Collingwood on the vacuity of "evolutionary ethics"

"The last theory we shall examine defines evil by reference to the conception of evolution. Our sins,
according to this theory, are the habits proper to a past stage in the evolutionary process, lingering on like rudimentary organs into our present life. Here again there is a fact at the bottom of the theory. It is true that the particular way in which we go wrong is often explicable by reference to past habits of which we have never entirely got rid. But the question still remains unanswered why we should go wrong at all. Nor is the theory fully true even so far as it goes ; for atavism is not a crime, and just so far as our " crimes " are really cases of atavism they are not culpable; unless indeed it is supposed that our evolution is entirely in our own hands. But if that is so, morality must be called in to account for evolution, not vice versa.

"It is a striking fact that the biological conception of evolution has never yet produced anything but confusion when applied to philosophical questions. The reason seems to be that it gives, in the form in which it is commonly held, no answer to the one question with which philosophy is concerned. As we said in a former chapter, science (including the theory of evolution) is simply a description of behaviour, and advances no hypothesis as to why things behave as they do. The theory of evolution is a purely historical statement about the way in which life has developed ; ethics is concerned with the force of will which lies behind all merely descriptive history. It makes little difference to the scientist whether he regards evolution as a purely mechanical process or as directed by the volition of conscious agents ; but until this question is answered, evolution is simply irrelevant to ethics.

"In this case, for instance, there are three conceivable hypotheses, either of which might be adopted by science without greatly altering its particular problems ; but for ethics they are poles asunder. (i.) If the process is really mechanical, the habits may be explained, but they are not sins, [If (i) is held, as is usually the case, then "evolutionary ethics" actually is not a theory of ethics, but a theory as to why there is no such thing as ethics.] (ii.) If a central mind such as that of God directs the process, then the habits in question are not our sins but God's. (iii.) If, as above suggested, the process is in the hands of the evolving species, the bad or superseded habits are sinful, but they are not explained. Thus the evolutionary view of the question only restates the problem in terms which conceal the fact that no solution is offered." -- Philosophy and Religion

And for those inclined to think that "evolutionary ethics" is a new development… the above was written in 1916. The fact that ideas refuted a century ago are today put forward as if they were new discoveries is simply a symptom of philosophical ignorance on the part of those forwarding them.


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