Does the Theory of Natural Selection Have Any Consequences for Morality? -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Does the theory of natural selection have any consequences for morality? To be able to focus on the more interesting part of this question, will take it as a given that every moral belief held by humans can be explained by natural selection. With this much understood, we can ask: Can natural selection explain the way morality ought to be? It turns out that there is no simple answer to this question. While Michael Ruse and Edward Wilson in “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” from Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, argue that the theory of natural selection can do this, we will see that their argument is deductively incorrect. A stronger counterargument belongs to Elliott Sober, which he writes about in “Prospects for an Evolutionary Ethics,” From a Biological Point of View. However, looking at the writings of J. L. Mackie in “The Argument from Queerness,” Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, we see that Sober’s claim has weakness. Therefore, it is impossible to conclude from these arguments whether natural selection does or does not have any consequences for morality.

It is important to specify exactly what we are asking about morality. In particular, we will use the two kinds of questions posed by Sober. The first kind of question, in a general sense, asks: Why do we have the moral beliefs we do? The second question is more along the lines of: Do we have the moral beliefs we should have? In the words of Sober, the first question poses a problem of “explanation,” while the second is about “justification” (Sober, 94). Sober does discuss the issue of whether these questions are related to each other, but for now, the important point is that there is no automatic connection between these two questions. Sober admits that Ruse and Wilson adequately address the first question in explaining how our moral beliefs can be the product of natural selection. Sober even expands their argument, providing more evidence for the origins of our moral beliefs (Sober, 95-99). Although the question of whether natural selection can fully explain all of our moral beliefs can be debated, we are going to take this as a given and trust that the arguments of Ruse and Wilson and Sober are correct. This will allow us to spend more time discussing the second question, in which Ruse and Wilson have a very different opinion from that of Sober.

While Ruse and Wilson adequately answer our first question about why we have the moral beliefs we have, they take their argument further and attempt to answer the second: “We suggest that it will prove possible to proceed from a knowledge of the material basis of moral feeling to generally accepted rules of conduct. To do so will be to escape – not a minute too soon – from the debilitating distinction between is and ought” (Ruse and Wilson, 423). Although we will soon discuss exactly what is meant by the words is and ought, what Ruse and Wilson are saying is that the theory of natural selection can answer our second question; it shows that no ethical statements are true. In other words, once we have a better scientific understanding of the way our minds work, which is a product of natural selection, we will be able to use this understanding to explain the way morality should be.

Sober’s counterargument will quickly demonstrate that this second part of the argument by Ruse and Wilson is flawed. While they make such statements with little justification, Sober provides a convincing and detailed argument for why Ruse and Wilson cannot answer this second question so easily. While they adequately “explain” morality, they do not “justify” it. To understand Sober’s argument we must begin with a discussion of the “is / ought gap” (Sober, 102) formulated by Hume. While an is-statement describes something without any moral judgments, an ought-statement makes a moral judgment about whether something is right or wrong. Hume’s thesis is that “a deductively valid argument for an ought-conclusion must have at least one ought-premise” (Sober, 103). It is on this thesis that Sober bases his argument against Ruse and Wilson’s claim that no ethical statements are true; it is not deductively valid to derive such an ought-statement from the is-statements that make up the theory of evolution.

Although Hume’s thesis says that it is impossible to deduce an ought-conclusion from purely is-premises, Sober emphasizes that this thesis leaves open the possibility that “purely is-premises provide nondeductive evidence for the truth of ought-conclusions” (Sober, 109). In the case of natural selection, this would mean that there could be some sort of correlation between the moral beliefs that evolved through natural selection and what are ethical truths. However, Sober argues against this idea, producing a generalization of Hume’s thesis: “Purely is-premises cannot, by themselves, provide nondeductive support for an ought-conclusion” (Sober, 109). Therefore, Sober goes beyond Hume’s thesis, claiming that there cannot even be a nondeductive connection between is and ought. To explain why he thinks this in a little more detail, let us look at one specific argument he makes. He starts with two statements worded as follows: “(1) Action X will produce more pleasure and less pain than will action Y. (2) You should perform action X rather than action Y” (Sober, 109). While he agrees that the first statement provides evidence for the second, he suggests that “the two are connected in this way only because of a background assumption […] that pleasure is usually good and pain is usually bad” (Sober, 109). Although he makes the point, that facts about how people form their ethical beliefs can provide evidence concerning whether those beliefs are true, he says that “descriptions of the process of belief formation cannot provide information about whether the beliefs are true unless we make assumptions about the nature of those propositions and the connections they bear to the process of belief formation” (Sober, 110). Therefore, Sober’s conclusion is that any statement about the way things should be must be based on at least one evaluative premise, and cannot even be nondeductively related to pure is-statements without an ought-statement.

While Sober’s presentation of Hume’s thesis adequately discredits part of Ruse and Wilson’s argument, I personally take issue with his claim that it is impossible for is-premises to provide nondeductive evidence for the truth of ought-conclusions; this would mean that ethical facts have absolutely no relation to is-statements. The reason there is a flaw is that when ethical facts are so severely separated from is-statements, which are all we really know are true, we can provide a counterargument using “the argument from queerness” as explained by Mackie. To understand what this argument is, Mackie explains that it has both a metaphysical and an epistemological part. In this case we are concerned with the epistemological part, because we are interested in our awareness of ethical truths. Mackie explains that if we were aware of ethical truths, “it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else” (Mackie, 38). Because this is not the way things are, it cannot be true, at least according to this argument, that such ethical truths exist that are totally unrelated to all existing is-statements. He says that in making moral judgments, “it will require (if it is to yield authoritatively prescriptive conclusions) some input of this distinctive sort, either premises or forms of argument or both. When we ask the awkward question, how we can be aware of this authoritative prescriptivity, of the truth of these distinctively ethical pattern of reasoning, none of our ordinary accounts of sensory perception or introspection or the framing and confirming of explanatory hypotheses or inference or logical construction or conceptual analysis, or any combination of these, will provide a satisfactory answer” (Mackie, 38). This queerness is present when one considers ethical facts as something totally unrelated to is-statements. Therefore, Mackie’s argument from queerness shows that Sober’s claim is imperfect.

We started with the assumption that the theory of natural selection can explain why we have all the moral beliefs that we have. We then showed that the attempt by Ruse and Wilson to answer our second question, in which they say that natural selection proves all moral truths are untrue, is deductively incorrect; it is in direct violation of Hume’s thesis. Sober makes this point clear, and then tries to demonstrate that there is absolutely no relation between the moral beliefs we have and ethical truths, which he shows by the fact that all ought-conclusions must be based on at least one ought-premise in addition to is-premises. However, using Mackie’s argument from queerness, we seen that Sober’s argument is week, even though it may be a better alternative than that provided by Ruse and Wilson. So does the theory of natural selection have any consequences for morality? According to Ruse and Wilson, it does have consequences for morality, while according to Sober, it does not have such consequences. But we have shown that both arguments are weak, and therefore, it is impossible, at least based on these arguments, to rule out either possibility.

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