Friday, April 19, 2013

Evolutionary Morality

Moral Realism is the view that there are moral truths and facts about the universe. These facts are like other facts:

-They are mind-independent
-They correspond to reality
-They are binding and true regardless of whether or not people agree to them or believe in their existence

For example, the moral realist would say that the statements "rape is wrong" and "torturing infants for pleasure is wrong" actually carry truth, they are factually correct, and they correspond to reality. The moral anti-realist would say that these statements carry no truth or falsity, they simply reflect certain patterns and prejudices of society and culture.

It seems clear, though, that there really are moral facts. The person who thinks that it is fine to torture a 3-month old child for fun is a psychopath. Torturing 3-month old children for fun is not simply socially inconvenient, it is morally abhorrent and reprehensible.

"The man who says it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=5." -Michael Ruse 

There are plenty of atheist philosophers (Thomas Nagel, Lousie Anthony, Shelly Kagan, etc.) who affirm moral realism, that is, they believe that there are objective moral values in place in the world. The problem with this is that it is difficult to provide a basis for objective morality on atheism. The most common way of 'grounding' objective morality in an atheistic worldview is to appeal to evolution.

Philosophers like Kevin Brosnan and Knut Skaursaune argue that evolutionary history has provided humans with the necessary moral tools to survive and these are what drive morality today. Rape is wrong because it hurts human flourishing. Torturing children is wrong because it goes against our natural instincts for empathy and child-rearing. Now, there are major flaws with evolutionary morality and they fall into 2 categories: epistemic and ontological.


If there are moral facts about the universe, how can we discover them? If evolution has steered us solely towards survival, then what mechanism do we possess that allows us to 'track' and discover these moral facts? Sure there might be moral facts out there somewhere, but if naturalistic evolution is true then we have no way of discovering their existence, much less abiding by them!

Furthermore, even if we did have the ability to discover these moral facts, on what grounds should we abide by them? Suppose that these moral facts existed abstractly somewhere, these abstract concepts cannot stand in causal relations, that is to say that they cannot provide the necessary basis for moral obligations and "oughts".


There are three major problems with evolution providing us with objective morality:

1. Egoism conflicts with Altruism

The primal instinct for individual survival sometimes clashes with the best interests of the survival of the group, and viceversa. Why is there a dilemma between individual well-being and the well-being of the herd? If evolution really is the basis of objective morality then there should be no conflict--the choice that leads to the maximal well-being of the individual should also provide the maximal well-being of the herd, but this is not the case.

2. Prudential values conflict with Moral values

Let's imagine that in 20 years scientists discover that during forcable copulation (rape) an extra hormone is secreted in the semen which kills all the mutated/non-optimal sperm and allows only the healthiest sperm to reach the egg and fertilize it. This will end up with guaranteed healthy offspring, and ultimately a healthier population. Would this new finding then make rape a good thing? Of course not. We already know that rape is wrong, regardless of what advantages it may bring. Thus, even if a course of action is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective, it does not make it the morally correct course of action. But if evolution really did provide the basis for objective morality, then we would expect to see that the prudential choice was always the moral choice, but this is not the case.

3. Evolving morality cannot be trusted

If our morality is subject to evolution then it cannot be trusted, much less be objectively true. At one point in human history slavery was accepted, but now it is not. And yet it is still true that slavery was wrong even back then. Simply because something was accepted does not mean that it is acceptable. Our condemnation of slavery stems not from an enlightened morality that has evolved. Slavery was not objectively acceptable in the past simply because it was practiced in the past. It was and is and will always be objectively wrong. There will never come a point in time where slavery and rape are good actions because the world exists in such a way that there are moral facts that do not allow for slavery and rape to be good things. If our morality is evolving then it is not objective and we cannot trust it for it may tell us something different in the next 100 years. 

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