Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Evolution of Morality

The Evolution of Morality

Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, MIT Press, 2006, 288pp, $32.00, ISBN 0262101122.

Reviewed by Peter Singer, Princeton University and the University of Melbourne

To this point, Joyce has essentially been answering a scientific question: has morality resulted from natural biological selection? After reaching an affirmative answer to this question, he devotes the last two chapters, and the conclusion, to a philosophical question: what difference should this make to the contents of our ethics, or to our metaethical views?

Some think that associating evolution and ethics leads to "evolutionary ethics," of which the most notorious example is "social darwinism" -- a view that Darwin himself never held -- which sees evolution as a moral force that we should allow to do its work unfettered. Social darwinists argued against social welfare, on the grounds that those who are not fit enough to survive in the marketplace should not be assisted in reproducing.

Joyce argues that social darwinism and more contemporary versions of what he calls "prescriptive evolutionary ethics" by Robert Richards, Richmond Campbell, Daniel Dennett, and William Casebeer all fail, although he does not think that they can all be brought down by invoking either the "naturalistic fallacy" or the rule against deriving an "ought" from an "is". Joyce gives rather more space than necessary to showing why this is so. Although there are admittedly counter-examples to the rule that no "ought" statement can follow from an "is" statement, the counter-examples are essentially, as Joyce himself says, "logical tricks". Since anything follows from a contradiction, "You ought not steal" follows from a contradiction. But so what? Tricks aside, Hume's puzzlement over how an "ought" could follow from a series of "is" statements was well-founded. Oddly, in a book that is otherwise precise to the point of pedantry about exactly what the naturalistic fallacy is and whether an "ought" can be deduced from an "is", Joyce twice (pp.145, 191) refers to utilitarianism as an example of naturalism. Since utilitarianism is generally regarded as a normative, and not a metaethical, theory, it is compatible with any metaethics. Sidgwick was an intuitionist utilitarian. J.J.C. Smart is a noncognitivist utilitarian.

In Chapter 6, "The Evolutionary Debunking of Morality," Joyce discusses the reverse of the view that we should take evolution as our moral guide. The debunker regards knowledge that some of our specific moral beliefs are the outcome of natural selection as casting doubt on their claim to be preceptions of moral truth, or moral fixed points with which no sound normative theory would clash. As elsewhere, Joyce states his own position cautiously. He has not argued that any moral belief is innate, but only that we have a "specialized innate mechanism" for acquiring moral beliefs, so that we are born ready to see things in a normative way. As he puts it, "moral concepts may be innate even if moral beliefs are not." It is the idea of a sweeping moral skepticism, not of debunking particular moral beliefs, that primarily interests Joyce. Of course, the mere fact that a capacity has evolved cannot be sufficient to debunk it. Knowing that our capacity for mathematics is the result of evolution does not lead us to doubt that 1 + 1 = 2. But as Joyce points out, the best possible explanation of this capacity is that it helps us to survive by tracking the real world -- if we see three leopards enter a thicket, notice two leaving, and therefore conclude that it is safe to go into the thicket, our reproductive prospects will be diminished. As we have seen, however, there are good explanations of our capacity to make moral judgments that do not assume that it is a faculty for perceiving some truth about the world. Moreover, Joyce argues, there is no fact about the world that can vindicate the inescapable authority that moral judgments purport to have. He concludes: "our moral beliefs are products of a process that is entirely independent of their truth" and while they might happen to be true, we have no reason for thinking that they are. Thus Joyce embraces something like John Mackie's metaethical "error theory," with the difference that whereas Mackie thought our moral language is mistaken because no moral propositions are true, Joyce defends only the more modest claim that we are not justified in endorsing any moral proposition.


  1. Thank you Ted for your insightful and penetrating comment. As for me, I actually found it quite interesting.

    I suspect it's because I learned to read before discovering television.

  2. Thanks again Steve. I also found it interesting. I've read a few books from a similar perspective and they usually conflate descriptive ethics and prescriptive ethics and recklessly cross the fact-value divide. It sounds like this one is more careful. If you have the time and the inclination a few more comments about this aspect would be great.

  3. Hi Jim,

    I posted this (portion) of the review for the following reasons:

    i) When believers claim that atheism natural conduces to moral relativism, a lot of unbelievers get angry and accuse us of defaming them or misrepresenting the implications of their position.

    ii) The book under review is a major new monograph on evolutionary ethics. The author believes that evolutionary ethics does, indeed, conduce to moral relativism.

    iii) The reviewer is a major secular ethicist in his own right. In this course of his review he reaffirms the charge that evolutionary ethics does commit the naturalistic fallacy as well as the is-ought fallacy.

    iv) So (ii)-(iii) document the opinion of leading secular ethicists regarding the relativistic consequences of evolutionary ethics.

    v) What is more, it not only documents their considered opinion, but gives us some idea of the argumentation which generates this conclusion.

    vi) So the burden of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of the atheist to defend moral absolutes or even objective morality consistent with his secular outlook.

    This is not a slur on unbelievers by believers. We're are getting this straight from the horse's mouth.

  4. I would only briefly respond to two things:
    I agree that we cannot get "evolutionary ethics" in the sense that evolution somehow "tells us what we ought to do", any more than we get "thermodynamics ethics" or "gravitational ethics". Evolution is a description of the processes that give rise to new species, not morals.

    That said, I don't think that any of us disagree that there are tenable positions where we start with basic human needs and say "we ought to do X...for the purpose of meeting human needs", and allowing human needs (survival, food, shelter, clothing) to trump peripheral and tangential issues. This provides a frame of reference from which social contract, utilitarian, etc., ethics can be derived. The "common good" can be defined in terms of basic human needs, and not human happiness, with much more objectivity than you'll admit.

    The responses that theists make to the Euthyphro Dilemma attempt to obscure the basic question: does an objective standard exist, are things good because they are, or not? Yes or no? You get into long and convoluted rabbit trails to evade the simple answer -- they must be, or else we lose all ability to use the word "good" and "moral", and might as well say "gwoeiewqnwo". And if it is the case that they are NOT, then the question itself loses all meaning, and things just are as they are, without the ability to use reference to "good" or "evil".

  5. 1. Your statement ignores the question. What's being said is: How are objective ethics possible given an evolutionary worldview.

    2. Yeah, but it's completely arbitrary and subjective. It's also not relevent. Sex is a basic human need, thus we ought to rape women.

    3. Yes an objective standard exists, God's holy character.

    Why is God's character good?

    Well, he *is* good and he's the standard of goodness.

  6. 1) I explicitly addressed that the mechanism of our origins have little to do with the existence of good and doing good for the sake of good. "Poof" doesn't confer good, nor does descent with modification. It's funny that you probably wouldn't argue this with a Catholic who sees the fine tuning of the universe as a sufficient mechanism of creation (that evolution was contingent upon only primary causation in the Big Bang).

    2) Beautiful non sequitur. First, sex is NOT a need, Paul. That's right, it's not. Not for the individual. It is a drive and a desire, but humans can and do survive their entire lives without it...unlike food, water, and shelter.

    It is only a "need" for the species, for the society. And as we move from the individual to the society, we have to define why the society exists, and who has conferred rights. IN our country, "we the people" do, and all are equal. We start there. You have the right to be free from harm from others, until you violate that same right. It's a beautiful concept of fairness, justice, and symmetry that the Enlightenment gave us because your God didn't choose to. Your God chose to give the Hebrews "special status" and to slaughter the Egyptian children, then the Canaanite children, etc., not because it was unavoidable, or symmetric, but just because.

    We said we base ethics on human needs, not the immediate fulfillment of those needs at the expense of the freedoms and rights of other persons. As much as you wish you could tear down secular humanistic ethics, you first have to oppose the values thereof. The values are rather simple -- justice: you cannot infringe upon the rights of others in order to fulfill your own -- no asymmetry is allowed. And see, that's the problem from the start with your system, because it allowed one group of persons to slaughter another, and their children, because they were "god's chosen" (same theme rings on today in the Middle East).

    Basic human needs are no more "subjective" than your choice of "Scripture", your interpretation of Scripture, your choice of the canonized ones, or your faith that they came from your God.

    Unfortunately for you, each of those things is quite subjective.

    3) Circularity doesn't bring home the bacon. Is good/morality/logic/existence contingent upon God's creation of them and direction of them, or are these things which are necessary for God? IE child rape isn't intrinsically evil, only because God commands it so. If God has no frame of reference to be illogical, or define evil, then God is no more logical or moral than a rock. This is the epitome of arbitrary -- if God had commanded murder, then murder would be good, (as you say it is in such passages as Num 31:17 and 1 Sam 15:3)... if God had commanded X, then X is good, regardless of X. Arbitrary to the core, as the simple value of authority makes something right. Hitler's authority to order things, and ability to see them carried out, made nothing "good", no more than your God's does throughout the OT.

    Relativity is the heart of your dilemma -- After all, murder is wrong (10 Commandments), then murder is okay (scriptures listed above). Your God makes everything and sees it is "good" (Gen 1,2), but has a serpent crawling around ready to send everything to "bad" (relative to time), and then gets "grieved" (Gen 6-8) and basically kills everything that "grieves" It.

    This also presupposes quite a few things, especially that God's will is somehow revealed to select persons, that those persons are inspired, that their writings are also, and that the revelations to them were universal for all mankind...etc., which is absurd by demonstration: It is clear that if we apply each of the commands to the Hebrews to all persons at the same time, then the national identity of all humans would have prevented them from ever coalescing outside those original divisions (ie there were clear commandments not to intermarry). In that sense, your own morals are neither universal nor objective, but relative to each culture...only to a select group of people, and only at a given point in time, eg temple sacrifices and feasts and burnt offering and the commands to stone offenders of the law. Sure, sure, Jesus didn't come to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law...right, right, and that's why you are still stoning people for picking up sticks on Sunday (Num 15), and why the pericope adulterae represents that same principle, right?

    Oh, but wait, God had changed Its mind and decided to dispense grace during that time, right? Boy, God sure keeps moving the goalposts, eh?

    Talk about arbitrary.

  7. 1. Again, the question is: How are objective ethics possible given an evolutionary worldview. i f you can't "get" my question then don't respond just to respond. I don't have time for long-winded know-nothings.

    2. Well, I didn't know how you were using "need." In your sense (survival), then neither is clothing or shelter (depending on where one lives). Furthermore, again, it's not relevent. I can just feed you dog crap and dress you in porcupine quills.

    Also, whoe says I need to accept your arbitrary stipulation of need?

    Lastly, the rest of your "secular ethics" are a bunch of assertions. You can stipulate all this don't do this, do that stuff, but says-who? You? Hitler? Ghandi?

    3. Circularity is unavoidable.

    Anyway, God din't "create" them and since they are not outside God they are not necessary *for* him. Ignoring Christian theology and my point does not bring home the bacon.

    God does have a frame of reference... himself.

    it's not arbitrary because I'm not advocating a voluntaristic view of God. You can battle straw men all day long if you wish. I gave papers on this in my Phi. of rel. post, I'd suggest you familiarize yourself with them.

    God always does what is right, he is the standard of rightness. He always acts consistent with his own nature, and so cannot call that which is evil, good.

    Murder is the unjust taking of life. Taking the life of a criminal who deserves the death penalty is not murder. So, get your argument straight.

    Really, I don't have time to waste dealing with someone who refuses the actually engage the issues, properly present my worldview, etc. get your 15 minutes of fame somewhere else.

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  10. Neither god belief nor lack of it, will guarentee moral or ethical behaviour.