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. 


  1. So what about the fellow who tries to behave morally because he thinks it may increase his chances of survival? Is he amoral and therefore, not selected for or moral because he is trying, but perhaps not for the right reasons?

  2. Also, in other cases, evolution seems to go in one direction (or, at least, I think so. At any rate, Men don't seem to be turning back into Homo heidelbergensis.

    Why does morality seem so different? If morality is selected for, why is immorality so prevalent? Is it likely to disappear?

  3. 1) It is easy to see how and why selfishness is selected for. Any organism has to maintain its own reproductive fitness if it is to leave offspring who inherit the same tendencies.

    It takes a bit more work to explain the evolution of genuine moral concerns. If reciprocity confers an advantage on both partners of a reciprocal relationship and if there is a temptation to cheat, then genuine moral emotions can be elected for. A player who is genuinely virtuous and who shows obvious signs of this will be better able to attract partners; he will look for partners who show the same signs. Genuinely honest people (or, what is almost the same thing, bad liars) make the best partners.

    Of course, such relationships also create a niche for the good liar who can mimic genuine morality. Let us call them the Clintonians. Within a given population of animals, natural selection will often favor diverse strategies.

    2) Many organisms have evolved cooperative systems that are beneficial in general and that invite cheating. Vampire bats share blood with one another as a way to cover periods of unlucky hunting. It is tempting for a bat to take blood but not return the favor. The bats have a large brain which seems to serve in part to keep track of these exchanges. Cheaters are ostracized. Honeybee workers are tempted to lay eggs and when they do they will prefer their newborn sons to the eggs of the queen. She takes care of this by eating those eggs.

    Human beings are clearly designed to cooperate and just as clearly we have a tendency to cheat; thus the moral dramas of our species. Could immorality disappear? Yes, but that would require something like what happened among some ant species. The workers became sterile and thus are unable to cheat the colony. For human beings to become angels, more or less, we would have to become behavioral robots. That would be altogether too high a cost, in my view. There is some wisdom in the traditional argument from Christian theology that sin is a cost we pay for free will.

  4. For a more detailed presentation of some of these themes, see Larry Arnhart's post

  5. Thanks, Dr. Blanchard. I found Arnhart's refutation of the argument that God's law is a gift to bees interesting, as I had been thinking along the same lines as I read along. Bee society seems tyrannical and unfair. There is no equality. Some members of the colony are allowed to procreate while others are not. If you are right about morality being selected for in humans, why is it different for bees? Why don't they choose only to associate with bees who give them a chance to procreate and who will be fair partners? Where are the bee Bolsheviks?

  6. Thanks for your comments and questions, Miranda. Natural selection produces at least one species the members of which are in a genuine sense capable of choice. This may be true of some other species but it is surely not true of most species and I doubt that is true of bees. They switch back and forth between a range of behavioral schema.

    There ARE bee Bolsheviks. Those worker who lay their own unfertilized eggs. When they can get away with it, they will tend their sons (whose genes come exclusively from the mother) in preference to the sons of the queen. The queen polices this system by destroying any eggs not her own. In one hive (I think in Australia) researchers found a distinct chamber where workers were raising their own young. It had an entrance that was too small for the queen to enter.

    If this goes on long enough, the hive will collapse. This would not be in the long term genetic interests of the workers. You say that the system is tyrannical and unfair, but in fact the worker bee gets more of her into the next generations by serving the queen than she could ever do if the hive perishes. Half her genes come from the queen and the queen is very prolific. Subordinating her interests to those of the hive by serving the queen's offspring serves her own genetic interests in the long run.

    The only way the worker could do better if the queen continued to produce as she does now AND the worker could produce sons to go out and breed. That, however, would eventually undermine the extraordinary cooperation that makes the honey bee so productive.

    This helps explain the persistence of temptation. Justice is subordination of the short term interest of partners in an association to the collective interest with includes the long term interests of the partners. Equality is not a feature of the system, as you say. Aristotle, however, pointed out that justice is equality for equals and inequality for those who are not equal. The queen deserves a greater share in rule (meaning only reproductive opportunities) because she produces on behalf of the whole bee polis.

    I doubt that bees have any clue what justice is. Bee hives seem to understand it pretty well.

  7. Ken, thanks for reading my essay so closely. It's still a work in progress. Here is a thought or two on your post.

    It is true that "moral" behavior is selected for, but I don't see in Darwinism how it's selected because it's moral. If "immoral" behavior led to success, that would be selected for instead. If you mean simply that whatever serves the common good is moral, then bees are moral even though they behave robotically. My point is simply that, to the extent we serve the common good due to emotions that have evolved, we are robotic too to that extent.

    Or are you arguing that bees really are moral, even though robotic?