Tag Archives: evolution and morality

Joshua Greene

Perhaps, as Kant thought, making transgressors suffer is a truly worthy goal, just for its own sake. But if that’s right, it’s a remarkable coincidence. How strange if the true principles of justice just happen to coincide with the feelings produced by our punishment gizmos, installed in our brains by natural selection to help us stabilize cooperation and thus make more copies of our genes. Knowing how our brains work and how they got here, it’s more reasonable to suppose that our taste for justice is a useful illusion.

Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, New York, 2013, p. 274

Charles Darwin

I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely-different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, London, 1871, p. 97

Matt Ridley

[N]o moral conclusions of any kind can be drawn from evolution. The asymmetry in prenatal sexual investment between the genders is a fact of life, not a moral outrage. It is “natural.” It is terribly tempting, as human beings, to embrace such an evolutionary scenario because it “justifies” a prejudice in favor of male philandering, or to reject it because it “undermines” the pressure for sexual equality. But it does neither. It says absolutely nothing about what is right and wrong. I am trying to describe the nature of humans, not prescribe their morality. That something is natural does not make it right. […] Evolution does not lead to Utopia. It leads to a land in which what is best for one man may be the worst for another man, or what is the best for a woman may be the worst for a man. One or the other will be condemned to an “unnatural” fate.

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, New York, 1993, pp. 180-181

Leonard Katz

Nature, by whatever mixture of chance and natural necessity, of natural selection and other less predictable evolutionary processes, has given us capacities for theoretical understanding in fundamental physics and higher mathematics that were of no conceivable use (as such) in the adaptive environments in which our hominid line evolved. For similarly unknown reasons it has made us phenomenally conscious experiencers of affective happiness and suffering.

Leonard Katz, ‘Hedonic Reasons as Ultimately Justifying and the Relevance of Neuroscience’, in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Moral Psychology, Vol. 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Brain Disorders, and Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008, p. 416

Thomas Henry Huxley

Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is referable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.

Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Evolution and Ethics’, in Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, London, 1884, p. 80

Leonard Katz

Nature, as we know, regards ultimately only fitness and not our happiness, and does not scruple to use hate, fear, punishment and even war alongside affection in ordering social groups and selecting among them, just as she uses pain as well as pleasure to get us to feed, water and protect our bodies and also in forging our social bonds.

Leonard Katz, ‘Toward Good and Evil’, in Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, Thorverton, 2000, p. xv

Robert Nozick

[Moral] intuitions would fit the earlier social situations of people in hunter-gatherer societies, that is, the social conditions in which the evolutionary selection that shaped our current intuitions took place. (Would justifying norms by such intuitions make them relative to the conditions of hunter-gatherer societies?) How much weight should be placed upon such intuitions? Since they were instilled as surrogates for inclusive fitness, being correlated with it, why not now go directly to calculations of inclusive fitness itself? Or why not, instead, calculate what intuitions would be installed by an evolutionary process that operated over a longer period in which current social conditions held sway, and then justify our moral beliefs by their confluence with those (hypothetical) intuitions, ones better suited to our current situation than the intuitions we have inherited? Or why stay with intuitions instilled by evolution rather than ones instilled by cultural processes, or by some other process we currently find attractive? (But what is the basis of our finding it attractive?)

Robert Nozick, Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, pp. 388-339

Colin McGinn

[M]orality is an inevitable corollary of evolutionarily useful intelligence: in becoming rational animals human beings, eo ipso, became creatures endowed with moral sense. It is important to this explanation that practical rationality be inseparable from susceptibility to moral requirements; for if it were possible to possess the one faculty without the other, then evolution could afford to dispense with morality while retaining reason. But I think that the Kantian thesis is right that rationality implies moral sense. If they are thus inseparable, then the price of eliminating morality from a species would be the elimination of (advanced) rationality from it; and, given the advantages of the latter, the price is too great.

Colin McGinn, ‘Evolution, Animals and the Basis of Morality’, Inquiry, vol. 22, no. 1 (1979), p. 93

Peter Singer

Natural law ethicists are kept constantly squirming between the underlying idea that what is natural is good, and the need to make some ethical distinctions between different forms of behavior that are, in biological terms, natural to human beings. This wasn’t an insoluble problem for Aristotle, who believed that everything in the universe exists for a purpose, and has a nature conducive to that purpose. Just as the purpose of a knife is to cut, and so a good knife is a sharp one, so Aristotle seems to have thought that human beings exist for a purpose, and their nature accords with their purpose. But knives have creators, and, unless we assume a divine creation, human beings do not. For the substantial proportion of natural law theorists who work within the Roman Catholic tradition, the assumption of a divine creator poses no problem. But to the others, and indeed to anyone who has accepts a modern scientific view of our origins, the problem is insoluble, for evolutionary theory breaks the link between what is natural and what is good. Nature, understood in evolutionary terms, carries no moral value.

Peter Singer, ‘A Reply to Martha Nussbaum’, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 2002