Evolution and Moral Ecology

Published by timdean on

‘Moral ecology’ is a new term that I have adopted to describe the thrust of my thesis (thanks to John Wilkins for a fruitful conversation at PBDB4 leading to the coining of this term). Basically, I’m claiming that:

If we have an evolved moral sense – and I think there’s ample evidence that we do – then we would not expect it to function in an identical way between individuals. Instead, we would expect a diversity in the function of the moral sense between individuals, and a corresponding diversity of moral intuitions and moral judgements.

This is because there is no one solution to the problems of morality that are best in every environment or circumstance, so evolution has equipped us – individually and as populations – with a variety of strategies that increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to successfully respond to a wide range of situations and environments (and by ‘environment’, this also includes the strategies employed by other individuals).

Thus we get a ‘moral ecology’ – a diverse range of strategies that each perform well in their niche, while it lasts, but no one strategy that pushes out all others.

Many of the terms above need to be qualified and placed in their correct evolutionary/psychological/philosophical contexts, and much argument needs to be made to back it all up, but that’s detail.

Effectively, it’s a broadside against the idea that morality need be monolithic, and if there’s moral disagreement between two individuals, it’s because one (or both) of them is in error in some way. In fact, the diversity and tension between different moral perspectives is healthy and helps to keep the system from snapping over to an extreme.

That’s ‘moral ecology’.


WoundedEgo · 14th September 2010 at 11:14 pm

It might behoove you to also consider the questions of whether universal elements exist, in conscience, and whether morals can change, based on ideology.

DiscoveredJoys · 15th September 2010 at 1:18 am

I like the general idea but I don’t like the phrase ‘evolution has equipped us’. I realise that this may just be casual phrasing that does not properly reflect the underlying reality, but when you are talking about ‘morality’ I think you need to be extra careful about cause and effect for fear of introducing covert bias into your (or others) thoughts.

Perhaps something like ‘characteristics which survive evolutionary processes typically show some degree of variation between individuals in each generation’?

douglas sherriff · 15th September 2010 at 2:26 am

A nice idea bearded one. However “ecology” is surely a misnomer as it properly means the branch of biology concerned with the relations between organisms and their environment, or, among an appallingly less discerning audience, the environment as it relates to living organisms.

In the sense that you are using the word it would be more appropriate to pick from the lexicon of physiology as you are referring to a matter dealing with the functioning of a single organism. One surely wouldn’t wish to be lumped in with those ill-bred persons contaminating the language with “the office ecology” and similar odious and absurd fatuousnesses?

respectfuly yours


Tim Dean · 15th September 2010 at 10:23 am

@WoundedEgo Not sure what you mean by “universal elements” – I do believe in hydrogen. And of course morals can change.

@DiscoveredJoys In this abbreviated blurb I see no problem using the term “evolution has equipped us” because I’m talking about a faculty. Evolution has also equipped us with an immune system, a locomotion system and a language acquisition faculty – saying this doesn’t suggest evolution has hardwired a particular immune response, a particular gait or a particular language.

@douglas sherriff I acknowledge the limits of the ecology analogy, but I like the link with individual-environment interaction and the parallels when it comes to populations, biodiversity, dynamic/static states, ecological niches etc. Morality is about more than just individuals, but how they function in a dynamic and responsive environment.

And I most certainly agree that “office ecology” in the sense of “office environment” is entirely arse – the corporate world is populated by a species lacking in sufficient wit to be truly creative, but just enough intelligence to appropriate intelligent-sounding terms. Pity they.

bibleshockers · 15th September 2010 at 10:54 am

@WoundedEgo Not sure what you mean by “universal elements”

While morals vary, one’s conscience generally has opinions like that of one’s neighbor.

It is one thing to make a case, another to field objections. The natural objection to ecological morals is the presence of what appear to be universal morals and “absolutes.”

>>>…And of course morals can change.

Hence, morals are connected to, say, ideologies. I think that is your thesis yes? Only you seem to be describing the evolution of one’s original morals, and I’m pondering forces that alter the mechanics of a developed sense of morals.

If nothing sparks your imagination, don’t worry about it. I’m just trying to stimulate ideas.

I know, though, from experience, that any thing you propose will be looked at from the opposite perspective, so it is a good idea to anticipate (and even consider) differing viewpoints going in.

Paul · 15th September 2010 at 1:39 pm

The moral ecology analogy seems true as far it goes, so what is the thesis going to show that isn’t already known or hasn’t already been argued by somebody else? Maybe I am too pragmatic and thick-skulled, but what would be the takeaway for lay people(i.e. non-academic/non-scientists) who already see that we have always lived in such a world?

That said, it sounds like a great thesis, and if it is possible to convince influential, intelligent academics/scientists that morality isn’t about truth or about what is universally right or wrong, but is rather about the business of getting on in the world, than it will have covered new ground.

Tim Dean · 15th September 2010 at 4:51 pm

@bibleshockers I’m not 100% sure of your position, but here goes. My thesis explicitly suggests that different people vary as to their impressions of rightness or wrongness, and their consciously held moral beliefs differ accordingly. In fact, the moral emotions and intuitions come prior to rationalisation and formation of moral beliefs.

There may be moral principles that *appear* to be universal and absolute – but in fact there is no objective moral truth in the theist, rationalist or moral realist sense. Morality is about aiding social interaction, because such interaction serves your interests. But there’s nothing hardwired into the world that forces you to value social interaction, or your interests – although if you didn’t value sociality, and thus behaved anti-socially, there’d be plenty of people who would attempt to *persuade* you to become social/moral again.

And ‘ideologies’ come after our psychology. I’d suggest most people *feel* a certain way about moral issues, and subsequently *discover* they’re more in tune with one ideology rather than another. Change is possible, but it starts with the way you feel about things, which then opens up believing in other ideologies. However, discussing principles, beliefs and ideologies can also change the way you feel about certain issues – so there’s feedback.

@Paul I think the second part of your comment almost answers the first part. But basically, philosophers are largely still under the spell of moral realism and the belief that there is one true moral system that will yield the best answer in any situation – either that or they’ve become dispirited and turned to relativism. I’m advocating an error theory (of the Mackie/Joyce/Green persuasion) that leads to a kind of non-mysterious pragmatic pluralism.

Ricketson · 16th September 2010 at 1:50 am

Hi, nice post. I do think it is relevant, but it all comes down to whether or not people view morality as a property of a natural organism, and particularly a social organism, rather than being something that exists outside of the organism.

As for the ‘evolution has equipped us’ dispute, would it be more to the point to say that “our moral facilities are based in genetics”? I’m not saying that they are absolutely determined by genetics, but that there is variation that can be attributed to genetics, at least between species. Basically, I don’t see the point of invoking evolution, unless you want to examine the stability of different moral paramaterizations. But even that question is unapproachable until we demonstrate that there is meaningful genetic variation within a population.

(FWIW, I believe that childhood indoctrination plays a big role in forming morality, along with small adjustments in adulthood)

katinka quintelier · 24th September 2010 at 12:04 am

The indented description seems correct to me but the last paragraph makes some unwarranted claims.

“against the idea that morality need be monolithic” : There is a difference between something having evolved to be a certain way and claiming that this is how it needs to be. What if morality is diverse only because we live in different environments – and social environment does not matter? And what if we in this age of globalization allign environments in such a way that a universal morality would be preferable and possible? In that case, how we evolved is not a broadside against a monolithic morality anymore.

In this last paragraph you are making the naturalistic fallacy. It is not warranted to go from ‘we evolved to be morally diverse’ to ‘we need to be morally diverse, this is healthy etc.’

It might well be that we need to be morally diverse, but here you exactly need to fill in the details of how to reason from a claim about our evolved constitution to a claim about the preferred moral make-up. Maybe, for example, we will never be able to solve our moral disagreements because our moral intuitions are not influenced caused by arguments but by our upbringing or evolved emotions? (But we might as well be able to construe one system and convince everyone of its merits.)

A related point: in ethics, there is something like a second-order morality: we question the mores we are brought up with and see if we really agree on them and maybe should not replace them with other moral rules. The Greeks did it when they constantly questioned their moral and political systems. Job did it when he questioned the rules that apparently were part of his faith. It is the same for evolution. Our ‘evolved moral sense’ might have influenced the content of our morality. But that does not mean we will think that our own moral sense is correct as soon as we contemplate it. We might discover that we ‘automatically’ find something to be more wrong if it is more disgusting while at the same time thinking that disgust should not be morally relevant.

So in sum, I think you need to fill in the details to make the claims in the last paragraph.

Tim Dean · 24th September 2010 at 1:47 pm

Hi katinka quintelier. You’re absolutely right – in the sense that this post skims over a lot of important detail. Other posts on this blog should help clarify my position.

In sum: mine is a descriptive thesis, but it has metaethical implications, namely to erode the assumption that morality need be ‘monolithic’ (or objective, or ‘truth-seeking’, or universal, or categorical etc) in order for it to qualify as what we call morality.

As for normative ethics, I agree that starts from another position – it can try to achieve an objective or a priori basis, although I’m sceptical about whether that’s possible. Even if normative ethics turns out to be contingent, I agree that we shouldn’t just take our evolved moral sense uncritically. In fact, I’ve written before about going on a ‘moral diet’ where we acknowledge that our evolved moral sense is no longer helpful in achieving our moral ends today, much like we understand that our sweet tooth is harmful to our health in today’s environment.

No Link Out | Evolving Thoughts · 14th September 2010 at 11:52 pm

[…] I had a hand in a new term: moral ecology. […]

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