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Further Reading

Basic Training

Evolutionary Ethics

The Bad, the Worse & the Unpleasant

by David Anderson

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 36

Every time I teach ethics to undergraduate students, a handful make known their loyalty to full-blooded evolutionary theory, the version that denies God any role at all in organic history. At the beginning of the semester, these students are confident that evolution can (and does) serve as a strong foundation for morality. Evolution is the cornerstone of everything else in biology, so why not of human beings' notions of right and wrong, too?

But as we explore the ethical implications of evolution over the course of the semester, I often sense these students becoming less confident. By the end, some conclude that evolutionary theory actually provides a rather poor basis for morality. They come to believe that the theory has truly unsettling implications with respect to right and wrong.

No matter what version of evolutionary ethics one explores, each one suffers serious flaws. None of them are fit to survive.

Universal Natural Desires

As it happens, there are three main competing views about what evolution implies about morality.1 The first is nicely articulated by political scientist Larry Arnhart. In his book Darwinian Natural Right (SUNY Press, 1998), Arnhart details a version of evolutionary ethics in which morality arises from our natural desires, formed in us by natural selection and random mutation over millions of years. These natural desires serve as the objective standard of morality—the plumb line of right and wrong.

Arnhart focuses on "universal human desires," which are core desires that the vast majority of human beings have had in every culture. He highlights twenty, including parental care, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social ranking, justice, political rule, war, health, beauty, and ten others (pp. 29–36). In Arnhart's view, an objectively good person is one who satisfies these natural desires insofar as he is able. For example, a man who cultivates friendships, cares for his kids, maintains his physical health, appreciates art, and so on, is a morally good person. By contrast, a man who alienates his friends, neglects his kids, abuses his body, cares nothing for art or beauty, and so on, is an objectively bad person.

In sum, morality is anchored in universal human desires, and these desires were formed in humans over eons, through descent with modification. Our evolutionary heritage is the wellspring of right and wrong.

Arnhart's Undoing

Although it has attractive qualities, Arnhart's view has major shortcomings. Consider just one: under his view, we cannot condemn successful wars of exploitation and conquest as morally wrong because war is one of the twenty universal human desires whose satisfaction is morally licit. It would thus be entirely moral for one society to attack another, as long as it is victorious and exploits the vanquished in a way that enables its own members to better pursue their various other universal desires. Arnhart tries to downplay this conclusion by calling war a tragedy.2 But that's just a dodge. If he were consistent, he'd have to say that, insofar as the victorious society succeeds, it has done something morally praiseworthy. Though there is a losing side which suffers, yet the victor has done nothing wrong. In fact, it has done something good—even if that good includes the slaughtering of innocents. Might makes right.

But surely that's not correct. This version of evolutionary ethics is as unattractive as it is untenable.

Objective Morality—For Pretend

Another version of evolutionary ethics, one held by philosopher Michael Ruse, contends that, as a direct consequence of the evolutionary process, humans have developed subjective moral standards that have the appearance of being objective. That is, evolution has given humans a disposition to believe that there are objective moral values and duties, but in reality there are none; right and wrong are simply matters of personal preference or feeling. This means, for example, that breaking the golden rule is not actually wrong, even though most human beings believe that it is. Ruse explains: "The evolutionist's claim . . . is that morality is subjective—it is all a question of human feelings or sentiments—but he/she admits that we 'objectify' morality. . . . We think morality has objective reference even though it does not."3

According to Ruse, natural selection fooled us into believing in objective morality because such beliefs ultimately help us to survive and reproduce. If we believe we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves, for example, then we cooperate more with others. And the more cooperative a society is, the more successful its members are at surviving and reproducing.4

But in reality, morality is ultimately a matter of personal preference and feeling. Since there is no purpose, plan, or goal to evolution, humans are nothing more than the accidental results of a mindless process. We were not designed by God (or anything else) to live in a certain way. All that's left, then, to build a sense of morality on is each individual's subjective feelings. Objective moral values and duties are no more real than the tooth fairy.

Ruse on the Rocks

Numerous problems plague Ruse's view of morality, but perhaps the most worrisome is what we might call the Problem of Use and Abuse. If morality is ultimately just a matter of individuals' feelings, then what can we say about a person (or group) who enjoys doing terrible things to innocent people? For example, in my ethics class, I ask my students if it's okay to kick old women in the shins for the sheer pleasure of it. Their answer, of course, is no. But on Ruse's view, there is nothing objectively wrong with that action. As long as the perpetrators enjoy it and are clever enough not to get caught and punished by those who do feel that such behavior is wrong, they have no reason whatsoever to be kind and respectful.

Of course, Ruse thinks that most people wouldn't do such a thing, thanks to their (admittedly mistaken) belief that there are objective moral standards that forbid it. And anyway, most people do not enjoy wantonly inflicting harm on others. But these facts miss the point. Some people do like brutalizing and exploiting others. Yet, if Ruse's view is correct, they do nothing wrong when they behave viciously. In fact, if they feel good about their actions, they are doing something morally right!

But this is plainly absurd. Gaining pleasure from cruelty doesn't make cruelty right. Uday and Qusay Hussein were not justified in tormenting others because they enjoyed doing so.

So Long, Free Will

As a final option for evolutionary ethics, consider the views of William Provine, a late biologist and historian at Cornell University. Provine held that evolutionary theory (and science more generally) supports subjectivism. He agrees with Ruse that there is no objective standard of morality; rather, each person should do what's in his own best interest.

But Provine adds a twist. He believes modern science has shown that human beings are physical objects—made entirely of things like electrons, quarks, fermions, bosons, and so on. Physical objects obey the laws of physics: electrons do not "decide" what to do, they just mindlessly interact with other phenomena. Similarly, human beings don't actually make any decisions at all. We think we do, but we are mistaken. We have no more free will than toasters. As Provine says, "What modern science tells us . . . is that human beings are very complex machines. There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices."5

 Consider a long line of falling dominoes. A given domino can't choose whether to fall or to jump out of the way when struck by another domino; its action is entirely dictated by that of the domino immediately before it (and of the other dominoes before that). Likewise, no human being has ever made a free decision. Instead, all his "decisions" were really determined by particles and forces set in motion in the distant past. As Provine says bluntly, "free will as it is traditionally conceived . . . simply does not exist."6

Provine Pinned Down

Provine's subjectivist theory suffers the same problems as Ruse's, including the dreaded Problem of Use and Abuse. But it stumbles in another way, too. Provine's commitment to determinism simply lays waste to morality itself. For if a person's actions are determined by forces beyond his control, then he can't be held accountable for anything he does.

As Immanuel Kant famously said, "Ought implies can." It only makes sense to say that a person ought to do something if he can do it. Does it make sense to say that a quadriplegic should have jumped out of his wheelchair to save a drowning kid? Of course not; he can't be held accountable for failing to do something it was impossible for him to do. But if all human actions are determined, then we are all in the position of the quadriplegic all the time; we can't be held morally accountable for anything we do (or don't do) because we have no control over our actions. But without moral accountability, morality itself hardly makes sense.

A few years ago I attended a talk by a colleague who defended determinism. Afterwards, I asked him, "Were Hitler's actions morally wrong? Should he have treated the Jews differently?" My colleague gave me a startled look but replied, "No, Hitler's actions were not morally acceptable. He should have done otherwise." I immediately followed up, "But you're a determinist. So Hitler had no choice in the matter. He had to do what he did to the Jews. How does it make sense to say he should have done otherwise?" My colleague's response was to mumble something unintelligible and change the subject.

Clearly, the deterministic view suffers a fatal flaw.

Something More?

If these three principal versions of evolutionary ethics lead to unacceptable moral consequences, then it is likely that evolution itself serves as an inadequate ground for morals. Even if evolutionary theory is correct (a big if), something else is required for morality.

Not long ago, I finished a section on evolutionary ethics in my introduction to philosophy course by pointing out that human beings can be a very aggressive species, especially towards each other—as the staggering body count in the twentieth century makes starkly clear. "As far as I can tell," I concluded, "even if evolution is true, the only way it could serve as an adequate basis of morality is if it had made us into angels. But clearly, we are not angels. To put it bluntly, sometimes we act like beasts." The class just nodded. 


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