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Evolutionary Theory and Morality

Updated on January 11, 2015

Instincts and Morals

Is the instinctive endowment of an animal relevant to what his or her moral duties should be?

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Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
E. O. Wilson, father of Sociobiology
E. O. Wilson, father of Sociobiology

Darwin on Morality

In the Descent of Man, chapter 21, Charles Darwin reflects on the relationship between morality and our instinctual apparatus. The latter has been honed over eons of evolutionary pressures and by means of selection of mutations that confer some advantage for survival and/or reproduction. Darwin is at this point expatiating not on what lies within his area of intense study and expertise but on a broader, philosophic topic that has always proven recalcitrant to thinkers of various stripes: this is what is known as the problem of "sanction" -- what it is that confers that characteristic compelling normative quality we associate with moral statements. When one says "x should be done", they may or may not be right but there is a force in the normative particle "should" that is never missing. This is how the language game is played with respect to normative - and also specifically to moral - expressions. What is it that justifies any moral utterance? If we push all the way to fundamental moral principles (assuming for now that this is what we must do for purposes of justification), then what is it that makes them good principles? That is where matters become murky but it is sufficient for discussing Darwin's musings on the subject to agree only that what happens with descriptive statements is different from what goes one when, in the language, one makes normative or evaluative statements. When we talk about how the instinctual mechanisms of animals operate we are doing something different from what we need to do to provide moral justification for an action. The claim that "my body chemistry made me do it" excuses morally only if an added point is admitted - which Darwin does not admit: that the person lacked the requisite capacities to exercise free will. Not that instincts are altogether irrelevant to moral debates. Any argument, however, that points to a conclusions about moral value - as Darwin does - must have at least one value premise. We could, trivially as it were, make the one premise about instincts (for instance, "instinct compels moral action") our moral premises. We are set but this moral principle now needs justification or defense. So, we are far from done. This is the problem Darwin runs into, although he does not realize it. He is not aware that the statement about how instincts are related to conduct needs to be defended in the right way - in the way moral principles are defended - if it is to serve as a moral premise. Sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson, the father of Sociobiology, run into similar difficulties. Let us turn to the details regarding Darwin's reflections.

Darwin does not make the typical novice error of taking animals - even higher but non-human animals - as being moral agents. Clearly, moral agency presupposes a spcific deliberative capacity that can be applied to draw distinctions among alternative options and alternative courses of action - including ability to reflect on counterfactual conditionals of the form "had it been the case that p is true, then q would have been true.") Related abilities include second-order reflection about characteristics of actions and the characteristic view the human mind has about how time works with respect to an irrevocable past and an open-ended future. It is only past the threshold of human intelligence that deliberative action becomes possible. So, it is only humans that can count as moral agents. Darwin is not interested in the vexed problem of the free will and he presupposes it for human agents. The examples Darwin uses have other animals crossing the intelligence threshold before they can be counted as moral agents. At that point, we can draw a counterfactual case. Here is an example: If bees became intelligent, one of the moral principles they would surely deem good and binding is that lazy males (drones) should be, rightly, put to death. Moreover, their theories of justice would surely distinguish an exalted place for a queen with a highly structured allocation of social functions around her.

Here is a direct quote from Darwin's text: "Any instinct, permanently stronger or more enduring than another, gives rise to a feeling which we express by saying that it ought to be obeyed. A pointer dog, if able to reflect on his past conduct, would say to himself, I ought (as indeed we say of him) to have pointed at that hare and not have yielded to the passing temptation of hunting it."

It is shocking how the case can be made that Darwin gets this all wrong. Some of our genetically closest primate relative, if males, trample to death the progeny of the previous male when they introduce themselves into something like a family. It is reasonable to suggest that this behavior is a good candidate for something that is morally evil rather than right. There is also a plethora of theories we have developed but examples like the one with the bees above suggest that the intelligent animals would evince a stunning predictability and uniform tendency to gravitate toward one specific theory of justice (which enthrones the queen as rightful sovereign) without controversy. The example with the dog we saw in Darwin's text also gives pause: once the dog is seen as a moral agent, the imperative about attacking the hare could well be pragmatic or prudential rather than moral. This is an important distinction and it is bad enough for Darwin's hypothetical that the distinction seems to be obliterated insofar as what the animal dog needs for survival is considered as a moral obligation on its face: contrast, as an example, a case in which we say, "it is morally unfortunate that this hare has to die but we must do this in order to survive ourselves." Seen one way, this is a moral dilemma; but in Darwin's simplified moral universe, arising strictly out of the same aims that instincts serve, dilemmas can only be pragmatic. Seen another way, we can say that killing the hare is not a moral matter but a pragmatic one: once again, Darwin's view cannot express this distinction between pragmatic and moral. Consider the different meanings of "should" - evident in most contexts of speech - in the following two sentences: "you should not torture for pleasure" and "you should use both hands to cut bread more effectively." Evolutionarily selected instinct may be in evidence in both instances - torturing for pleasure and clumsily struggling to cut by using only one hand may both have been deselected in the course of evolution; but the distinction in the uses of "should" is undeniable.

Critiques of the Sociobiological View of Morality

Darwin thinks, as do many sociobiologists today, that the setup of the instinctive mechanisms that have been selected by evolution is relevant to morality. Left as such, "relevant" is a prohibitively vague term. The issue is that Darwin takes the strongest position possible - or so it seems, considering that he simply offers rudimentary reflections on the subject. Sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson, however, take this further and risk running into what we may call strong views of the subject.

The strongest view is absurd as it entails a contradiction. Theoretical charity requires that we not attribute this view to authors unless they explicitly and unambiguously present it themselves. The strongest view is reductionist: morally relevant action is itself instinctively motivated and carried out without any role for free choice. Sociobiologists often take other primates, besides humans, to be capable of free choice but this position is also easily open to challenge. Without free will, ethics does not become impossible but moral responsibility - in the standard meaning of the term - becomes impossible to exercise. The debate regarding the relationship between instinct and morality involves moral responsibility - or, at least, we can assume that this is the case as we see sociobiology bent on influencing standard moral views about moral action. Darwin apparently assumes that human-like intelligence - which he attributes to bees in his hypothetical - confers the requisite capacities for deliberate and free choice. So, he does not take the strongest view if this reading is accurate.

There is trouble for the evolutionary theory of ethics already. When it comes to the possibility of exercising free will, it might be a matter of either/or without degrees: either one is free, hence morally to be held responsible, or one is not. It cannot be a matter of being free to an extent. This view, which seems right, takes the attributes of free-acting and morally-responsible to be crisp and not fuzzy. Belonging to the extension of the predicates is not a matter of degree. Contrast to this attributes like "tall" and "beautiful" which induce fuzzy predicates - it is a matter of degree whether one has the attribute or not. In linguistic usage, a crisp or sharp predicate might generate humorous reactions when preceded by "sort of" or with the suffix "-ish" added to the grammatical attribute term: this is why "zombies are deadish" sounds funny. There is no vagueness about the "being-dead" predicate and hence the predicate "---is dead" is crisp, not fuzzy. On the other hand, nothing sounds wrong with saying "x is tallish" or "y is sort of beautiful." If free action and responsibility fall under crisp predicates, then it is not clear what remains once we abandon the strongest position outlined in the preceding paragraph. We are left with considering in what ways instinctive endowments are relevant to moral demands.

One more point to raise has to do with the position of a standard evolutionary view on the spectrum of positions in the perennial, and difficult, debate on free will and determinism. The combination of determinism with a demand for moral responsibility falls under the broad position that is called Compatibilism. Philosophers like Daniel Dennet, who has an abiding interest in applying insights from evolutionary theory on philosophic inquiries, are compatibilists on their own admission. Compatibilism has been decried as an incoherent view by many but it remains the majority position among students of the problem of free will. If we place someone like Darwin in this slot (Darwin himself was not interested in the terms of this debate), we can make sense of the view without running into the problem of what we discussed above as the extreme position. The problem remains, however, that the evolutionary theorist is then compelled to denounce free will and it is not clear that this is welcome to a theorist like E. O. Wilson. There is a more serious concern: the moral virtues that emerge when we study evolutionary selection require behaviors like reciprocating to others - as distinguished from being an altruist or an egoist. The language used here suggests that free will and deliberate choice are at work: it appears that one ought to choose, on this view, to be a reciprocator rather than an egoist or - surprisingly for advocates of many traditional views - an altruist. This presupposes free will. Let us try to talk about this after we withdaw the free will assumption: one would rather be a reciprocator if one were to do the morally right thing but we are preprogrammed by evolution to be such anyway. There are egoists and altruists among us, of course, but this does not faze evolutionary theorists: although their critics always bring this up, the deviations from mechanisms of evolutionary advantage, which we find all around us, do not do damage to the theory. The problem is that the compatibilistic combination of evolutionary determinism with moral responsibility cannot take us to a prescriptive moral theory - about what we ought to do and not to do. If the evolutionary theorist is willing to pay this price, then there is a coherent position - unless we are altogether critical of compatibilistic positions.

To begin with, it is not obvious that, as sociobiologists assume, evolutionary knowledge can guide us to the correct moral theory. As we will see, there is a caveat. But we can start with the critique first.

1. What happens at the level of facts is one thing and how to evaluate morally is another. The Humean fallacy - committed with astonishing frequency by anthropologists - consists in drawing conclusions about moral things on the basis of premises none of which is normative. Mark that it does not matter what are our metaphysical props, if any, for moral statements - what kinds of items those moral things are. The fallacy is logical - as every fallacy is. The way language works, the perpetrator of the Humean fallacy - also called the ought/is fallacy - commits the absurdity of claiming to have pulled out of the hat what is not there. Evolutionary theorists are susceptible to committing this fallacy when they turn their attention to discussions of value in general. For instance, evolutionary pressures push in the direction of assessing as desirable female mates whose characteristics evince a higher probablity of success in surviving child-bearing. Evolutionary theorists take this to be relevant to aesthetics. The problem is parallel to what we are discussing since, in both cases, value or normative talk is spinned out of a theoretically-laden processing of facts. "You should be attracted to what has a better chance of surviving child-birth" is itself a moral principle - interestingly, it does not seem that it is an aesthetic principle. "What is beautiful is what has a better chance of surviving child-birth" is an aesthetic principle. But evaluation of whether this is a good AESTHETIC principle or not seems to be lacking. If you ask, "why is this a good aesthetic principle," the answer turns out to be pragmatic: "because greater chances of success in the evolutionary game depend on this." At best, we would then be advocating a pragmatic theory of aesthetic - but whether this is a good theory of aesthetics or not is not itself a pragmatic matter.

2. We are not disputing that evolutionary pressures select certain programmed behaviors that are morally relevant in the sense that they are about attributes of characters or actions that enter in moral statements: for instance, affection toward a child. The animal that did not have the instinctive capability of showing affection toward its child is more likely to have failed in the game of perpetuating its genes insofar as that child, bereft of care, was more likely to die before reaching the age of procreation. Of course, this applies to animals that cannot survive without care in the early stages of their developments. So, another evolutionary strategy for success that actually preempts care for newborns is ability to survive without care from others early on. But notice something: do we want to say that this other strategy - unassisted survival - is morally relevant? If not, why is one of the alternative strategies (care for newborn) relevant?

3. We also speak in moral theories about tasks that put a demand to overcome or surpass our instinctive urges! Maybe these are not good theories but we don't know that simply based on the fact of what has been selected evolutionarily. The metaethical task of assessing moral theories seems to be separate from - and irreducible to - the the task we undertake in constructing the theories themselves. Sociobiological views obscure this distinction. This has a lot to do with the proud claim that evolutionary theory is equipped to handle more than its immediate subject: the method in the evolutionary science is fit to study any long-term, dynamic project in which there is replication under pressure for survival and reproduction in a changing environment. Let us not dispute this and see what follows. The evolutionary method affords us great insights, indeed, as to how moral traditions evolve. A spectacular example is that of the moral tradition initially introduced by Christianity into what was then the Roman world. Today's Christian practices bear little resemblance to the communitarian and sacrificial, otherworldly and politically disinterested ethos of the early Christian communities. The Christian moral theory is the "meme" - as it is famously called - that evolved under dynamic environmental, historical and socio-economic and other, pressures so that those mutant memes that succeeded in surviving and reproducing are to be found among us with dramatically greater numbers. Although closer to the moral practices and views of the early Christians, a sect like the Amish or the Quakers is not an evolutionary success. In contrast, Christian-morality mutants that adapted, for instance, to nationalistic or market pressures have shown spectacular success. The Protestant ethos, catalyst for the dynamic spread of Christianity into the "New World" and for the post-Enlightenment era, adapted to the characteristically private virtues of the market reconfiguring rhetoric to assess worldly success as a sign of moral rectitude and possibly of divine selection and castigating the de facto poor as meriting their lot because of their vices. Christianity became nationalistic too - this, of course, happened already a long time ago even in the era of Byzantium where the new religion became first enthroned as official and obligatory. Clearly, what we find floating around us are evolutionary selected memes of the initial ideology. It is not at all clear, however, how this factual observation entails a privileged moral evaluation. If one, hypothetically, demanded that Christianity return to its pristine and pure condition, we would clearly take this person to be making a moral demand (whether we agreed with her or not.) If, however, all there is to "getting it right" depends on the evolutionary trajectory of memes, then this critic of contemporary Christianities would have no case to begin with: we would have to say that the critic is presumptively wrong, in the morally relevant sense. This is far from obvious.

4. Intuitively, we do not accord praise or blame to agents who did not act voluntarily and deliberately. For instance, why does it sound incongruous that a dog that bites someone is put to trial, convicted and sent to jail? There is a famous case from Renaissance Holland of executing a dog named Provetie after the authorities extended due process to the animal, even including a jury to deliberate on the case. This comes across as an absurd story. We don't have to return to the view we called the strongest view above. The claim that evolutionarily selected instincts - or behaviors that confer evolutionary advantages - confers moral merit to instincts and conducts that are in principle mechanical or, at least, amenable to being programmed or mechanized.

5. By the same token, animals that act NOT as a result of intelligent deliberation are not to deserve praise, as they are not due for moral blame either. When animals become extinct because of evolutionary glitches, it does not seem right to actually put moral blame on them. But moral agents are, by definition, entitled to praise and deserving of blame. So, something seems confused in the claim that the study of animal behavior is directly relevant for developing moral insights.

6. Moreover, we have that central distinction between moral and pragmatic terms, which evolutionary thinkers seem to confuse habitually. "You should avoid heavy traffic if you want to be on time" has a pragmatic or prudential "should." In certain contexts, this could be a moral sense. Language is our guide, as the source of meaning. The important point is that language compels a clear-cut distinction between moral and pragmatic particles. "You should not harm innocent life" has a moral usage of "should". It may not be impossible to conjure up a context within which this usage would be pragmatic. What matters, again, is that the distinction is clear to the competent user of language. If I help my offspring to promote my own genes, this sounds pragmatic and not moral as a consideration for many moral theories. This is not to say that there is no moral theory in which this is a moral principle. The problem is that the evolutionary viewpoint collapses moral to pragmatic to begin with. Mechanisms that work efficiently come under pragmatic, not moral, in most contexts. It is arguable that we have a moral obligation to choose the most efficient means to a morally good end - THIS is a moral principle; but simply acting efficiently to maximize survival and reproduction seems merely a matter of efficiency considerations, not a moral issue per se, unless survival and reproduction are themselves the ultimate moral values. They may or may not be. It is not a foregone conclusion that these objectives - survival and reproduction - have a presumptive claim to being the ultimate moral ends. We can as plausibly conceive of moral theories that demand sacrificing survival and/or reproduction of the sake of some other, morally higher end.

7. Interestingly, we have had naturalistic moral philosophies - including Aristotle's, whose adjustment has resulted in the Natural Law theory still applied by Catholic thinkers. Those naturalistic theories did not ineluctably chose survival or reproduction as the proper moral ends. This merely shows that a turn to how nature works for the sake of eliciting the right moral theory does not by itself suffice for discovering survival and reproduction as the ultimate moral objectives.

8. Another important distinction is between self-regarding and other-regarding duties. Evolutionary Theory loses this distinction insofar as it posits that the "selfish gene" is the fundamental driving engine behind the moral elements we should consider in theory. To be sure, the "selfish gene" interpretation is itself open to criticism. It is crucial that we take this as a conditional: insofar as there is a reduction of morally relevant categories to something that fundamentally abets self-fulfilling objectives, then we lose the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding. This would be a serious flaw in the theory.

9. The fact that, for instance, altruistic birds die out but reciprocating birds (birds that help only those that help them) pass on their genes, does not by itself prove that there can be no defensible moral theory that supports altruism. Moreover, it is not even clear that survival guarantees of any kind ought to be included in any theory as driving moral ends. We make sense of saying something like "let justice be done even if everyone perishes in the end." Now, this might not be a good theory but we cannot show that by appealing to the fact that everyone perishes - actually, notice that we admit this in the maxim quoted above. So, it is begging the question to insist that we prove this is a bad theory because ... all such theories are bad. One of the most popular moral views historically, original Christianity's unconditional turning of the other cheek, is obviously bad for survival. This may or may not be a good theory but the rules of the game for moral theory discussion are in normative theory - not in appealing to facts. Besides, if one were to stipulate that survival is the highest MORAL duty, we would also insist that they prove that THIS principle, the survival principle, is a good moral principle. This cannot be done by turning to facts. It is admittedly difficult to back up fundamental principles. The justification series has to come eventually to and end. One common attempt to defend the eligibility of survival as a moral end pays attention to the fact that survival is the precondition for any other action (at least for views that do not also stipulate an afterlife.) This bespeaks a confusion between preconditions and values. Something can be a value still even if the preconditions for attaining it are not forthcoming. There may be an upper limit to this, though: moral theories that are admittedly utopian or pose unattainable objectives can be criticized on this count. The most famous such theory is the Kantian deontological theory. It is not obvious, however, that, even if we try to avoid crushing into unattainable moral demands we have to settle for a normative elevation of what are preconditions for other actions. There seems to be a distinction between an action and its preconditions. Evolutionary theory also seems guilty of losing this distinction.

10, Many are surprised by this but science has no privileged access to moral theory. Values are different, conceptually, from facts (including theoretically ladden constructions of facts). Descriptions are different from moral statements. The one kind cannot be deduced from the other. Experts who study science without reading Ethics do not get this and they tend to be arrogant about the subject - but the proof is in the pudding, as they say. You are not allowed to confuse apples for oranges even if you are an expert on oranges. The issue is categorial (it is about categories) and, as such, it comes before gaining an expertise in this or that field of studies.

Ought Implies Can

There is one caveat to the points made so far. There is a moral principle - rather, a meta-ethical principle since it is regulative with respect to how moral principles should be defended or rejected. "Ought implies can." The classic example of supererogation in ethics - the imposition of demands that appear to be radically contrary to our biophysiological endowment - remains the saintly ethic of early Christianity that celebrated as moral hero the abnegationist monk who ran into the desert to live on locusts, starve all desires, deny biological needs all the way to bare existence, and possibly impose self-castration if nocturnal temptations proved incurable. This is an extreme but it shows that moral theories that go against our instinctual make-up might be bad theories.

Not everyone accepts the principle "ought implies can." The "can" in the phrase should not be ambiguous. We have discussed supererogation - in which case the "can" has to do with biophysiological abilities of the average representative of our species. We leave aside an extreme case in which logical impossibility can be introduced. The deontological theory of Immanuel Kant is perhaps the most famous example of a theory that makes a case against the "ought implies can" principle. In intuitively understandable terms, a rejection of this principle can be defended in the following way. There are many instances in the moral life when we realize that we could not have possibly saved someone from drowning, let's say; yet, this does not mean - or so one could claim - that there was no moral obligation to save a drowning person even under those circumstances. We should rather say that it was impossible to act on the moral imperative rather than that there was no such moral imperative at all.

© 2015 Odysseus Makridis


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    • Dip Mtra profile image

      Dip Mtra 

      4 years ago from World Citizen

      Very informative. Thanks.


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