Author Archives: Michael Ruse (Guest)

A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy

This is a guest post by Professor Michael Ruse.

In 1986, in my Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy, I laid out a Darwinian approach to ethics. I really have not changed my mind very much at all since then, and have repeatedly given shorter expositions of my position. As it happens, the Christian evangelicals seem to understand my thinking very well. Unsurprisingly, they don’t like it! To my astonishment, many of my fellow evolutionists and philosophical naturalists seem not to understand my thinking very well. Surprisingly, what they do understand, they don’t like either! So in the hope of advancing discussion, like me try one more time. I don’t mind so much being thought wrong, but it does irritate me a bit to be thought wrong for the wrong reasons.

I am a philosophical naturalist. By this I mean (or at least my meaning includes) being eager to accept the findings of science and to use them in my philosophizing as far as possible. So, I start my thinking about ethics by looking to Darwinian biology on human social behavior and I come away with the belief that ethics – meaning by this substantive or normative ethics (“What should I do?”) – is a product of natural selection (on individuals) to further reproductive success. Substantive ethics is an adaptation like eyes and noses and penises and vaginas. I should say that (and I am still at the level of science) I don’t think there is any need of external ethical principles (Mind of God, non-natural properties, Platonic Forms) to get this result. So ethics in a sense is different from say our knowledge about railway engines. Without existing independent railway engines, I don’t see that you could have a science of railway-engine-ology. I don’t think you need these external referents to get ethics. Ethics in this sense is not so much about the real world as it is about social relationships between fellow species members.

Now one more important empirical claim. Obviously in some sense I think that ethics is a bunch of emotions, if you like, and in the sense of not having external warrant is subjective. However, I think that phenomenologically, as one might say, ethical beliefs differ from other emotions in having a character of value and obligation. They are not simple emotions like “I like spinach.” They come across with moral fervor. “Murder is wrong. One ought not murder.” In other words, and I guess I am getting into philosophy here, I am not a non-cognitivist. I think ethical claims are perfectly meaningful. “Murder is wrong” means murder is wrong. It doesn’t mean “I don’t like murder, boo hoo, don’t you do or like it either.” I believe also – and I am pretty certain I got this from John Mackie way back when – that ethical claims have the appearance and meaning of being objective claims, in the sense of not just subjective emotions but about external standards.

Scientifically, I would say that there is good reason for this. If we thought it was all a matter of liking and disliking, ethics would break down rapidly. Why would I bother to risk my life for you if I knew that there was really no reason for it? But if I genuinely think that there is an objective moral norm demanding such risk-taking, I might well go along with it. Philosophically, and obviously we are starting to get into metaethics here, I think that the belief about objectivity is erroneous – so if this makes me what is known as an “error theorist,” I am that. I am on record as saying that ethics (meaning substantive ethics) is an illusion put in place by our genes to make us social cooperators. But notice I am not saying that ethics as such is an illusion – I very much don’t think this – rather I am saying that the belief that ethics is objective is an illusion. We “objectify” – and I think that rather ugly word did come from Mackie.

I should say, and I am not trying to weasel out of my position or qualify it to nothingness, I really don’t much like talking about “error” at this point. I don’t think “murder is wrong” is erroneous, nor do I think it subjective in every sense of the word. It is subjective in the sense that it doesn’t have an external referent – I am a moral non-realist – but it is not subjective in the sense of “I don’t like spinach.” There is an equivocation on the word “subjective.” In the collection of emotions that make up human nature, “I like spinach” is subjective, but “Murder is wrong” is absolute or objective or binding or whatever. It is not a matter of choice. I would say that we believe this because of our biology; but the point is that, as we think and act, morality is laid on us not decided by us. Of course, we may or may not decide to act morally, but that is another matter. Morality as such is not up for grabs or discussion. Only French existentialists at their most nutty have ever thought otherwise, and they didn’t really.

I realize that my position is simply not going to be acceptable to a lot of people, Christians particularly. They think that without external standards it is all phony. I cannot change that, but I can at least say that I understand where they are coming from and why their feelings that I am wrong are so strong. Ethics does come across as objective, in the sense of moral realism. It wouldn’t work if it didn’t! But I just don’t think it is objective in this sense, and that is all there is to it. Except it is not really all there is to it, because once you are in the ethical game, as one might say – a game that is thrust upon us as humans thanks to natural selection — then within the game you can perfectly well distinguish the binding or the objective from the subjective. Think cricket or baseball. Having won the toss, are you going to bat first? Playing in the American League, are you going to use a pinch hitter? But six balls to an over; three strikes and you are out — these are objective, binding.

Four final points. Am I an ethical relativist? Not in the sense of undergraduates who have just taken a couple of courses in sociology. Let me let you into a dirty, little, Ruse secret. I loathe relativism so much that that is the reason I became a philosopher of science rather than a student of ethics. I grew up as a Quaker and if nothing else it left me with a very strong feeling about the absolute nature of ethics. In the mists of distant time past, as a baby philosopher, the options in ethics were an unacceptable moral realism – non-natural properties or God or both – or an even-more-unacceptable logical positivism or some successor. The latter seemed to me and still seems to plunge one right into relativism – meaning a kind of subjectivism of the second kind I mentioned above, and that was completely wrong. So I moved away from ethics because I thought ultimately it was either false or morally pernicious. Now, thanks to my years in the history and philosophy of science, I think I have enough to go back profitably to ethics. I don’t think that one has to be a relativist here on earth given my position. In fact, the social nature of ethics, combined with the fact that we are all one species that was probably very small in number in the past hundred thousand years or so ago, suggests to me that today all humans share the same basic moral sense, qualified of course by cultural differences such as different beliefs about the nature of the world.

Having said this, I would not deny some form of intergalactic relativism. In the Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

It may be well first to premise that 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, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience.

I suspect that Darwin is right here – although I’d make things genetic rather than just rearing — but until we do encounter intelligent beings from outer space, I for one am not going to worry about this kind of relativism. Although it does seem to me relevant to my position inasmuch as it suggests that there can be no extra-human (that is extra-intelligent-being) moral norms because, if there are, how could such extra-terrestrials live and work and play in total ignorance of them? If moral norms are not recognizable and don’t have some kind of compulsion then I don’t know if they are still moral norms, at least not as generally understood. So that is certainly part of the reason why I am a moral non-realist.

Second, in telling you all about the way in which the genes deceive us for our own good, am I not giving the game away and won’t people now start to sin happily – a sort of Darwinian equivalent to what Nietzsche tells us all about? My own feeling is that, although philosophy may lead to skepticism, psychology makes it impossible to live that way. I am with David Hume on this. We are human beings and so, thank god, we are going to act like human beings.

I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life.

Third, talking of Hume, I don’t claim any particular originality in my position. I think I am arguing very much in the Humean tradition. The Humean tradition brought up to date by Charles Darwin. So notice that I am very keen on the is-ought distinction. I think there is a real difference between moral claims and scientific claims, and while the latter can be used to explain why we hold the former, they cannot be used to justify the former (which in the end have no justification in that sense). This sets me off from traditional Social Darwinism, from Herbert Spencer through Julian Huxley and on to Edward O. Wilson. They think that the progressive nature of the evolutionary process justifies promoting the welfare of humankind. I don’t think that evolution is progressive in that way and I am with Julian Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, in thinking that you cannot go from the course of evolution to justifying moral action. (THH, like me, was pretty keen on Hume.)

As I said at the beginning, I blame myself for obviously not making my thinking clear. But there are days when I wonder if the hostility I encounter from those that I would think sympathetic stems, not so much from my thinking on ethics as such, but from the fact that, although no believer myself and certainly doing anything but relying on a deity in my moral philosophizing, openly I argue that a Christian can be a Darwinian. In particular, I think the kind of position I have just sketched should be welcomed by a Christian influenced by naturalism, and I am thinking here of course of Thomas Aquinas and the influence of Aristotle. As a Darwinian, I think we should do what is natural. As an Aristotelian, the Thomist thinks we should do what is natural. I see a meeting point here. It doesn’t incline me to be a Christian but I see how a Christian could start with my position and then put it in a theological context. But that is another story. I mention it only because I suspect it is here that the real opposition to my thinking resides.

Although I would say that wouldn’t I, because the other alternative is that I am both wrong and a rotten thinker to boot.

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at The Florida State University.