So far I have made out the following arguments:
- Evolution does in fact debunk moral realism, as the fitness bearer for a moral claim is the agent in relation to others in their group, not the truth of the claim
- There is no Milvian Bridge, therefore, from success due to actions based upon moral claims to the truth of those claims
- Instrumental facts necessary for taking successful action are not moral facts
- Morality is based upon the Primate Standard Social Structure of social dominance relations, as instantiated in humans (uniquely, perhaps)
- It relies upon there being classes of agents in a large society, as the number of individuals we can track is sharply constrained
- With the Neolithic transition to sedentary agrarian populations, we began to need rules of behaviour that exceeded small group size norms
- With the arising of states, we began to develop rules of the city, in which loyalty and cooperation is owed to institutions
- With industrial/colonial states, morality becomes an economic, consequentialist, system of rules
This leads to some conclusions that many may find objectionable: as the environment (and here I mean all the affordances of the surroundings of a social group, including other groups and trading opportunities, as well as agriculture and other natural resources) changes, the optimal rules also change. Morality is therefore not something that is constant among human populations. Some rules may stay more or less constant, but the overall scheme does not, and hence neither do the underlying justifications for moral rules.
This deeply undercuts the reason for an evolutionary ethics, a popular enterprise in the late nineteenth century that built upon the long standing tradition of finding moral exemplars in nature (even in the book of Proverbs: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise”, 6:6). Evolutionary ethics proceeded in two ways:
- Look for a human universal moral nature, and argue that this gives us moral ends
- Look at other species for exemplary cases and argue that this justifies human morality
The trouble with 1 is that the human universals always tend after a while to evaporate, or turn out to be over interpretation by researchers keen to find precursors to Christian, European, capitalist social norms, in part to justify the universality of those norms, and in part to justify the subjugation of other cultures as being incompletely evolved and in need of paternalistic oversight (by colonialists). Evolutionary psychology continues to do this from time to time (as, to be fair, also does most other psychology of a certain kind). It seems it is very hard to not think of one’s own values as somehow privileged and the best. I’ll get back to that.
The trouble with 2 is that it fails the phylogenetic test. What ants, antelope or antbirds do has very little bearing upon what humans do. Even if they inhabit the same or a closely analogous environmental challenge, as soon as you delve into the details of how behaviours are enacted and what particulars in the environment these other species exploit, the analogy quickly goes away. In short, as I have argued in my book The Nature of Classification, you get nothing out of an analogy that you didn’t insert in setting it up, and so it is again too easy to privilege one’s own moral values.
The famous Naturalistic Fallacy presented by G. E. Moore in his 1903 Principia Ethica was in fact a direct attack upon the idea that we could get moral goods (“the Good”) from observation of natural facts, and was a rebuttal against the evolutionary ethicists such as Herbert Spencer. No matter what fact one describes, one can always ask “but is it the Good?”. I believe evolution implies that nothing is the Good in and of itself. As Shakespeare so rightly had Hamlet say: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” [Act II scene 2]. Moral claims cannot be justified by facts unless a hidden premise is added that such facts are good or bad, and of course this is viciously circular. Evolved capacities may permit cooperation and enhance fitness; they do not justify values.
This sets up a conundrum that confronts me when I am asked why I am moral, as I said in the introduction to this series. Yes, apes follow norms, and enforce them, and we are apes. What else would I expect? But why am I moral in this way, and not some other? Insert your favourite moral monstrosity here involving Nazis…
And that is a harder question. Why do I continue to think that it is moral to look after the weak and poor in my society, even though Market Fundamentalism has taken over and discarded them? Why do I think I have a duty of care to look after anyone’s children in distress, not merely those I am closely related to? How is this justified?
And this gets back to my privileging my own values. Of course I do. As Hilary Putnam once wisecracked, I should use somebody else’s values? They are mine and would lead to a world I would prefer. But I cannot justify them beyond saying they are what I regard as virtues. In other words, moral foundations are not ever justified; they are chosen or acquired in some manner, and perhaps reflected upon if one is some kind of a philosopher (amateurs welcome!). A duty is a duty because it is a duty. I am a virtue ethicist, which is a shock, because evolutionists are not supposed to be. I do not justify, though I might explain, my values. They are just my values. Whatever ants, crocodiles and eland may do, I am a human being who prefers a certain type of world, and so I act to bring it about. Utilitarian considerations of greater fitness are almost irrelevant.
This rather existentialist position is not, I think, popular among moral philosophers, although it is very popular among so-called Continental philosophers who read their Nietzsche (from whom I did not get it, by the way, and whose moral norm choices I would tend to repudiate). It raises all kinds of difficulties, such as the “what about the Nazis?” objection. But I think I can deal with those. In the end, evolution explains why we have moral norms and why some moral norms are widespread (especially those that favour relatives – nepotism is a moral rule and more widespread than ethics texts indicate), but it doesn’t ever justify moral rules except instrumentally.
For the record, most of my moral rules are of a Millian liberal bent (not my public polity rules, but in private, I should be free to do what I want so long as nobody’s rights are violated). But I cannot justify this beyond a fundamental value that my life is my own to do with as I wish without undue coercion. I can’t prove this; but just try to take it away.
We tend to think that there must be a fundamental moral set of facts that justify our (or perhaps someone else’s) moral norms. I think this is a mistake of language (the language game of moral philosophy, inherited from theology), as any good Wittgensteinian should. I think moral specifics are justified by moral generalities, and there the justification game stops. I must be moral – I’m a pretty normal ape. But I can only be moral according to my values, and there’s an end to discussion.
So, to answer in more detail my theological interlocutor: I am moral because that is the human thing. I am moral this way because I want a world without interference in people’s lives, especially mine and my children’s. This is because I care about them, and to be consistent I must care about others (bring in Rawl’s Original Position argument here). I think it works for apes like us.
Moore, George Edward. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, John. 1971. A theory of justice. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.