Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why Darwinian Ethics is a Screamin' Failure

This is a redated post.

This is an account of the life of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The following item, in Jay's story, is what is interesting from the point of view of Darwinian ethics:

Hawkins left many children by many women. About 55 were known (or suspected) upon his death, and upon investigation, that number "soon became perhaps 75 offspring." [1]

Now from the point of view of Darwinian ethics, here is a screamin' success. This man passed on his genes 75 times! (I wonder what Wilt Chamberlain's numbers were?) But is this success? Was Hawkins even trying to pass on his genes? Or did he have more immediate goals in mind when these kids were conceived? Would Hawkins, an accomplished musician, even think that this was his own greatest accomplishment?

Yet, if Darwin's theory of evolution dictates moral norms, reproductive success would have to be the main goal of human existence. It's not, so Darwin's theory does not dictate moral norms.

17 comments:

Jim Lippard said...

I think you've defeated a straw man.

If you want to look at various theses on how evolutionary considerations are relevant to morality, look at ev. psych, look at Michael Ruse, look at this:
http://www.metanexus.net/metanexus_online/show_article.asp?6008

Mark said...

"...if Darwin's theory of evolution dictates moral norms, reproductive success would have to be the main goal of human existence. It's not, so Darwin's theory does not dictate moral norms"

You've nailed. Darwin's theory does not dictate moral norms. All Darwin's theory tells us is that adaptations which help to increase reproductive success will become more common within a gene pool over time. Darwin's theory does not tell us whether this process is good or bad.

The moral norms come from elsewhere. The natural world offers us no ethics. But how is this an objection to the objective fact of evolution?

Victor Reppert said...

It's not an objection to the fact of evolution. It is an argument that no moral norms follow from Darwinian considerations. It's not quite a straw man, in that there have been people who have attempted to get normative results out of the theory of evolution (remember the Social Darwinists from the 19th Century).

But I think Jim is pointing out that the term "Darwinian ethics" need not involve going from a Darwinian is to a moral ought; the question in the Ruse piece seems to be the extent to which evolution calls moral objectivity into question.

Mike D said...

At first I thought Victor was doing some character assassination to pick out the quote. I don't think it is fair to equate this man's exploits with Darwinian ethics just as we don't define Christian ethics by the actions of Christians.

The next question that came to my mind is how there could be as much correspondence as there seems to be between Darwinian ethics and theistic ethics when there basic presuppositions are so antithetical? I am assuming that there is much in common between the two ethics such as not murdering and not stealing, etc.

As a theist I might accuse the evolutionists of stealing theistic ideas. The evolutionist might say those theistic ideas are just the results of complex evolution mixed with advantageous social contracts. It seems like there should be more blatant differences. Maybe there are and I am naive.

Victor Reppert said...

What I was claiming is that if Darwinian success is to be equated with moral success, in other words if moral norms can be read off evolutionary biology, then Screamin' Jay would have to be regarded as a saint because of what the way in which he managed to reproduce. That's no one's idea of sainthood, so therefore moral norms can't be read off Darwinian biology.

Did SJH believe in evolution? Who knows.

Jim Lippard said...

"What I was claiming is that if Darwinian success is to be equated with moral success, in other words if moral norms can be read off evolutionary biology, then Screamin' Jay would have to be regarded as a saint because of what the way in which he managed to reproduce. That's no one's idea of sainthood, so therefore moral norms can't be read off Darwinian biology."

Equating Darwinian success with moral success is NOT equivalent to "if moral norms can be read off evolutionary biology." Or evolutionary psychology.

Your argument seems to be saying that the only way evolutionary science can inform moral theory is if reproductive success is the ultimate end. But surely evolutionary science can provide information about facts of human nature and behavior, how social ends can be achieved, how cooperation can evolve, etc.

In other words, one can consistently argue for "reading off moral norms" from evolutionary sciences (especially if that reading includes looking at what moral norms people actually hold and why) while denying that the ultimate aim of morality (despite the facts of how it may have originated) must be reproductive success. There's no equivalence there.

Victor Reppert said...

What I am claiming is that evolutionary facts do not entail moral truths. That doesn't mean that evolutionary information can't play a role in helping us understand moral norms.

Of course any naturalistic account of ethical phenomena, which theists like Lewis use to argue for theism, will have to be evolutionary in nature.

Bilbo Bloggins said...

Jim,

I think you're missing the point. Victor would agree with you that the goals of Darwinian processes are not to be equated with morality. He seems to be taking issue with people who do just this. I'd have to say that its quite a common position. It is said that we are a product of the materialistic process of evolution, and this is all we are and thus we can look to our evolutionary history for guidance in the ethical department. Further, we can look to the behavior of other products of evolution as well.

"You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals, so lets do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."

Victor Reppert said...

My point is a little broader. It is the familiar point from Hume, Moore, and C. S. Lewis that it is difficult to get descriptive statements to entail ethical statements. The old "You can't get an ought from an is." And yes Bilbo, people do try to make just the kinds of ethical arguments based on evolution that you suggested.

But if the basic moral principles are agreed upon, evolutionary science may be able to provide information as to how those goals might achieved, just as market research or Skinnerian psychology, to, of course, the extent to which these particular scientific claims are true.

Steven Carr said...

Darwinian selection does not dictate morality.

Human beings dictate morality.

Of course, if you believe that Darwinian selection furthers God's plans, you might have a different viewpoint.

Jim Lippard said...

"Jim,

I think you're missing the point."

I don't think so.

"Victor would agree with you that the goals of Darwinian processes are not to be equated with morality."

Right, I'm with you so far. We agree on that.

"He seems to be taking issue with people who do just this. I'd have to say that its quite a common position."

References? A novelty song by the Bloodhound Gang doesn't count.

"It is said that we are a product of the materialistic process of evolution, and this is all we are and thus we can look to our evolutionary history for guidance in the ethical department. Further, we can look to the behavior of other products of evolution as well."

Everything you've said here IS defensible (though I'd disagree with some interpretations of "this is all we are"), and is not equivalent to what we agreed upon above.

BTW, I disagree with those who think there is a complete separation between norm and fact, between is and ought. While facts can be detached from purely subjective values, they are highly relevant to instrumental values--there are facts of the matter about what behaviors, actions, social structures, etc. produce as consequences in the actual world we live in, and those facts are relevant to how we can best attain the most fundamental values.

Victor Reppert said...

Jim: I'd be interested in your reaction to the second paragraph of my last comment.

Bilbo Bloggins said...

"He seems to be taking issue with people who do just this. I'd have to say that its quite a common position."

Jim wrote: References? A novelty song by the Bloodhound Gang doesn't count.

>>>Of course it "counts". Its a great example of the widespread nature of such notions in pop-culture. I hope, by that term, you don't mean *scholarly* sources as I'd like to think scholars are hesitant to commit the naturalistic fallacy in print nowadays. I'm surprised you'd ask for "references" at all in light of my own experience of the frequency of such reasoning in the recent debates concerning homosexuality, genetic engineering, etc. I frequent internet chatrooms and I have seen people reason this way countless times. But I will "refer" to a specific conversation I had a few weeks ago with a co-worker of mine. We both were commenting on the aesthetic quality of women that work in our department -- many of them happen to be extremely beautiful. From my Christian perspective, I brought up my desire to avoid staring excessively and inappropriately as we both acknowledged we were drawn to do throughout the day. My co-worker told me it was ok because of the way we had evolved, discussing the evolutionary signalling of certain sizes, shapes, colors, and proportions of the female body. Further, in another conversation, he used our natural history as a justification for divorce and adultery. He claimed that lifetime monogamy was not even the "right" way to live because it was "unnatural" (by which he meant it was not the norm in our evolutionary history).

Jim wrote:
Everything you've said here IS defensible (though I'd disagree with some interpretations of "this is all we are"), and is not equivalent to what we agreed upon above.

>>>Jim, thanks for the correction. You're absolutely right. I used the wrong words to convey my thoughts (i.e. "guidance"). What I meant to refer to was straight deductions, equivalences, and justifications drawn out of our evolutionary history and nature itself. Of course, everyone agrees that nature can guide and inform ethics. For instance, we might be more lenient in our considerations with people who have genetic predispositions toward behavior generally considered unethical, or something of the sort.

Jim wrote:
BTW, I disagree with those who think there is a complete separation between norm and fact, between is and ought. While facts can be detached from purely subjective values, they are highly relevant to instrumental values--there are facts of the matter about what behaviors, actions, social structures, etc. produce as consequences in the actual world we live in, and those facts are relevant to how we can best attain the most fundamental values.

>>>No one is saying facts are not "relevant" -- just that ethical considerations cannot be justified by them alone. In these instances, the descriptive does not entail the proscriptive.

Bilbo

Jim Lippard said...

Bilbo: I'll grant your point and expand on it--there has long been an argument form that says that what is natural is good and moral, and what is unnatural is bad and immoral, which long predates evolution. It's a very poor argument. Perhaps the most common instance of such an argument is "Homosexuality is unnatural, therefore it is immoral." But, in fact, homosexuality is not unnatural--it's found throughout the animal kingdom. (Along with a diverse variety of practices which are beyond the imaginations of Krafft-Ebing and de Sade--see Olivia Judson's book, _Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation_.)

Natural things include polio, smallpox, murder, rape, parasites, and hurricanes. Unnatural things include open heart surgery, gene therapy, airplanes, and birth control.

The presence of things in the natural world can inform and explain morality, but are not a guide.

Darek Barefoot said...

It seems to me that the outside story always needs to be distinguished from the inside story. C. S. Lewis pointed out that evolved animals or automatons might do the same things we do but for different reasons--or, as Lewis would say, due to "causes" rather than "reasons." This relates to the question of p-zombies. If "moral behavior" has adaptive payoffs, then of course it can always be proposed that the behavior is occurring because of those payoffs. Animals, including social insects, succeed adaptively not just by reproducing but by preserving offspring as they develop and by "cooperating" in social networks. Ants will individually sacrifice themselves, and their colony will succeed adaptively as a result. But do ants sacrifice themselves because of awareness that self-sacrifice is morally praiseworthy? I don't think so.

Christian thinkers tend to claim that the death of classical virtue will mean the collapse of civilization, in other words it will prove to be maladaptive. But that strengthens the claim that the "outside story" can be conceived of in purely mechanical terms as long as the "inside story" (the fruits of introspection) can be discounted. The argument, then, is whether the inside story--our apparent ability to act because of our awareness of moral norms--can be coherently discounted.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,

You're really stooping low here, mentally and philosophically speaking.

First, who says that "moral norms" must be "dictated?" And to what extent? Secondly, by whom and for whom?

By "God?" Read the Bible, there's a lot of "moral norms" in the O.T. that we ignore today, and even Jesus spouted over a hundred "commands" to his followers many of which aren't followed today.

I think of moral norms as based on shared biology of a social species, and its psychological needs, having similar hopes, joys and fears; and in a legal sense as assessments of personal interest compared with societal interest made for people and by people. We all have a vested interest in personal lives and societal lives that run relatively smoothly.

And as the philosopher Mary Midgley pointed out:

Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

“Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.”(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt--though of course usually an unsuccessful one--to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention.

Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001

Nacisse said...

edward t. babinski: The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down.


some years back i'm sure many theologians would have said the same about belief in god and immortality.. no doubt humans given their emotional conflicts -fears of death and such- need gods and immortality as much as morality -or some suitable replacement, maybe, video games, celebrity, or darwinisim. I don't no what that says about god, immortality, morality, and gravity though... because apparently what goes up doesn't come down - we just think falsely (or need to think falsely for some psychoanalytical reason) that it will...

we all must make distinctions between different acts ... the question is on what basis do we make such distinctions .. is it that some act is actually good/right (that being morality) or is it that some act will aid my survival or social standing or relive some emotional strain or.... if it is one of the later you have done away with morality and replaced it with something else ... life goes on, I suppose...