Thursday, April 26, 2012

Evolution of morality and money

What does money have in common with morality? Think about money. The original purpose of money may have been as a tool. It is used symbolically and as a stand-in or proxy for more useful items, items that people desire and need. Its sole purpose was a fungible item. Its utility was instrumental. It provides ways to do things that otherwise would be difficult or impossible.

But we all know that today, many people view money as an end in itself (such as misers). Many greedy people take pleasure or utility in making money, hording it, etc. Even some regular people may value some of this money-is-a-good-in-itself trait. They have no plans to spend it, to buy things they desire but the money itself gives them pleasure and happiness. Likewise, loss of that money may constitute grief even if some people have already got all the material items and services they could ever want. Most of us, though, still primarily view money as a means to an end, that is, as a means to obtain goods and services which we directly desire.

Now consider the evolutionary purpose of morality. It may have also served an evolutionary end; that is, the propagation of our species (more specifically our genes). But we have come (and by we, I mean those of us especially concerned with morality such as philosophers and other morally conscious people) to see morality as an end in itself. In other words, we have categoricalized morality (in the sense that Kant was using "categorical"). In viewing it as such, we may have even altered the structure of morality itself. So instead of seeing morality as instrumental (whether it may be as a tool to propagate the species or to propagate our own utility or the utility of the whole human society, etc) we see it as a good in itself. But some of our intuitions about the instrumental aspects of morality are still in play which is why I suspect gives some of the appeal of consequentialist ethics. That appeal may have some evolutionary roots.

But I also suspect that the categorical appeal, perhaps newer as an evolutionary development, may also have its roots in the same way that appeal for money has for the miser, that is, it is also culturally instilled. It becomes the end in itself, the good will of Kant or his categorical imperative, is good regardless of the consequences because morality shifts its values the same way that society shifts their values for goods so that some people value money in itself instead of the things it could buy. Morality becomes categorical instead of hypothetical in the same way that money becomes a direct source of good for many people (misers) and not a means to other ends. A tension between these two different ways of looking at morality is most clearly seen when the categorical and the hypothetical comes apart in practical deliberation as infamous philosophers' examples have often focused on such as in trolley problems and other thought experiments pitting our categorical values against our hypothetical values. I wonder how much of the rift in ethics can be explained by this analogy with money?

In this way, we may feel the tug in two directions. On one hand, we feel the appeal of consequentialism because we still see the instrumental value of morality (the hypotheical imperatives) but we also see that at the other end is categorical value that some actions/character traits/motives are good in themselves the consequences not even relevant to their goodness (an extreme example of this is the famous dialogue between Kant and his friend, Benjamin Constant regarding the morality of lying to save an innocent person's life).  

In saying the things I just said, I want to make clear that I believe that both our categorical and hypothetical intuitions are a result of both evolution and culture unlike perhaps with money. The miser's value in having money is likely purely a cultivated value. He wasn't born with the disposition to value money though he probably was born with the disposition to value certain things that money could buy (food, status, power, shelter, attention from the opposite sex ,etc). But those who favor the categorical values in morality likely have their intuitions both as a result of dispositions given by evolution and culture. Evolution perhaps helped instill values that favored a categorical outlook to avoid certain kinds of rationalizations of immoral behavior (see The Myth or Morality for a defense of this evolutionary perspective on the categorical). But cultures also can instill categorical values (reading Kant can enforce one's innate dispositions to value them, e.g.). Whereas reading, say, Bentham, may enforce our hypothetical values even though we may have some of these intuitions given us by our natural dispositions from evolution.  

So in this way, we may have intuitions both natural and cultivated that pull in different directions and perhaps this may explain why meta-ethical debates are so difficult to resolve.