Tuesday, May 5, 2015
For the last forty years or so, I have had the same best friend. Kenny Shelton is tall, scraggly, a bit older and a lot uglier than I am. I won’t bore you with our many adventures except to say that none of them involved a Mexican prison. Today he sent me an interest tale. He broke a rib and threw out his back in the course of saving a man’s life.
This tale is utterly believable for several reasons. One is that Shelton has an amazing knack for injuring himself just short of permanent disability. The odds are good that this isn’t the first time that this particular rib was broken. Part of the reason for this is that he does a dangerous job. Putting up aluminum buildings involves climbing up a lot of ladders and ladders, as everyone knows, are unlucky. At least when you are standing on one. The other reason for Shelton’s bad luck is that he is, well, Shelton.
Today a Mexican fellow climbed high up a ladder without leaving enough of an angle at the bottom. Kenny looked up just in time to see him drift away from the wall and managed to throw his weight against the ladder hard enough to push the poor fellow back. Later that day the entire clan showed up at Kenny’s house. They offered him money, which he refused. The saved man’s wife, who had some English, said that they thought he might be like that. So they pulled a four course Mexican dinner out of the car. The heartburn, Kenny says, was a small price to pay.
Everything about this story strikes me as beautiful. My friend’s act was not the kind of thing that one does on calculation. He did not act out of self-interest or out of the anticipation of any reward. He acted out of the virtue of a hero. Nor did the Mexican family come bearing gifts out of any anticipation of future reward and I bet they didn’t have to deliberate about it. Someone started cooking out of genuine gratitude, which is another of the virtues.
One reason I fell in love with Darwinian explanations for human emotions is that such explanations back up virtue ethics. It is not hard to understand that the actions described above are functional. People who act that way derive benefits from their actions precisely because they act out of virtue rather than self-interest. It is better to live in a community of such people than in a band of free riders and it is better to be a responsible citizen of such community than to be a free rider. Darwinian theory explains how such functional behavior is possible, how the virtues emerged in our history on this planet.
One way to understand the relationship between virtuous actions and their evolutionary roots is by way of proximate and ultimate causes. I have discoursed at length on this at an earlier post: Getting Over the Either/Or. In my next post I will discuss how evolutionary theory easily disposes of one of the great errors of modern ethics: the view that one cannot derive an ought from an is, a moral statement from a statement of fact.