The Evolution of Morality
April 6, 2010 11:14 PM   Subscribe

The Evolution of Morality explains morality from a framework of kin selection, reciprocity, and learning.

Russell Blackford argues that evolved morality is neither "as self-denying as conservatives or as altruistic as liberals seem to want."
posted by jjray (14 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Blackford's piece struck me as thin and poorly-written... it's giving me vibes of marking first-year essays.

It's a good topic, just badly executed. This is a good starting point for a discussion, but inadequate as an argument, or even an observation. The other link is significantly better, though noncontroversial. Evolutionary theory and game theory go a long way to explaining commonality of morality of early civilizations, but more questions remain. If morality is understood from a Darwinian perspective, how do we explain rapid shifts in common conceptions of morality which have occurred in the last century? (eg. modern egalitarianism, various freedoms and rights) No significant evolution has occurred in this period - on the contrary, we have had unchecked population growth. Changes in morality can occur far, far faster than evolution. What is obvious in 2000 was totally alien in 1900.
posted by mek at 11:44 PM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Over 2000 years ago, Kautilya or Chanakya or Canakya, advisor to the King, Chandragupta Maurya, wrote the Niti Shastra - the science of morality or political ethics. He was considered the precursor to Machiavelli and with his Artha Shastra (the Art of Wealth (good governance)) is considered to be Sun Tzu's peer

Morality (niti in sanskrit) is variously translated as political ethics, policy, common sense and wisdom.

Imho, taking mek's last sentence into consideration:

Changes in morality can occur far, far faster than evolution. What is obvious in 2000 was totally alien in 1900.

it seems to me that "morality" is a construct of the contextual reality/operating environment in that given moment of time/era, and yes, evolves much faster, and indeed can be triggered by an event or individual - witness Mandela and the apartheid; Martin Luther King and civil rights, Gandhi and non violent resistance as some examples within our 'living' memory alone.

Or even slavery as an accepted form of behaviour.

/just my 2 cents
posted by infini at 12:47 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let's unpack this, shall we?

Morality is a form of behavior.
The first challenge for biologists is characterizing morality in terms amenable to science. Abstract concepts of 'right' and 'wrong', or virtuous motives and good intentions, must be expressed in terms of what can be observed or measured.


I'm already starting to feel uncomfortable at this point. What will be the standard of evidence, then, regarding human behaviors?

Ah yes, here it is:

Moral Outcomes (Behavioral Genetics)
• Cooperation and helping behavior are simple evolutionary puzzles. Evolution provides an important context for interpreting moral behavior, interpreted solely in terms of outcomes — regardless of motive or intent. Some behaviors or dispositions — not all — are partly hereditary (innate or instinct).


Only outcomes or consequences matter in morality, is that it? Which is to say, not only are outcomes the basis for the methodology being proposed in order to look at morality. They are also to be viewed as the chief factor in shaping morality as we know it.

Are we then to believe that intent and meaning play very little role in moral action? As if, to take up the classic objection to utilitarianism, the consequences of neglect and omission are judged by my 'evolutionary community' in ways very similar to the consequences of deliberate decisions? As if, throughout all the different cultures around the globe, there could be one sole key or cipher for transposing the significance of 'the good' and the 'bad' into fitness-reducing or fitness-inducing consequences?

Perhaps you'll say that that if one digs deeper into the site, the author(s) take time to nuance their positions on such issues. Given the heavy-handed assumptions from the get-go, however, one might have little inclination to be so generous regarding their intent. The 'moral outcome' of their exploration of these matters seems to speak for itself. And yet, as mother always said, 'we must not rise to our guests.' So click through I will and hope for the best.

And lo, here perhaps is that highly prized nuance?
Biologists can explain morality on multiple levels.
As genetic behavior, moral outcomes are explained alternately by kin selection or reciprocity. As a psychological motive or intent, morality is explained by open learning systems shaped by emotion and reasoning from experience. As a social system, morality is explained by mutual accountability among individuals or by selective interaction based on social information. Processes at each level provide a context in which the others function.

• Higher levels of organization limit reductionistic explanations of behavior.
Understanding how morality can be explained on multiple levels is valuable for correcting a widespread, but mistaken popular belief: that all biology — including behavior — can be reduced to genes.

Now we seem to be getting somewhere interesting. It seems interesting, for one, because there are so many factors are being taken into account, about which biology can offer a limited perspective. Sociality, learning, intent, the generation of meaning for individuals and within groups? Great. So intent and meaning shape biology, and perhaps even gene selection? Even more interesting still. But then, we are no longer explaining morality biologically, now, are we? Can biology then rightfully lay claim to solving these simple, quaint puzzles and games?
posted by rudster at 1:29 AM on April 7, 2010


There was a thread about Sam Harris' TED talk where he said science could be used to determine morality directly. That's obviously fairly stupid.

I think the basic problem is that intrinsic morality is inconsistent. If it was totally consistent, then there would never be any disagreements.

But I don't think you can really learn anything about what morality should be by looking at the evolutionary "why" for various things. Not the least of which is that from an evolutionary perspective, the fewer genes you share with someone, the less "moral" responsibility you have for that person.

Right there any "evolutionary" view of morality breaks down.
posted by delmoi at 1:42 AM on April 7, 2010


Good to see proper acknowledgement of some limitations. It's OK and possibly even enlightening to give evolutionary accounts of x (where x represents some facet of human culture - morality, art, religion, science, etc) so long as you don't suppose that the evolutionary account exhausts or captures the essence of x, any more than say, an economic account would do.

Not so good to see Moral thinking and feeling have a neurological basis. Well, duh; and the evidence quoted is Phineas Gage. I believe it's now disputed whether his moral character really changed; but in any case if a large metal bar was whacked right through your brain (and you subsequently became a bit of a media phenomenon) it wouldn't actually be hugely surprising if your behaviour changed somewhat. Having a huge metal bar whacked through your arse might well affect your future character and behaviour somewhat.
posted by Phanx at 1:54 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Moral Outcomes (Behavioral Genetics)
• Cooperation and helping behavior are simple evolutionary puzzles. Evolution provides an important context for interpreting moral behavior, interpreted solely in terms of outcomes — regardless of motive or intent. Some behaviors or dispositions — not all — are partly hereditary (innate or instinct).

Only outcomes or consequences matter in morality, is that it? Which is to say, not only are outcomes the basis for the methodology being proposed in order to look at morality. They are also to be viewed as the chief factor in shaping morality as we know it.


This is no assumption; it is merely a remark on the perspective of morality that evolution affords. We know that moral behavior exists, and that's its development coincided with evolutionary processes. This is enough to propose that moral behavior (or moral-seeming behavior) is at the very least insufficiently fitness-negative (in fact, if one accepts the tenets of evolution, it is proof of this fact). The wide span of moral behaviors across various societies in the animal kingdom suggests that it extends further, and in fact has a positive fitness benefit in some instances.

Now we seem to be getting somewhere interesting. It seems interesting, for one, because there are so many factors are being taken into account, about which biology can offer a limited perspective. Sociality, learning, intent, the generation of meaning for individuals and within groups? Great. So intent and meaning shape biology, and perhaps even gene selection? Even more interesting still. But then, we are no longer explaining morality biologically, now, are we? Can biology then rightfully lay claim to solving these simple, quaint puzzles and games?

In the same way that physics can explain thinking physically, if you accept a materialist world view. Thinking about the chemical interactions in one's mind may not do you a lot of good in the general case, but it has done much for the pharmaceutical industry. Just because it is more convenient to think at a certain level of abstraction and to examine it from that perspective, doesn't mean that other levels cannot offer other truths.

Also: Sociality, learning, intent, the generation of meaning for individuals and within groups? Great. So intent and meaning shape biology, and perhaps even gene selection?

Most of what you have listed are instances of cultural evolution, which, sullied by the subjective experience though it may be, is still an evolutionary process. It is not a radical notion in the least that these processes profoundly affect and are affected by genetic evolution. I would not go so far as to say that intent and meaning shape biology, but that perception of intent and meaning do, in the context of a social group.

An example of the development of a "moral" system due to biological factors:
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/320/5880/1213

I don't believe eusocial creatures attempt to examine intent, but the entirety of a worker bee's life is a self-sacrifice, which is a morality-resembling behavior. Any creature which examines intent necessarily develops a theory of mind, which tends uncomfortably close to consciousness and complicates things with subjective experience. This is not to say that a view of morality that predicates itself on an analysis of intent is invalid, just that it is useful to tread lightly at this point, lest dualism rear its Janus head or other pitfalls arise. Biology can offer explanations as to which behaviors can or should arise, and why (such as ones that fall under the purview of morality, in humans or otherwise). That monogamy enables more complex social structures with greater degrees of self-sacrifice is a profound biological realization that perhaps even informs the development of human societies and our understanding of our own morality.
posted by Bobicus at 3:48 AM on April 7, 2010


Changes in morality can occur far, far faster than evolution.

Perhaps there is a moral system that is innate or biologically rooted, components of which output decisions based on given inputs of information and/or socialization. We're a lot more educated and socialized, or at least, perhaps, informed in 2000 than in 1900.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:28 AM on April 7, 2010


Most of what you have listed are instances of cultural evolution, which, sullied by the subjective experience though it may be, is still an evolutionary process.

I can easily go along with a weak version of this claim, that evolution made possible the fact that we witness something like culture in human societies. Such contributions have indeed opened up useful perspectives on morality [thinking of De Waal's work, for instance].

Some interesting reasons have already been given in this thread for why a stronger version of that claim is harder to swallow. The following just cribs from them: feelings of shame have evolved from biological responses. Yet where and how can biology aid us in understanding the conflict of motivations behind feelings of shame and the sometimes conflicting sets of circumstances in which it is felt or avoided? And again, the rapid shifts in what sorts of shame are appropriate? The very premise of morality seen from the p.o.v of evolutionary biology, i.e. outcomes measurable in terms of fitness, makes its contribution to such problems quite limited.

I'm not convinced that the aims of the link are equally limited in their scope. It's one thing to be careful enough to distinguish between facts and values, and describing versus of prescribing ("Science is limited to description" etc.). It's seem quite another to claim that "[b]iologists can inform each perspective [of consequentialism, deontology, or social contract]," or to claim that "cooperation and helping behavior are simple evolutionary puzzles."

If non-deterministic biology is about probabilistic biology, then is the interpretation of signs and the development of multi-faceted meanings one of the factors that it can take into account when computing such probabilities?
posted by rudster at 5:44 AM on April 7, 2010


Perhaps there is a moral system that is innate or biologically rooted

Marc Hauser is doing some really awesome research at Harvard to try to tease this out. His book, Moral Minds, is an excellent general-public introduction to this area.
posted by honest knave at 6:14 AM on April 7, 2010


"Changes in morality can occur far, far faster than evolution."

"Perhaps there is a moral system that is innate or biologically rooted, components of which output decisions based on given inputs of information and/or socialization."

I feel like a large part of human morality springs from our innate (and naturally selected) empathy. Sure there may be some aspects of morality that are fairly fluid, but a lot of our baseline sense of morality comes from our ability to feel for a individual outside of ourselves.
posted by rosswald at 7:06 AM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


i'm uncomfortable with the idea of trying to derive a moral code scientifically.

Even if it were possible, it would seem to lend itself toward a totalitarian ideology.

And again, even if it can be shown that particular behaviors are selected for naturally, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are the best possible behaviors.

Also, its possible I might have missed it, but it seemed that neither of these essays take into account the fact that ideas have a life of their own, and succeed or fail based on metrics other than the survival of the host bodies.
posted by empath at 9:41 AM on April 7, 2010


Even if it were possible, it would seem to lend itself toward a totalitarian ideology.

But without some rational basis for moral decision making, what doesn't lend itself toward a totalitarian ideology? Why should we care? Why ought we not prefer totalitarian ideologies?

I might say, because life in such a world would make me unhappy, but who gives a damn about that and why should they, in the absence of any reasonable basis for preferring one set of arbitrary and meaningless human conditions over any other?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:21 AM on April 7, 2010


i'm uncomfortable with the idea of trying to derive a moral code scientifically.

Even if science managed to prove how moral reasoning occurs and why we do it, this would only derive an arbitrary, biologically-rooted moral code, not necessarily a good moral code for contemporary society. [To get technical, just as human reason cannot be complete and consistent, nor can human moral reason. They are models.] We have already done many experiments which demonstrate how our minds often fail to make seemingly obvious moral decisions in certain circumstances (eg. Milgram experiment), and have plenty of historical reasons for not automatically trusting moral judgments (Lynching, witch trials, apartheid, etc). If anything, I would expect better scientific understanding of human moral reasoning to identify these flaws, rather than produce a description of "correct" morality.

Once we understand why we fail to act morally despite our best efforts, we can begin to construct moral systems (political, justice, social services, etc) which acknowledge our limitations. A great example of what I'm talking about is the debate between retributive and restorative justice - should the criminal justice system punish people, or focus on rehabilitating them and minimizing the crime rate? Many people favour three strikes laws, mandatory minimums, and other punitive measures, despite them actually increasing the likelihood of further crime. Often a "slap on the wrist" punishment for a first offender, with suitable social assistance, will prevent them from offending again, despite seeming unjust and immoral. The intuitive moral answers here are not only logically incorrect, they are totally counterproductive, though emotionally satisfying.

But without some rational basis for moral decision making, what doesn't lend itself toward a totalitarian ideology?

I would imagine empath was referring to specific, historical reasons for being suspicious of science offering moral answers, rather than abstract ones. I think science is perfectly within its rights to explain how our psychology results in moral problems, and more generally, how our moral reasoning functions. This has nothing to do with providing moral answers, of course, nor should it. I see no reason to privilege our intuitive morality, especially observing the results of depending on that morality for all of human history so far. We need to acknowledge our limitations.
posted by mek at 6:44 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


obviously we have to acknowledge our limitations. couldn't agree more with that. science is no substitute for a humanistic ethics grounded in intuition and reason. and yes, human ethical systems aren't discovered, they're constructed. but they ought to be constructed on some rational basis, not just cobbled together out of personal biases and idiosyncratic preferences.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:47 PM on April 7, 2010


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