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.

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97 Comments.

  1. I am a kind of Christian Existentialist, and I don’t really have much problem with your thesis here.

    And afterall, Theistic Evolution is compatible with mainstream evolutionary thought (in all but an view on intention – that Evolution is an efficient means). Strictly speaking Evolutionary theory (as science) is silent on intention questions of “Why Evolution?”, it deals with “How Evolution?”. On that basis many Christians are entirely compatible in their worldview with science, and reject anti-evolutionary dogma.

    As for specifics about Darwinian Morality, consider the analogy of “Evolution” of the flow a ancient (predating human intervention) major river over time. It has a source high in some distant mountain, shrouded in mist. It flows, under the influence of geophysics alone, from there to the sea. It encounters hills, it carves its path through them, it meanders and branches out across the geography (as if seeking out all possibility of niche flow). But ostensibly it’s flow is random, purposeless, in all respects other than it obeys natural physical law.

    Does this mean the flow is not conditioned by Universal Forms? I think it can be cogently argued that natural physical law is quintessentially itself a Form. The physical constants are like irreducible granite, they constrain the flow. Likewise the assumed random placement of structures in the flows path, is an assumption. Are we certain of that assumption, is it not arguable that it is itself a Form (a kind of premeditated intervention).

    Perhaps we can argue that ethics and morality (that in core aspects – such as the ethic of reciprocity – that is nearly universal in civilization across geography and time) is a Form that is embedded in the geophysics so to speak, and this Form emerges in our body, hearts, mind (and dare I say spirit)?

    I have no problem with Ethics/Morality emerging from natural forces, it seems strange to me to assume otherwise (I invoke no skyhooks). It is just that I am open to Nature’s landscape being Theistically “inclined” – so to speak.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Michael, I’d be interested to hear how you think about moral norms that have changed over time. For instance, norms regarding marriage have drifted gradually over time on a number of dimensions (acceptable age of brides, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage,…). At various points in history (like now) within a particular culture people will disagree over a moral claim such as ‘same sex marriage is wrong’.

    Do you think that claims about the morality of same sex marriage are objective in the same sense that you believe ‘murder is wrong’ is objective or absolute or whatever? If not, how do you distinguish the objective from the subjective?

  3. Hello Dr. Ruse,

    I think the meta-ethical views you’ve presented above are broadly correct. You’ve made a few of the more crucial distinctions, above. But some of the other distinctions that you might make are not as forceful as they ought to be.

    For example, you affirm, “ethical claims have the appearance and meaning of being objective claims, in the sense of not just subjective emotions but about external standards”. That seems to mean that you are endorsing epistemic objectivity. But later, you say that “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.” In context, that seems to be a denial of ontological objectivity. But the naive reader won’t know that, because you use the locution, “external standards”, in both sentences, but in two implicitly different ways.

    Another thing I’m not clear on: do you believe that our moral sentences necessarily purport to be about the mind-independent universe, or do you believe that this is just the case among (say) Christians? I ask because I really think it would be mistaken to say that moral sentences, uttered by competent speakers, purport to be mind-independent.

    On your final remarks. I take it that the wider animus is not due to the above issues in philosophical naturalism; indeed, you’ve certainly done a service by clearing up some ambiguities here, and (to some extent) elsewhere. Rather, the negative reaction is largely due to differences of opinion concerning the politics of New Atheism and accommodationism. The colorful choice of titles, like “Why I think the New Atheists are a bloody disaster”, didn’t help.

    But of course, politics always brings out the worst in people, and there’s not a lot to say about that in the present context. For me, the political polemics have had philosophical traction because they trade on substantial errors in the philosophy of science and philosophy of religion. For instance, in the recent past I think you have used Kuhn’s body of work in ways that Kuhn would have found peculiar. And you’ve made claims that strike me as fantastical, e.g., “doctrines like original sin seem to me to be accurate psychologically”.

  4. I don’t get it at all.

    “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.”

    Ok. It makes sense that ethics, descriptively, is about human emotions. That seems to be true.

    “However, I think that phenomenologically, as one might say, ethical beliefs differ from other emotions in having a character of value and obligation.”

    Oh? Lets see if this gets clarified.

    “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.”

    So, ethical statements are like subjective statements in that they refer to our feelings and emotions, but they are non optional. So while one person might like spinach and another might dislike spinach, you cannot have two people who disagree on whether murder is immoral. Well… two things.

    First, murder is probably a bad example, because as we all know, “murder” is usually defined as “immoral killing,” which makes the claim “murder is wrong” somewhat tautological. Disputes about when killing is bad, however, are very common.

    Second, this makes your claim falsifiable. If it is possible for two people to have “ethical” feelings about something, but to have intractable differences not related to application of ethical principles but rather to the ethical principles themselves, then your view of morality is wrong. Does history indicate the existence of intractably different moral principles? I rather think it does. Remember, while “having moral opinions” may be non optional, for your theory to work, you need specific moral opinions to be non optional. And that’s an empirical question, not a philosophical one, so be prepared with the right sort of evidence.

    “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.”

    I’m not sure on this next part- but doesn’t this require that humans not only have the “same basic moral sense”… but also that we have only ONE basic moral sense, and that it not contradict? I do believe that there is empirical evidence against that. Moral compulsions against the “unclean,” for example, seem to exist. So do moral compulsions in favor of equity, or fairness, or retribution, or rehabilitation, or vengeance. These often seem to have come into conflict in the past, and nothing in their inherent nature seems to resolve these conflicts for us. I’m particularly concerned about moral compulsions regarding the “unclean.” When made salient, these compulsions seem to have done a lot of damage over the history of our species. The solution has been to try to make them less salient. What does it say for your thesis that our species does better, by certain of our moral standards, when we repress one of our innate moral impulses?

  5. I don’t suppose ethics are coded directly into the individual genome; specific cultural ethics (such as who may be murdered) are easily taught to out-ethnic infants adopted-in. It seems that genetics provides a “human nature” that is a tool kit, including links to hormonal emotions. The process by which an infant is raised to maturity connects these basic reactions to whatever symbols. Ethics become essentially bodily functions, like gait or food habits: unavoidable. That is to say, an ethic evolves by social transmission rather than genetic transmission, under social selective pressure (internal and external). Same mechanisms as language evolution. Obviously we understand a great deal more about linguistic syntax than moral syntax, but we are young yet.

    A great many ethical forms are no doubt possible, in the sense that a culture could be formed around them, as many languages are possible over the same genotypic substrate, and in that sense the worst kind of relativism is true. However, the actual present situation is embedded in a narrative of ethical evolution. In this sense ethics is not at all arbitrary, although in its present state it is seen to be sloppy, self-contradictory, not pretty, and in general unfinished.

    Many people, some of them Christians, resist new and difficult ways of thinking … it really is calorically inefficient. However some of us say that God works from inside. As culture evolves, individuals who act in whatever way influence others to react in some way. The collective ethic is the result of many individual choices in some poorly-understood school-of-fishes way. There’s plenty of room for Christian influence through inspiration and example.

    And I don’t believe that an individual’s felt ethics are entirely fixed. To be effective an ethic needs to be felt as compulsory; error-theory objectivity (in-the-world) supplies a motive, but compulsion can also arise through personal commitment as well as (secular) life-changing experiences. Changing one’s ethic would be like learning to play a sport, building up relevant reflexes and muscular strengths through practice (or rehabilitation), rather than academic learning about through study.

  6. I’m sympathetic to all that. My own way of putting it is to say that moral commitments are “desires masquerading as beliefs”. Inasmuch as it is a sort of masquerade, a sort of “error” is involved.

  7. Commenter Patrick above expresses reservations that I share (and which I express in my own way at the link on my name). I would be interested to hear how you (Dr Ruse) address them.

  8. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I guess that everyone from the Pope to the feminists would agree that murder is wrong.

    In fact, that murder is wrong may well be coded into our genes, as you say.

    However, how does evolution help us decide whether abortion is murder, as the Pope claims or not murder, as the feminists and I claim?

    That is, all the ethical differences that count seem to be about us deciding what is right and what is wrong, that is, whether abortion is murder or not, and in that sense, maybe those French existentialists were not so crazy, after all.

    As crazy old Sartre might say, it’s up to us to decide whether abortion is murder or not. Our genes don’t tell us about that.

  9. I think your views on morality here are very close to Steven Pinker’s, only he makes the case for the non-subjectivity of ethics in terms of rationality more than you do. Here’s a passage from Pinker that I like, and I imagine you would like too:

    “Once [reason] is programmed with a basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interests of ever-increasing numbers of others. It is reason too that can always take note of the shortcomings of previous exercises of reasoning, and update and improve itself in response. And if you detect a flaw in the argument, it is reason that allows you to point it out and defend an alternative.” (The Better Angels of our Nature, p. 669)

    Reason prevents us from caring about white people deeply, but not caring about people of other races; caring about men, but not women, etc. In light of the role of reason in making us believe it, at the very least it’s very misleading to say a moral claim like “All humans are equal” is in error.

    It’s a mystery, then, why you get someone like Jerry Coyne slamming Ruse for his views on morality, yet treating Pinker as the best thing since sliced bread. Link below–

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/ruse-goes-after-scientism-again-but-screws-up-about-morality/

    As far as morality goes, there’s virtually no space between Pinker and Ruse. Or so it seems to me.

    Professor Ruse–Have you read Pinker? Do you agree that your position on the nature of ethics and his are very close?

  10. amos asks:

    “how does evolution help us decide whether abortion is murder, as the Pope claims or not murder, as the feminists and I claim?”

    Evolution is the guiding theory of the science of biology, and embryology is a branch of biology. Embryology tells us that killing a young foetus is similar to killing an animal like a chicken, whereas killing a near-term foetus is like killing a newly-born infant. If you count infanticide as murder (which I don’t, not quite anyway) then late abortions are a lot like murder too. And it was our knowledge of foetal development guided by evolutionary theory that informed our judgement.

  11. I am trying to understand Ruse’s ethic thing.

    My thing is that there are really no entrenched ethics unless there is activity, like people networking and working together. For instance, societies that network and engage the most have the highest ethical theorizing, understanding and standards, like in free market economies. The more tumult the more established the ethics, and understanding of them. And if in these societies ethical standards are broken, the more hand ringing and soul searching, which is a process of renewal and a further theorizing and reinforcing of those ethics.

    Perhaps my thinking on ethics and how they come to be is also of an evolutionary nature.

  12. TheDudeDiogenes

    I’m with Patrick – I don’t get it.

    Take any controversial moral topic on which there is cross-cultural disagreement – say, FGM – how does your view, Prof. Ruse, help us decide whether that is right or wrong?

    Now I personally find it repulsive, but as a moral skeptic, I don’t think that all rational (or semi-rational, perhaps I should say) beings are bound by the laws of reason to come to the same moral conclusions as me on pain of contradiction. My conclusion is a result of the environment in which I was raised and my education as a philosophy major, along with whatever biological moral baggage I was endowed with.

    It seems to me, Prof Ruse, that despite this attempt at clarification, your position is incoherent; at least, it’s incomprehensible to me.

  13. I’m sorry to be rude to a guest contributor, but I find the article so full of ambiguities (if not equivocations) that I can make no sense of it.

  14. “as we all know, “murder” is usually defined as “immoral killing,” which makes the claim “murder is wrong” somewhat tautological.”

    No Patrick, ‘we’ don’t all ‘know’ that at all. Most of us know that murder is a usually defined as a species of unlawful killing. Look up a dictionary if you are interested in the specifics. Thus it remains an open question whether murder might sometimes be morally justified – on some utilitarian accounts it most certainly can.

  15. Jim P Houston- Ok.

    He brought up murder to claim that the belief “murder is wrong” is not a matter of choice. I went with a definition under which that was true, but argued that it was unimportant that it was true. I suppose I could have gone with a definition under which his claim was just plain false. And knowing the audience, I really, really should have mentioned both definitions.

  16. “I am not a non-cognitivist. I think ethical claims are perfectly meaningful.”
    – Michael Ruse

    “Non-cognitivists deny neither that moral sentences are meaningful nor that they are generally used by speakers in meaningful ways.”
    – Mark van Roojen: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-cognitivism

  17. Okay, we need some ground rules here. It is absolutely not okay simply to announce that you can’t make sense of the article, that it is useless, or anything else of that nature without actually making an argument.

    I’ll simply delete anything of that nature in the future.

    Also, a general reminder, we operate here under a strong principle of charity, and civility is a non-negotiable requirement.

  18. Dennis Sceviour

    Let me try to defend Michael Ruse. I have been interested in the works of Michael Ruse since reading “Darwinism Defended (1982)” Then, Michael Ruse dismissed evolutionary ethics since:

    …”One violates the is/ought barrier. One goes from the way that things are, to the way that one thinks things should be.”

    This I found to be excellent advice. Michael Ruse has again reaffirmed his position in this article. I also agree ethics (or at least morality by my definition) is not so much about the real world as it is about social relationships between fellow species members. The real word can be defined as the “is” world, and ethics as the “ought” world.

    The point where I disagree with Michael Ruse is the statement that he a non-cognitivist, and that Darwinian evolutionary ethics can be approached from this basis. I have taken the position that Darwin was a supporter of ethical cognitivism (although the word did not exist as such at that time in history). Darwin introduced his theory of “reciprocal altruism” in the Descent of Man (1871):

    “each man would soon learn that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return.”

    It is important to note that Darwin considered the factor a cognitive learning experience, and not genetic evolution. The quotation Michael Ruse gave from the Descent of Man given in the article also seems to support this view. If Darwin was correct, then ethics still has no genetic evolutionary basis for discussion.

  19. If you think “there is any need of external ethical principles” is contradicted by “ethics is a bunch of emotions”, which it is clearly external and the starting point of your argumentation.
    Besides, it will mean that “everything ethic needs is embedded in ethics”, and then, there us no order or structure and discussion is useless or exists a kernel of immutable inner rules that applies to ethics.

    It is funny how natural is still to think in self embedded, explained and sustained systems after the collapse of Russel Pricipia Matematica program.

  20. I mostly agree with Dennis (and Ruse) but I’ve never been very clear on what the word ‘cognitivism’ is or should mean. Sometimes a “cognitive” claim is taken to be one that is true or false, so derivatively a “non-cognitivist” is someone who denies that moral claims are true or false. But then sometimes (guided by the etymology of the word, probably) ‘cognitive’ seems to be understood more in terms of mental activities such as understanding, correction and learning. So a second sort of “non-cognitivist” would be someone who denies that moral claims are the sort of thing that need to be defended with reasons, argued about, that we are sometimes obliged to change our minds about, that we make progress with, and so on.

    I think moral claims are neither true not false, so I’m a “non-cognitivist” in the first sense. But I think moral claims have to be defended with reasons and argued about, and we are sometimes obliged to change our minds about them, and so on. So I’m “not a non-cognitivist” in the second sense. I think this position follows very smoothly from the combination of Hume and Darwin, so I imagine it is quite close to Ruse’s position.

  21. Dennis Sceviour

    Jeremy Bowman,
    Thank you for pointing this out. I was assuming the psychological definition of cognitivism; that is, decisions come from a reasoned mental state, and not the ethical definition, which is dissimilar. From your definition of “non-cognitivist” is someone who denies that moral claims are true or false, I then would have to agree with Ruse. That is, moral claims are not true or false, moral claims are right or wrong.

    If this semantic confusion can be sorted out, then let me rephrase my disagreement with Ruse. He makes statements like:

    “…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.”

    I do not believe Darwin’s theories of adaptation support this. Darwin was confronted with too many contradictions in the Origin of the Species. Thus, he re-assessed his position in his second book, the Descent of Man.

  22. Genes are a funny thing. It could be said that the distribution of genes in human and their resulting potentiality (that is the purpose and function they have evolved to serve)is a continuum as in a “bell” curve scenario.

    The potentiality of each gene is triggered by the enviromment. And since it is a continuum, some group of genes (therefore humans) could find murder morally acceptable (ethically appropriate) – because that is the way they are wired. Therefore if you could imagine an Island where only those types of genes are present, then, those humans ethics, will be consist with accepting murder as morally ok – may I add that even within that gene pool,there will be extremes and vices.

    Evidence seem to suggest that, like most things, where humans are concerned, there are no objectivism; subjectivism and relativism applies more often then not. That appears to be the way it is…

  23. Michael, how is it in your view we can resolve moral disagreements? What makes for the relevant considerations from which we could derive what’s right or wrong? It’s fairly easy with an example like murder, but what of issues like homosexuality or abortion where there are people who will have that strong emotional feeling that it’s “wrong”. How might one, given your metaethic, be able to reason through these tricky issues?

  24. Patrick 11:28 am:

    He brought up murder to claim that the belief “murder is wrong” is not a matter of choice. I went with a definition under which that was true, but argued that it was unimportant that it was true. I suppose I could have gone with a definition under which his claim was just plain false. And knowing the audience, I really, really should have mentioned both definitions.

    Both defintions Patrick?

    As in yours – where ‘murder’ is morally wrong by definition – and another one that comes from, say, a dictionary? No really, really it is not the case that you should have mentioned both. And you should not need to depend on who the audience is to know that. Do try looking in a dictionary before you announce that “we all know” that x is “usually defined” the way you think it is and go on to assert that a Professor with some 50 years of experience in academic philosophy is offering up a ‘bad example’ that is ‘somewhat’ tautological. Of course Professor Ruse is not depending on your notion that “murder is wrong” is trivially true in order to make his argument and, of course, he knows what the word means. A statement needn’t be trivially true in order for you to have no choice but to believe it – try doubting the claim that ‘there is an external world’. And of course the claim he actually makes that “murder is wrong” feels ‘objective’ or ‘binding’ in a way that “I like spinach” does not would not have been shown to be “plain false” had you simply ‘gone with’ another definition of ‘murder’.

  25. “Murder is wrong. One ought not murder.” “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 note the other comments about the “murder” example. One definition of “murder” is “deliberate killing” (Oxford School Dictionary). Given this definition, it is not evident that “murder is wrong”. In war, “deliberate killing” is generally not regarded as wrong, nor is such action when done in self defence.

    It may well be that the choice of “murder” is a poor one, but this is an example that Ruse chose to use and it is not clear that it supports the case he is trying to make.

    Having said that, I do agree that there is a distinction between the two sorts of statements he refers to (“I don’t like spinach” versus “murder is wrong”) but I don’t think that this piece puts the case clearly enough.

  26. Keith,

    If a man thinks consulting a dictionary might help him contribute to a philosophical discussion I think one might reasonably expect him to choose to consult a dictionary not intended for use by primary school children. A definition of ‘murder’ that is tailored towards the understanding of a 9 year old might not be expected to capture all the aspects thought essential to the notion by most competent adult speakers. Honest brokers engaged in a serious conversation amongst adults would, one hopes, be able to agree that if an individual is talking about ‘murder’ he almost certainly does not mean to include killing an enemy combatant or killing in self-defence (unless he explicitly says so).

    I am glad you appreciate the distinction between “I don’t like spinach” and “murder is wrong” though. This is a distinction which, I trust, most children grasp before they start consulting dictionaries intended for grown-ups

  27. “If a man thinks consulting a dictionary might help him contribute to a philosophical discussion I think one might reasonably expect him to choose to consult a dictionary not intended for use by primary school children. A definition of ‘murder’ that is tailored towards the understanding of a 9 year old might not be expected to capture all the aspects thought essential to the notion by most competent adult speakers.”

    But a dictionary for primary school children would be expected to convey the most basic and fundamental meaning of a word, which is why I used it. If writer intends a more nuanced meaning, then I would think that the onus is on them to make that clear.

  28. “Honest brokers engaged in a serious conversation amongst adults would, one hopes, be able to agree that if an individual is talking about ‘murder’ he almost certainly does not mean to include killing an enemy combatant or killing in self-defence (unless he explicitly says so).”

    But the problem, as others noted, is that Ruse’s use of “murder” appears ambiguous. If murder is defined as “unjustified killing” then the argument appears to be, at worst, circular, or, at best, not illuminating.

  29. Keith,

    I presume you must possess an older copy of the Oxford School Dictionary that fails to define the verb ‘murder’ as “kill unlawfully and deliberately” (as per the 2011 edition). I’d be delighted to buy you a copy if you feel it might assist you in your forays into philosophical discussion.

    In any case, I am surprised to learn the Oxford School Dictionary really is the definitive authority on word usage for academics in the antipodes. Do you feel when you are attending seminars that there is always a clear onus on you to flag up the fact that you are using a word in a more nuanced way than it may be understood by those of an age for believing in Santa Claus?

    In order to argue for, or against, the claim that “murder is wrong” has ‘binding’ or ‘objective’ emotional force, no honest broker competent in philosophy would insist upon a stipulative definition of ‘murder’ such as “unjustified killing” (you won’t find that definition in your collection of children’s books). The question of whether murder may, in some circumstances, be justified is an open one. Ask a utilitarian or try Jeremy’s latest online experiment.

    I’m not trying to defend Ruse’s thesis. I just think that critics should restrict themselves to making charitable and intellectually serious remarks. I’d have expected rather more from a man of your wit and academic standing.

  30. Jim,

    I find your reply to my remarks to be a strange mixture of insult and compliment! The Australian Macquarie Dictionary defines murder as “the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought”. It is not clear to me how this more precise definition aids in understanding Ruse’s argument.

    Now Jeremy has stated that “It is absolutely not okay simply to announce that you can’t make sense of the article, that it is useless, or anything else of that nature without actually making an argument.”

    I cannot see a problem with stating that you “can’t make sense” of an article and I’m not sure how you would support such a statement by argument. Of course, making such a statement might simply indicate that I was clueless.

    Let me offer an alternative example to Ruse’s spinach and murder.

    1. I don’t eat green beans but I don’t think it is immoral to eat them.

    2. I don’t eat pork but I don’t think it is immoral to eat it.

    3. I don’t eat human flesh but I don’t think it is immoral to eat it.

    Most people would, I think, have no problem with (1) but have a big problem with (3); and some intermediate number would have a problem with (2).

    I don’t have a particular problem with any of these statements (indeed, in the classic SF novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, consuming departed friends is a mark of respect). (And, of course, in nature eating rivals may be favoured by natural selection.)

    So, I’m wondering how Ruse would’s Darwinian ethics would apply to (3).

  31. I cannot see a problem with stating that you “can’t make sense” of an article and I’m not sure how you would support such a statement by argument.

    1. It’s entirely possible to support such a statement by argument. For example, you might show how various propositions in an article are contradictory; or how they don’t refer; or why people who think an article does makes sense are mistaken; or that particular sentences don’t make grammatical sense; etc; etc;

    2. The problem with simply declaring that one cannot makes sense of something (i.e., where it’s not functioning as a request for further clarification in the context of an on-going discussion) is that it’s gratuitously uninteresting. Why would anybody care what person x can or cannot make sense of (given the absence of explanation, etc)? How exactly is the person who has written a piece supposed to respond to such an announcement? It’s (almost always) arrogant, conceited and an absurd way of proceeding, and it won’t be tolerated here.

    3. I think you’re new here, so you have no way of knowing this, and I’ve made an exception in this case, but I won’t tolerate things getting bogged down in meta-discussion about the way I moderate this blog. So no more on this topic, please.

  32. For what its worth, this is what caused me to go with the definition I did:

    1. My background is legal, not philosophical. The law does not define murder as illegal killing. That would be unhelpful. Instead, it defines murder in terms of things like intentionality and premeditation (neither of which seem to be at issue here, and depending on legal regime, relevant primarily to the degree of murder and not the fact), and most importantly for this conversation, without legal excuse. Legal excuse varies, but most center around moral justification in its various varieties. In short, the legal definition of murder centers in large part around an effort to define the difference between killings which are moral, and killings which are not moral. At least in aspiration, the legal definition of murder is supposed to map to immoral killing.

    2. “Murder is wrong” is the go-to example of apologetics for moral realism as an example of a moral claim that’s just obviously true. Seeing it used as an example of something that just feels wrong seemed awfully analogous. I imported assumptions from one context to the other, and should not have. I have been suitably chastised for my error, and now understand the difference in charity of reading and temperament of response that is due a pseudonymous blog commenter versus that due a published philosopher with “50 years of experience in academic philosophy.”

    The more serious mistakes I made in my post weren’t in the definition of murder, although I clearly should have anticipated being attacked on that ground.

    The mistakes I made were in misinterpreting the use of the word “phenomenologically,” and in assuming that the statement made was being supported by later paragraphs.

    I now think I understand that this quote:

    “However, I think that phenomenologically, as one might say, ethical beliefs differ from other emotions in having a character of value and obligation.”

    means a lot less than I assumed it did. I think that what it really was intended to mean is merely that the nature of ethical beliefs is that they’re about value or obligation, much in the same way that food preferences are phenomenologically about preferred taste or nutrition.

    As for this quote,

    “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.”

    Taking it in the context of my (hopefully) improved understanding of Ruse’s reference to the phenomenological nature of ethical belief I would interpret the first quoted sentence as claiming that the emotion “murder is wrong” is an emotion of binding-ness or absolute-ness or objective-ness. I suppose I could then charitably agree that people cannot choose whether they feel something is absolute, objective, or binding- to say that they could would be like saying that someone chooses to feel that they cannot choose to feel otherwise, which is probably nonsensical.

    But that doesn’t change anything about the general problem of universalizing an entire moral system from the idea that it is human nature to feel that some feelings are unchosen and have the character of obligation.

    My final two paragraphs in the 5th comment on this site stand as my present thoughts on the matter.

  33. Jeremy: I am not new here BUT I certainly do not want to object to — or even appear to object to or debate — your moderation or discussion policies. I apologise if my remark was interpreted in this way. To avoid the possibility of further infringements, I’ll leave it at that.

  34. @Keith – Sorry, I realised who you were after I posted. I would have been less “assertive” had I realised before! :)

    I stand by my remarks about the inappropriateness of simply announcing that one can’t make sense of some article, but they weren’t particularly directed at you, of course (or anybody else for that matter). It partly irks because I’m frequently on the receiving end of it myself (I guess that’s true of anybody who puts stuff out into the public domain).

    People send me emails – I get one or two most days – that say things such as:

    “X makes absolutely no sense, and clearly you weren’t thinking properly when you wrote it. Do better next time!”

    And you sort of think… Well, okaaay, but that really doesn’t get us anywhere, and what exactly do you expect me to say in response? :smile:

  35. @Jeremy: No problem. (And I use a number of computers and email accounts, so I don’t always know who I am anyway.)

    But since you continued…I agree with your point 2 but not necessarily with your point 1. I think that to make at least some of the sort of arguments you would actually have to be able to make sense of the article.

    I’m off topic here but not being facetious. In class (teaching stats), I encounter situations where students have a lot of difficulty explaining what they don’t understand in a way that I can understand what it is that they can’t make sense of.

    Perhaps we are interpreting “make sense” in different ways.

  36. @Keith

    It’s possible we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    But supposing, for example, I’m unable to make sense of the claim that “the cat is both alive and not-alive.”.

    I can explain why that doesn’t make sense (Schrödinger notwithstanding, it violates the principle of non-contradiction).

    Or suppose somebody says: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. Even here, I can explain that as far as I can tell the sentence is semantically nonsensical. In other words, rather than just saying, “Your article doesn’t make sense” – I can identify where it doesn’t make sense, and explain what I mean when I say it doesn’t make sense.

    Okay, so your student example. Well, it was precisely because I anticipated that sort of response that I included the bit about “it not functioning as a request for further clarification”. Of course, if people say, “I don’t understand”, or “I can’t make sense of it”, when they’re not actually saying, “You’re an idiot, I can’t make sense of it, because it is literally nonsensical, and I’m not going to explain why…”, etc., then I don’t have a problem. But that’s not what was (potentially or actually) going on here. People were saying something much closer to the thing with which I do have a problem.

    And I tell you what, I bet if your students did something similar – i.e., told you it didn’t make sense, but were not interested in explaining why, or helping you to get to the bottom of the matter, etc., – then you’d be pissed at them! :)

  37. My apologies to all for not joining this conversation sooner, since I sort of provoked it. I actually have a fair bit that I’d like to raise, but just haven’t had time in the last couple of days to get my head clear, and some of my time clear. I’ll need to come back and say something of more substance, but may I just for the moment say a few brief things?

    First … thank you, Professor Ruse, for taking the trouble to set out your viewpoint at some length. Since I’m an error theorist, or at least a moral sceptic with leanings toward a form of error theory, I agree with much that you’ve said. I do think that human beings tend to be pervasively wrong in thinking that a certain kind of objective bindingness exists, when it simply does not. I agree with Mackie that the “moral overlay” is an illusion, and we seem to be at one on this.

    If I do manage to make some longer remarks over the next couple days, I’ll try to pin down where I am uncomfortable on specific matters in your post, and why.

    We find ourselves on opposite sides of the debate about “accommodationism”, and I suppose that is always likely to produce some strong emotions. I have a different view from yours about “scientism” and a very different view about the consequences of “non-accommodationist” views in American constitutional law. And as you may recall, I’ve strongly criticised your views on this last topic. Alas, I have a piece coming out soon in Free Inquiry that may not please you any more.

    I’m grateful, though, for the exposition and clarification of your views on metaethics and related matters. On this and much else we are not all that far apart, but we obviously differ on some issues with a certain “hot-button” quality.

  38. @Jeremy A very illuminating response! (And to avoid misconceptions, I add that I mean that sincerely.) In reply, I would repeat my statement my not understanding may merely indicate that I am clueless. But I would add that some of us amateur philosophers are not nearly so good as you at isolating the problems in an argument. (I’m not allowed to get pissed at my students: poor professional conduct. :wink: )

    @Jim I certainly appreciate Ruse taking the time to post here and intended no disrespect. I also appreciate the civil discussion that occurs on this site (compared to some others).

    I understand the problem of deriving a rational ethics, in the absence of a God given one, but I doubt that Darwinian theory, evolution or biology provides much guidance. I have been fascinated by living things, and studied them, for (quite literally) as long as I can remember. I have also taught (possibly not well) both evolutionary biology and the philosophy of science at university (although not recently). In the natural world, the only rule is anything goes as long as it contributes to survival.

    People will argue that homosexuality and abortion are “wrong” because they are “unnatural”. Alas, both are common in nature. Female crocodiles ferociously defend their nests and young: until a certain size/age and then they’re on the menu, if they are not fast enough. And as for sex! The variety of combinations is almost endless.

    I do not find that much to disagree with in the general points that Ruse makes, although I think he perhaps puts a little too much emphasis on genetics over upbringing (the old nature/nurture debate). I am, however, certainly not in the “nurture determines everything” camp; the evidence for the influence of genetics is undeniable.

    Of course, as I said at the beginning, I may be just clueless myself.

  39. @Keith – I think cluelessness is covered under my “functioning as a request for further information” point (albeit things get complex if one also factors in the possibility of meta-cluelessness).

    But… even if I accept the point that there is some level of cluelessness where it’s hard to say anything at all (beyond making an appeal for understanding), it’s also the case that there are many levels of “not understanding” that do allow further explanation, etc.

  40. Jim,

    Since commenters I respect (particularly you) seem to understand and appreciate Ruse’s article, I must admit the possibility that I’ve misjudged it. I’m sincere in wanting to understand his meaning, and I wonder if you would do me the favour of helping me. I won’t be at all offended if you decline. If you agree, could you please comment on the following interpretations and questions. (I’m using the words “morality” and “ethics” (and their cognates) interchangeably here, as Ruse seems to do.)

    (1) Ruse appears to believe that there are facts as to what is morally wrong and what we morally should do. And he does not have in mind some sort of qualified sense of truth, as a relativist or subjectivist might do. (He has been more explicit about this in previous articles.)

    (2) He denies any relativist or non-cognitivist interpretation of moral discourse. He seems to be taking moral claims in the sense they’re usually meant.

    (3) His only reason for declining to call himself a moral realist and declining to call moral facts “objective”, seems to be that he think moral facts are not made true by any “external ethical principles (Mind of God, non-natural properties, Platonic Forms)”. So when he says “the belief that ethics is objective is an illusion”, he only means that the belief in such external ethical principles is an illusion. He doesn’t mean that the belief in unqualified moral truth is an illusion.

    (4) Do you think he has made any attempt to say what it is that makes moral facts true? He appears to be attempting to do so when he says that “ethics – meaning by this substantive or normative ethics (“What should I do?”) – is a product of natural selection”. But does he mean only that people’s tendency to ask and answer such questions is a product of evolution? Or does he mean that moral facts (such as facts about what I should do) are made true by evolution? If the former, he seems to tell us nothing about what makes moral facts true. If the latter, he seems to say nothing about how this is supposed to work. This explanation of moral truth, if it is intended to be one, seems quite opaque. At the risk of over-interpreting, it looks rather like he is committing a fallacy of equivocation, conflating two meanings of “ethics”: ethics (=the human moral faculty) is real, so ethics (=moral facts) are true.

    All would be a lot clearer if my interpretation (1) is mistaken. Then Ruse can be taken as essentially a moral error theorist, who is not attempting to give an account of moral truth, but only to give an account of the human moral faculty. But I think there’s too much evidence for (1) for it to be dismissed without clarification from Ruse himself.

  41. I don’t know, but it just seems to me that your argument boils down to “This is the way I want things to be.” I can see no real compelling reason that ethics should flow forth from a Darwinian evolutionary understanding. It seems odd that we have ethics in that case at all.

  42. My problem with these types of evolutionary explanations is: evolution is a mechanism to search for solutions under physical/chemical/social constraints to the problem of continuing to live (speaking loosely). The solutions it finds are to properties of the “outside” universe (which includes other organisms, that are doing the same things). So an “ethic” may well be genetically encoded, but represents a set of rules that are the best solution to living together in a mathematical sense (a la prisoner’s dilemma etc).

  43. Very interesting reading!!!!

    My question may vary some from your subject. Does anyone think our Universe needs different types of fuel for forward motion or growth? Think hard an beyond what science has proven.Look at all life possibilities for the answers give me a list.

  44. Richard,

    I respect you as a commenter too. You’ve shown your intellectual ‘credentials’ in a number of recent conversations on this site (this being the only place I know you from). And you have conducted yourself in said conversations in a fair-minded, civil and constructive manner quite consistently.

    It may be a good that you admit the possibility that you may have misjudged Ruse’s article, but I certainly don’t think any (unwarranted) respect you may have for me should prompt that. I haven’t followed Ruse’s thinking or the recent disputes surrounding it. I am thus ill-informed about both his position and the criticisms that will have been made of it elsewhere. And I certainly don’t think that I do fully understand and appreciate what Ruse is trying to say in this article. I am only more appreciative of him taking the time to say it and possessed of a little less understanding with regard to those who presume that he can be refuted by stating the blindingly obvious.

    I think this thread would have gone rather better had you chosen to offer substantive and measured input at an earlier juncture. I too was sincere in wanting to understand Ruse’s meaning, and I don’t think the meaning of a thesis is best understood in the absence of well-considered and robust criticism. Had such criticism been offered up in a constructive and charitable manner then perhaps Professor Ruse might have elected to offer the clarification of his meaning that you now seek or we might at least have had a productive conversation about it. I daresay we shall never know.

    I am glad you are not too easily offended.

  45. Thank you, Jim, that was a fair comment, and I will try to be more charitable in future.

  46. One of the modern “saints” of the Christian church, CS Lewis, argues strongly and effectively for a “Tao” of natural law (morality). And both Darwin and Hume had strong Christian perspectives on ethics (e.g.: see Hume’s essay, Of the Immortality of the Soul).

    As a Christian myself, yet one who endeavors to refrain from castigating other Christians, ad hominem, while readily pouncing on indefensible positions via my citing scriptural teaching “Socratic-ly”, but sans “scriptural authority” other than reason itself, I find Dr Ruse’s position quite refreshing.

    ~eric.

  47. Okay, for a start this is one bit that I find strange:
    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 sincerely don’t understand this. With all respect to Michael Ruse – whom I’ve admired for many years before the current accommodationism debates began and I found myself on the opposite “side”, with Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne – I just find this very confusing. Yes, I can see why any society will need to develop rules that impose constraints on killing rivals. Hobbes gave good reasons for that. We’ll have chaos if there are no constraints at all on the means of social, economic, and sexual competition.

    All societies have found it necessary to ensure that competition happens within limits, but different societies have adopted different constraints.

    I don’t believe that our various moral systems are just arbitrary. Some constraints are needed if societies are to be viable. But surely their precise form is underdetermined by the empirical facts? Different societies have survived with behavioural constraints on their members – varied systems of constraints that have only a limited amount in common.

  48. The precise form of the moral system does not appear to be what Ruse had in mind. He is speaking of ‘morality as such’, not any particular moral system.

  49. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Ben:

    However, when Ruse refers to the nutty French existentialists (a bit of unnecessary and cheap philosophical chauvinism, since there are also
    American and British existentialists), although he speaks of “morality as such”, he can only be refering to particular moral choices, since
    Sartre, the obvious target of his remarks, never implies that we can somehow opt out of morality, only that our specific morality or particular moral systems are up to us, that we choose them, that they are not written in the nature of things.

    In fact, no philosopher, whom I am familiar with, not even Nietzsche in his worst rants, rejects morality as such: Nietzsche rejects slave morality or Christian morality or utilitarianism or Kantianism, but in name of a
    “higher” morality.

  50. Russell, I think Ruse’s notion that morality is not “subjective” is very much like Steven Pinker’s. “Murder is wrong” is what rational, self-interested people will conclude, over time, and after careful reflection, says Pinker–and I think Ruse is saying much the same. (Though we’d know for sure if Ruse cared to respond to the comments here. Ahem.) That makes it not subjective in the way that “The Beatles are better than the Stones” is. But it’s still not objective in the manner of “The Sky is Blue.” I’m curious if you liked the late chapters of Pinker’s book where he talks about reason and morality.

  51. Footnote to my parenthetical “ahem”–it was good of Professor Ruse to post his essay here, and I really enjoyed it. On further reflection, there’s nothing that says a time-consuming discussion was required as Act II! It’s winter break for a lot of people–time for writing books, going skiing, lying on the beach, cleaning the closets, or whatever … not necessarily for blog chat.

  52. S, I’m confused. If what you say is true, then our caricature of Sartre was talking about morality as such, and he thought it was dependent on the will. Ruse disagrees. This is a second-order disagreement, not a disagreement over particular moral claims about right and ought.

  53. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Ben:

    It’s hard to translate Sartre into the paradigms of analytic philosophy, but..

    Sartre says that we are thrown (his word) into a world of others (being for others).

    In that world of others, there are moral issues, and we have to choose our stance towards them.

    There is nothing written in the state of things which says what is right and what is wrong. We decide, but it seems that the moral issues are part of the given, of our situation.

    There is no way out of our situation, except bad faith.

    Not choosing is a form of choosing. Thus, there is no way to avoid making moral decisions.

    He who is silent in the face of torture, chooses torture by default.

    We cannot elude our responsibility to make moral choices, according to Sartre, in a world of others in which the moral chessboard is the given, our situation.

    However, once again, to decide which moves on the chessboard are right and which are wrong is up to us.

  54. Sure. I’m just wondering how it speaks against the idea that Ruse (and the Sartrean caricature) are talking about ‘morality as such’, as opposed to the merits of any precise moral system(s). Sounds to me like you’ve just given a Sartrean view of morality as such.

  55. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Ben:

    I quite possibly may have given a Sartrean view of morality as such.

    I’m getting confused about this conversation, but my original point is that Ruse is mistaken that nutty French existentialists believe that morality as such is up for grabs, and I think that I’ve shown that Sartre, the best known representative of nutty French existentialism,
    believes that morality as such (whatever that means) is our situation, our given, “something” that we must face up to unless we are in bad faith.

    Sartre’s view of what morality as such is is very different from that of Ruse and certainly is framed in a very different way than Ruse frames
    his concept of morality, but Sartre’s world is structured in moral terms, unlike that of Heidegger (and here I am not referring to Heidegger’s Nazism, but to the basic structure of his worldview).

  56. Jean, I do think that beings like us – with our need to cooperate to survive, etc. – need to develop widely-recognised restraints on behaviour. I also agree that there is likely to be some convergence, perhaps considerable convergence, on what these should be. If that is all that is required to be a moral realist or to think that morality is “objective”, then even I qualify as a moral realist!

    I’m not so sure about the convergence on “Murder is wrong.” That is either too specific, if we’re talking about the elements of murder as defined in a particular jurisdiction, or perhaps a tautology if we define “murder” as “wrongful killing”. But I do think that all societies and jurisdictions are likely, over time, to develop some concept of murder not radically different from the common law concept of murder – i.e., the elements involved are likely to be rather similar.

    I’m reminded here of H.L.A. Hart’s concept of a minimalist or thin kind of natural law – there will be some kinds of norms that all societies will need – given our nature and the commonalities of human social life – but the detail is underdetermined. I agree with Hart, and it’s the sort of thing that I have in mind when I say that morality is not just arbitrary, and when I say (i’m not sure if I’ve ever made this point online) that it takes a form that is to some extent determinate.

    You could say the same about ordinary, non-moral value judgments. A claim such as, “This car is a good one,” is usually going to be open to rational discussion and a lot of convergence.

    I’m not totally clear on Pinker’s metaethical position, even after reading the book, but if he is saying the above then I agree with it as far as it goes.

    The nasty little secret about morality, though, is that people tend to think of it as more than “not just arbitrary”. I can’t actually prove this – certainly not here – but it appears to me that there’s at least a strong tendency for people to think of moral claims as more like claims about physical properties. In most people’s minds, it appears that there’s no irreducible element of legitimate disagreement, based on our possession of differing desires, as there is with judgments about the goodness or otherwise of a car, or, say, the literary merit or otherwise of a novel.

    I like the example of a novel, because it brings out how there can be a rich and useful discussion of an issue without there being some judgment that is binding on everyone, as if it were simply a matter of physical fact.

  57. Darwin y la filosofia moral « El Giro Cognitivo - pingback on January 10, 2012 at 6:59 am
  58. They are not simple emotions like “I like spinach.” They come across with moral fervor. “Murder is wrong. One ought not murder.”

    That’s hardly a fair comparison. How about one shouldn’t tell white lies as a comparison to spinach; or how about I don’t like drinking slurry as having a similar emotional impact to murder is wrong?

    The danger with this type of thinking is that the greatest good then becomes the propagation of our species to the exclusion of all other concerns, both about the well being of those humans as well as other creatures. Evolution can only take us so far, we then have to work with what we’ve got to try to take us that step or two further – retreating to evolution is a moral regression (assuming I believed in morality at all, which I don’t).

  59. Professor Ruse, at long last, I think I understand you!

    It is true that the effect of Darwinian biology on ethics is summarized by noting that the biological components of normative ethics are products of natural selection because they furthered reproductive success in our ancestors.

    However, you have somehow leapt from this accepted scientific truth to the astonishing claim that all of normative ethics is a product of natural selection to further reproductive success.

    Fortunately for ethics, the emergence of culture forever unhitched morality from being only about reproductive fitness.

    Enforced cultural norms (moral standards) are the most common understanding of what normative ethics is about. Since the emergence of culture and language, groups have selected moral standards to enforce based on whatever benefits appealed to them. These could be material goods, reduced violence, and psychological goods such as the rewards for altruism and pleasure in the cooperative company of friends and family. Reproductive fitness increases might be a benefit of an enforced cultural norm, but there are many examples –such as celibacy for certain classes of people – where it is certainly not.

    Do you not include enforced cultural norms as part of ethics?

    Or perhaps you include enforced cultural norms as part of ethics but consider their only “evolutionary input” to be our moral biology which produces our emotions like empathy, loyalty, and guilt that motivate altruistic behavior?

    Enforced norms such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are the products of cultural evolution as well as biological evolution. Cultural evolution here means only that people select and copy (reproduce) cultural norms based on perceived benefits (possibly having nothing to do with reproductive fitness) and attractiveness (which includes attractiveness based on our biology and familiarity – they were what people grew up with and have been incorporated into their moral intuitions).

    Enforced norms would be wasted on enforcing self-interested behaviors. People are generally cheerful to act in their self-interest, such as through self-interested cooperation in economic systems such as capitalism. Cultural enforcement is reserved for norms advocating behaviors that are in some way not self-interested, but altruistic. For example, norms prohibiting stealing, lying in court, and murdering advocate altruistic acts in the sense that you ought to accept the cost of not stealing, lying, or murdering, no matter how much you might benefit from doing so, in order to benefit the group.

    Motivation of altruistic acts (by our moral biology) and advocacy of altruistic acts (by virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms) form the sum of what most people consider normative ethics to be about.

    You have to go up another level of causation to understand the central role of altruism in both our “moral biology” and enforced cultural norms (moral standards).

    The common source of the strategies behind our biological heuristics that motivate altruism and the enforced cultural norms (cultural heuristics) that advocate altruism are as intrinsic to our physical reality, and as objective, as mathematics. Specifically, the mathematics of winning altruistic strategies from game theory in environments where there are synergistic benefits of cooperation and agents can know each other’s reputations as good cooperators (virtually all environments inhabited by people).

    The view that social morality is best understood as biological and cultural heuristics for altruistic strategies from game theory has wonderful explanatory power. For example, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a highly effective heuristic for the altruistic strategy from game theory called indirect reciprocity.

    While enforced cultural norms are diverse, contradictory, and even bizarre, it appears to be empirically true that they all share a common function that is as intrinsic to our universe and as objective as mathematics. That function is to advocate altruistic behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups.

    The competing idea that the only “evolutionary input” to enforced cultural norms is our moral biology has, in comparison, virtually no explanatory power.

  60. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Posted by Mark Sloan January 10, 2012 at 3:21 pm
    “It is true that the effect of Darwinian biology on ethics is summarized by noting that the biological components of normative ethics are products of natural selection because they furthered reproductive success in our ancestors.”

    No, this is not true. Darwin distanced himself from evolutionary ethics. What you are interpreting perhaps could be called Ruseian (Rusian?) evolutionary ethics. It would be nice if Michael Ruse came forward to clarify his position with Darwin.

  61. Dennis, you might re-read the claim. At bottom, it is a claim that that human biological components (relevant to morality) exist because they furthered reproductive success in our ancestors. This is generally accepted science that I expect you actually agree with. Or do you have some other reason that human biology exists?

  62. Re: Mark Sloan,
    I am not sure what you mean by the “biological components of normative ethics”. I avoid using the word normative since it contains multiple meanings. If I am not mistaken you are agreeing to eugenics, and that you consider eugenics to be general accepted science. Whatever the case, it is not Darwinian Theory, which is my point. My specific interest in this article is that Ruse appears to have changed his views on eugenics since 1982.

    Also, could you explain the relevance of questioning the myriad factors for the existence of biology in the current discussion? May I suggest you read Darwin’s Origin of the Species which gives an in depth opinion into the complexities of biological symbiosis and population change. Darwin did not attribute the existence of biology to the single factor of ancestral reproduction.

  63. Re: Dennis Sceviour

    Perhaps I can be corrected, but I believe the thrust of Mark Sloan’s comments were that cultural (ie non-genetic) transmission of moral rules or beliefs is more important than any genetically controlled “moral instinct” to behaviour in modern humans. The term normative ethics was used since Professor Ruse specified:

    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.

    Eugenics is in fact standard genetics, and is applied daily in agricultural production. Whether planned mating experiments (a la positive eugenics) should be carried out on humans is perhaps another matter. Negative human eugenics, where disease genes are removed from the population by preimplantation testing, or prenatal testing and pregnancy termination, are practised widely.
    It is possible you were thinking of behaviour genetics.

    Finally, Darwin was a deep and useful thinker, but the bulk of evolutionary genetics has been done since his time.

  64. I do agree that ethics is a cultural construct and reflects Darwinian survival.

    Murder is wrong because if everyone did it there would be no survivors.

    I.e. you can as a rough guide say that things that are ‘wrong’ are things that lead ultimately to a cessation of the conditions in which they can arise. And the humans that do them.

    Civilization is a process by which we learn to live together in a co-operative group developing a sense of mutual trust and regulation to allow it to happen: This is pro-survival. Ergo we find that breaches of trust, dishonesty and lack of co-operation are deemed ‘wrong’

    Some people seem to need a supernatural authority for this. So that poor sod Moses had to slog his way up a mountain, get his chisel out and pretend that he had.

    Jews always have the best stories to tell. :grin:

  65. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I’m sure that the comment about Jews telling the best stories is not meant to be offensive, but….

    If I were to comment that blacks always do X best or gays always do Y best, the complains would flood internet and collapse this website.

    Millions of Jews died not so long ago because, among others things, many believed that Jews
    are not worthy of trust, that they are always telling stories.

  66. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Posted by David Duffy January 11, 2012 at 1:42 am
    “It is possible you were thinking of behaviour genetics.”
    Yes, that is the difficulty, and the issue should be approached with caution.

    “Finally, Darwin was a deep and useful thinker, but the bulk of evolutionary genetics has been done since his time.”
    I agree. It is also a reason that the topic of Darwin and evolutionary genetics could be separated from one another.

  67. Re: Dennis Sceviour January 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Dennis, by the biological components of normative ethics I mean the biological structures in our brains responsible for emotions such as empathy, loyalty, and guilt that motivate altruism. When such emotions are triggered and their strength can be strongly shaped by culture and experience, but the emotion’s existence and motivating power is biological.

    I was attempting to use normative in the same sense Ruse does just for continuity’s sake. My own preference, and my area of interest, is to talk about “enforced cultural norms” (enforced moral standards) as a product of biological and cultural evolution (evolution as a substrate neutral process) rather than the vaguer terms “morality” or even “normative morality”.

    Darwinian biological evolution only deals with biology. Like the rest of science, it is, of logical necessity, silent concerning what people ought to do. Human eugenics as some kind of imperative ought is a result of bad science and worse moral philosophy. Could you point out what I said that could possibly lead to, what is to me, the bizarre conclusion that my comments supported eugenics?

    Since Darwin, it has become clear that the process of evolution he described as variation, selection, and reproduction is substrate neutral, applies in any environment where these processes are available, and is a useful way to understand cultural evolution. But again to be clear, the science of cultural evolution can only tell us what ‘is’, not what ‘ought’ to be.

    You said: “Darwin did not attribute the existence of biology to the single factor of ancestral reproduction.”

    I have no idea what you are talking about. A couple of examples please?

  68. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Posted by Mark Sloan January 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Thank you for defining “biological components of normative ethics”. My point is that Darwin did not consider altruism to be natural phenomena or inspired by neural patterns in the brain. Darwin considered the factor to be a learning experience.

    “Darwinian biological evolution is… silent concerning what people ought to do.”

    I agree.

    “Could you point out what I said that could possibly lead to, what is to me, the bizarre conclusion that my comments supported eugenics?”

    It is not bizarre. Eugenics is a frequent conclusion and problem when one jumps from the way things are to way things ought to be when discussing Darwin’s Theories on Natural Selection. Even if it was not your intention to support eugenics, it is easy to for others to make this conclusion when the words Darwinian biological evolution and ethics are combined in the same phrase. I think this is one problem of Michael Ruse’s train-wreck appearance in these debates.

    “A couple of examples please?”

    I have no idea what you are talking about. I cannot list all the things Darwin did not attribute. We will have to disagree on your statement “the effect of Darwinian biology on ethics is summarized by noting that the biological components of normative ethics are products of natural selection because they furthered reproductive success in our ancestors.”

  69. Re: Dennis Sceviour January 11, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Eugenics has not been, for at least 50 years, a frequent conclusion and problem when one jumps from the way things are to way things ought to be. We do not live in the 1920′s.

    I have observed though that “It is easy for others to make this conclusion when the words Darwinian biological evolution and ethics are combined in the same phrase”.

    All too often people hear the two words together and immediately construct mental granite cathedrals of misinformation. My carefully constructed rational arguments are as dandelions bouncing off the granite.

    These self constructed granite cathedrals of miss-information are the strongest example of “confirmation bias” I am aware of.

    Much of the reason I post though is to try to figure out what words will break through such cathedrals with a little reality. That is why I asked, as a serious question, what had led you to that spurious conclusion.

    I remain befuddled by why you think that it is in any way controversial that “the effect of Darwinian biology on ethics is summarized by noting that the biological components of normative ethics are products of natural selection because they furthered reproductive success in our ancestors.”

  70. @Mark Sloan,
    Your poetic reply is a nice try, but…

    There have been watchdogs for the last sixty-five years that closely monitor any discussion of Darwin and eugenics. If it has not been a problem, perhaps we can thank them and the cathedrals of granite.

    That is an interesting point about the difficulties of “confirmation bias.” You do have some interesting questions for Michael Ruse and it would be nice if he answers them without biting granite. However, Ruse has complained in his article of hostility from those he thought should have been supporters. We may have to accept a null reply.

    Finally, the befuddlement may not be yours, but mine. If you wish to continue perhaps you could start with an explanation of the meaning of “the effect of Darwinian biology…” By your own account, the only two effects of Darwin’s theories seen so far are eugenics and cathedrals of mis-information. Is there some other cause/effect relation that I do not understand?

  71. Ruse finished of his piece with…

    “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.”

    For me it is an easy “leap of science” to think that via our evolutionary interaction with nature will have equipped us with biological “motes” of moral inclination. Have we evolved reason, love, competitive and cooperative urges, etc? From these motes we may have developed a common sense culture and ethics, and these “meme-motes” could evolve (perhaps in Darwinian or Lamarckian way that is a less important point for me). For a person inclined to a naturalistic religious perspective this is not a huge challenge, he poses that nature has been subject to “teleological inclination” to achieve this result.

    Those who are confined to a non-naturalistic theism will bristle, those who are anti-theist will have their hackles raised. This is Ruse’s key point. Many argue to defend a position, on which their way of life depends. We should be wary of that, since it is not a tolerant philosophy of reflection, it is a misosophy of rejection (in respect of the hatred of another’s wisdom of choices they’ve made).

    Personally I think the raft of comments and critiques above attest to this. Maybe Ruse’s “ruse” is to let us all chatter to make the point adequately for him – perhaps I read into his silence too much (an often made criticism of Theists). I wonder if he will respond :)

  72. Re: Dennis S. comment on

    the effect of Darwinian biology on ethics

    It does seem to me that you are reading “ethics” as “the science of morals”, where Mark’s usage in this sentence is “set of moral principles”, as would be clear given the entire thread of his argument. His viewpoint is exemplified in papers such as

    Nowak MA, & Sigmund K (2005). Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature, 437(7063), 1291–1298.

    Moll J, De Oliveira-Souza R, Zahn R (2008). The Neural Basis of Moral Cognition: Sentiments, Concepts, and Values. Ann NY Acad Sci 1124: 161–180,

    not to mention the work of Hamilton and many others on
    the evolutionary genetics of the related concept of psychological altruism eg

    Fletcher and Doebell 2009

    I also detected, in your earlier remarks, a dislike or distrust of neo-Darwinism or the Modern Synthesis. I’m afraid I and most other geneticists use the term Darwinism to refer to this scientific theory or program, though admitting it can be extended to nongenetic domains.

  73. Re: David Duffy January 12, 2012 at 2:17 am
    I have not commented on “the effect of Darwinian biology”. I do not understand the meaning of the phrase, or that it may have multiple interpretations.

    I read here, philosophy is the study of the arguments between science and ethics.

    Nowak MA, & Sigmund K (2005), mention the word Darwin only once: “In evolutionary biology, costs and benefits are measured in darwinian fitness, which means reproductive success.” I point out once again that Darwin separated reciprocal altruism from his biological theories. Also, re-read the comments of S. Wallerstein above. He makes a valid criticism of the difficulty in judging reproductive success.

    After several tries, I was unable to load a copy of Moll J, De Oliveira-Souza R, Zahn R (2008), so I will abstain from comment.

    Fletcher and Doebell (2009) do not mention the word Darwin.

    “I’m afraid I and most other geneticists use the term Darwinism to refer to this scientific theory or program, though admitting it can be extended to nongenetic domains.”

    I do have distrust for neo-Darwinism. What Darwin said, and what people interpret Darwin said, are often two different things. It is difficult for me to understand that a modern geneticist would use Darwin to endorse a program, any more than a philosopher could say Socrates would endorse the Republican Party.

  74. Re: David Duffy January 12, 2012 at 2:17 am

    David, it is a pleasure to be understood.

    Just to clarify, I would say (I hope uncontroversially) that ethics is the study of answers to the broad question “How should I live?”

    The focus of my comment and my interest is much more limited. First, that focus is the science of what cultural norms past and present groups have chosen to enforce (moral standards). Second, given common human desires for well-being and the like, what cultural norms ought (instrumental ought) groups enforce to be most likely to achieve those common desires.

    It seems to me that my position should be uncontroversial except for two conclusions that I have not seen explicitly laid out in the literature. They are:

    1) It is true, in the normal sense of provisional truth in science, that “Virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms have the underlying function of advocating altruistic behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”. This includes the most diverse, contradictory, and bizarre enforced cultural norms I am aware of.

    2) “if a group’s overriding desire is sustainable well-being, then they ought (as an instrumental ought) to enforce cultural norms which advocate the altruistic behaviors that are the most likely to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups.”

    I have gotten off the topic of Ruse’s post, but I have found it rare to be understood. I could not let the opportunity slip by to push a bit in hope you might comment further.

    The Neural Basis of Moral Cognition looks interesting and I had not come across it. Thanks for the suggestion.

  75. Hi Dennis and Mark,

    The Moll et al paper can be found (temporarily)
    here

    I found it quite entertaining. Re:

    do not mention the word Darwin

    Darwinian evolution is nevertheless implicit in both papers. Fletcher and Doebel deliberately simplify their model of inheritance (and indeed inheritance could be nongenetic ie cultural in their setup), but you can find their model expanded into a more traditional formulation in a
    paper by Queller. I cited the Nowak and Sigmund more for its modelling of indirect reciprocity.

    I have not read Sober E, Wilson DS (1998) Unto others: the evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior, but it appears to cover a certain amount of this ground.

    It is difficult for me to understand that a modern geneticist would use Darwin to endorse a program

    In science (and philosophy) there are continuities, so a research field or program looks back to a seminal idea, eg Galilean relativity, Newtonian mechanics, Darwinian evolution, even though the original idea has been greatly enlarged upon subsequently.

  76. David Duffy January 12, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    Thanks for the on-line links in particular. If something is not on line I have to make a special trip over to the local University library to get a copy, which is a nuisance.

    As you may be aware, there is a botanist named David Duffy whose web page provides what appears to be an excellent, and particularly clever, implementation of the evolutionary function of morality “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”. The cleverness comes from his choice of location, group, and cooperation purpose in which to apply the amount of altruism he thinks proper. Looks like a tough life, but I suppose someone has to do it.

  77. Dennis Sceviour

    Darwin never said anything about creating a system of morals based on the measurement of reproductive success. That is nonsense, and I tire of listening to it. There is some limited apologies to the academics, Michael Ruse included, who have proceeded with papers on research on this error. I am sorry.

    The issue has me thinking once again as to whether a system of morals could be derived from what Darwin actually said. I tackled this problem sometime ago and came away with nothing.

    Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the Origin of the Species (1859) partly concluded:

    (1) in any population, organisms show individual variations
    (2) the size of the population remains constant although more
    offspring are produced than are necessary to maintain it.

    Darwin’s observations suggest that Natural Selection and adaptation affect evolution. Evolution is a function of population change, not of individual change.

    In the first conclusion, we ask ourselves “What do I do?” The answer is there is nothing that Darwin’s theory tells you to do. From observing different beak sizes on finches on the Galapagos Islands, Darwin surmised the cause was different environmental conditions, and not of any individual acts of a finch. However, we can do something about the environment. Current environmental research such as the recent works of James Garvey on Climate Change is probably far more significant; and, I think Darwin would have approved of discussions on the environment.

    In the second conclusion, we see it is not the fittest that survive. Nature is brutal but it does allow room for what it does not need by reproductive success. Again, Darwin’s conclusion tells us nothing about “What do I do?” Although writers like Malthus and Victorian Charles Dickens had fun with descriptions and scenarios about excess population, I doubt the increase in human population has much to do with them. The increase in Global population, in my opinion, can be mainly attributed to the works of Nicola Tesla and his electrical coils.

    Darwin was perturbed by the discussions surrounding his theories, and he distanced himself from evolutionary ethics. In his subsequent works, we see that he attributes morality to learning and not innate process. This has been a basic principle of morality since Aristotle. Whether learned morality is of any value is an endless debate in philosophy.

    What Darwin said, and what people interpret Darwin said, are two different things. Some people regard Darwin’s exposition of adaptation by Natural Selection as an endorsement of war, social conflict, unrestricted economic strife, and other violent and aggressive forms of politics. It was British political philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Germany’s Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) coined the phrase “survival of the species.” We can tear each other to pieces, with science as the referee, and Natural Selection guaranteeing that the sole survivor is the fittest (satire).

    Some people feel that ethics can be aimed at an evolutionary basis (eugenics), with the result that some fairly unpleasant racist doctrines have been pushed in the name of Darwinism. Other writers have dismissed evolutionary ethics since…”One violates the is/ought barrier. One goes from the way that things are, to the way that one thinks things should be [Ruse, Darwinism Defended, pg. 269].” Evolution is a feedback mechanism and is difficult or impossible to interpret through linear thinking.

  78. Re: Dennis Sceviour January 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Dennis, based on our exchange so far, I expect it is a hopeless cause to attempt to correct your pervasive misinformation about what contemporary evolutionary morality actually studies.

    However, perhaps other readers will benefit. For their possible benefit, I will try again.

    Contemporary evolutionary morality seeks to understand morality as BOTH a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation that exists because acting morally increased the benefits of cooperation in groups.

    The idea that contemporary evolutionary morality is “about creating a system of morals based (solely) on the measurement of reproductive success” is nonsense. Even if we only consider the biological component of morality and ignore its cultural components, it is still nonsense. Lots of behaviors such as greed, dominating others through violence, and prohibiting ‘genetically defective’ people from reproducing might increase reproductive fitness but are obviously, to us, immoral.

    Contemporary biological evolutionary morality is almost exclusively focused on the evolutionary origins of our biology that motivates altruism. That biology underlies our emotions of empathy, loyalty, guilt, and indignation (motivation to unselfishly punish bad behaviors regardless of costs to yourself). Contemporary biological evolutionary morality can be described as “about understanding morality as an adaptation that motivates altruism and, due to increased benefits of cooperation in groups, that altruism increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors”.

    What Horrors! Contemporary biological evolutionary morality is consistent with moral acts being “altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”. Save the children first from this perverse evil!

    Contemporary cultural evolutionary morality comes to the same moral conclusion as biological evolutionary morality, but for different reasons. Enforced cultural norms (moral standards) exist because people selected them based on their attractiveness, particularly their ability to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups, sometimes to increase reproductive fitness, but more often for psychological or material goods benefits.

    The Horror is repeated! Again, moral acts are “altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”.

    And even worse, the perfidious contemporary cultural evolutionary morality declares that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is actually just a compact heuristic for a winning altruistic strategy from game theory known as indirect reciprocity.

    Dennis, what have you got in terms of a moral principle for enforced cultural norms that you think is competitive with “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups” in terms of increasing durable well-being in a group? I am reasonably confident you have nothing even remotely competitive.

    Is changing your misconceptions about evolutionary morality still as hopeless a cause as I thought?

  79. Dennis Sceviour

    @Mark Sloan,
    I am more impressed with your logical arguments when you avoid using Darwin, and bring the ideas forward as your own. I still do not agree with all of them, but at least I can understand them. Your ideas are your own and they ripple like a field of dandelions in a summer breeze.

    Correction. I never used or considered the phrase “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups.” However, it is an interesting picture.

  80. I find this argument not wrong per se but shallow. It amounts to the observation that any social animal will need a moral sense, that is, a sense of how to behave within its society. This is as true of social insects and social cats as it is of humans. It makes no statement about the propositional content of that moral sense.

    Consider the single moral proposition cited: “Murder is wrong.” This means nothing without a definition of “murder.” So consider, which of the following do you, dear reader, think of as murder: Cattle Raids; Death Penalty; War; Cannibalism; Ritual Killing a la Frazer; Killing in Self Defense; In the defense of others; Euthanasia; Suicide.

    You undoubtedly have an opinion on each of these. But not all you all have the same opinions. Each of the varieties of death dealing listed has been deemed socially acceptable at some time in some place. So the moral sense we have naturally is rather amorphous and imprecise.

    I agree that if I believe, as I do, that “the death penalty is wrong,” I mean more than “I find the death penalty abhorrent”. I mean it’s wrong. But what do I mean by that? In the absence of a realist interpretation, i.e., in the absence of the will of God, it means that I’m committed to act in a certain way. That action may be nothing more than the speech act: “The death penalty is wrong.”

    Moral propositions are commitments to action and so find their basis in the Will.

  81. Re: Marc Graham January 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Marc, understanding morality as a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation actually amounts to much more than just “… the observation that any social animal will need a moral sense… “

    Consider morality in the narrow sense of “enforced cultural norms”, norms whose violation common engender the emotion indignation in that culture and the idea that the violator deserves punishment. These are commonly called moral standards and include all enforced norms, including laws such as “Do not steal, lie in court, or murder”.

    As you point out, the prohibited act “murder” is defined differently in different circumstances, even within one culture, and can be radically differently defined between cultures. This is as should be expected if, as by the evolutionary adaptation understanding of morality, these are not moral absolutes but merely heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb for accomplishing a goal). That universal goal (or function in evolutionary terms) is (at least in my opinion) something like “to increase, by altruistic acts, the benefits of cooperation in groups”.

    Ok, so how can a universal moral principle that can be shown to underlie virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms help resolve moral arguments about what norms should a group enforce? After all, the claim is that all such norms share that principle.

    Agreeing that the universal function of enforced cultural norms is “to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups by altruistic acts” is culturally useful because this can focus, as an instrumental choice, moral disagreements on the proper subject. That subject is: “What enforced norms advocating altruism will most increase the durable benefits of cooperation?”

    It can be shown that this criterion enables sorting out some really bad ideas about morality that are long past ready to be to be dumped into history’s trash can.

    These include 1) moral standards from the Dark Side of morality such as: homosexuality being inherently immoral, women’s obligation to be submissive to men, and moral requirements for female and/or male circumcision; 2) the bizarre claim that we are as morally obligated to help someone we will never meet as to help a member of our own family; and 3) “Greed is good” because, as Adam Smith so famously pointed out, self-interested cooperation in money economies can produce huge benefits for a society. None of these norms should (instrumental should) be enforced with threats of punishment if our goal is to most increase the durable benefits of cooperation maintained by altruistic acts as a means of maximizing durable well-being.

    I find morality understood as an evolutionary adaptation intellectually satisfying, intuitive, and apparently culturally useful.

  82. It is certainly true that, as evolution has shaped our ears, it has also shaped what’s between our ears. (That line is not original to me.) I just don’t find that there’s much weight to arguments from evolution. They strike me for the most part as just-so stories. “Human beings do thus-and-so; thus-and-so must have an evolutionary advantage; therefore, thus-and-so has a genetic basis.” The reasoning is spurious and uninformative.

    Imagine that humans had not evolved over time but rather were the result of some creative act, by either divine or alien (Hubbard-ian?) actors. My argument is that in that case as well, we could not live the kind of life that we do live, a social, cultural life, unless we were moral creatures. Morality is a prerequisite for society. Evolution is not.

    I don’t see that the moral standard you propose has a directly evolutionary or biological basis. Humans certainly cooperate within groups, but they also compete both within and between groups. Our ability and desire to cooperate is balanced, if not matched, by our ability to betray, to “look out for number one”. I would not subscribe to any moral theory that eliminated selfishness. (I follow Wm James in not being very fond of saints.)

    Against Kant, I find all universal moral principles suspect. I hold with such diverse philosophers as Dworkin, Stroud and McDowell that, in McDowell’s term, morality is autonomous: “we are not … compelled to validate [it] from outside an already ethical way of thinking.” (McDowell credits Aristotle with that idea.) Dworkin argues (Objectivity and Truth) that no such validation is possible; all ethical arguments begin by making ethical assumptions. Your claim that “increas[ing] altruistic acts [that] benefit cooperation in groups” is a good moral principle may well be admirable, but you can’t ground it in the needs of biology or evolution; not if actual human behavior is your guide.

  83. Re: Marc Graham January 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm
    “It is certainly true that, as evolution has shaped our ears, it has also shaped what’s between our ears. (That line is not original to me.) I just don’t find that there’s much weight to arguments from evolution. They strike me for the most part as just-so stories. “Human beings do thus-and-so; thus-and-so must have an evolutionary advantage; therefore, thus-and-so has a genetic basis.” The reasoning is spurious and uninformative.”

    Marc, the claim that enforced cultural norms all share a universal function is a factual claim subject to the same criteria for provisional truth as any other claim.

    The main relevant criteria for provisional truth I base this claim on are:

    1) No contradiction with known facts
    2) Explanatory power for myriad known facts and puzzles about morality.
    3) Continuous, and integrated with, the rest of science, specifically evolutionary theory and game theory.

    “Just-so” story explanatory attempts fail miserably on the second criteria and thus are rightly sorted out for the trash heap. “Just-so” stories have explanatory power for only one fact, or a very limited number of facts.

    In contrast, the claimed fact that the universal function of enforced cultural norms is something like “to increase, by altruistic acts, the benefits of cooperation in groups” explains millions of facts (descriptive facts about past and present enforced cultural norms) and myriad puzzles about social morality.

    It explains every puzzle about social morality I am aware of. For example, why people can feel a moral obligation to act against their self-interests even to the point of death. Why homosexuality and slavery are sometimes immoral and sometimes not. Why circumcision and not eating shrimp are sometimes moral requirements and sometimes not. Why people say it is moral to throw a switch to kill one person to save five but immoral to push a large man in front of a trolley to save five but killing the large man. Why ‘Christian” virtues are almost the opposite of ‘pagan’ (classical Greek) virtues but both have been enforced as cultural norms. And finally, the puzzle that made the light finally dawn for me, why forms of the Golden Rule are found in almost all cultures.

    The claimed fact about the function of enforced cultural norms also has cultural utility. For example, in 1) revealing when it is immoral to follow the Golden Rule (as in dealing with criminals and in times of war) and 2) how to sort out “Dark Side” enforced cultural norms for the trash heap of bad ideas. “Dark Side” enforced norms favor in-groups (such as slave masters, men, one race) and exploit out-groups (such as slaves, women, other races) and ought (instrumental ought) to be classified as bad ideas based on reduced benefits of cooperation between the groups.

    Also, note that the largest source of enforced cultural norms is cultural evolution, not genetic evolution. There is nothing that would prevent a hypothetical society of intelligent computers from understanding the game theory strategy indirect reciprocity. The computer would then be free to exploit that strategy as people do, by enforcing a cultural norm in a form of the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” plus punishment for people who violate it.

    Biological evolution is not a requirement for a group to enforce cultural norms (have moral standards).

    Re: Marc Graham January 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    “Against Kant, I find all universal moral principles suspect. I hold with such diverse philosophers as Dworkin, Stroud and McDowell that, in McDowell’s term, morality is autonomous: “we are not … compelled to validate [it] from outside an already ethical way of thinking.” (McDowell credits Aristotle with that idea.) Dworkin argues (Objectivity and Truth) that no such validation is possible; all ethical arguments begin by making ethical assumptions. Your claim that “increas[ing] altruistic acts [that] benefit cooperation in groups” is a good moral principle may well be admirable, but you can’t ground it in the needs of biology or evolution; not if actual human behavior is your guide.”

    Marc, my claim is that it is a fact that virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms advocate altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. Whether a group ought (instrumental ought) to use that as a guiding moral reference for enforced cultural norms is just a function of what the group’s overriding goals or desires are.

    Finally, note that the moral principle only concerns enforced cultural norms. It is completely silent concerning how you ought to balance your self-interests against the interests of the many groups we all belong to. That is a question that I do not know the answer to.

  84. Let me point out that my position includes an important role for biology, if not evolution. Our way of life, as social and cultural animals, requires us to have a moral sense. (I intend to end this note with a counter argument to that position.) That observation doesn’t say much about the content of that moral sense. This position is not evolutionary as it is not historical.

    I hold with Karl Popper’s position that a statement is scientific in so far as it can be disproven. This is the famous “black swan” argument. The statement “all swans are white” is a scientific statement that, until the discovery of Australia’s black swans, would have met your three conditions. And it would have reasonable to believe in the “whiteness of all swans” thesis, as it might be reasonable to believe in your “altruism for the benefit of groups” thesis. (Not that I’m willing to believe it as I don’t see off hand why it satisfies your conditions or explains or conforms to human behavior. But perhaps it could be shown to.) But I fail to see that your universal moral law meets Popper’s disprovability requirement and so I can not accept it as objective. I think it has to remain in the realm of ethical reasoning.

    There are other points I could raise, but I’d rather skip to the fun part, my counter argument to a biological basis for morality. It takes off from your “hypothetical society of intelligent computers.” My questions is: what constraints, properties, assumptions, etc. would you impose on those computers such that they would posses, necessarily, a moral sense?

    Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answers to this question. But there are interesting and boring answers. “If they were programmed to have a moral sense” is a boring answer. [References to Battleship Gallactica are likewise verboten.]

    Ground rules: These computers would have to have some form of consciousness. Obviously not a human consciousness, since then they’d have a moral sense and that would be a boring answer. This consciousness would have to be autonomous, they would “think for themselves.” Clearly, for this game to be any fun at all, we’ll have to leave “consciousness” and “autonomy” relatively undefined.

    I’ve thought of two issues: What if the robots had no fear of death because they could not die? After all, computers can always be rebooted. What if they had no desire to reproduce? (This point gives purchase to evolutionary explanations of morality.)

    Of course, to play this game you need an idea of what a moral sense is. I take it to be an inner sense of how an actor decides upon her own actions. The reasoning that she uses to perform or fail to perform a particular action. But that definition makes things boring again. All so-called “intelligent agents” (as the term is used in AI) make such decisions and many of them can explain their reasoning. I wouldn’t think that makes them moral actors. So, what other requirements are there for a conscious, autonomous agent to be said to have, of necessity, a moral sense. (By necessity I mean, it could not act the way it does without a moral sense.) And just what should we mean by “moral sense?”

  85. Re: Marc Graham January 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm
    “Let me point out that my position includes an important role for biology, if not evolution. Our way of life, as social and cultural animals, requires us to have a moral sense. (I intend to end this note with a counter argument to that position.) That observation doesn’t say much about the content of that moral sense. This position is not evolutionary as it is not historical.
    I hold with Karl Popper’s position that a statement is scientific in so far as it can be disproven. This is the famous “black swan” argument. The statement “all swans are white” is a scientific statement that, until the discovery of Australia’s black swans, would have met your three conditions. And it would have reasonable to believe in the “whiteness of all swans” thesis, as it might be reasonable to believe in your “altruism for the benefit of groups” thesis. (Not that I’m willing to believe it as I don’t see off hand why it satisfies your conditions or explains or conforms to human behavior. But perhaps it could be shown to.) But I fail to see that your universal moral law meets Popper’s disprovability requirement and so I can not accept it as objective. I think it has to remain in the realm of ethical reasoning.”

    Marc, my proposed universal characteristic of enforced cultural norms, “virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms (moral standards) advocate altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups” is fully disprovable (Popper’s criteria) by my first criteria: 1) No contradiction with known (descriptive) facts.

    I invite you to name past or present enforced cultural norms that are not consistent with it. Knowing a bit about game theory is useful for understanding how some bizarre enforced norms like circumcision and not eating shrimp have this universal characteristic, but so far I have not been able to find a single exception. However, I try to be careful to say “virtually” all past and present … because I have not been able to argue that such a norm could not exist. Enforced norms are such variable and superficially random things that I am amazed I have not yet found exceptions.

    Re: Marc Graham January 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm
    “There are other points I could raise, but I’d rather skip to the fun part, my counter argument to a biological basis for morality. It takes off from your “hypothetical society of intelligent computers.” My questions is: what constraints, properties, assumptions, etc. would you impose on those computers such that they would posses, necessarily, a moral sense?”

    It is incorrect to describe my position as “there is a biological basis for morality” because that ignores the large contribution of cultural evolution in defining morality. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not written in our biology. It is a heuristic (a usually reliable rule of thumb) for accomplishing a goal (increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups by acting altruistically). “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a cultural evolutionary adaptation, not a biological one.

    I understand “a moral sense” to mean our moral intuitions that are based on our biology but can be strongly shaped by our experiences and culture. Our moral intuitions are heuristics that identify acts that are likely to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups and also provide some motivation for people to act on them.

    I don’t see any difficulty with a society of intelligent computers first deriving the winning altruistic strategy called indirect reciprocity. It is just a part of mathematics. There is nothing preventing them from enforcing it in their society as one way to increase the synergistic benefits of cooperation.

    Re: Marc Graham January 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm
    “Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answers to this question. But there are interesting and boring answers. “If they were programmed to have a moral sense” is a boring answer. [References to Battleship Gallactica are likewise verboten.]
    Ground rules: These computers would have to have some form of consciousness. Obviously not a human consciousness, since then they’d have a moral sense and that would be a boring answer. This consciousness would have to be autonomous, they would “think for themselves.” Clearly, for this game to be any fun at all, we’ll have to leave “consciousness” and “autonomy” relatively undefined.
    I’ve thought of two issues: What if the robots had no fear of death because they could not die? After all, computers can always be rebooted. What if they had no desire to reproduce? (This point gives purchase to evolutionary explanations of morality.)”

    What does the intelligent computer society’s desire to reproduce have to do with whether they decide to enforce indirect reciprocity in their society as a cultural adaptation to increase the synergistic benefits of cooperation?

    It will be impossible to make any progress if you cannot let go of the idea that morality as an evolutionary adaptation is only about reproductive fitness. Morality is a product of both biological and cultural evolution.

    An intelligent computer’s equivalent of a human ‘moral sense’ would just be a set of heuristics that can instantly help pick altruistic behaviors that are likely to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. That is, they speed up the decision process. Motivation to actually act altruistically might not be so closely tied to their moral heuristics as for people, but these computers would have to have something that motivates them or they would just sit there.

    If some of the things our hypothetical intelligent computers desire are obtainable as benefits of cooperation in groups (which seems highly likely), there is nothing that prevents them from devising and enforcing a moral system to increase those benefits of cooperation, possibly prominently including indirect reciprocity, or a most people know it, the Golden Rule with enforcement.

  86. Denis S commented:

    “The issue has me thinking once again as to whether a system of morals could be derived from what Darwin actually said.”

    I found Soshichi Uchii’s paper most interesting, along with his
    comments on a talk by Ruse in 1997.

  87. Dennis Sceviour

    @David Duffy,
    Thank you for the paper by Soshichi Uchii. Here a few comments.

    It was interesting that Darwin began his early research trying to create a synthesis between the principle of utility and the conflicting principle of moral sense. The information came from Darwin’s dustbin notes (Old & Useless Notes 30, Barrett et al., 1987, 609.) that did not make it into his authorized publications. Caution must be used when citing as we do not know whether Darwin held this view to the end. This has very little to do with Darwin’s later theory of natural selection, and it unfair to conflate the two subjects. It may be surmised that Uchii was using these seemingly irrelevant notes to twist the argument in his favour (a la Socrates). In later writings, Darwin used a more general approach in discussing a range of emotions rather than focusing on the principle of utility.

    Mentioned before in another article was the difficulty in establishing a consistent definition for evolution. “We want a definition of Biological Evolution. We are not interested here in concepts like the evolution of the Motor car, or the Computer, or Education or Democracy (Posted by Don Bird | September 3, 2010, 11:04 am).” The word evolution does not appear in the Origin. In the Darwinian sense, which is the discussion at hand, evolution means the physiological changes of a populated species to adapt to changes in the environment. That is, the environment causes evolution, not human motivations.

    Uchii claims reductionism can be used in a similar fashion to that of Darwin’s exposition of feelings and emotions as a basis for morality. In theory, I have no objection to this. Ethics is simply altered perceptive data stored (perhaps) in the brain. No ought without is! Otherwise, we end in the circular self-reference argument of rationalizing rationality. I like it.

    In practice, nothing substantive has been put forward yet to indicate any change in morality. We are still pseudo-chimpanzees who use tools to adapt, and are nasty, cruel, selfish, and murderous.

  88. In practice, nothing substantive has been put forward yet to indicate any change in morality. We are still pseudo-chimpanzees who use tools to adapt, and are nasty, cruel, selfish, and murderous.

    I am similarly suspicious of claims of moral progress. To hold that our morals are superior to those of our ancestors is to assert that we prefer the ethical propositions we hold to those we do not hold. That we can rationally object to theirs and justify our own is the rational basis for holding that view.

    However, we should not be too willing to dismiss the idea of moral progress. Even if we accept a Darwinian explanation for the fact of our having a moral sense, the content of that sense is, to a considerable extent, the product of a culture. (I am not denying the existence of universal, culturally independent moral precepts.) And if cultural evolution causes our moral evolution (explains our moral history), then it is largely the product of human motivations.

    It is problematic to find objective evidence of moral progress. Steven Pinker’s new book on Violence (which I haven’t actually read :<{) attempts to do so. Of course, to accept his argument that murderous violence has declined over the eons as proof of moral progress, you have to accept that killing people is wrong, which is itself a moral precept. But as noted by philosophers from Aristotle to Uchii, all moral arguments must make moral assumptions.

  89. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Marc Graham January 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm
    “And if cultural evolution causes our moral evolution (explains our moral history), then it is largely the product of human motivations.”

    I can follow you up to this point. If you mean “moral history” then perhaps you should just write “moral history” instead of using the made-up phrase “moral evolution.” If “cultural evolution” means “human motivation” then again the same writing technique would apply. Thus, I interpret what you are saying is “Moral motivations explain our moral history.” I think this is what Darwin had in mind in his latter writings on emotions, and it has nothing to do with Natural selection or evolution as I defined above.

    Of course, I may be completely wrong and you have some other definition for evolution in mind.

    I find it easy “to dismiss the idea of moral progress.” Humanities progress in moral argumentation has been very slow compared to the incredible advances in science and technology. Where I am beginning to disagree with recent ethical inquiry is that ethics can be explained in scientific terms, or at least that different classifications and distinctions for ethics and morality can be made. For example, In the current debate we see the scientific word evolution being thrown at random into arguments with no further clarity.

    Here is a quotation describing my position:

    “In science these concept frontiers [changes in truth] are crossed continually, but by an ever-smaller group of experts. In ethics the opposite is the case: everybody is an expert (which means nobody is), and at the same time the moral categories and concepts used in making practical judgments differ little from those in use two thousand years ago in Greece. There is simply no analogue in moral philosophy to the proliferation of concepts in, say particle physics. The consequence is a powerful incentive to try to accommodate philosophy to the scientific model, to turn what should be moral inquiries, where progress is difficult, into scientific inquiries, where progress, at least in the form of new classifications and distinctions, is possible [Philip Soper, A Theory of Law [1984], pg. 12].”

  90. I’m perfectly willing to substitute “history” for “evolution.” I see them as synonyms. Are you restricting evolution to mean biological evolution?

    I certainly wasn’t suggesting progress in moral philosophy. Is there such a thing as progress in philosophy? I was questioning whether or not we behave better, not if we think about morality more clearly.

    I tend to doubt it. I worry about the “tyranny of the living,” the belief we tend to have that we’re smarter, more moral, etc., than our ancestors. It’s hard to get an objective handle on the idea of human progress. Pinsker’s book is an attempt

  91. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Marc Graham January 26, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    “Are you restricting evolution to mean biological evolution?”

    Yes, I think that would be a good idea, especially in a debate concerning Darwin.

  92. Re: Marc Graham January 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Marc, you might find Phillip Kitcher’s new book “The Ethical Project” relevant to understanding if people are making moral progress. In it, he partially recants his negative views of sociobiology, which were influential in the 1980’s largely based on his 1983 book, Vaulting Ambition.

    Surprisingly to me, Kitcher goes on to propose that an understanding of morality as a cultural adaptation (understanding the function of morality in cultures), reveals culturally useful normative knowledge about morality! Kitcher’s describes the function of morality to “to remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict (in groups)” (p223)

    My equivalent is “The function of morality is to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups by altruistic acts”. Similar, but not quite the same.

    Something like the above two versions has been the function of morality since the emergence of culture. So how have we made moral progress if the function of morality has not changed?

    Human moral progress has been made by expanding who is the in-group that deserves moral consideration, and shrinking the size of the out-groups who it is morally acceptable to exploit.

    Moral norms such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and human rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” represent moral progress because they reduce the Dark Side of evolutionary morality’s function, cooperating in groups to exploit outsiders.

    Humans are making moral progress by recognizing the immorality of acting consistently with morality’s Dark Side (slavery, subjugation of women, and demonization of homosexuals as threats to society) that reduce the benefits of cooperation between groups, not just within groups.

  93. Watch this brilliant talk by moral philosopher Mary Midgley called ‘The Selifsh Gene’: http://iai.tv/video/mary-midgley-the-solitary-self-darwin-and-the-selfish-gene

    It tackles the issue of whether neo-Darwinists are right to reduce all human behaviour to self-interest and throws up some interesting, and contradictory points.

  94. In the end survival of the group to which one belongs ensures one’s survival and ones genetic offsprings survival.

    All roads lead to Rome.

    Social responsibility is intelligent self interest.

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