Friday, June 30, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: The Evolution of Morality

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Oliver Scott Curry, senior researcher at Oxford’s Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, believes morality evolved.

Tom: I don’t, and neither does Immanuel Can, which means we probably won’t be doing a lot of haggling with each other about this subject. For those interested, Curry’s seven “universal rules of morality” are: (1) help your family; (2) help your group; (3) return favors; (4) be brave; (5) defer to superiors; (6) divide resources fairly; and (7) respect others’ property. While we might all agree that life generally goes better within families and societies when these rules are observed, it is not at all obvious that they evolved.

Be Brave

It’s hard to see, for instance, how a genetic predisposition to “be brave” contributes to individual survival. “Run like heck”, on the other hand, might serve rather well. Now, it might be argued that in terms of sexual selection, the “bravery gene” could be sufficiently useful in attracting women to get passed on. Yet it may also be pointed out in response that throughout history, an inordinate percentage of men who theoretically possessed the “bravery gene” have ended up as food for buzzards, thereby becoming genetic dead-ends. In that case, a feature that sexual selection might promote, natural selection would exterminate.

What do you think, IC?

Immanuel Can: Well, Dr. Curry is an anthropologist. He’s not a philosopher, and not an ethicist. And that means that his own approach to finding out what ethics are is as follows: to study a bunch of cultures, find their patterns — their similarities and differences — and then to decide what the common ethics are on the basis of evolutionary presuppositions. That’s what he does. If we can take this journalist, Jenny Anderson, seriously in her explanation of him, he makes a very easy, wrong assumption that shows a lack of philosophical sophistication and ethical knowledge. He assumes that justifying ethics is the same as simply saying what people have practiced historically, or what they do culturally. He’s quite wrong about that, of course.

Tom: Yes. In any case, there could be a better explanation for the commonalities he’s observing.

The Human Conscience

IC: One alternate and better explanation of commonalities in morality is that human beings have a God-given conscience that provokes all mankind to respond to the same sorts of moral considerations. But to prove, in an evolutionary world, that these are justified, required, necessary and obligatory — that’s far more than Dr. Curry does.

The mere fact that people have agreement does not entail that they ought to have agreement about these things — particular if we’re living in an evolutionary world. But if Curry knew much about philosophy, he’d already know that, because he’d have read David Hume. He doesn’t, because he’s clearly stuck to anthropology. Dr. Paul Bloom (Yale psychologist), his chief critic in the article, is clearly a much better informed person, and a better philosopher than Dr. Curry.

Tom: The evolutionary perspective also doesn’t do a thing to explain why it is that if these seven cooperative behaviors are considered morally good across cultures in 99.9% of cases, as Dr. Curry and his team allege, much of the time people do not actually do these things they so unanimously approve of. In the real world, even though everyone would like to have his own property respected, the fact is that some people respect the property of others and almost as many do not. We do not always (or even often) do the things of which we approve, and if we do not do them, it’s hard to see how they can be considered evolved imperatives.

Deducing Morality from Preference

IC: Right. And the fact that most people do a thing does not go one inch toward telling us whether or not we ourselves are obligated to do it. If it suits us to be the one exception to the rule, then what further prevents us? In fact, as Kant noted, that’s how all bad ethics actually work: the liar depends for his success on the fact that people do not generally lie, and the thief depends for his success on the fact that others will not immediately steal from him what he has stolen. In both cases, the evildoer uses the general moral reservations of others to launch his project of personal advantage. And from an evolutionary perspective, why shouldn’t he? It’s the smart move.

What actually gives maximal evolutionary advantage is if others feel obligated to be moral, but I don’t have to be.

Tom: Exactly. In any case, with your background in philosophy and ethics, I thought you’d be a natural to weigh in on the viability of Curry’s “universal rules of morality”. Firstly, can morality actually be deduced from the expressed preferences of various cultures?

IC: No. If cultures actually were always moral, perhaps we could. Or if the majority of human beings were morally correct, perhaps we could take a world average and call it a day. But humans are sinful and fallen, and cultures are broken expressions of fallen human identity. They may retain elements of the truth, but they always also depart from them. So we cannot deduce what is right from what people say — whether individually or corporately.

Tom: My personal inclination is to observe and note what people do rather than what they say, and draw my conclusions about their real morality from that. For instance, any society that claims to value family while tolerating the practice of abortion is talking out its ear, and any society that claims to value “dividing resources fairly” and “helping the group” while using force to make its citizens assume the tax burdens of non-citizens is likewise spouting rarefied nonsense.

Describing and Prescribing

IC: That method will tell us what people are genuinely committed to doing. It will not tell us whether or not they know that some of what they are doing is wrong. And it most definitely will not tell us what genuine moral rightness actually is.

Tom: Fair enough. That’s one of the issues I have with it too.

IC: What we have to understand about anthropology, though, is that it’s a descriptive practice, not ideally a normative or philosophical one. It tries to tell us what people actually do — its job is not to tell us whether or not they ought to do it. If we try to make more of Curry’s work than that, we’re beyond his brief.

Tom: So it’s the old “is/ought” question then. Coming from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s impossible for Curry to deduce an “ought” from an “is” no matter what he does. If everything’s random, how can any specific rules of conduct be obligatory?

IC: Yes, but it’s also not what anthropology is about. Anthropology has nothing to do with the “ought” side of things. It’s all on the “is”.

Universally Incoherent

Tom: Okay. Then I’m thinking you have more than one issue with Dr. Curry.

IC: Well, Curry’s alleged “universal” moral precepts aren’t even internally coherent. How does “Defer to superiors” fit with “Distribute resources fairly”, when superiors want a bigger share? What is “fairly” anyway? Is it “fair” when industrious peoples’ livelihoods are reduced to pay the lazy for doing nothing? Does that “Help your family” (as it might if your uncle is one of the lazy ones, say), or is it a failure to “Respect others’ property”? Is it “Help your group” when a society puts its old people out to sea on ice floes?

Tom: Sure. Are they prioritizing helping economically, emotionally, or what? I would argue such a policy is not “helping” at all, but how you feel about that depends on the value system of the individual. It’s not cut-and-dried.

IC: And even if all cultures decided to practice that, do we really think that’s moral? Curry’s list is pretty ambiguous and self-contradictory, actually. No real society could ever run with so little real moral guidance as he offers.

Tom: Agreed. In fact, Curry himself refers to “occasional” departures from the norm, which makes me wonder how he and his team arrived at that “considered morally good in 99.9% of cases across cultures” figure. Did he really have so many cultures and situations to consider that these “occasional” departures from his self-defined “norm” comprise less than 0.1% of his data? I’m not buying it.

And sure enough, as it turns out, he’s only getting to that 99.9% figure by discounting any data that disagrees with his conclusions wherever adherence to one of his seven sacred principles trumps another.

Disposable Precepts

But how valid can any one of these precepts actually be if it can be tossed away so easily?

IC: And, of course, in a world that is a mere product of accidental forces, it can. There’s no reason why any morality at all is binding, no matter how many other people do or do not have it — at least in a world devoid of any ultimate moral authority.

Tom: So then, an “evolved” morality fails on several levels: it’s illogical, indefensible and does not account for real-world human behavior. How much more credible is the biblical view?

IC: Oh, plenty. Assuming (as we do) that God exists, morality is authoritatively grounded in his intrinsic character. But without that, there’s no grounding morality at all. Certainly, taking the sort of study done by Curry et al. doesn’t help us one bit. If done well, it can tell us what cultures claim to believe. And it can’t tell us what they ought to believe — nor why they, or anyone, ought to believe it.

Tom: And it cannot even tell us what they actually believe. That’s the bottom line for me.

1 comment :

  1. Spoiler Alert:
    Frankly, aren't you overcomplicating things for yourselves a bit? It seems to me that all one has to argue is that God declared that mankind can get their clues about him from observing natural law. In other words the basis for successful coexistance is already "built in" by our creator and it does not take a brain surgeon to figure out how to get along. Also, the term evolved connotates nothing here since everything we do, technology, medicine, behavior, understanding, athletics, etc., "evolves", or, if you will, is constantly being refined and improved. Therefore, in the same sense the morality that we have been endowed with by our creator at creation (our understanding of it) can "evolve." But clearly the evolving here is being erroneously confused with creation, which preceded it.