Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Evolutionary moral skepticism

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Reading and writing has been rendered rather difficult this week by a parental visit and the fact that it’s half term. Still, I’ve managed to squeeze in a short read on what the science of biology can bring to ethics.

I had wondered whether the chapter (by Michael Ruse in the Routledge Companion to Ethics) would address the famous difficulty of deriving moral principles from natural facts (ought from is), or whether it would perhaps focus on how biology goes some way to determining what the good life for a being might be. Instead, the chapter concentrated on evolutionary ethics – the idea that moral behaviour can be explained in terms of its evolutionary function. In other words, the theory that we act in ways that seem morally motivated, but which sees the underlying reason for our behaviour in the subconscious urge to ensure the survival and propagation of our genes. My first thought on reading this was to wonder if Ruse would discuss the problems that this raises for thinking that we have free will and are thus responsible agents, but sadly there’s no consideration given to this at all.

Ruse does mention Moore’s naturalistic fallacy (the problem mentioned above of getting from ‘is’ to ‘ought’), but only to say that evolutionary ethics generally “don’t care how clever it is and what it proves, they know it is wrong”.1 Moore is wrong, apparently, because (so the argument runs) “the evolutionary process itself promotes value, and therefore our ethical duty is to work with and within this process to see that it is realized as fully as possible”.2 I confess that I don’t see how this amounts to an argument of any kind that’s familiar to me, and Ruse thankfully doesn’t give it much credence either. However, where he goes after that (dismissing Kant as ‘an ageing bachelor in East Prussia in the late eighteenth century’ who relies upon his intuitions, and Mill as nothing more than a ‘Victorian English gentleman’ who goes on ‘gut feelings’ while ‘his wife was nudging him in the right direction’3) is not much better.

Instead, Ruse gives us with an evolutionary explanation for human social behaviour (not exactly a surprise), and an assertion that evolutionary behaviour might show that ‘there is no justification of morality in the way that philosophers have traditionally sought.’4 The reason given in support of this claim is that the pre-theoretical intuitions used in a good deal of ethical reasoning have evolved in us as a result of adaptation and natural selection. However, over-playing the importance of pre-theoretical intuitions in utilitarianism or Rawlsian contractualism (the two ethical theories Ruse focuses on) is something of a travesty. Each of these theories seeks consistency in moral reasoning and is more than happy to abandon an intuition that proves mistaken upon reasoned consideration. Secondly, I’m not sure how tying an initial intuition used to prime a process of moral theorising to an aspect of human biology in any way demonstrates that there is no basis for the ‘traditional’ justification of morality. Take the intuition that suffering is bad for a being that suffers – I’m not sure how showing that that intuition is a result of natural selection counts as proof that there is no basis for a philosophical argument that causing suffering is wrong, or that that intuition cannot figure in the process of reasoning that leads to that conclusion.

Now, I happen to find the idea that moral emotions derive from natural selection fascinating, and I’m increasingly amazed by their presence in other animals (see the work of the brilliant primatologist Frans de Waal for instance), but all I’m left with after reading this chapter is the feeling that evolutionary biologists should be less hasty to pronounce on moral theory (or that more space should have been devoted to developing an argument). I’m also a little disappointed that I’m beginning to flag a little after a long day, because this is a topic that could really do with some clear and detailed analysis of the sort that I’m too tired to give, and which is also so wide ranging as to be a little ill-suited to the blogging medium.

1John Skorupski (ed), The Routledge Companion to Ethics (Routledge, 2009), 401.

2Ibid., 402.

3Ibid., 403.

4Ibid., 404.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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