Escaping Moral Relativism Through Evolution

Published by timdean on

“Without God, anything goes,” or so some say. This claim of moral relativism is often found clinging to the belly of evolutionary theories of morality, like some kind of parasitic lamprey, sucking the blood from the very body that hosts it. Yet evolutionary ethics doesn’t necessarily imply moral relativism. Here’s why:

Say we accept the evolutionary ethics picture that morality is a device used to promote pro-social behaviour and solve the problems of cooperation, because doing so lends its adherents greater reproductive success. And the way evolution promotes moral behaviour is by endowing us with a spectrum of moral sentiments that encourage pro-social behaviour – things like empathy and guilt.

But that’s not the end of morality. We also have our rational capacity, which enables us to predict future outcomes of actions, abstract moral principles away from individual actions and deliberate about the best course of action. Between these two faculties – the moral sentiments and reason – we develop normative codes that are spread amongst our community. However, other communities might settle upon different moral norms, perhaps ones that contradict our own.

Now, some claim this picture endorses moral relativism because there is nowhere a single moral authority that can arbitrate between the various moral norms held in different cultures. But this is not entirely true. For if one accepts the premise of what morality is for – i.e. promoting pro-social behaviour and cooperation – then one can review the various moral norms and assess whether they are better or worse at promoting these ends.

First, a word on why different communities might have differing moral norms in the first place. The short answer is it’s because there’s no one right answer to the problem of promoting pro-social behaviour. There are, in fact, many right answers, but some are more suited to solving the problem than others in different environments.

For example, in a hostile environment, with limited resources and neighbouring tribes that threaten the existence of the community, then a more ‘conservative’ moral system would likely lend a greater chance of survival to its practitioners. Such a system enforces close inter-group cohesion but acts cautiously and suspiciously in intra-group relations. It also tends to promote a hierarchical social structure and competition amongst its members. It performs well in situations where there is a high threat of free riders or in the presence of external threats, but less well when those threats are not realised. In this case it has lost out on potentially lucrative cooperative ventures. For modern day examples, look at the prevalence of tribal loyalties in many developing countries and how they can interfere with business and good governance.

However, in a less hostile environment, with more abundant resources and neighbouring ‘tribes’ that are not aggressive, a more ‘liberal’ system would likely lend a greater chance of survival to its practitioners. This system is more encouraging of cooperation – within the group as well as with out-group individuals. These cooperative ventures can be fruitful, although they bring with it the risk of free-riders – hence an emphasis on justice within these systems. Liberalism performs well in a ‘peaceful’ world, although it performs less well in a hostile environment because it is more vulnerable to exploitation. For a modern example, consider liberal democracies.

Now, relativism. At least when it comes to moral norms that fall into the liberal-conservative spectrum, it is true to say that no particular norm is intrinsically better or worse than another. But you can judge whether a particular moral norm is contingently better or worse at promoting cooperation and thereby advancing the ends of its practitioners, given the environment in which it exists.

For example, in the modern world, where most nations who embrace liberalism are able to interact very effectively with other nations who embrace liberalism, it could be suggested that liberal values are more fit in this environment. In contrast, the tribalism that still wracks places like Iraq or Africa is less fit than liberalism. This is not to say that tribalism can easily be replaced by liberalism – there are great hurdles of trust to be overcome for that to happen. But it’s clear that cultures that employ a very suspicious tribalism – or strict in-group/out-group mentality of any sort – perform worse than cultures that are more pluralistic and trusting of out-group members.

As such, I think it would be fair to criticise conservative moral norms to the extent that they are less able to promote the ends of their practitioners than their liberal alternatives. Let me give an example. Arranged marriages can improve group cohesion by tying various families together, by being used as a form of exchange and by keeping a valuable resource – fertile women – within the group. (I hasten to add that I’m not an apologist for arranged marriages or the notion of women as a resource, I’m simply offering a descriptive theory.)

However, in a society where family alliances are less important to the family’s wellbeing, and where allowing individuals to choose their mate improves their happiness, then arranged marriages might not promote the interests of the members of the culture as much as the more liberal alternative. It might even improve social cohesion within the community as a whole by allowng the freedom to choose mates, and a corresponding diminishing of family loyalties compared to community loyalty.

But – and here’s the rub – should the world go through an apocalypse, such as a global war or catastrophic climate change, then it could turn out that more conservative norms are more fit in this new environment. Just think of all the post-apocylaptic tales you know – how many endorse rampant cooperation without much regard for free riders?

So the take home message is this: evolutionary ethics doesn’t necessarily descend into relativism if you accept the premise of what morality is for. You are left with a moral philosophy that isn’t absolutist, but one that is relative to the environmental pressures exerted on the community. But within that environment, there are better and worse answers. Which answers are better and which worse is a matter for empirical enquiry, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever have a perfect list due to inherent uncertainties in appraising the risks in our environment. But it can give grounds for the criticism of other moral norms given a certain environment.


John · 23rd July 2009 at 4:38 pm

Sounds a lot like Darwin’s view of the evolution of morality in the Descent

Tim Dean · 23rd July 2009 at 4:46 pm

Well, it’s kind of like Darwin + game theory – the belief that evolution is progressive, and that progress is good = this theory.

Darwin was sadly overly influenced in the Descent by Social Darwinists, the likes of W. R. Greg, who is very ably discussed in this context here.

Tim Dean · 24th July 2009 at 2:47 pm

Duh. Didn’t realise it was *you* John… Guess you’re already familiar with Greg then.

John Wilkins · 24th July 2009 at 2:57 pm

Yup, I read him, once

James Sweet · 21st October 2009 at 4:53 am

I’ve written some random speculations on this topic myself, but they are just the ramblings of an armchair enthusiast, so I would be embarrassed to link to them here. 🙂 One thing I want to add, though, is that when you talk about a particular moral approach being more “fit” for an “environment”, I think it is critically important to recall that part of this “environment” includes our genes themselves. From this idea, it conceivably follows that some aspects of morality could, while still not quite absolute, be relative only to the type of organism that we are, rather than the type of society in which we inhabit. I think that’s important…

Tim · 21st October 2009 at 8:59 am

Thanks for the comment James. And I think you’re absolutely right: morality is intricately tried to the kind of organism we are. If we didn’t feel pain as a negative sensation, we might not judge it to be relevant to harm.

However, what I think is interesting is that there’s reason to believe most intelligent beings would share some of the same features we share, functionally if not biologically. Pain, for example, is an aversive mechanism to encourage us to avoid damage to our bodies. The mechanisms for pain and the phenomenal sensation might differ in other intelligent beings, but the aversive function is likely to be the same. If so, and those beings are social, they’d face similar problems of cooperation to us, so it’s quite possible their moral faculties would also be somewhat similar. At least, the differences would be down to differences in biology and differences in environment.

Why Evolution Needs Judeo-Christianity « BababaBobalog · 21st August 2009 at 3:08 am

[…] For an opposing evolutionary/philosophical view see OckhamsBeard. […]

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