Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Persistent Claims Linking Biology and Morality

One set of views that I have often raised objections to is the idea that morality is an evolved disposition. Yet, I find this view repeated yet again, this time at Letters from Le Vrai.

Let me first say there have been an increasing number of plausible, evidence-based and well-reasoned accounts of the evolution of morality in the human animal, even tracing its roots to our primate cousins.


Nope, not plausible. They all contain a fundamental logical error - confusing the concepts of 'is desired' (a description) and 'should be desired' (a prescription). It is quite possible to show that, through evolution, humans do desire sex. It is quite impossible to expect a study of biology to prove that humans should value sex.

The most important objection - if humans have so much innate morality evolved into us, then why is it that we do so much evil? Indeed, how does evil happen at all? I mean, everything we do is based on our biology, so how do we tell the difference between 'good' biology and 'bad' biology?

However, the greatest irony is that this article expresses the Euthyphro problem with respect to the idea that morality comes from God. Yet, it ignores the fact that the idea that morality comes from our genes has exactly the same problem.

"Is X good because it is loved by our genes? Or is X loved by our genes because it is good?" If we say that it is the former, then the most horrendous things can be moral, if we evolve a disposition to like it. And, remember, nature invented the predator and the parasite. If we say the latter, then 'good' is still a concept that is quite independent of our evolved dispositions, and a study of our evolved dispositions is quite distinct from a study of what is good.

Like I said, I have covered this topic quite a bit. If you're interested, you can find more detailed arguments in:

Richard Dawkins; Morality and the Selfish Gene

Evaluating Moral Theories

The Genetic Morality Delusion

2 comments:

Juno Walker said...

Ah, good point. I appreciate the constructive criticism, because I want to be sure I'm presenting naturalism accurately.

I actually do feel that the Euthyphro dilemma would apply to our biology as well, but I think for brevity's sake I was trying to present a basic case for an alternative to deity-based moral 'law'. I always struggle with making my blog posts as concise as possible without sacrificing accuracy.

I do think that the assignment of moral value is an arbitrary endeavor; I wouldn't consider myself to be a moral 'realist' in that sense. Nature simply is. But the fact remains that humans do have what seems to be an innate desire or inclination to construct morality or moral codes - in many cases they have appealed to the supernatural, and in many cases they have appealed to the natural.

But I think the tendency to do this is what has evolved, and that doesn't mean that the moral conclusions we have settled on have any metaphysical reality.

You've prompted me to write a separate post to clarify the issue. Any feedback you could give would be appreciated.

Cheers,
Juno

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I do not need to appeal to evolution to explain the tendency to develop moral codes. All I need to explain morality are:

(1) The fact that people seek to act so as to fulfill their desires.
(2) Some desires are maleable - they can be molded using environmental factors.
(3) Some of those factors are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.
(4) Some maleable desires tend to fulfill other desires. Some maleable desires tend to thwart other desires.

From this it simply makes sense to use these social forces to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires, to the degree that we can use social forces to do so.

Positive moral terms such as 'good', 'virtue' and 'right' are used to flag actions and traits that we suggest that people generally have reason to target with praise and reward. They also serve to deliver some of that praise, so in this they do two jobs at once.

Negative moral terms such as 'evil', 'vice', and 'wrong' are used to flag actions and traits that we suggest that people generally have reason to target with condemnation and punishment. They also serve to deliver some of that condemnation.

That's it.

Given that we, as you put it, possess the capacity to deliberate and make real choices, then we have the ability to choose to promote desires in others that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit in others those desires that tend to thwart other desires. And they have the ability to choose our desires as well.

These things are true regardless of what our evolutionary history happens to be - as long we evolve to have desires (some of which are maleable and can be influenced through social forces), and the capacity to deliberate and make real choices.. Everything else, including the other details of our evolution, are simply background conditions on which these things operate.