Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Did morality "evolve"?

I've seen several scientists answer this (ambiguous and vague inquiry) in the affirmative before such as the physicist Leonard Susskind, the evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser, and the primatologist Frans de Waal and even the philosopher Richard Joyce. But what can such a claim really mean? There is an ambiguity in the question (and its bald affirmation or denial) that is the worst form of ambiguity. It may be construed as either trivially true or outright false.

They might mean that our sense of morality or right or wrong is the way it is through evolution. Certainly that has some truth to it but just as certainly, many of our moral intuitions and sensibilities do not come from evolution but from cultural, personal or other conditioning processes. So not all of our moral senses we are imbued with are a result of evolutionary forces. So there is some truth to this claim when it is qualified to mean something like, "some moral senses have evolutionarily influences." But interpreted this (charitable) way, this is so trivial as to be not worth much attention. Yes, some of our senses of right and wrong etc (but not all) are likely the result of evolutionary forces.

Also, morality does not end when our moral intuitions give us no direction. Much of the moral problems we face extends to areas where we have no clear intuitions in any direction. But we still ponder what is the right thing to do in those situations and sometimes arrive at plausible or implausible answers which can be scrutinized by the light of of our rational faculties.

Many of the most interesting moral problems are conflicts in our moral intuitions either within some individual or between individual's of the same culture or between those of different cultures. When this occurs, we have the further question of which way is th right way to follow. Such questions can only be settled through reasoned rational deliberation. Obviously, evolutionary instilled instincts, sensibilities and intuitions will not help us here because they may be partially responsible for the conflicting problems to be resolved. So evolution cannot explain what we do when we resolve or mediate these problems.

Many moral problems today are novel. In our evolutionary history, we likely inhabited social and environmental niches which were far different than modern society and thus our evolutionary moral sense will not help us (and in many case hinder) rational moral deliberation. Thus rational deliberation takes up the slack where our natural moral sense falls short. I suspect that almost all questions in medical and business ethics extends to areas outside of anything our ancestors ever experienced but that doesn't mean that philosophers are not working to resolve these issues; they are, they are just using their rational faculties instead of their evolutionary endowed moral senses to guide them towards a resolution.

Take our likely evolutionary instincts to be distrustful of strangers and to like those more similar to ourselves. Now tens of thousands of years ago this instinct might have been advantageous and thus naturally selected for. The members of your rival tribes are competing against your tribe for valuable resources and may be trying to deceive you or take advantage of you in some other way and those who are similar to you may be more trustworthy, and since have your genes, caring about their welfare may contribute to the spread of your genes. In other words, our natural moral senses of trust, compassion, cooperation, kindness, etc may be naturally limited or attenuated outside of our own small group of similar individuals. But such relative biases and mistrust towards those of the out group in many instances are detrimental in modern global society where we all are interconnected and must cooperate. Biases may contribute to racism, xenophobia, centrism, many kinds of other isms and preferential treatment that is counter to global distributive justice. Times have changed and our evolutionary instilled moral senses may be obsolete. Again, in order to solve these problems we must rely on a guide outside of that provided by evolution.

But saying that morality evolved in this sense may be no more informative than saying that "physics evolved" because physics involves observation and since our senses have evolved through millions of years of adaptation, our sense of physical laws through observing things have "evolved." Our natural moral senses may guide us towards morality but it should not be mistaken for morality itself for it can always be itself questioned whether it has led us to the morally correct conclusions.

OTOH, morality may have "evolved" in the sense that because morality deals with the goods and bads, right and wrongs, these things are particular to humans through our evolutionary history and thus morality specific to humans have in some sense evolved. What is good and bad for our wellbeing may be particular to humans and even differ amongst individuals. Our values are species and even individual specific and part of that may be due to evolutionary forces. Perhaps other creatures (on this and maybe other planets) have different desires, needs for their wellbeing, and even rights. But this seems like a misleading and needlessly arbitrary restriction of the word 'moral.' We can certainly speak of moral behavior towards aliens or non human animals (or even inanimate things) who may have different desires, needs for their wellbeing and rights than we do. And we can speak of respect for their rights and fairness and justice towards them. We can speak of kindness, etc towards them. We can also speak of meanness and cruelty and so forth in our relations with them. These are all moral topics.

There may be other meanings of the claim which are sometimes intended but I think that these other meanings can be shown equally trivial or false. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins seems to be commendably more careful with his words and seem to only claim the first of my disambiguations here (i.e., that it is our moral sense that has evolved, not morality itself which I don't even think makes sense if that was the intended meaning).