Friday, March 27, 2015

Why evolution doesn't select for ethics



PhysicistDave said...


Have you read Alan Donagan's classic The Theory of Morality?

Donagan argues that what we mean by morality is simply acting in accord with the maxim: "Act always so that you respect every human being, yourself or another, as being a rational creature."

No one could reasonably think that evolution designed us so as to always act morally: the empirical evidence to the contrary is all too obvious!

But, many of us most of the time do indeed act in accordance with Donagan's maxim, and no doubt our evolutionary background is relevant to that fact.

Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal discusses all this in detail: Wright rightly points out that our evolutionary past explains a lot about both our moral and our immoral behavior.

To use an analogy here, no one thinks that evolution causes human beings to be universally fat or universally thin. But, our evolutionary background does explain some of the factors (e.g., our sweet tooth) that are relevant to whether we are fat or thin.

Dave Miller in Sacramento

Hal said...

If we had evolved into creatures that felt no empathy or compassion for others then our ethical systems would be quite different than they are.
While I would agree that it is silly that the evolutionary process selects for each particular ethical position one might hold, it is, at least, indirectly responsible for us having ethical systems.

B. Prokop said...

Isn't it funny how atheists* forever accuse Christians of punting to (using their expression here) "goddidit", when without the least recognition of the irony involved, they themselves will go straight to "evolutiondidit".

Jezu, ufam tobie!

* Not assuming that either of the posters here are athiests. I can never keep all these pseudonyms straight!

(By the way, PhysicistDave, the Carpenters? The Carpenters? Really? And kudos to Hal for liking Late Spring.)

Hal said...

Even if evolution were directly responsible for all our ethics, you are still perfectly welcome to credit your God as the ultimate explanation. So am not sure why you are knocking evolutionary explanations.

B. Prokop said...


I'm not (necessarily*) knocking evolutionary solutions. I just think it beyond humorous that (here I am only referring to persons who mock the idea that "God did it") some people see no irony in the fact they've done nothing other than swap out words, when they claim "Evolution did it!"

* I use this parenthesis here because, although I do not disbelieve in evolution, neither do I give the concept anything near the credit some people seem to do - especially when it comes to explaining various behaviors. For one thing, it ain't science! How does one observe such a thing? How does one test for it? What predictions does it make? How can it be disproven? (I am speaking only of behavioral hypotheses here). It's all blue sky speculation, made by people who want such things to be true. (Lets them off the hook for their own failings.)

Jezu ufam tobie!

Saints and Sceptics said...

Is there a problem with the link?

im-skeptical said...

"It's all blue sky speculation, made by people who want such things to be true."

No, Bob. It's based on faith in one case, and evidence in the other case.

Edward T. Babinski said...

A child cannot fend for itself on its own. Hence developing a conscience that connects one with others is essential for survival

"Ethical sense/conscience" explained? The desire to conform / seek approval from others, begins as early as age two

It develops from a seed planted early in life, namely the desire to conform, which is also linked to the desire and effort by the child to gain approval from their parents. To quote Will Bagley (not from the article)... "In the human species, there is a kind of emotional biology where "approval equals survival." Human beings are very socially oriented, in spite of all the macho independence talk. Biologically, humans are actually quite weak physically and their strength is in a kind of social unity with the family being the basic unit. In earlier phases of history, a child could not really fend for itself on its own. The heroic stories of children who were cast out of society and managed to survive and even thrive were the exception that proves the rule, showing how much this did not happen, since these heroes were like legends. I deal with this a lot in my healing work, tapping into the "inner child" that still holds this belief that social approval equals survival. As a manipulative control strategy, many psychopaths will use social condemnation as a tool to control others and get their way, because most humans have this inner child within them and can be controlled through this. I find, too, that there are trolls that use condemnation tactics, very psychopathic in intent and flavor, to try to create a false consensus to shift political opinion. You can find them dancing away on nearly every RT video on youtube. Curiously, if a person does not have this "approval equals survival" meme running in childhood, they have a high tendency to become a psychopath (usually as a result of a highly toxic family environment where getting approval is so terrifying that the mechanism shuts down, the person gives up). It seems that the formation of our 'conscience' has a lot to do with the childhood effort to gain approval. It is like the seed that evolves into ethical thinking."

Edward T. Babinski said...

Morality and agreed upon moral laws arose among and between humans, just as language arose, and the whole of human society and culture. They arose as humans interacted with humans. Is God ever in danger of truly losing anything or getting sick? No, but humans face the possibility of a variety of losses due to other humans or natural events every day, along with inevitable losses like loss of health, loss of memory, decrepitude, death. Hence one could easily argue that the origin of agreements to try and diminish instances of such losses is a primarily human and inter-human concern, and therefore morality, as well as moral laws and laws regarding health and safety all originate first and foremost with societies of humans.

Moral values, like moral behaviors appear to have more than one basis behind them, by which I mean morality does not appear to be driven totally by one's conscious mind, nor does it appear to be something that is totally due to genetic predispositions, nor totally due to repeated lessons from birth that eventually become ingrained behavior patterns requiring little to no thought.

And the "moral" question appears to be a sub-division of all questions regarding what humans find agreeable and disagreeable. The vast majority of us like

1) being healthy rather than chronically ill or in pain;

2) eating rather than starving;

3) having at least a little money rather than living in abject poverty;

4) sharing peace and happiness rather than living in fear of having our lives or belongings taken from us at the whim of others or at the whims of natural accidents, diseases and disasters.

Such "choices" seem undeniably obvious to us, being a species with a long shared biological background, large brains, similar sensory organs, similar nerves that record similar feelings of pain and pleasure, and a similar psychological need to feel wanted and belong, rather than mocked and shunned, and a hunger to be in the presence of other members of our species like our family and others who stimulate us physically, verbally, and mentally. Hence, joys shared are increased, while sorrows shared are reduced. (Two notable exceptions would be psychopaths and sociopaths--who often show signs while very young that they have a much diminished sense of empathy; or, complete hermits who attempt to isolate themselves from the family or society in which they were raised.)

Edward T. Babinski said...

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 [priority] 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]