I apologize for my long absence from this list, but I have been wrapping up
my discussions in other forums, so that I can spend more time on this list.
I'll soon start posting replies to some of the messages kept in my backlog,
but first, I'd like to share an article I received from Metanexus a while
It contains a critique of Michael Ruse's evolutionary account of ethics by
Bonnie Talbert. Ruse's position is that knowledge of ethics is of survival
value, since it helps the members of society work together. One of Talbert's
points is that people knowing Ruse's theory is in fact *harmful* to society,
since it would make one realize that morality is an illusion, causing one to
act as selfish as possible:
"Consider the following example: everyone in a small society
gathers their own food, and thinks it is wrong to steal food
from others. Suppose a young teenager discovers Ruse's theory,
and at the same time finds himself with the chance to steal
food without being detected. Not only would it be in the teen's
genetic interest to steal, but if the youngster adheres to the
theory that morality is an illusion, why wouldn't he steal when
it is clearly in his own self-interest to do so as long as he
can avoid punishment? Once one accepts Ruse's arguments, "All
that [he]/she will be left with as conscious reasons for
actions will be [his]/her own wants, inclinations, preferences,
feelings, etc. which may or may not coincide with what morality
requires" (Woolcock 424). Ruse's position leaves no reason for
one to act in any other way than that which is in one's genetic
interest; thus biology, not morality determines what one should
do according to Ruse's assertions."
So if Ruse's theory is correct, perhaps we will eventually evolve a tendency
to ignore everything that Michael Ruse says? ;-)
What an Evolutionary Account of Ethics Fails to Explain: Bonnie Talbert
Metanexus: Views 2002.04.11 3718 words
What is ethics? What is morality? In the last week or two, we have been
looking at some of the ethical and political dilemmas created by, or
influenced by, the science religion debate. It seems that, commonly, the
underlying idea behind ethics and morality is, quoting Spike Lee, to "do the
right thing." But how does one know what that right thing is? Today,
columnist Bonnie Talbert takes a look at Michael Ruse's evolutionary view of
ethics and morality, while pondering that very question.
"According to Ruse's naturalistic account of ethics," writes Talbert,
"morality is just an illusion created by our genes to make us believe that
our biological instincts are objectively good. But if this were true, and
normative ethics was false (objectively speaking), then why would one want
to be moral? If morality emerges from our genetic endowment toward
socialization for the sake of survival, then why would anyone care about
what one ought to do? Ruse uses biology to take normativity completely out
of ethics. Ruse claims that ethics should be examined from a completely
descriptive point of view. He avoids the is/ought problem - he simply
eliminates the "ought" and claimed that all that exists is "is." Why would
one adhere to a morality that is a genetic illusion - a morality that is not
morality at all? If morality is false, then why be moral?"
Ah, yes, the unanswered (or, at least, never sufficiently answered) question
that lies in the backs of our minds ever since we were each of us that
four-year old who really did want those chocolate chip cookies BEFORE
dinner: why be good? Why put a parent's silly desire about the order in
which food is consumed over my own personal desire to have a little culinary
enjoyment? Why be moral?
Talbert goes on to observe that like "the emotivist, Ruse thinks that
morality is an emotion, that it is ultimately a question of feelings (...).
But unlike the emotivist, Ruse claims that, '...the meaning of morality is
that it is objective' (...). That is, morality itself is not objective
(i.e., it has no independent existence), but the meaning of morality is.
Ruse endorses a neo-Humean approach to ethics: he claims (as Hume did) that
ethics is no more than a subjective phenomenon, but at the same time,
refuses to concede moral relativism. Furthermore, Ruse claims, 'Hume, like
me, sees morality as being a differential phenomenon, weakening as one moves
away from one's family and friends. But most crucially, Hume is my mentor
because he went before me in trying to provide a completely naturalistic
theory of ethics (...)."
Now, here is where I become confused, as the discussion would lead one to
believe that ethics and morality are somehow either interchangeable
phenomena or, at the very least, interchangeably concepts. But are they? And
even though one can point out, via a lovely cascade of etymological
arguments, that both words essentially do mean "habit" (of all things!) in
their original languages (Greek for ethics; Latin for morals), despite
certain differences in voice and plurality, one also has to admit that there
is a subtle difference in their use in contemporary English. For just as one
can say that action X may be legal, but it is not moral, so one also hears
that while action Y is ethical, it is not really moral. And what, I ask, is
meant by that?
Originally from Lumberton, TX, Bonnie Talbert is currently a senior
philosophy and political science major at Texas Christian University in Fort
Worth, TX. Her interests are in political philosophy, philosophy of mind,
philosophy of biology and ethics.
-- Stacey E. Ake
Subject: What an Evolutionary Account of Ethics Fails to Explain From:
Bonnie Talbert Email: <B.M.Talbert@...
The beginning of the Enlightenment marked the beginning of an ideological
movement to explain everything scientifically. And in the 21st century,
scientific explanations have also entered the realm of ethics, despite
well-known fallacies associated with purely scientific explanations of
ethics such as the is/ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy. Still,
many sociobiologists and philosophers, such as Michael Ruse (who is both),
are attempting to give a scientific explanation for ethics that asserts that
ethics is a product of evolution. While Ruse's account of ethics corresponds
with current trends to explain diverse phenomena scientifically, his theory
leaves no reason for one to be moral, his biological accounts of ethics are
inconsistent with the actual ethical codes to which most people subscribe,
and his interpretation of ethics does not meet the biological qualifications
necessary to be considered an evolutionary adaptation. In order to explicate
my critique of evolutionary ethics as advocated by Ruse, I must first offer
a brief summary of his account of ethics.
In "Evolution and Ethics: The Sociobiological Approach," Michael Ruse claims
to have explained the relationship between ethics and evolution, while
avoiding the is/ought barrier. He claims that ethics exists as a product of
evolution: "We have certain built-in strategies, hard-wired into our brains
if you like, which we bring into play and which guide our actions when we
are faced with certain social situations" (119). Thus, like long necks that
help giraffes reach higher food, ethics is an evolutionary adaptation that
aids survival in certain species. Ruse explains that human cooperation is a
good biological strategy: "a very important part of human evolution involved
staying together in bands" ("Significance" 503). Ruse asserts that there is
good reason to believe that having an ethical sense is one of the main
factors that allowed humans to work together. Those who had such ethical
sense worked together more successfully, lived longer, and reproduced more
often. Thus, "altruism", or an "ethical sense" became a human adaptation
that helped the species work together, which aided human survival. So, since
ethics is contingent on the processes of evolution, Ruse claims that there
are no metaethical foundations for normative ethics. He calls his position a
version of ethical skepticism -- that is, skepticism with respect to the
metaethical foundations of morality, not with respect to normative ethical
claims (i.e. claims such as "murder is wrong" or "altruism is good").
Although Ruse explains morality as a biological construct, his view is not
deterministic. Ruse claims, "Moral choice comes into whether we obey the
rules of morality, not whether we choose the rules themselves. We are not
free to decide whether killing is wrong or not. It is wrong! The freedom
comes in deciding if we are going to kill nevertheless" ("Evolution" 125).
Ruse asserts that beliefs about morality are biological constructs, but
unlike ants, we are not biologically determined to act according to our
biological interests. Murder is wrong in the biological sense (it is
contrary to our biological self-interest in most cases, for it hinders
survival and reproduction of one's species), but we are still free to commit
murder. But, if we believe murder is immoral, we are much less likely to do
Ruse explains that nature made humans altruists in the literal/moral sense
to help make us "altruists" in the biological sense. Ruse claims, "...to
make us co-operators, to make us 'altruists', nature has filled us full of
thoughts about the need to co-operate" ("Significance" 503). That is, not
only does evolution equip us with tendencies toward certain "altruistic
acts" (in the biological sense), but evolution also leads us to objectify
such acts as being altruistic in the moral sense. For example, helping those
to whom we are most closely related makes "altruistic" sense, for they are
likely to share part of our genetic code. That is, helping my brother makes
more biological sense than does helping a stranger because my brother shares
a larger proportion of my genetic code than a stranger does. The purpose of
evolution is to ensure the survival and reproduction of one's genes, so it
would make biological sense to help my brother since helping him would most
likely help promote my genetic legacy. Also, Ruse asserts that we will
perform "altruistic" acts more readily if we believe they are altruistic.
So, according to Ruse, evolution has led us to believe that "altruistic"
acts are objectively moral in the altruistic sense because believing so is
in our biological interest. In short, Ruse claims that "Morality is no more
than a collective illusion fobbed off on us by our genes for reproductive
ends" ("Significance" 506).
Like the emotivist, Ruse thinks that morality is an emotion, that it is
ultimately a question of feelings (E-mail). But unlike the emotivist, Ruse
claims that, "...the meaning of morality is that it is objective"
("Evolution" 126). That is, morality itself is not objective (i.e., it has
no independent existence), but the meaning of morality is. Ruse endorses a
neo-Humean approach to ethics: he claims (as Hume did) that ethics is no
more than a subjective phenomenon, but at the same time, refuses to concede
moral relativism. Furthermore, Ruse claims, "Hume, like me, sees morality as
being a differential phenomenon, weakening as one moves away from one's
family and friends. But most crucially, Hume is my mentor because he went
before me in trying to provide a completely naturalistic theory of ethics"
According to Ruse's naturalistic account of ethics, morality is just an
illusion created by our genes to make us believe that our biological
instincts are objectively good. But if this were true, and normative ethics
was false (objectively speaking), then why would one want to be moral? If
morality emerges from our genetic endowment toward socialization for the
sake of survival, then why would anyone care about what one ought to do?
Ruse uses biology to take normativity completely out of ethics. Ruse claims
that ethics should be examined from a completely descriptive point of view.
He avoids the is/ought problem - he simply eliminates the "ought" and
claimed that all that exists is "is." Why would one adhere to a morality
that is a genetic illusion - a morality that is not morality at all? If
morality is false, then why be moral?
In "Ruse's Darwinian Meta-Ethics: A Critique," Peter Woolcock explains that
as soon as one accepts Ruse's position, he/she would have no reason to act
contrary to his/her own wishes even if it harms others as long as he/she can
successfully avoid punishment. In short, one would only act morally as long
as he/she remains ignorant of Ruse's theory. Consider the following example:
everyone in a small society gathers their own food, and thinks it is wrong
to steal food from others. Suppose a young teenager discovers Ruse's theory,
and at the same time finds himself with the chance to steal food without
being detected. Not only would it be in the teen's genetic interest to
steal, but if the youngster adheres to the theory that morality is an
illusion, why wouldn't he steal when it is clearly in his own self-interest
to do so as long as he can avoid punishment? Once one accepts Ruse's
arguments, "All that [he]/she will be left with as conscious reasons for
actions will be [his]/her own wants, inclinations, preferences, feelings,
etc. which may or may not coincide with what morality requires" (Woolcock
424). Ruse's position leaves no reason for one to act in any other way than
that which is in one's genetic interest; thus biology, not morality
determines what one should do according to Ruse's assertions.
Furthermore, ethical claims based on evolutionary assumptions would often be
opposed to those of many ethical systems to which most people currently
subscribe. One of the most common ethical assumptions, utilitarianism,
embodies several claims that would not correspond with an evolutionary type
of ethics. One of the basic premises of utilitarianism is the principle of
equal consideration: that no one person's pain/pleasure counts more that
anyone else's. But, if ethics were based on evolutionary principles, this
would not be true; it would be in our genetic interest to count ourselves
and those most closely connected to us (those who likely share a large part
of our genetic code, or whose friendship benefits us) as being more
important. An evolutionary ethicist would say that one has a stronger
moral obligation to one's fellow countryman than to someone halfway around
the world; utilitarianism would claim that one has an equal obligation to
both. Utilitarianism also claims that one would be morally obligated to
sacrifice one's own self-interest in situations when that act would produce
the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people - something that an
evolutionary ethic would not prescribe. Clearly, common ethical codes often
prohibit acts that are in one's genetic interest. And if ethics were only a
genetic illusion as Ruse claims, why would our genes trick us into
objectifying a moral system that often worked against our genetic advantage?
It seems highly unlikely that they would.
In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin claims that "as the reasoning powers
and foresight... became improved, each man would soon learn from experience
that if he aided his fellow man, he would commonly receive aid in return"
(163-164). In this passage, Darwin refers to a concept known as reciprocal
altruism - the notion that people are altruistic only when they expect to
get something in return. Reciprocal altruism undoubtedly aided survival in
humans' ancestral environment - if I get the nuts and you get the berries
and we share what we gather, we will both be better off. In this manner,
reciprocal altruism leaves both parties better off than they were before.
Robert Wright explains that in some situations, exploitation is a much
better tactic to maximize genetic fitness that reciprocal altruism: "People
sometimes lie, cheat or steal...and they may behave this way even toward
people who are nice to them. What's more: people sometimes prosper in this
fashion. That we have this capacity for exploiting, and that it sometimes
pays off, suggests that there have been times during evolution when being
nice to nice people wasn't the genetically optimal strategy" (215). For
example, if, I gather the nuts and you gather the berries, if I can convince
you to give me part of your share under the guise that I will reciprocate,
then I will be better off - I will have more food and not have to give you
any. That is, it is certainly in our genetic interest to appear to be
reciprocal altruists, but it may not be in our interest to live up to our
reciprocal guise if one can benefit more via exploitation.
Again, this evolutionary claim seems contrary to what many plausible ethical
theories would prescribe. Any Kantian ethicist would first deny reciprocal
altruism because it seems to be a consequentialist claim - one only helps if
there is likely to be a reward. Kant's ethics is without a doubt
non-consequentialistic: what one should do in no way depends on the
consequences of that act. The Categorical Imperative commands that one act
only according to that maxim by which he/she can at the same time will that
should become universal law. Kant claims that one of the commands of the
Categorical Imperative is that individuals help others in need. Kant thinks
it would be impossible for one to will that one should not help another in
need, for when one wills that he not help another, he is also willing that
another not help him, which according to Kant, is a contradiction in will.
Thus, a Kantian deontological ethics would never say that one should help
another only when he/she expects something in return; Kant's ethics asserts
that each person has an unqualified obligation to help another in need
regardless of what that person will receive in return.
Ruse claims that normative ethics is a biological adaptation and that "We
believe normative ethics for our own (biological) good, and that is that."
He also states, "There are very good reasons why we believe in normative
ethics.... We need it for 'altruism'"("Evolution" 124). But, how can his
claim possibly be true when the most popular ethical theories do not direct
people to perform those acts that serve one's biological interest. In fact,
several theories -- I mentioned utilitarianism and Kantianism -- command one
to perform certain acts even if they are contrary to one's biological
interest. Of course, I am not implying that Ruse thinks we are genetically
programmed to develop certain ethical theories. But such theories are
examples of ways that we objectify and justify right and wrong, and Ruse
claims that such objectification is a genetic illusion, an evolutionary
adaptation that reinforces out biological interests. But would an
evolutionary adaptation be one that could work against one's biological
interests? Surely not -- it is a well-known fact that evolutionary
adaptations are adaptations that promote a species' biological interests.
And since normative ethics does not seek to promote one's biological
interests, it clearly does not meet the necessary qualifications to be
considered an evolutionary adaptation (and when it does, it is only by
accident; people do not construct ethics to correlate with biological
There is no question that evolution plays some role in ethics: evolution is
a necessary condition for ethics, as for any human activity. But
evolutionary theory is not sufficient to explain ethics. Sure, evolution may
have endowed humans with basic emotions such as love, guilt, and sympathy.
Evolution could also explain human events such as reciprocal altruism. But,
evolution cannot explain utilitarianism, or Kantianism, or virtue ethics, or
any other type of highly cognitive ethical system. Likewise, evolution could
have constructed humans with the ability to acquire language; but it would
be absurd to claim that evolution sufficiently explains Shakespeare's work.
Shakespeare certainly used language, and language is an evolutionary
construct. But, the only types of language that evolution can explain are
the types of language that would have helped humans survive in a
hunter-gatherer society. Thus, evolution can explain language as a basic
form of communication, but not as Othello. In the same way, evolution might
be able to explain basic human instinctual feelings such as love, guilt, and
jealousy, but evolution cannot explain ethics.
All evolutionary adaptations are present for a particular reason. Humans are
the way they are now because our design maximized fitness in a
hunter-gatherer society. These societies participated in activities such as
finding a mate, avoiding incest, interpreting facial expressions,
cooperation, etc. Such tasks were necessary for survival, and all
evolutionary adaptations helped survival in this environment: "Our evolved
mechanisms were constructed and adjusted in response to the statistical
composite of situations actually encountered by our species during its
evolutionary history. These mechanisms were not designed to deal with modern
circumstances that are evolutionarily unprecedented" (Cosmides and Tooby
524). Clearly, reciprocal altruism would have been beneficial for survival.
But would ethics? How would virtue ethics, utilitarianism, or any other
justification of right and wrong help a group of hunter-gatherers get food,
or divide up certain tasks? Well, it would not, such theories have been
developed within the last two thousand years or so (evolution works in a
time frame of hundreds of thousands of years) and were developed to address
problems in that same time, which is another reason why evolution cannot
explain ethics. Ethics is not a necessary adaptation that aided survival in
humans' ancestral environment; therefore, they cannot be an evolutionary
There are clearly several objections to Ruse's position. But Ruse would
claim that all such objections are actually strengthening his argument. Ruse
thinks that we are genetically disposed to believe that morality is not an
illusion; thus we cannot help but oppose his views: "Just as the Freudian
argues that those who deny his or her explanation thereby confirm it, so the
evolutionist argues that those who find his or her explanation implausible
support the very point which is being made!" ("Significance" 508). Ruse
would claim that my objections to his theory are evidence that I too have
been fooled by my genes into thinking that morality is objective and that it
is not an illusion. To my objections, Ruse would reply, "Your genes are a
lot stronger than my words. The truth does not always set you free"
("Evolution" 126). But by arguing that objections to his theory are really
supporting it, Ruse assumes that there can be no real objections to his
position, and this simply begs the question (Wertz).
1 For more on Ruse's view and determinism, see "Evolution and Ethics," page
2 Of course, there are people such as Mother Theresa who seem to
instinctually want to help others half way around the world, with nothing
promised in return. An evolutionary ethicist would simply explain this type
of behavior as a deviation from the norm. Evolutionary explanations deal
with broad similarities across time and cultures, so individual and
extraordinary cases do not pose a problem for the evolutionist.
3 This is discussed in Peter Singer's article "Famine, Affluence, and
4 While the average person is not a Kantian per se (most probably do not
know who Kant is), most people do adhere to the general principles of
Kantianism. For example, those of the Christian faith believe that one
should help another in need, regardless of whether that person will ever be
able to return the favor (Hestir).
Cosmides, Leda and Tooby, John. "Origins of Domain Specificity: The
Functional Organization." Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition
and Culture. Ed. L.A. Hirschfeld and S.A. Gelman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
Hestir, Blake. E-mail. 17 May 2001.
Ruse, Michael. "Evolution and Ethics: The Sociobiological Approach." Ethical
Classical and Contemporary Readings. 3rd ed. Ed. Pojman. Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.
---. E-mail from the author. 25 May 2001.
---. "The Significance of Evolution." The Ethics Text: A Companion to
Ethics. Ed. Peter
Singer. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991.
Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." Philosophy and Public
Affairs. Vol. 1, no. 3. Princeton: Princeton U, 1972.
Wertz, Spencer. Written comments on earlier draft of this paper. May 2001.
Woolcock, Peter. "Ruse's Darwinian Meta-Ethics: A Critique." Biology and
Philosophy 8 (1993): 423-39.
Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary
Psychology. New York: Random House, Inc., 1994.
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the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 by William Grassie.
"Clearly something is missing from biology. It appears that Darwin's theory
works for the small-scale aspects of evolution: it can explain the
variations and the adaptations within species that produce fine-tuning of
variaties to different habitats. The large-scale differences in form between
types of organisms that are the foundation of biological classification
systems seem to require another principle than natural selection operating
on small variations, some process that gives rise to distinctly different
forms of organisms. This is the problem of emergent order in evolution, the
origins of novel structures in organisms, which has always been one of the
primary foci of attention in biology." (Goodwin B., 2001, "How the Leopard
Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity", Princeton University Press:
Princeton NJ, p. xiii)
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