The Problem of Cardinal Values
‘Cardinal values’ are those values that are fundamental to rest of your moral system, the values from which all other values spring. They’re like axiomatic values, the very ground floor of morality.
Some contemporary moral philosophies state their cardinal values as happiness (hedonism), compassion (Buddhism), altruism (many), the Golden Rule, respect for autonomous rational agents or duty (Kant) – although many moral philosophies simply skip over the question of cardinal values and claim that promoting goodness is good enough (I suspect Rawls suffers from this somewhat tautological approach).
What I’m concerned about is what cardinal values spring from an evolutionary ethics point of view. For evolutionary ethics causes us to question many of the other cardinal values. Let’s take happiness as an example. If happiness truly was a cardinal value, it should be irreducible to other values.
However, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s not. For happiness is simply one of our many emotional heuristics – quick and dirty motivating shortcuts that encourage us to seek out things that benefit our genes. Many of the buttons that trigger happiness are linked to things that promoted fitness in our evolutionary past. Things such as a good meal, a feeling of security, companionship, sex, a sense of high status, occasionally even performing a deviant act that might be considered immoral, such as stealing. For once upon a time, these things promoted our fitness.
As such, perhaps it’s fitness that is the cardinal value of evolutionary ethics.
But this is a scary prospect, and one against which many have rebelled – with good cause. For if fitness is the cardinal value – if the root of morality is simply to get more of your genes to the next generation – then that opens the flood gates for many behaviours that most of us would consider terribly immoral. Things like murder, rape, lying, greed etc can all aid survival or even improve fitness in certain circumstances. However, virtually every moral code lists these things as clearly immoral.
It’s for this reason that I’ve made clear before that the sentiments we call moral are not those that only promote fitness, but the ones that promote cooperation and pro-social behaviour (empathy, moral outrage, remorse etc). These sentiments are a sub-set of the sentiments that promote fitness, but they exclude things like greed, malice, fear etc.
So, perhaps it’s promoting cooperation and pro-social behaviour that become our cardinal values? This does make some intuitive sense – most moral codes are explicitly about how to treat others as well as detailing what rituals and practises you (and your ‘tribe) follow.
But is it sensible to make cooperation and pro-sociality cardinal values? Are there any values that would spring from such cardinal values that we might consider immoral? Certainly there exists a tension between various methods of promoting pro-sociality and cooperation. For example, encouraging a strong in-group sentiment might lead to more cooperation within the group, but less cooperation with out-groups. It could even lead to vilification and outward aggression against out-groups – a phenomenon I’m sure we’re all familiar with from history.
There’s also the question of ‘why cooperation and pro-sociality’? For both still eventually serve our genes. More cooperation yields greater returns on investment in terms of energy – but crucially, that ‘return’ is defined in terms of our desires, and these desires are largely fuelled by the same fitness-enhancing sentiments, like happiness, mentioned above.
So it all keeps coming back to fitness. But fitness can’t be the cardinal value because it makes many immoral things moral. You can see the dilemma.
I don’t yet know the solution to this problem. Perhaps the whole thing is a non-problem? Perhaps I’m tackling it from the wrong perspective? Perhaps there’s an assumption somewhere down the line that is faulty. I don’t yet know. But I’m all ears to any advice on how to justify one’s cardinal values.
The only solution I can think of so far is to simply declare something a cardinal value – say, happiness or cooperation – and justify it using entirely rational means without recourse to natural facts and evolution. However, I’m sceptical of this approach for other reasons.