Friday, March 8, 2013
The Evolution of Virtue 4
Here is the next section of my paper. It will be followed by a concluding section that will (I hope!) tie the whole thing together.
Aristotle’s biology as I have described it is quite compatible with contemporary evolutionary accounts of human psychology. Indeed one might suspect that modern biology is only now getting around to the point that Aristotle arrived at more than two thousand years ago. Fortunately, modern biology brings to the table a wider array of theories and evidence than Aristotle could have dreamed of. Does this mean that we can now propose an evolutionary account of the virtues?
Here we must take care to avoid a mistake that is especially common among those who reject evolutionary accounts of human behavior. The fact that a psychological or physical trait is a product of natural selection does not, in itself, have any moral significance. Natural selection is a force, an example of efficient causation as Aristotle described it. It pushes the evolution of organisms in a certain direction just as the hot air in a balloon pushes (or more accurately, is pushed by cooler air), thus causing the balloon to rise. However, just as the balloon doesn’t rise because the hot air wants to get high, so evolution is not trying to get anywhere. Evolution is not a teleological process. It doesn’t aim at any end and so does not endorse or validate any purpose or condition.
Natural selection has, however, shaped creatures that develop and act in ways that can only be understood as teleological. The development of the infant toward adulthood, the process of metabolism, and the predator pursuing its prey, are all “end-directed processes”. These organic motions are constantly being redirected according to a preexisting program. The philosopher of biology Ernst Mayr preferred to call such processes “teleonomic,” to distinguish them from teleomatic processes. An example of the latter would be a rock sinking toward the bottom of the well. The rock is not programmed to do anything; the end of its journey is not in any way present in its beginning, except as a range of possibilities.
Aristotle’s teleology is entirely sound. He does not presuppose any active intelligence in the ontogeny of organisms. An organism does not come to have traits that are adapted to its environment because some supernatural mind is intentionally shaping them to that purpose. It simply the case that the adaptive trait is part of the animal’s nature. Aristotle understood adaptation very well and he also understood that one could make sense of ontogeny only by assuming that the expressed form of the organism (what we would call its phenotype) had to be present in some unexpressed form at the very beginning of the organism’s existence (what we would call its genotype). For that reason, Aristotle deserves to be called the father of genetics.
However, while Aristotle recognized that the perfectly obvious fact that teeth cause chewing is fundamental to explaining what teeth are (which is to say, an adaptation), it took Darwin to explain how chewing causes teeth. Natural selection completes Aristotelian teleology by understanding the two as a dynamic: that teeth cause chewing and that chewing causes teeth come to explain one another. Only this dynamic makes it possible to explain either.
The capacities that are expressed in the human palette of moral emotions are mental schema, features of the architecture of the mind. They are dependent on underlying neurological phenomena and they exist because they were selected for. Such is the soul as it is viewed by evolutionary biology. It is unlikely that this view can be false unless the entire edifice of modern biology is founded on error. Virtues are possible because the disposition of persons to feel certain emotions and act in certain ways in certain situations is subject to modification both by culture and by individual intention. We are no in a position to ask whether or in what way the virtues are products of natural selection and whether they are natural at all.
Aristotle says famously in his Politics that while the polis comes to be for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of the good life. This comment expresses the two ways in which some institution or behavior or some artifice may be said to be natural. It can be natural because it was produced by natural forces. The red of the red, red rose is natural in this first sense. It can also be natural even it is entirely artificial because it satisfies natural inclinations. An arranged bouquet of a dozen red roses is natural in this second sense.
The political community was, in Aristotle’s view, natural in both senses. Human associations emerge because they offer practical solutions to persistent problems. The marital and parental associations emerge because the family is necessary for procreation and the survival of offspring. The village emerges to solve longer range problems and finally the polis emerges because it supplies a complete package or self-sufficiency, as Aristotle calls it. The natural drive for survival and a minimal level of comfort push the political community into existence. However, as that complete community emerges, it makes possible more than a merely comfortable life. The good life for human beings is not a direct product of the evolutionary forces that make it possible. It is a by-product. Yet it is the most valuable thing that human beings can achieve for themselves.
We are now in a position to account for the evolution of the virtues. Natural selection for animal behaviors works by directing animals towards ends that promote successful reproduction. Animal motives are, however, shaped on a need to know basis. All the animal needs to know in a given situation is what to do. He or she emphatically doesn’t need to know how the action drives the Darwinian dynamic. Thus a bull elk doesn’t waste time trying to reproduce his genetic inheritance. He has no idea about that. He spends his time trying to mate. A woman who takes her newborn daughter into her arms for the first time loves her baby, not the genes that the baby shares with her. Whether the bull or the woman have a satisfying life is irrelevant to their selfish genes.
To be sure, the good life for most creatures will map closely, in most cases, onto the life that results in successful reproduction. That doesn’t mean that they are the same thing. A neutered beagle may have a much better life than a wild dog who sires many pups. The motives that are natural to animals, including human animals, are the products of natural selection; however, the interests of animals and their genes are nonetheless distinct.
The human good, Aristotle argues in his Nicomachean Ethics, is eudaimonia. This word is often translated as happiness. It literally means “good demoned” or blessedness. It indicates the human life that is satisfying as a whole. He analyses each virtue by reference to that end. The person who is just, courageous, generous, etc. will be mostly likely, in any set of circumstances, to live the best human life. He will also make a good partner in cooperative associations. Such associations will tend to be successful in Darwinian terms: they will provide for their offspring. However, for the virtuous person, successful reproduction is a means rather than an end. What she wants is the good life for herself, her family, her friends, and her fellow citizens. Whereas our selfish genes bribe us with the elements of happiness so that we will advance their interests (metaphorically speaking), we are interested in genetic proliferation only in so far as it will make us happy.