April 2010 archive

Evolution & Ethics

In 1893, Thomas Henry Huxley gave the second ever Romanes Lecture at Oxford University. It was entitled ‘Evolution & Ethics’. In this lecture, delivered in some of the finest of 19th century prose, Huxley presented one of the most clear rebukes given then and since against the coarse injection of evolution into ethics. Even though I’m of the belief that evolution is central to a complete understanding of morality, Huxley’s arguments still stand, and I hold them in the highest regard. Here are a few snippets with which anyone interested in the intersection of evolution and ethics should be familiar:

“But as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.”

“There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called ‘ethics of evolution.’ It is that notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection. I suspect that this fallacy has arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ ‘Fittest’ has a connotation of ‘best’; and about ‘best’ there hangs a moral flavour’. In cosmic nature, however, what is ‘fittest’ depends upon the conditions. long since, I ventured to point out that if our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about, in the vegetable kingdom, a population of more and more stunted and humbler and humbler organisms, until the ‘fittest’ that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its colour; while, if it became hotter, the pleasant valleys of the Thames and Isis might be uninhabitable by any animated beings save those that flourish in a tropical jungle. They, as the fittest, the best adapted to the changed conditions, would survive.”

“Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.”

“As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best – what we call goodness or virtue – involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as tho the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.”

“Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

And one final note: Huxley was not only a great biologist, natural philosopher and defender of evolution, but he was one of the rare English thinkers of his time to give great credence to Eastern thinkers. Here is just one insightful passage from Evolution and Ethics that hints at his surprisingly nuanced view of Indian philosophy, and at his ability to weave that into a distinctly English narrative:

“The earlier forms of Indian philosophy agreed with those prevalent in our own times, in supposing the existence of a permanent reality, or ‘substance,’ beneath the shifting series of phenomena, whether of matter or of mind. The substance of the cosmos was ‘Brahma’, that of the individual man ‘Atman’; and the latter was separated from the former only, if I may so speak, but its phenomenal envelope, by the casing of sensations, thoughts and desires, pleasures and pains, which make up the illusive phantasmagoria of life. This the ignorant take for reality; their ‘Atman’ therefore remains eternally imprisoned in delusions, bound by the fetters if desire and scourged by the whip of misery. But the man who has attained enlightenment sees that the apparent reality is mere illusion, or, as was said a couple of thousand years later, that there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

God is Dead! Long Live Morality!

Once again, Michael Ruse plunges into the unfriendly country and ruffles the feathers of the natives with his rational and measured invective against the notion that morality is somehow not of this Earth. I couldn’t agree with him more.

His argument is strikingly similar to my own – although that’s no accident because I’m heavily influenced by Ruse’s writings. In fact, his classic declaration, that morality is “a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes” (Ruse, 1986), is the starting point of my thesis. So, unsurprisingly, I think his message is one that needs to get out.

Michael Ruse

The argument is actually relatively straightforward. There is no God, so all we have is each other. And when it comes to living well, we do better in groups than as solitary beings. If we want to live in groups we need ways to discourage those who would disrupt the other members in the group. That’s the starting point of morality. And evolution has already equipped us with a slew of tools – emotions as well as reason – to help encourage prosocial behaviour and discourage antisocial behaviour.

But these tools are not perfect; they’re heuristics that are prone to error. So we can’t just trust our evolved moral sense exclusively, as argued by Matt Ridley. We also need to apply reason. But we also shouldn’t swing too far the other way and only rely on reason to the exclusion of emotion (i.e. Kant), because, for better or for worse, emotion is the true driver of behaviour.

What we need to do is develop a framework for morality that agrees on its purpose of helping people live and work together in harmony – and we already have such a framework, called the social contract. There’s no ultimate arbiter, no objective truth about values, it requires hard work, hard arguing, emotional and psychological buy-in, and compromise. That’s the only way to do it. We’ve tried all the other objectivist, absolutist, dogmatic ways and it only ends in tears.

But here’s the twist. Regardless of our mistaken metaphysical beliefs about morality in the past, we’ve always been doing it this way in practice – if poorly because of some erroneous guiding assumptions about objectivity. Even for those who believe there is an absolute morality handed down by a supernatural being – it still takes people to understand, interpret and enforce it.

As I’ve mentioned before, morality isn’t as special as we think – it’s not divine, objective, categorical, universal – but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

The Return of Eugenics

Eugenics has a bad rap. All that talk of selective breeding (or sterilising) of people in order to improve the human stock or purify races is terribly distasteful today – and for good reason. However, I wonder if we’re already bringing a kind of eugenics back with modern day genetic testing. And if so, maybe this, much more temperate, version of eugenics is acceptable, or perhaps even good.

Prenatal testing and embryo testing for hereditary genetic abnormalities and disorders is on the rise. We now have the technology to not only determine whether an embryo or a foetus carries a genetic defect that will result in a life threatening disease or disorder, or even one that will severely compromise standard of living, but we can even screen embryos before they’re implanted through IVF.

Certainly, there are broad grey areas over when and in what circumstances such testing can occur – I’m not about to debate these issues – but I am assuming that such tests, in some form, are likely to continue. And, by continuing, we will further have the ability to screen embryos that carry such disorders.

If, by doing so, we reduce the representation in the human gene pool of genes that cause certain disorders, and we do so willingly, then, in a manner of speaking, we’re engaging in a kind of eugenics. Not the kind that attempts to selectively breed (or genetically engineer) to seek out or enhance certain phenotypic traits, but the kind that ends up reducing the frequency of some undesirable traits. One needn’t even start allowing parents to select traits, like eye colour or height, for this weak form of eugenics to hold.

Put this way, my initial suspicion surrounding eugenics gives way slightly to the prospect that this might even be a good thing. But there are still issues, like that we might be inadvertently reducing our genetic diversity, and this could prove problematic down the track.

There are very few (if any) genes that affect only one thing. Genes code for proteins or RNA, and these proteins and RNA can perform multiple tasks and interact with other proteins or RNA in complex ways. Reducing the frequency of one gene in a population might have unforseen side effects. One need only observe the problems that arise when genetic diversity drops significantly – such as in so-called founder populations – to see the ill effects of a lack of diversity.

Then there’s heterozygosity, such as with sickle-cell anemia. It’s a genetic disorder that is inherited if an individual receives two copies of the mutant haemoglobin gene; if an individual possesses only one, the non-mutant is dominant, so sickle-cell anemia doesn’t develop. Furthermore, heterozygous individuals – those who have a mutant and non-mutant gene – gain some resistance against malaria. Eradicating the mutant gene from the population could have a negative effect in terms of malaria resistance. That said, if homozygotes were screened, that alone wouldn’t remove the mutant gene from the population.

I doubt this will ever be a simple black and white issue. There are likely to be plenty of cases where prenatal testing will reveal some non-inherited genetic abnormality, such as Down syndrome, which is not a heritable disorder (although individuals with Down syndrome can have children – if rarely – and they are more likely to carry the syndrome). And we can employ limits and precautions on how we treat the presence of heritable diseases or disorders – or the presence of genes that might increase the chance of a particular disease or disorder. With some cautious use, we might lower the proportion of genes in the population that cause these problems, but not eradicate them altogether.

I don’t know if you’d call that eugenics – admittedly it is a stretch – but even if it is, with some caution, it might actually be a good thing.

How the iPad *might* Save Journalism

A bit of departure from philosophy, but wait for it, I’ll squeeze in some game theory at some point, as I do with most conversations. You should see me order coffee.

There’s wailing and gnashing of teeth about the future of journalism. I hear it. Being a journalist myself, I have occasionally wailed and gnashed along with the chorus. Then there’s the ‘iPad will save journalism’ rally, led by ex-Australian News Ltd. Grand Moff, Rupert Murdoch. And in response, there’s the ‘no, the iPad won’t save journalism’ gang. It’s all happening.

What surprises me is the lack of sophistication in much of the commentary about this issue. Don’t get me wrong – it’s complicated and the media faces an unpredictable future – but there are some important elements that seem to be frequently overlooked, particularly when discussing the curly issue of charging for content. When these are factored in, charging for content, particularly on tablets and the iPad, becomes a much more viable prospect. (more…)

American History Through the Conservative Lens

Noted American Historian, Eric Foner – noted as much for his scholarship as for his vilification by radical conservatives – has written a wonderful analysis of the new social studies curriculum recently approved by the Texas Board of Education. Foner leans left himself, but he’s an esteemed historian and expert on American history, unlike the members of the Board of Education.

Eric Foner

His summary of the new curriculum shows it as being an exemplar of the conservative world view. It stresses the values of individual enterprise, self discipline, group conformity, religious obedience, in-group favouritism; and explicitly dodges issues of racism, secularisation, criticisms of capitalism and any values that promote communitarianism, pluralism of values or multiculturalism.

While I acknowledge the value of some aspects of conservatism and I’m critical of some aspects of (particularly post-modern) liberalism, the history class is not the place to have these issues fight their battle – not that there’s even a fight going on here now the Board has had its say along party lines.

History is a tricky subject to arbitrate; there’s arguably an infinite amount that can be said of history, not just covering the facts of events but interpreting their significance. But the crucial aspect is to provide the facts about historical events in as impartial a way as possible while acknowledging the various frames and influences on the interpretation of these historical events and then to engage in debate over the significance and the lessons learned. Neither should we be viewing history through the lens of conservatism as we should through the lens of radical liberalism.

Social Contracts in the Game of Life

“We are all players in the game of life, with divergent aims and aspirations that make conflict inevitable. In a healthy society, a balance between all these differing aims and aspirations is achieved so that the benefits of cooperation are not entirely lost in internecine strife. Game theorists call such a balance an equilibrium. Sustain such equilibria requires the existence of commonly understood conventions about how behaviour is to be coordinated. It is such a system of coordinating conventions that I shall identify with a social contract.”
– Ken Binmore, Game Theory and the Social Contract, Volume 1: Playing Fair, 1996, p6

Ken Binmore

Ken Binmore

And there you have it. One of the most straight-forward articulations (assuming if you understand the concept of ‘equilibrium’) of what a social contract is and why we might want one, and it appears but six pages in to Binmore’s epic two volume series on game theory and the social contract. I’m going to enjoy reading this.

But Binmore has other tidy revelations in the following pages, such as that the Left is often misguided because it proposes contracts that break through ‘feasibility constraints’, and as a result, proposes utopias that are inherently unstable.

The Right, on the other hand, values a nice stable equilibrium so much that it clings to yesterday’s contract and resists change that might bring about an improved contract – often resisting it to the point where the only possibility of change becomes revolutionary change.

A final tid bit – of particular pertinence to politicians –  is that one ought to always consider the feasible before considering the optimal. Another way of putting this is to say that, prior to criticising the status quo, one ought to consider the next best feasible option, and if it’s worse than the status quo, then one ought to reconsider one’s criticism.

We need more game theorists contributing to philosophy, IMO.