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ESSAY The Evolution of Ethics ~ anaries sing because they are genetically programmed to do so. The detailed content of their songs may vary as a result of learning, but the general characteristics of their songs and the urge to sing both arise from the neural structures generates! by their genes. Do the same forces drive human behavior? Do we behave in certain ways, including moral ways, because of genetically determined predispositions laid down over millions of years of human evolution? Or is our social behavior shaped only by learning, by the influence of our cultural environment on an initially blank and essentially malleable human mind? Biologists and philosophers have been examining the connections between evolution and ethics since the time of Darwin. As evolutionary theories of human origins began to replace religious precepts, ethicists likewise turned to evolutionary ideas in the search for justifications of ethical systems. One of the earliest and most ardent of these evolutionary ethicists was Darwin's contemporary Herbert Spencer. For Spencer, the competitive aspects of evo- lution were paramount. Darwin's theory of evolution recognizes that more organisms are born than can survive and reproduce. Individuals therefore compete for resources and reproductive success. The winners in this com- petition pass on their genes to the next generation, which tends to perpetuate the traits that led to success. In the words of Darwin's theory, these traits have been "naturally selected." Spencer and his philosophical successors extended this view to the social and economic realms. They advocated an extreme form of economic laissez- faire, in which the strong should prosper and the weak be brushed asicle. In its various guises, this philosophy has come to be known as Social Darwinism, though it owes more to Spencer than to Darwin. In fact, it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." ~5

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Normative Ethics and Metaethics According to Michael Ruse, professor of history and philosophy at Guelph University in Ontario, any philosophical system such as Social Darwinism must satisfy two sets of demands: those of normative ethics and those of metaethics. Normative ethics is concerned with what a person should do, with the rules and guidelines by which people should live their lives. For instance, the ten commandments are normative ethics: thou shalt not kill. Metaethics is concerned with why a person should follow those rules. with the justification for ethical codes of conduct. In the case of the ten com- mandments, the justification may be that God wishes a person to follow those rules. Many other justifications for ethical systems are also possible. For instance, utilitarians might contend that one ought to maximize happiness for the greatest number. Kantians might say that one ought to treat nenni`> tic _ 1 .1 1 C, , ~ ~ ~ ~^ ~ ~- r ~ ~ w ~ enas In themselves and not as means to the ends of others. At the normative level, Social Darwinism advocates that people acquiesce to or even encourage the workings of evolution, as expressed in its competitive nature. This normative principle can be interpreted in many ways, Ruse points out. Some people may use it to argue for free market economies- in which the government plays little or no role. For instance, as prime minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher has been reported as saying, "What we need are Darwinian principles. " Others may interpret Social Darwinism in different ways. One of Andrew Carnegie's philanthropic interests was the founding of libraries. As a Social Darwinian, Carnegie felt that libraries were a place where the poor but bright child could go to work his way up in society. As Ruse points out, to be fully persuasive these normative principles must be buttressed by metaethical justifications. In the case of Social Darwinism, this justification is straightforward: an abiding belief in evolutionary progress. According to this view, evolution inherently generates value by leading from simple to complex, from lower to higher. Humans, in this light, are the end result of evolution, the highest point on the evolutionary scale. Competition anti Cooperation Social Darwinism can be faulted on a number of grounds, according to Ruse. For one thing, in its most competitive forms, it is simply immoral. "Morality does not consist in walking over the weak and the sick, the very young and the very old," Ruse says. `'Someone who tells you otherwise is an ethical cretin." Biologists have also long since given up the idea of evolution as a generator 76 SHAPING THE FUTURE

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of progress. Darwin himself pointed out the fallacy of calling one organism higher and another lower. To the extent that evolution acts to produce organ- isms well adapted to their environments, a bacterium or a virus is as successful as a human being (and perhaps more successful). It is self-centered to think of ourselves as the end product of evolution, an anthropomorphism made ironic by our brief tenure on the planet. We are the first species that has been able to describe evolution, but that does not mean that evolution has been engaged for over three billion years in the construction of human beings. Biologists have also come to have a much broader view of evolution than that espoused by Spencer and other Social Darwinians. Especially in the last few decades, they have explored the many kinds of behavior besides com- petition that confer evolutionary advantage. For instance, if a fight over a piece of food leaves both combatants so weary that they are easy marks for other competitors, neither benefits. But if they share that piece of food, both may be better off. Biologists have found that this kind of cooperative behavior is widespread in the animal world (it may even exist in the plant world, Ruse points out). Cooperative behavior in nonhuman species has come to be known as altruism, though strictly speaking it is not a moral act. Instead, it is genetically pro- grammed into animals, a part of their evolutionary inheritance. There are several mechanisms by which such altruism can arise. One is simple reciprocation: one animal might assist another with the expectation that sometime in the future the favor will be returned. If this behavior furthers reproductive success, it will tend to be perpetuated. Another kind of altruism is kin-related. If an animal helps a genetically related animal to succeed, part of the altruist's genes will be passed on to future generations. For instance, since brothers and sisters share half of their genes, assistance to a sibling can further the genes responsible for that altruism, even if the altruist does not benefit. The idea that genetically determined altruism shapes human behavior ac- cords well with our everyday experience, according to Ruse. We are sur- rounded by acts of human altruism, from Mother Theresa's ministrations to the care of parents for their children. There are also good reasons to believe that cooperative behavior must have been a valuable trait in prehistoric hu- mans. Our ancestors were less agile and strong than the animals that were often their prey. High degrees of cooperation, fostered by human intelligence and tight social bonds, would often have been essential. The Kinds of Kindness Altruism could occur in human beings in one of several ways, according to Ruse. One possibility is that it is hardwired into our genes, as it is for ants THE EVOEUTION OF ETHICS 77

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and other animals. In this case, we would have no choice but to be altruistic; our natures would demand it. But this mechanism is not well suited for humans. Our lives are so socially complex that flexibility is a necessity. Genetically programmed altruism or any other kind of rigid social behavior, for that matter would not be creative enough to deal with constantly new and changing conditions. Another possibility is that we consciously or unconsciously calculate the evolutionary advantage to ourselves when faced with the choice of helping another person. Essentially, this posits a kind of ethical "superbrain" that would rationally guide our actions. But this, too, is unlikely, Ruse contends. The human brain is too slow to calculate such odds when presented with a typically human situation. "By the time the calculations are made, the opportunity is long past." The most likely possibility, according to Ruse, is that our altruistic ten- dencies arise from certain strategies or innate ideas that are part of our genetic heritage. In this view, we reason and feel in certain genetically determined patterns. Culture undoubtedly modifies these patterns, in some cases mag- nifying them (as in the case of sexual differences) or diminishing them (as with aggression). But the tendencies themselves are biological, not cultural. This does not mean that our actions are dictated by our genes. Almost all of us violate ethical standards some of the time, and some people violate these standards most of the time. To be moral creatures, we must have the option to chose or not chose to be moral. A view of human altruism as rooted in biological altruism does not deny free will, says Ruse, but it does influence how we think about free will. Evolutionary Rustic e As a philosophical system, a morality rooted in biological altruism must provide both a normative ethics and a metaethics. In the area of normative ethics, Ruse calls upon the ideas of the moral philosopher .Iohn RawIs. In his book A Theory of Justice, RawIs considers the following question: What kind of society would a reasonable person design if that person did not know what position he or she would occupy in that society? Such a society is not necessarily one in which everyone is equal. If doctors were paid as much as everyone else, few people would care to invest the time and commitment needed to become good doctors. Instead of an equal society, Rawls suggests, a reasonable person would want a society that was fair. Freedom and liberty would be maximized, and society's rewards would be distributed so that everyone benefits as much as possible within the constraints of fairness. This is exactly the kind of normative ethics that biological evolution would 78 SHAPING THE FUTURE

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produce, according to Ruse. It is a system in which people who naturally tend to look after themselves behave ethically. Rawls himself points toward the correspondences between a fair society and evolutionary principles, though he goes on to try to base such a society on a different foundation. But at a normative level, there is little difference between the workings of evolution and Rawls' conception of fairness. What about the metaethical foundations for a biological morality, Ruse asks? It is one thing to say that people ought to treat each other fairly; it is quite another to say why they should do so. According to Ruse, this metaethical justification is not what one would expect. "I'm afraid the justification is going to disappoint the traditional evolutionary ethicist, because what one finds is that ethics has no justifica- tion." We believe that we should behave morally, Ruse asserts, but ultimately we cannot offer a reason for this belief. Philosophers may search for an objective, rational grounds for ethics; others may root their ethics in the desires of God. But there is no extrinsic basis to ethics, Ruse contends. It is part of our subjective psychology, a sort of "collective illusion," generated by natural selection to promote reproductive success. However, the fact that we believe ethics to have an objective foundation is critical, Ruse explains. Ethics only works because everyone believes in it. If people were willing to forgo morality because they believed it to be an illusion, the system would break down. `'Ethics is not objective, but it only works if we think that it is objective," Ruse says. C`In other words, my case is only plausible if you find my conclusions profoundly unsatisfying." l[mplications of a Biological Morality An ethical system based on biological morality differs in some respects from traditional ethical systems, including Christianity, Ruse points out. For instance, some theologians would argue that Christ's admonition to forgive your brother seventy times seven means that Christians should continually forgive the transgressions of others, even if that behavior does not change. But evolutionary ethicists would say that there is a limit to how much someone can be forgiven, Ruse observes. A person who continually violates the ethical standards of a society can weaken the bond of reciprocal altruism, and such behavior cannot be tolerated indefinitely. Biological morality also suggests that a person's moral obligation is reduced as one gets farther from oneself. "One has greater obligations to one's im- mediate family and friends than one has to strangers, and a great obligation to one's own society than one has to other societies," Ruse says. '`I think a lot of Christians would oppose this, but I don't think my position is immoral.' THE EVOEUTION OF ETHICS 79

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Many people may hunger for a more objective basis to ethics, Ruse ac- knowledges. But the morality that evolution has spawned is a powerful force, because the subjective nature of that morality guarantees its hold upon human beings. "I don't think we establish ethics," he says, "I think ethics is thrust upon us. At a certain very fundamental level, I don't think we have any choice." 80 SHAPING THE FUTURE