Friday, April 19, 2013
Genuine Morality & Natural Selection
I have been reading Steven Forde’s conference paper “Darwin and Political Theory”. It includes a very strong survey of social and political thought. I expect I will comment more fully when I have digested the whole piece. For now, I consider a question that seems to linger always in the background but is crucial to the argument.
There are reasons for remaining skeptical of Darwinian approaches, as I will explain momentarily. In the case of political theory, there is reason to dread its impact, inasmuch as Darwinism makes evolved, inherited emotional responses the ground of human morality, and such a foundation seems to make morality amoral. If we’re altruistic because we’ve been programmed to be altruistic, is it a matter anymore for moral judgment, for praise?
This raises the question: what is the difference between moral and amoral morality? What makes an action or sentiment authentically moral and what makes the same inauthentically moral?
I suggest that there is a common sense distinction that is implicated here: between acts and sentiments that are genuinely moral and those that are fraudulently moral. Consider the following two scenarios:
1. I help an elderly woman down some icy steps because her distress arouses genuine compassion in me and, perhaps secondarily, because I really believe that one should come to the aid of another in such a situation.
2. I help an elderly woman down some icy steps because I know her to be wealthy and I hope that my apparently moral act will encourage her to donate to some cause that I am invested in.
I think that almost anyone would agree that the first case presents a genuinely moral action and the second a fraudulently moral action. In the first case I do what I do because I judge that it is the right thing to do. This judgment might arise solely out of my emotions and it might arise my conscious commitment to abstract moral principles. Probably it is the first or both rather than just the second. Either way, the action is moral because it is motivated by moral concerns.
In the second case the motivation is amoral. I act as I do solely out of interest and if I pretend to be acting morally, I am attempting to deceive the beneficiary of my action. It is the proximate motive for the action that makes it moral or not.
What does not make the action authentically or inauthentically moral is the evolutionary origin of my moral passions. Human beings are endowed by our creator with a pallet of such emotions. We are capable of compassion and contempt; guilt, shame, and pride, a sense of obligation and righteous indignation. If evolutionary theory is correct, then all of these emotive capacities are available to us because they have been selected for. That means that our ancestors were successful at reproduction because they had this pallet of emotions. However, the selection pressure that works on a trait does not define the trait.
A camouflaged insect does not blend into its environment because it is selected for; it is selected for because it blends into its environment. Compassion, obligation, and indignation are not moral because they were selected for. That gets it ass backward. They were selected for because they are genuinely moral. Human beings who were both capable and inclined to do the right thing for the right reason, who were genuinely motivated by moral concerns and capable of articulating moral norms based on those concerns, have been generally more successful at forming cooperative communities and for that reason leaving behind more offspring than those who are not.
Natural selection can explain why we have moral emotions. The fact that these emotions were selected for is not what makes them moral.