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Morality and Evolution 7: Conclusion

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

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:

  1. Look for a human universal moral nature, and argue that this gives us moral ends
  2. 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.


  1. My agnostic interlocutor, thank you for all of your scholarly challenges. They always help me to develop my views. Your philosophical pain is appreciated by many.

    If as you say that morality is a “human thing,” then I suppose that human morality is species-typical behavior across all times, environments, and economic situations. For example, caring for human relatives is species-typical behavior across all times, environments, and economic situations. Caring for human relatives is also objectively moral and an evolutionary advantage. This fits with evolutionary theory and moral consequentialism regardless of belief or no belief in deity.

    Consider the moral consequentialism/naturalism of Peter Railton who proposes that moral facts are objective and relational. The caring for human relatives takes different forms throughout human history. Likewise, the moral concept of “caring for human relatives” is objective throughout human history while the “different forms throughout human history” are relational.

    Eventually, the international community developed the concept of caring for relatives to caring for the worldwide human family.

    Peter Railton, “Moral Realism,” The Philosophical Review 95 (April 1986): 163-207,

  2. If I may be allowed to get a little meta here. Discussions of ethics, like discussions of a great many things, seem to be structured by the covert assumption that there are foundational principles or that if there aren’t or we can’t identify them, we can’t argue rationally about the subject. So we get upset about whether we can justify our axioms or just have to assert ’em or take them as divine commands; but we don’t ask if we actually need axioms. I’m a huge skeptic about axioms. It’s not that they aren’t useful or desirable. They obviously are, especially as pedagogy; but there’s nothing magic about them. People did mathematics before Euclid, and people can debate what’s the best thing to do without settling the great debate between Kant and Bentham.

    Like you, I incline to virtue ethics. It seems to me that the picture that best suits virtue ethics is not a wall built on a foundation, but a gondola suspended from a zeppelin, i.e. my ideas of right and wrong don’t rest on commandments but depend on a vision. For me, it isn’t simply the best way to reach a goal that is in question. The most interesting part of moral reasoning is about constructing the goals.

    To get more prosaic and restate a conclusion the ordinary language philosophers came to fifty years ago or so: I observe that people can argue cogently about what they ought to do, which is to say they can do more than yell at each other. This fact, if it is a fact, does not imply either that there are indubitable moral truths or that there is some total system of ethics that would be demonstrably best or even that there are no insolvable moral dilemmas; but it does suggest that the enormous cultural efforts dedicated to puzzling over right and wrong in philosophy, religion, law, history, politics, art, and literature hasn’t been entirely in vain. Of course I take it for granted that morality is always relative to the social conditions of the times so I don’t find the flux of opinion about it doesn’t upset me. Unchanging moral ideas are necessarily inadequate to a world that definitely changes. After all, we don’t even know what people are for yet. We haven’t finished inventing that.

    • I agree with this and wish I had said it so succinctly.

  3. The having of a morality is universal to humans; a particular morality is not. Even the care for family can become immoral under the right circumstances.

    Railton’s view strikes me as an instrumental realism, which I do not reject, of course. This was the point of the second post in this series. That is not what I think of as moral realism.

    • I agree that our definition of a *universal principle* must allow complicated exceptions, which clearly is the case with *instrumental realism*.

      Likewise, if we agree about the existence of instrumental realism and if we agree that some instrumental realism involves morality/ethics, then the instrumental realism also involves moral realism.

      I’ll clarify that this moral realism accepts that there are some mind-independent moral facts while the moral realism rejects that all ethics are black and white.

    • TomS TomS

      “Hilary” was originally a masculine name, as seen by its Latin form, “Hilarius”. Perhaps the most famous Hilary was Hilary of Poitiers (c.300-c.368), a bishop (when bishops were always male) and doctor of the church. More recently, there are Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), Anglo-French Catholic writer and Hilary Putnam (b. 1926), American philosopher.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        Thanks for the info on Hilary Putnam. For “she” in my May 26 comment, please substitute “he.”

        The argument is unaffected, but accuracy is important.

        • Well, accuracy aside, Putnam is one of the most significant philosophers of the 20th century, so it pays to know what is being argued by such people.

  4. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    John, I appreciate your existential honesty, but I feel left hanging.

    What about those Nazis? They had a (not perfectly) coherent system of beliefs and ethics. They tried to cooperate with evolution and eliminate the weak. That might be unpleasant for the weak (and abhorrent to outsiders, for various reasons), but it would reduce the country’s social welfare costs. So, philosophically, why not? Why shouldn’t we favour eugenicist tyranny because “that is the human thing”? (In fact, many western countries did just that, for quite a while.)

    Your values appear to be (in your own mind) somewhat arbitrary. “But I cannot justify this beyond a fundamental value that my life is my own to do with as I wish without undue coercion.” But why should I (or a Nazi) have any concern about your (philosophically unsupported) fundamental value?

    Michael Ruse is (in)famous for his statements such as the following:

    • “There are no foundations to morality. It is just a sentiment or a feeling . . . a collective illusion of human beings, put in place by our genes, to make us efficient social animals.” (Zygon 34(3):447, Sept. 1999)

    • “My claim is that the recognition of morality as merely a biological adaptation shows that there can be no foundation of the kind traditionally sought, whether by evolutionists, Christians, or others! . . . Morality is an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process, just as are other adaptations.” (Zygon 29(1):20f., Mar. 1994)

    In what way, if any, do you disagree with Ruse?

    If none, then why, philosophically, should I care about the “social norms” that James Goetz says “cheers to”? Hilary Putnam questioned why she should use someone else’s values, but I say why bother having any real values? I must, of course, pretend to have values — like a proverbial politician — in order to deceive my neighbour for my own reproductive or other advantage!

    • It would take a while to answer this and I have other commitments right now, but the short answer is Rawls’ original position. Nazism as a moral philosophy only works if you know ahead of time that you are of the favoured master race. If justice lies in equity, and the test of a moral principle is whether it is equitable (based on the idea that you do not know what your position in the resulting society will be), Nazism fails to be just.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        But why should anyone care about someone else’s ideas of equity or justice, IF morality is just an illusion worked up by an ultimately impersonal, cruel, meaningless process?

        I look forward to seeing your longer answer at some point, if you’re able to get the time.

        • Who said morality was an illusion? I merely argued that it didn’t track moral truths.

          You seem to be under the illusion yourself that if a moral system does not have some objective and universal foundation, it isn’t truly a moral system. I think instead that a moral system is a moral system, no matter what foundations it has, if any. It doesn’t change the moral nature of a scheme if it turns out to be a natural phenomenon.

          As to my choice over Nazis, I choose my liberal views because I do not know if I or my descendants or relatives will be in the favoured position in such a society. That is what makes me care. If Nazis do not, so what? There are arseholes aplenty in history. Doesn’t change my view of what is virtuous.

        • This response raises a question for me. This reason for rejecting Nazism looks flawed to me. What if you and your relatives would be in a favored position in Nazism, would you then accept Nazism or would you reject based on other reasons such as conscience?

        • Also, Do you suppose any objective/real criterion for the classification of *arsehole*?

        • As I said, if I do know my position in society and choose on that basis, it is not just.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “Who said morality was an illusion?”

          Michael Ruse said it. (See the quote two comments ago.)

        • But you are arguing with me, not Michael. John is John and Michael is Michael; despite much overlap on ideas we are not identical. I do not think morality is an illusion. Morality is real. What it is not is a tracker of moral truths, but it remains what it is.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          OK, good. Thanks for the clarification.

          But I’m still wondering: In your view, morality is “real” (i.e., it exists) but it’s apparently not firmly grounded in anything. It’s changeable depending on circumstances (such as who makes noise). Morality therefore appears somewhat arbitrary.

          How can such a morality (if I think about how it arises) constrain my conscience?

          E.g., why (philosophically) should I pay my taxes — if I think I can successfully dodge the tax man?

        • I can’t make a full argument in comments, but I refer you back to the first paragraph of the series: You’re an ape. Apes follow social norms. Any ape that does not is sociopathic.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          Sociopath: “a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience”

          (Antisocial: “contrary to the laws and customs of society; devoid of or antagonistic to sociable instincts or practices”)

          So why is that “wrong” (philosophically) rather than just “different”?

          If human morality is changeable and arbitary, having nothing in which it can be solidly grounded (no firm logical/philosophical justification), then what’s actually wrong with not having any?

          (OK, so the sociopath doesn’t fit some philosopher’s definition of a proper “ape”! Who cares!)

          If I had not become a Christian, I expect that I would have continued as an atheist, accepting evolution and becoming more and more sociopathic and nihilistic. Biblical Christianity provides logical grounding for morality, which evolutionism/nontheism apparently cannot. (That’s in addition to its being historically true.)

          I am not “an ape” — I am a member of a species originally created in the image of God to have fellowship with him, as Genesis clearly teaches.

          But even if I were “an ape”, what logically constrains me to act like the majority of (or the average of? or the noisy among?) other apes? Furthermore, should I behave like other apes say we should all act? Or should I behave like they themselves (the hypocrites) really act?

          “Apes follow social norms.”

          This is unrealistic and simplistic. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. People dodge “social norms” and ethics and laws all the time. Including you. We choose (or fall into) our own subculture with “norms” different from other subcultures, and we even dodge the “norms” of our own small group when it suits us. And when we do that, we have the ability to formulate all kinds of justifications — even when the members of some other group manage to get us sent to jail or otherwise penalize us.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        Further thought: If Hitler had won WWII rather than losing, then his moral philosophy “works”? His philosophical position could then never be properly challenged by a principled philosophical argument? And if some modern tyrant can continue to prevail against all opposition (for some finite period of time), then he is successful not only politically but also philosophically? So might does make right?

        Perhaps I’m misunderstanding. Hope so.

        • Jeb Jeb

          A notable issue with dealing with questions involving the Nazis or other “arseholes” of history (I would define an arsehole here as a ‘local elite’ as they have a significant role historically in the tangled and intimate relationship between forms of organized criminal activity and state structures) is that condemnation rather than comprehension is the standard that governs narrative on such issues.

          I think confronting and dealing with such might leads to the development of rights.

        • I mentioned the Naturalistic Fallacy: it states that no natural (i.e., merely factual) property is The Good. So the mere fact of the Nazis’ victory and establishment does not imply it is The Good (i.e., right). So no, might does not make right. I explicitly reject that view.

        • Jeb Jeb

          “establishment does not imply it is The Good”

          Saint Augustine commenting on a notable issue of his period stated, ‘for what are states but large criminal bands, and what are bandit bands but small states’

          Tension between fragile developing state and local elites prone to nepotism and attempting to exploit territory where authority is weak (although its patronage and fictive rather than biological kinship fueling nepotism).

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          The more complete Augustine quote, in the translation I have, reads: “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms.” (City of God, Book IV, chapter 4)

          The issue of justice, the importance of which John was highlighting, is paramount in the quote.

  5. jeb jeb

    My perspective is not original and shamelessly borrowed from conference papers by classical scholars on organized crime in antiquity along with the cite.

    Slightly fuzzy as I started reading the subject again in relation to something entirely different, Johns post on Physicists attitude to philosophy. it seemed to provide a potential comparative explanation as to why I have a tendency to bury any interest I have in science and its relationship with wider culture in a deep historical past.

    “Today we are not asked to study crime, but to be ‘tough’ on it, and told that the only solution to criminal behaviour is increasing toughness. One might suggest that the current interest in crime in the past represents a dislocation of interest consequent on the increasingly unfriendly environment which effectively precludes the study of crime today. In the face of the consensus on which crime, policing and penal policy is more geared to condemnation and toughness than to comprehension, one can only look to the past…”

    More on topic. Keith Hopwood’s interpretation of Augustine and discussion of the wider social context in which it was written did lead me to think about and question this statement.

    “As to my choice over Nazis, I choose my liberal views because I do not know if I or my descendants or relatives will be in the favored position in such a society. That is what makes me care.”

    If Hopwood’s correct I see some relationship and it raises culture/ biology issues for me but I am merely thinking out loud. I am rather crap at philosophy and need to set issues in a firm historical context I am familiar with in order to think the issues through (in a very messy manner). Only way I can arrive at a critical perspective and deal with philosophical perspectives.

    Hopwood sees Agustin’s perspective as a ‘latent’ issue in modern political theory that was more prominent in antiquity when state development was more fragile.

  6. jeb jeb

    p.s Richard I read my comment dome what red faced this morning. Trying to digest Johns perspective with legal history and a separate conversation with two barristers who are sharing my home at the moment.

    The example I should have given as it comes directly from someone legislating and negotiating here rather than theory, history or philosophy is with regard to data protection and Germany.

    German citizens have much better protection under German law than the rest of Europe has in regard to data protection. Concern for justice in this area cannot be divorced from its past not simply a Nazi one but a Stasi one as well.

    Justice is shaped by practice. The situation is everything here and you simply cannot ignore the context in which in which forms of crime shape attitudes and approaches to justice.

    But I think you could perhaps describe the issues we have regarding data protection as potentially one modern example of the manner in which organized forms of illegal activity shape state structures and the level of protection we have from such serious abuses of power are directly related to local environment, its past and the experience of dealing with abusive local elites manipulating the state for its own advantage.

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