Grayling on Darwin and Ethics

Published by timdean on

“Can ethics be derived from evolution by natural selection?”

Thus spake Richard Wilkins (although I never knew he hailed from Watford) in the most recent question asked of British philosopher, A.C. Grayling in his regular Q&A in Prospect Magazine.

Grayling’s first answer is succinct and, I think, accurate:

Given that human beings have evolved by natural selection (with genetic drift and some other factors perhaps assisting), and are ethical creatures, it follows ab esse ad posse that ethics can be derived from evolution by natural selection.

But he concedes that this might not convince everybody. So he goes on to answer a broader question: “would natural selection be sufficient to produce creatures with a consciousness of ethical principles and a tendency to wish to observe them and see them observed?”

And this more convoluted (and unnecessary?) question is where he runs into some troubles – caused, I think, by the chronic confusion that abounds in ethics over what is, and what is not, ‘ethical’.

For example, Grayling states that “whereas other social animals have evolved behaviours that subserve the interests of their sociality… this does not amount to ethics.” Instead, ethics “premises an awareness of the demands and responsibilities ethics involves.” So to be ethical is to be a ethical reasoner.

This is a commonly held view, but one that I think is a fallacy, hopefully one that will erode as we gain a greater appreciation for moral psychology. Certainly there is something very interesting going on when homo sapiens reason about right and wrong, but that’s not all there is to ethics.

In fact, recent research by the likes of Jonathan Haidt show that moral sentiments – and even moral judgements – spring forth well before reason is engaged. So to deny all these rich and crucial sentiments their ethical gravity until reason has had time to toss them around is an unecessarily harsh simplification.

I think a better approach would be to take a more fine grained approach to the way we make moral judgements so we can acknowledge those features of animals and ourselves that promote pro-social behaviour as ethical, different in degree if not in kind.

For example, let’s call the original, unconsious moral sentiment that springs forth unbidden when confronted by a morally-charged scenario the initial moral judgement. It’s the raw intuition about permissibility/impermissibility, charged with emotion but untempered by reason or reflection. It’s the empathy or the outrage that inspire us to action.

Then once that initial moral judgement has been processed by reason – which can inhibit or redirect behavioural impulses, deliberate over conflicting sentiments and revise the initial moral judgement in terms of explicitly held moral beliefs – we arrive at the considered moral judgement.

They’re both moral judgements – they both serve pro-social ends – but they arise via very different cognitive mechanisms. And evidence suggests that while animals lack the capacity to form considered moral judgments, many may possess the faculties required to arrive at the initial moral judgement.

Thus, for Grayling, and many others, to only take considered moral judgements as the be-all and end-all of ethics is carelessly eliminating much of what’s interesting about moral thinking. It’s well and truly time for ethics to catch up with science, and unshackle itself from the Western preoccupation with conscious reasoning as the locus of morality, and start seeing the bigger picture.

1 Comment

Gerry Porter · 23rd January 2009 at 9:47 am

Allow me to set aside the metaphysical dialogue on free will and ethics for a moment and offer for consideration a creation that I believe strongly supports the notion that man is innately ethical, i.e. a natural consequence of natural selection.

The creation to which I refer is Western civilization. It is a system of governance that evolved, over several centuries, from the bottom up. To paraphrase Lincoln, it is: by, for, and of the people. Western civilization was not imposed upon its citizens by a more powerful entity; it evolved incrementally as a result of the efforts of many individuals and institutions. By any measure, Western civilization is a fundamentally ethical place, i.e. it tends to nourish what is good in humanity and to restrain that which is not.

While, as individuals, our behavior ranges from incorrigibly evil to supremely good, our overall behavior rests slightly on the benign side of the balance. I thus take the existence of Western civilization as proof that, as a species, humankind is innately moral and ethical.

As for free will. I suggest that, as has been discussed above, quantum indeterminacy opens the door to free will. Quantum considerations probably don’t guarantee the existence of free will, but I view it as a positive indication rather than a neutral or negative indication. A deterministic universe is no longer in the cards since all future events can be described only in terms of probabilities ranging from greater than 0% to less than 100%.

A second argument in favor of free will is neurological; our sense of guilt. If each of our actions were pre-determined, choice would not be an option and guilt would be an alien sensation. But we do feel guilt (notwithstanding psychopathic behavior) if we do or say something contrary to our template of ethical behavior.

However, our innate template provides us with only the wherewithal to be ethical. Because of interactions between our genetic endowments and our environments, the template – almost certainly more influential in nurturing ethical behavior in some than in others – does not automatically yield ethical behavior in all.

Gerry Porter

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