

    Mike Magee

    9 November 2010 at 5:19 pm

    • Thank you so much for the feedback.

      The intention is for the study to be philosophical, not scientific.

      I may be looking at the thing over-simplistically, but one way of describing it is by starting with the baby of classic ‘evolutionary ethics’ once the reductionist bathwater has drained away. Classic ‘evolutionary ethics’ says that we are evolved beings and we are moral beings. Hence our moral values are likely to reflect what we have evolved to want and need in order to survive.

      But this doesn’t work. What are often seen as among the highest moral aspirations – altruism, sacrifice, selflessness – don’t square with survival instincts like lust and competitiveness.

      A potential solution was then suggested by positing group selection: although selflessness, generosity, altruism etc didn’t seem to make sense as survival strategies at the level of the individual, they did seem to make sense at the level of the group. So the group benefits from individual ‘goodness’.

      The problem with group selection is that the theory doesn’t really make sense because the unit of selection is not the group. It’s the individual (or even the individual gene). The puzzle was to explain how inherited altruistic behaviours would ever be selected for in competition with ‘cheating’ behaviours. It was assumed that the individual was by nature selfish, and could only be moralised by eg social pressure and authority.

      Then came the demonstration by Robert Trivers etc in the 1970s that reciprocal altruism could take hold in a population of competing individuals. This has spawned a plethora of studies, surveyed in books by eg Marc Hauser and Robert Wright.

      I’m not saying I’m taking all this as given, and assuming we have a fully worked out explanation of how we evolved as moral beings. But what I am taking as a given is that the idea of an evolutionary explanation of morality does make sense now – it doesn’t defy logic any more. And it’s not that we ‘evolved to be good’ any more than we ‘evolved to be bad’. But we did evolve to be morally aware, evolved to be conscious of our ability to make morally significant choices.

      What I then want to ask is: if this view is sound, what does that mean for the branch of philosophy we call ethics? The question I specifically want to ask is a philosophical one rather than a scientific or anthropological one.

      It’s a bit like the question about whether determinism and free will are compatible. Questions like ‘how extensive is causality?’ and ‘are all events determined?’ etc are (largely) scientific. But questions about ‘if determinism is true, where does that leave free will?’ are more philosophical.

      Hope this helps?

      Chris Lawrence

      9 November 2010 at 8:24 pm

      • So we can accept the evolutionary explanation of morality as having been pretty much established by science. Doesn’t that mean that ethics has been explained? The question ethics answers is “How should we live?”, and the science suggest we should live in such a way as to promote human groups because without them we cannot live, or cannot live as humans, but will regress to the level of solitary, selfish beasts.

        If your analogy between determinism and free will is to be taken literally in application to the question of morality, are we then rehearsing the distinctions between autonomous ethics and heteronomous ethics where the first is that morality is subjective, the exercise only of the will of the individual, free of any external influence, and the second is that outside influences are essential to the evolution of morality?

        I suppose the moral instinct means that every normal human has an inherent morality which, through evolutionary selection, they have to exercise, not simply through free will but because they have the genes that oblige them to act morally or feel guilty about not so doing. So, morality is not purely heteronomous, though it is partly, through the pressure of our peers to conform with group norms, and is transmitted formally from generation to generation. It means there is no clear distinction between autonomous and heteronomous ethics.

        We have the moral instinct, but one would speculate that it has not yet hardened into an instinct that will cannot defy, like that of the swifts who must abandon their young in the nest when their migratory instinct overwhelms their parental instinct. The temptation to be greedy still exists in some — about 20%, it seems, but is that because adaptation is not complete, or is it because there is some advantage in a fraction of the people inclining towards freeloading off the others? It might be so, and might be the justification for the immoral — because antisocial — system of capitalism, but it can only succeed as long as the ones being exploited feel that they get something out of the success of others. At present they are not, but Rawls was conscious of the problem in his formulation of justice as fairness.

        I wish you every success in your project. It’s been nice talking to you.

        Mike Magee

        9 November 2010 at 9:31 pm

  5. Chris – I am delighted that you are considering a Ph.D. It has been clear since I first began to read your blog that your first love remains philosophy and that your capacity for pursuing it is prodigious.

    I saw an ad in the NY Review of Books recently and as a result have just been reading reviews on Amazon of Sam Harris’ latest book “The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values.” It looks fascinating and I am anxious to read it.

    From what I’ve seen, I suspect you might also find it of interest. But perhaps you have already seen it. It touches on the first thought I had in reading your post above: Does a scientific study of societies suggest that some moral values are more successful than others? Once, of course, one decides what to call successful. From an evolutionary point of view, I would think we are talking about a multitude of aspects of thriving – health, longevity, creativity, contentment, relationships, altruism, etc.

    I continue to read your posts with particular interest. And wish you the best for your latest endeavour.


    Terry Sissons

    8 November 2010 at 5:09 pm

    • Thanks Terry.

      Yes I’ve heard of Sam Harris’s new book, but keep forgetting to look for it! Thanks for reminding me.

      As for the PhD, I’ve been thinking about it for years & if I don’t get down to it now I never will. I’ve got two topics in mind, both of which I’ll hammer into some sort of shape before deciding which to pursue. They overlap of course, & they’re effectively the two main threads of the ‘ethics of belief’ series.


      Chris Lawrence

      8 November 2010 at 8:17 pm

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