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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.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

10 September 2010 at 3:34 pm

Not I my lord

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In this post we introduce further implications of our model of moral behaviour, and finally thread back to William James and William Clifford.

This article follows Just perfect in a discussion on The ethics of belief.

The way life used to be

We have the self-conscious human agent who feels a universal imperative of the form

(viii) Whenever conditions x1xn obtain, do y

We have said that it is for that self-conscious human agent him or herself to decide what ‘universal applies to – ie what group or domain does the agent count him or herself a member of? Is it family, tribe, church, nation, race, generation, species?

The Good Samaritan (Rembrandt)

The Good Samaritan (Rembrandt)

But we need not assume the agent construes ‘universal the same way for ever.

Moral imperatives can be reflexive – an extremely valuable feature. For example in Precious metal rules OK? we showed that the Golden Rule can be applied in the spirit of the Golden Rule. In fact the Golden Rule should be applied in the spirit of the Golden Rule as it is in the spirit of the Golden Rule that the Golden Rule should be applied in the spirit of the Golden Rule…!

So for example y could take the value refine how you construe ‘universal or rethink what group you count yourself a member of. This, after all, is one of the lessons of the parable of the Good Samaritan: who is my neighbour?

We have therefore one way at least in which a universal imperative can contain within itself the imperative to improve the imperative itself. This is further evidence that the model can accommodate the concept of moral perfection.

Brightest in the sky

But the concept of moral perfection brings with it another implication which we must deal with. Our model is very explicitly a model without a god to arbitrate what is right or wrong. As such it is exposed to a possible ‘ethical objection.

The fall of Satan/Lucifer (Gustave Doré)

The fall of Satan/Lucifer (Gustave Doré)

The objection is that it is dangerously arrogant for mere humans to think they have it in them to decide how to be perfect or how to live their lives in the best possible way, without something like the concept of a god as a divine ‘not-self or ‘other. It is the sin of pride in its subtlest form: the desire of Satan (or Lucifer) to compete with god.

It is an argument which does not disappear by just excluding god from your ontology. If there is no god then obviously you are not competing with god. But the ethical argument is about the moral danger of trying to be something you are not and cannot be – even if that something does not exist or even cannot exist. In completely secular terms the argument would be that any autonomous attempt to achieve moral perfection would be self-defeating in the long run.

We could juxtapose an ‘equal and opposite argument against this, that it is irresponsible to give someone else or something else the job of figuring out what is best: which then allows you – indeed obliges you – to abandon the quest to do it yourself unaided by a god.

A true believer could however respond by saying that with a god there is no abdication of responsibility. You are responsible all the way – for finding out what god wants you to do. But while you are exercising that responsibility, god is acting through you. Only by exercising that responsibility will you carry out gods will, and god will act through you as you do so. But if you evade the responsibility you are not carrying out gods will.

If we decide to take this objection seriously we could suggest that y in the universal moral imperative (viii) takes a particular value when conditions x1xn relate to the recognition of this moral danger of arrogance. That value would be to posit a ‘not-self or ‘otherspecifically to avoid any risk of the ‘sin of pride. We could then label that not-self ‘god – or, for reasons I will now explain, ‘god1.

Better than one?

In making this move we have deliberately not identified that ‘god1 with, for example, the ‘god2 which is the answer to questions like why is there something rather than nothing? posed by the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Leibniz1.

Since having reached this point the only reason for positing ‘god1for the model is an ethical one, we would need an ethical reason for identifying ‘god1with ‘god2. And not only is there no obvious ethical reason for doing so, it is also fairly easy to think of an ethical reason for not identifying the two.

For example ‘god2could have all sorts of cosmic powers by which it could exert its authority. Which means an agent obeying an imperative imposed by ‘god2 might well have prudential rather than moral reasons for obeying – for example fear of the personal consequences of disobedience. (In Kantian terms this would be heteronomy rather than autonomy.2) The equivalent objection does not hold against ‘god1 because we are not, in circular fashion, positing ‘god1 as necessarily the source of that moral perfection. All we are saying is that our pursuit of moral perfection necessitates that in its pursuit we are carrying out what we posit to be the will of our ‘not-self (ie the will of ‘god1), not (just) our own will.

I think it is fair to say that our conclusion so far is that we are not yet convinced either way about positing a not-self (‘god1) as a precaution against the self-defeating possibility of pride. But that even if we do admit ‘god1we have no reason to identify it with a cosmological/creator ‘god2, and a very good reason not to.

We could however add a bit more substance to this idea of ‘god1, by looking at other ways in which imperatives of the form (viii) could be reflexive, still within the evolutionary psychology of reciprocal altruism. We said in the previous post that reciprocal altruism is based on trust, and to a significant extent the domains (groups, communities) agents see themselves as members of are the domains within which they extend their trust. Another perspective is that of reputation: behavioural strategies are selected for which enhance an agent’s reputation as a cooperator within that agent’s domain. But both the ‘domain of trust and the ‘domain of reputation (ie the current community of fellow agents who are in a position to hold opinions about the agent) can be subject to the same kind of reflexive improvement as the domain of pure ‘belonging referred to above.

For example when conditions x1xn are such as to lead the agent to doubt whether the assumed ‘domain of trust(eg the agents current immediate community) is 100% worthy of trust, then y could take a value like rethink whom you trust. In a similar way, if conditions x1xn are such as to lead the agent to doubt whether the current ‘domain of reputation is problematic, then y could take a value like rethink whose opinions you value.

As with the concept of moral perfection itself, the reflexive logic of improvement could lead to the concept of a ‘perfect recipient of trust and a ‘perfect custodian of reputationrespectively. Both are familiar features of the concept of god in its ethical dimension – ie the concept of ‘god1.

In case this kind of talk appears far-fetched, bear in mind that we are not conjuring an absolute entity out of nothing, we are constructing an absolute concept (‘god1) out of moral logic. We are doing this by flexing that moral logic to the utmost, because it is a necessary feature of moral logic that it both allows this flexing and requires it. And it is an important part of our claim that, if the evolutionary account of reciprocal altruism is sound, then in the context of self-conscious agents, behavioural imperatives which originally evolved out of the complex non-zero sum economics of social interaction will exhibit precisely that kind of moral logic.

William James

William James

If we now go right back to William Jamess assertion of the ‘religious hypothesis (see Better believe it), we can see that his argument does seem to rely on equating ‘god1with ‘god2.

Jamess first affirmation is:

that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, …and say the final word.3

He further claims that

The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.

The reference to ‘universeimplies that James has in mind either something nearer to ‘god2 or to something which combines ‘god1and ‘god2.

His second affirmation of religion is

that we are better off even now if we believe [the] first affirmation to be true.

If ‘better off even nowincludes any moral element, then this again suggests ‘god1and ‘god2 are the same.

And as we saw in As if, as if, the whole issue for James is about ethics anyway:

If the action required or inspired by the religious hypothesis is in no way different from that dictated by the naturalistic hypothesis, then religious faith is a pure superfluity, better pruned away… [T]he religious hypothesis gives to the world an expression which specifically determines our reactions, and makes them in a large part unlike what they might be on a purely naturalistic scheme of belief.

This seems to clinch it. James equates the god of ethics (what we have labelled ‘god1) with the god of the universe (what we have labelled ‘god2).

Remember he argued against William Clifford’s dictum that

it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.4

For James the ‘religious hypothesis was precisely the kind of thing which it was (morally) right to believe even without sufficient evidence, because of the (moral) benefit which accrued from that belief.

I have been trying to show both the strength and the weakness of his argument. Its strength is that, yes, in the ethical domain there could well be a case for acknowledging a ‘leap of faith in order to give moral striving the universality and endlessness it needs. But its weakness is its assumption that that ‘leap of faithhas to be in the direction of some supernatural or cosmic entity whose existence must be taken on trust. A leap towards ‘god1 is a totally different thing from a leap towards ‘god2. A leap of faith towards ‘god1 does not breach Cliffords dictum. We therefore do not need to breach Cliffords dictum in order to achieve the benefit James describes as unique to the ‘religious hypothesis.

The point of articulating a model of moral behaviour in terms of evolutionary psychology was not to presuppose its truth, but purely to demonstrate its feasibility. If we are looking for an explanation as to the origin of moral behaviour and moral consciousness we do not have to consult the supernatural or the metaphysical. Nor do we have to give in to an inexplicable mystery. A model in terms of evolutionary psychology, or something very like it, seems well worth exploring. A model like this will not tell us what is right or wrong, but it might help us understand why we want to know what is right or wrong and why it matters so much to us.


1 GW Leibniz, The Principles of Philosophy known as Monadology, translated by Jonathan Bennett, September 2004; amended July 2007. []

2 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by Jonathan Bennett, July 2005:

3 William James, The will to believe, 1896.

4 William Clifford, The ethics of belief, 1877.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

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