The Problem of Cardinal Values

Published by timdean on

‘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.

Any tips?


John S. Wilkins · 5th July 2009 at 3:15 pm

Sorry I’m late to this, Tim. My feeling is that what evolution licenses is simply behaviour that allows members of a species to flourish. At best this eliminates toxic societies (unless you are talking about the fitness of societies, in which case there can be a conflict between fitness bearers); but it won’t give you positive cardinal virtues, since there are an indefinite number of those that are consonant with a flourishing human society.

But evolution doesn’t track either truth or The Good. It only tracks fitness, and so looking for normativity in evolution is a basic error.

Tim Dean · 5th July 2009 at 4:41 pm

I see what you’re saying – but how do you define ‘flourishing’?

My concern is that any definition of flourishing would ultimately reduce to things that promote fitness in some way.

An your last paragraph does suggest one answer: that evolution has nothing to do with normativity. There are many who subscribe to that view – Nagel and Rorty spring to mind.

But if that’s the case then we need to radically overhaul our moral thinking today, for many of the moral sentiments that fuel our moral theories are the product of evolution. We’d need to create a moral system that is based entirely on reason – perhaps something like Kant’s – but from where do we find the cardinal values for that? And will people (other than philosophers and psychoaths) buy in to it?

Sure, we can pick some out of thin air and call them axiomatic – but I’m uncomfortable with that too.

Hey, I’m all out of answers on this one…

Paul · 15th December 2009 at 4:34 am

I think that you might be confusing a fact with a value. It is just simply true that no matter what we claim as a cardinal value, that value will be based upon our sentiments. Those sentiments, insofar as they are hereditary in origin, will have something to do with what was fitness enhancing with our ancestors. So no matter what we choose as a cardinal virtue, it will always be fitness enhancing, at least in the way that you are speaking of it. Of course, what was fitness enhancing in the past is not fitness enhancing now.

I understand that you are enrolled in a doctoral program in philosophy, and so your future career in academia depends on what opinions moral philosophers form of you, but perhaps you are going about this the wrong way. If the differences between moral philosophers are a shouting contest about whose emotions are more valid, why bother trying to get to the truth of it? As you have speculated, there are not moral facts per se. Maybe you could learn a thing or too from Nietzsche, who was attacking the same problems. Instead of asking what the implications of evolutionary ethics are for the arguments that other people make, ask what the implications of learning about evolutionary ethics are for how you live your own life. Then try and do that same thing for everybody else you can think of. I mean, it is highly unlikely that any answer that you came up with to this question of cardinal values is going to be anything other than an elaborate defense of your own preferences. So instead of defending your preferences, go out and fulfill them.

Tim Dean · 15th December 2009 at 9:04 am

Thanks for the comments Paul. If it is true that all our values are based on sentiments (and they don’t have to be – Kant is a case in point), upon what are our sentiments based? And why ought we base our values on them as opposed to something else? These are tricky questions for any sentimentalist account, and if it turns out we have the sentiments we have because of evolution, then we risk any sentimentalist account being a closet evolutionary ethics account. Some might be happy with that, but I think it needs close scrutiny.

And I’m not as fatalistic as you about the programme itself. I believe philosophers can explore arguments that aren’t just promoting their own veiled preferences. How that changes their actual moral behaviour is an open question.

As for what evolution has taught me – I’ve become somewhat of an apologist for everything, although emotionally, I remain on the ‘liberal’ side of Haidt’s chart. In gaining a better understanding of why others might hold different values and norms than I, I can appreciate how they all aim at solving the same problem: how to get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and cooperate together for mutual benefit. I now see there are many solutions to this problem, hence the many sentiments and ideologies we see today. I’m not sure this problem really ought to be the root problem of morality, but if it is, I’m now very much a pluralist in terms of sentiments, but I do have non-sentimentalist reasons for believing some kind of liberalism is the best solution to the great problem in today’s world.

Paul · 16th December 2009 at 11:32 am

I’m curious as to what claims you are making about moral philosophy. I agree that philosophers can explore arguments which are not just a veiled expression of their own preferences. However, the only example I can think of is when they explore arguments which are simply the veiled preferences of others. I am, however, not quite sure what the point of all of it is. I hope I do not sound disparaging; I am merely curious about what moral philosophers do when they are not arguing for their own preferences. Also, what are your non-sentimentalist reasons for liberalism?

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