[Topics: Evolutionary Biology, Moral Obligation, Morality]
The Macroevolution of Morals:

Morality as Simultaneously Objective and Not Objective


There is a lot of fascinating scholarship going on in science and philosophy concerning how human morality relates to evolution. Scientists report altruistic behavior in animal communities, and high correlations between specific parts of the brain and moral action; philosophers explore the moral implications of human evolutionmorality - evolution - James Rachels - C.S. Lewis; and both groups do much, much more. Still, the debate is ongoing about whether morality is an objective, universal, literally existing thing or a set of parameters which do not exist in any relevant sense of the word. Much like the compatibilists who illustrate how free will and determinism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I would like to explore how morality could be both objective and not objective.

The purpose of really good philosophy, and really good philosophical education, is to encourage logical, careful, clear thinking. So, in the interest of at least attempting to do philosophy well, I will try to trace an intuitive explanation of these ideas. Such an explanation, while hardly scholarly, seems more likely to fuel thought and discussion (much like this instructor teaching Plato with sandwiches) than exhaustive argumentation for the position.

Two of the loudest objections levied against a person who claims that morals evolved in humans are that morality would not be evolutionarily beneficial, and that any account of how morals might be evolutionarily beneficial still fails to provide an explanation for humankind’s apparent sense of moral obligation. Now, that first claim is so demonstrably false that it would hardly need to be refuted (and there is ample information in the first article linked above to refute that claim), but in responding at greater length to that first objection, a response to the second will become clear as well.

In order to see this, one must step back from evolution as the natural selection of individuals by their environment, and look at the emergence of an entire species evolving as a community of individuals. From this perspective, one will be able to observe that although morality, both for the individual and for society, might not be literally objective, this does not mean that it must be purely subjective; it may be functionally objective. Certain basic moral strictures, as twentieth century moral philosopher James Rachels points out, are necessary for a society to go on existing:

Suppose people were free to kill other people at will, and no one thought there was anything wrong with it. In such a “society,” no one could feel secure. Everyone would have to be constantly on guard. People who wanted to survive would have to avoid other people as much as possible. This would inevitably result in individuals trying to become as self-sufficient as possible—after all, associating with others would be dangerous. Society on any large scale would collapse. Of course, people might band together in smaller groups with others that they could trust not to harm them. But notice what this means: they would be forming smaller societies that did acknowledge a rule against murder. The prohibition of murder, then, is a necessary feature of all societies.

There is a general theoretical point here, namely, that there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. (Rachels 157)

One could attempt to imagine such a community of only murderers, or else a society of only dishonest individuals or only thieves, but that society would inevitably self-destruct. For any individual and community of individuals to exist now and to go on existing, they must behave in a way that is conducive to the existence of a society.

Moreover, one can go further than that particular article of Rachels (although his other works, like the one linked above, do deal at length with human evolution) and notice that humans must not only behave in that way, but must be genetically and cognitively hard-wired to feel as though they ought to behave that way. The two go hand-in-hand. An organism will not commit an action that it does not feel it ought to commit (with the obvious exception of organisms so rudimentary as to have nothing approximating emotion or inclination, who would and do act altruistically with no complications from cognition).

This is the crucial point missed by the objection of moral realists who insist that moral action does not imply any sense of moral obligation or moral accountability, and that humans would act in their own immediate self-interest above all other considerations as soon as it seems that morality is not objective. Such a person would be destined for isolation, and their genetic structure destined for extinction. One could imagine a sort of mathematically pedantic version of Kant’s categorical imperative, where a person recognizes that any moral wrongdoing on their part makes the statistical likelihood of moral wrongdoing happening to them slightly higher. But the key is that this behavior is being enforced by the very structure of the brain, and only to a lesser degree by conscious decision-making.

That exact misunderstanding regarding obligation is everywhere, and underlies C.S. Lewis’ famous discussion of morality in Book 1 of Mere Christianitymorality - evolution - James Rachels - C.S. Lewis when he says that “feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not” (Lewis 9). Most of the errors in Lewis’ argument stem from his misunderstandings and apparent lack of experience with evolutionary biology, and in this particular case someone should have recommended that Lewis research humanity’s many unconscious drives (for a brief account of this subject, see this paper).

MRI Scans of Brain - morality - evolution - James Rachels - C.S. LewisAs part of the brain, life-sustaining and fair morality could not possibly be successfully dismissed by the human species. Rachels would have contended that this approach is really just a different way of coming to the conclusion that morality is objective (i.e. not relative), but there is some difficulty to being so absolute with the categories. It is objective, in the sense that it is universal, but it is also not objective, in the sense that it is not the immutable force described by moral realists. This also provides an account of human altruism. Whether an individual’s genes are selected in the communal sense detailed above, or via the individual’s reciprocal self-interest (‘If I scratch your back, you scratch mine’), the result is the same: more individuals inclined toward altruistic behavior.

Functionally objective morality would explain not only human moral inclinations, but also the feeling of moral obligation. Both are necessary aspects of the minds of a community if that community is to have any chance of continuing to exist.

So, that is how morality could be considered both objective and not objective (with only a little bit of quibbling on the word ‘objective’). Now, if you are of the opinion that, whether any of the above is true or not, a non-objective or functionally objective morality is somehow uglier or less desirable than an objective morality, then stay tuned for the next post in this series.

Works Cited:

Lewis, C. S. “Book I. Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 1952. 3-33. Print.morality - evolution - James Rachels - C.S. Lewis

Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism.” Ethics: Essential Readings in Moral Theory. Ed. George Sher. New York: Routledge, 2012. 151-58. Print.morality - evolution - James Rachels - C.S. Lewis

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[Topics: Evolutionary Biology, Moral Obligation, Morality]
The Macroevolution of Morals:

Morality as Simultaneously Objective and Not Objective

was last modified: April 6th, 2016 by Daniel Podgorski
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  1. While this certainly is an exciting article that attempts to take on all the biggest names in the smallest space, I believe you jump a few moves in assuming that C.S. Lewis is incorrect. I believe, if you looked into Lewis a little more you would see that he is describe what for you dialectic ally would be to oughts: the ought of desire and the ought of the conscience. And even here we would have to break it down further since many people would describe a desire to follow their conscience while at the sime time feeling a desire to disregard it. This leads an award mind to notice that they currently have an inordinate desire, or a desire in conscious conflict with their highest aim and love. And the inordinate desires to pop up from the subconscious and unconscious, what Christians refer to as the heart.

    • Thank you for taking the time to reply; I truly appreciate it.

      When you say “And the inordinate desires to pop up from the subconscious and unconscious,” it would seem that you agree with me far more than you let on. I am merely pointing out that it is in accord with our best science to observe that “the subconscious and unconscious” are nevertheless relevant portions of an evolved mind.

      Lewis identifies a ‘something you feel you ought to do’ and a ‘something you want to do.’ And I would actually agree that both exist. Yet, armed with a knowledge of our layers of cognitive control, as explained at more length in the linked PMC article, there is no reason to think that the mind can not be the source of conflicting drives. And armed with a sufficient knowledge of evolutionary processes, there is no reason to think that all relevant aspects of the mind would result from anything else.

      It does not matter that they are often in contradiction, as our knowledge of the mind makes it the case that humans not only can experience several different drives at varying levels of cognition, but that we would and do experience drives which are a result of being naturally selected for group survival at the same time as drives which are a result of being naturally selected for individual survival. I would agree that this line of thinking eventually concludes that morality is not objective in most senses of the word, but it nevertheless becomes clear that Lewis is making some pretty large logical leaps when he dismisses outright the idea that the experience of ‘moral obligations’ could be a product of evolutionary processes.

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