Monday, March 14, 2005

Evolution and Morality


Sorry for the silence over the last few days - bad form, I know. I give you the first section of the essay I was working on in return! Here is the link to the full pdf essay : Can Evolutionary considerations account for the origins of human morality?.

There is a popular understanding that morality is relative – that the particular ideals and concerns of one society might be different to those of another society, and that there is no reason to privilege one over the other. At the most basic level, one need look only at the various religious groups in our society. Few people suggest that one is a morally better human for following one religion over another, or even at all.

This idea is in direct conflict with the idea that morality might confer some kind of evolutionary advantage. One might want to respond that particular moralities, or classes of morality might be morally equal, yet still be differentiated according to survival benefit and social attractiveness.

As far back in human history as it is possible, one can find clear evidence of moral concepts as complex and diverse as the ones we know today. For the last 200, 000 years (10,000 generations) morality has changed chiefly in the context of society – the capacity for morality if you will has remained constant.
Morality in humans is something that has been with them from the beginning. Evolution has continued to select for a particular level of respect for societal norms outside of the simple pain-avoidance instinct. However, there is also much wrongdoing in the world, and it would seem that certain levels of opportunistic and retributive behaviour remain a part of human nature.

Evolution has been well-proven to select for physical traits in lower animals, such as in the case of butterfly wing-colour during the second world war in England. It is felt that evolution has answered its case as a scientifically valid theory for the development of physical traits. The purpose of this essay is to analyse how this might apply to something as abstract as an idea.


Blogger Illusive Mind said...

I think you are right on the money with the idea of an evolutionary basis for morality. It sees the idea of moral principles purely as a functional method of restraining self-defeating actions in a society bent on survival. So how did we confuse such a simple concept with the objective ethical systems we have today?

3/14/2005 08:15:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

I think it's mostly Plato's fault...

3/15/2005 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger kxar said...

Morality is not created by society. If it were then morality would be subjective to that society.
Morality comes from an individuals'
behaviors, not social norming.
Morality is the highest standard for behavior and the basis for that standard is human nature itself. Check my morality blog -
I go into some detail there.


4/03/2005 08:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old fashioned as it may sound, the possibility that morality is absolute and is determined by some sort of greater being ("God") must be considered. After all, the vast majority of the world's population believes this...

4/07/2005 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a tremendous number of flaws in this thinking. If morality has evolved then it does not explain the struggle that we as humans face daily when addressing our basic instincts. What part of evolution addresses the decisions that we make between instincts. If morality evolved then we would simply succumb to the stronger instinct, but this is not true. In addition while there has been some relativism with respect to morality, in genteral, there has been very little evolution. It has been moslty a product of differences in society. All humans have always had a sense of "Fairness". Where did this sense of "Fariness" come from. Where did this "Standard" for "Fairness" come from. If it were purely evolutionary then it would be based on a basic set of instincts of which the strongest instinct would always win. What part of evolution addresses why I would attempt save my son or daughter even if I knew death was imenent while all of my instincts tell me not to attempt it? How could that be better for society as a whole since my death would is nearly guaranteed? Our morality is something above or below or apart from our instincts of self preservation. The fact that we are even able to analyze morality and discuss it should be evnough for us to realize that is separate from our basic instincts, otherwise, we would all agree. Why do people do good for the sake of doing good, however, no one does bad for the sake of doing bad. What is the standard for good?

4/10/2005 11:31:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Well, I did mention that morality might come from a divine source, but I didn't delve into it. Such an argument, I believe, becomes an argument about whether we should believe in god or not. Which is a reasonable argument to have, but doesn't address the question of whether it's reasonable to put an evolutionary slant on things.

As for the most recent anonymous post - the full essay does address some of these points, but I'll respond to a few of them here :

"What part of evolution addresses why I would attempt save my son or daughter even if I knew death was imenent while all of my instincts tell me not to attempt it?"

The idea is that if *everyone* behaves this way, then the group is much more likely to survive. Less dramatically, this might be an instinct to share food when food is scarce, for example. A group of people that help eachother will survive through tougher times than a group of greedy people.

"Our morality is something above or below or apart from our instincts of self preservation."

Absolutely. I wasn't claiming otherwise. The longer essay has this exact point in it. If morality is something that comes from evolution, we definately need to understand how we got from basic instincts to morality.

"Why do people do good for the sake of doing good, however, no one does bad for the sake of doing bad. What is the standard for good?"

Well, people do good for the sake of doing good because they think they morally should. But some people *do* do bad for the sake of doing bad. Just look at cruelty to animals - pet torture etc. Or when people are mean to eachother at work, or cut eachother off in traffic. But your point remains. Basically no-one does anything that's bad-for-them and bad-for-others, there is always some positive goal, even if it is power or money or something morally neutral.

The easiest way to explain this spread of behaviour, is that some people act more for society's good and some people more for their own. There is a mix and balance of how much emphasis we put on helping others at the cost of helping our selves.

As for where the standard comes from, this is fairly clearly a mix of basic instincts plus cultural content. There is, really really, an incredible mix of standards of "Good" out in the world, much of which I find abhorrent. Even though I think it's wrong, I also believe that the people concerned do believe it's right, and furthermore that if I had been brought up in that cultural context, I would also most likely believe it's right. Morality seems to me to come in a very strong sense from society.


4/11/2005 08:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great responses. I am interested in how we get through the endless loop of "My moral behavior is for the better of society because it is better for me in the end". In essence this is motivated by personal selfishnes which is in direct conflict with our need for survial. In addition, I wonder why we seem to have a stronger sense of morality today (or in current times) when there is less personal motivation to advance society? I would think evolution of morality would come full cycle meaning; I was moral to ensure the benefit of society until I become less moral to benefit myself and we devolve. I don't see devolution of Morality. What do you think?

4/12/2005 09:40:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

A pleasure to help out - and frankly a pleasure to be read! :)

In shortest possible form, I would say the argument from evolution is basically to say that morality is the inevitable result of a win-win option of helping yourself by helping everyone.

I love your last point. I think there is definately less personal drive to help society, but I don't think this is entirely natural. Actually, I don't think we are "more moral" now that we used to be, I would say our capacity for morality is basically static. What we are seeing is a culture in which morality is increasingly codeified, and increasingly portrayed nationally rather than tribally. Ancient Japan for example, and feudal England both had immensely complicated honour systems for the nobility. The reason that people gave respect to those institutions is the same reason, psychologically speaking, that we give respect to society's moral authority today.

I personally don't believe in a God, in quite a strong sense of the word, but I'm not really anti-religion either. But I'm highly anti-dogma, and very worried about the tendency of religion to lead to someone losing respect for others. More than religious tolerance, I believe religious respect to be highly important, and it is *that* more than anything which leads me to take a strong dislike against, for example, stereotypical US-style religious conservatism.


4/12/2005 10:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to:

"Actually, I don't think we are "more moral" now that we used to be, I would say our capacity for morality is basically static"

I could not agree more. This is the great delima. I also believe morality is static.

It is interesting about your statement in God. Generally a person that believes in a static morality believes that God (or someone) is the author. In other words "ought" did not evolve it is a core part of what separates us from other creatures. "Ought" is the moral fabric that allows us to make decisions for or against our instincts. I would argue that we are "Discovering" true static morality (similiar to other self-evident truths). Religion is simply a representation through writing (bible) and ceremony (worship, prayer, study) of how we should achieve "Discovery" of static morality.

I am curious. If you do not believe in God how do you think we came to be?

4/13/2005 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Will said...

Great blog - I just stumbled onto it. However, the link to your full article doesn't seem to work...

7/29/2007 12:15:00 AM  

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