Friday, May 3, 2013

Genuine Morality & Natural Selection 3

Steven Forde kindly left a comment on a recent post devoted to his conference paper.  He tantalizingly suggested that more may be forthcoming.  To keep the matter at the forefront of the blog, I will reply here. 
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?
There are two issues here that need to be teased apart.  One is the question of what makes a behavior genuinely moral.  The other involves the question of determinism: if our moral behavior and emotions are selected for, does that mean they are “robotic”.  Connected to this is the question whether robotic behavior can be in some sense moral. 
On the first, I reply that a behavior can be genuinely moral in a number of ways.  It might be moral because it conforms to some moral standard (perhaps transcendent) that defines moral behavior.  I doubt that there is selection for some behavior because it conforms to some standard of divine right, unless the Divine Legislator is actively intervening. 
A second way that a behavior could be genuinely moral is that done out of a moral motive.  This might be a purely rational motive (as in Kantian ethics) or it might lie in some moral emotion such as compassion or a sense of fairness.  If such actions are genuinely moral, then they may be selected for precisely for that reason.  A person likely to act in accord with moral reason or moral emotion may well be more likely to form and sustain strong cooperative communities.  Someone who feels guilty about cheating and ashamed to be caught at it will very probably make a better partner and citizen. 
If such communities promote reproductive success, then moral motives will be selected for.  Again, actions are not moral because they are selected for; they are selected for because they are genuinely moral. 
A third way that an action can be moral is if it is logically moral.  As an unreformed Platonist, I hold that justice is an idea.  Whenever there is a range of choices and the chooser is tempted to do what he ought not to do, there the situation involves logically moral choices.  This is true whether we are talking about honest bankers or honey bees. 
A honey bee worker ought to serve the Queens offspring exclusively, taking her Darwinian interest into account.  She will get more of her own genes into future generations that way than she could by any other behavior.  However, she is reproductive capable and may be tempted to birth and tend her own sons.  If she and enough of her sisters get away with this, the hive will collapse.  So yes, I think that bees can be moral (and immoral) in this sense, even if robotic. 
One may well insist that only actions that are consciously moral are genuinely moral.  I would not object, though I would insist that the logic of genuine morality is present even in merely robotic creatures. 
As to the second question, I am underwhelmed by the case for determinism.  While I don’t think that a determinist view of the Kosmos can be ruled out, neither can it be ruled in.  What is most important is that it is useless.  Even in physics it is questionable.  In biology, let alone ethics, one can only proceed by speaking of probabilities and options. 
The fact that a behavior is selected for does not at all entail that it is robotic.  Our emotions are doubtlessly selected for and this precisely because they make it possible for us to make good choices.  If the baby needs a bath but the kitchen is on fire, an emotionally healthy human being knows what to do with the bath water.  If the fascist at the door asks me whether I have seen any Jews, and indeed I have because three of them are hiding in my upstairs closet, my response will not be in any meaningful sense “robotic”.  I may well be tempted to do the wrong thing out of fear for myself and my family.  I will be capable of doing the right thing if I am a morally enabled person.  What I will do is up to me and that is what being a moral person amounts to. 


  1. I suppose I was guilty of overstatement in implying that moral behavior is "robotic" under Darwinism--though, to the extent that we're moral because our hormones (or Oxytocins, or whatever) are pushing us that way does seem to me to detract from the morality of our actions.

    I find intriguing the argument about the potential for life, consciousness, etc. (from Hans Jonas--your post of May 1). One difficulty I see is that there are innumerable unfulfilled potentials in our universe. If one of them pops into existence at some moment, is that to be construed as a further perfection of the universe, which was somehow incomplete until that moment? That seems implausible to me. What about all the unrealizable potentials in this universe that might be realized, they tell us, in parallel universes?

    But I take it that you, with Larry Arnhart, do not take this teleological view of the universe or of evolution, but only of individual creatures brought about by the two. Arnhart corrected me on that score in Chicago; I had misconstrued his argument.

  2. We are pushed and pulled by our emotions and must decide, in any morally relevant situation, which way we will go. That capacity for deliberation is what constitutes the moral self. I don't see why it detracts from the morality of our actions that both the emotions and the deliberation depend on neurotransmitters in the brain. A heroic athlete can do what she does because she has muscles in her arms and legs. Does it detract from the genuinely heroic character of her deeds that these muscles and her brain are made of cells?

    In other words, I reject reductionism. A door key must be made of some material but the material alone cannot open a lock (as you will see if you melt it down). It is the information embedded in the key that does that work. A mind must subsist in some material (at least in this world). The brain is composed of distinct organs, each with its own evolutionary history. The mind is a whole that emerges out of the material and the integration of those parts. My mind is responsible for my behavior, moral or otherwise.

    I won't speak for Larry Arnhart, but I do not regard evolution as a teleological process. It is what Aristotelians call a case of efficient causation. There is no program guiding evolutionary change. It does, however, result in teleological processes.

    I don't think we can rule out the possibility that the Kosmos is governed by some kind of teleology. The cosmological constants argument still seems to me to be very strong. Unless there are indeed a vast number of parallel universes (a very big ad hoc assumption) then it looks like someone was setting a large set of dials to just the right degrees to produce a Kosmos that produced us. It also seems that the emergence of life on earth by mere chance is very difficult to explain.

    Evolution, however, involves none of these questions. It must presuppose not only the existence of this Kosmos but the existence of biological self-replicators subject to natural selection. That is a rather more confined business.