T. H. Green on evolutionary ethics

"In Hume's time a philosopher who denied the innateness of moral sentiments, and held that they must have a natural history, had only the limits of the individual life within which to trace this history. These limits did not give room enough for even a plausible derivation of moral interests from animal wants. It is otherwise when the history may be supposed to range over an indefinite number of generations. The doctrine of hereditary transmission, it is held, explains to us how susceptibilities of pleasure and pain, of desire and aversion, of hope and fear, may be handed down with gradually accumulated modifications which in time attain the full measure of the difference between the moral man and the greater ape...

"...the theory of descent and evolution opens up a vista of possibilities beyond the facts, so far ascertained, of human history... Such enquiry, it is thought, will in time give us the means of reducing the moral susceptibilities of man to the rank of ordinary physical facts, parts of one system, and intelligible by the same methods, with all the natural phenomena which we are learning to know...

"It has generally been expected of a moralist, however, that he should explain not only how men do act, but how they should act: and as a matter of fact we find that those who regard the process of man's natural development most strictly as a merely natural one are as forward as any to propound rules of living, to which they conceive that, according to their view of the influences which make him what he is, man ought to conform. The natural science of man is to them the basis of a practical art…

"Now it is obvious that to a being who is simply a result of natural forces an injunction to conform to their laws is unmeaning. A philosopher, then, who would reconstruct our ethical systems in conformity with the doctrines of evolution and descent... if he has the courage of his principles, having reduced the speculative part of them to a natural science... must abolish the practical or preceptive part altogether...

"[This theory] logically carries with it the conclusion, however the conclusion may be disguised, that, in inciting ourselves or others to do anything because it ought to be done, we are at best making use of a serviceable illusion." -- Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 7-12

The above was published in 1883. What is interesting to me in the passage is:

1) Evolutionary ethics had already been propounded by 1883 in a form very close to the one it has today. It is not some new discovery of the sociobiologists of the 1970s or the later evolutionary ethicists of the present day.

2) Idealists such as Green (and Bosanquet and Collingwood and Oakshott) understood the theory perfectly well, and even acknowledged its genuine achievements in partly explaining how we have come to have the ethics we do have.

3) The chief problem with the theory was already well understood: while it might explain, in whole or in part, why we do behave the way we do, it cannot possibly recommend how we ought to behave, and fact renders such recommendations otiose: they are like recommending to amoebas that they stop reproducing asexually and get on with having sex like us more advanced beings. Genghis Khan was every bit as much a product of evolution as St. Francis of Assisi, and was, in fact, fantastically more successful at passing on his genes. It is hard to see how something calling itself "evolutionary ethics" could argue, with a straight face, that capturing women and using them as sexual slaves is "wrong," so long as one is fairly certain to be able to successfully implement that strategy. (Of course, a society where every single male tried to do this would not turn out too well, but if someone was certain that he would be as successful as Khan, how could the "evolutionary ethicist" say anything other than "Help yourself!"?)


  1. Wait, I thought you denied that the is-ought problem was a problem.

  2. Samson: I don't think that what Gene is saying has anything to do with the "is-ought" problem =)

    I think that what he is saying is that by merely describing how we might have come around to pursue ethics, we can't provide a reasonable way to say how we "ought" to act. This is different from the "is-ought" problem that Hume was referring to, because we are not making a non-evaluative statement about the world and then trying to infer an evaluative statement from it. This is the problem: we might have found out the way evaluative statements that folks have (that is, ethical statements) came about, and then say that we can base our ethical systems from this fact. But even if we grant that ethics came to us largely because of natural selection, we can't infer, based upon that, how we should act. Why? Well, because there are things that are advantageous for groups that are grossly immoral.

    There are three branches of ethics, Samson: 1) descriptive ethics (the description of what people believe to be ethical or unethical), 2) normative ethics (how we are to live; what we "ought" to do in X circumstance, etc), and 3) meta-ethics, the branch of ethics that attempts to answer questions about the nature of good, evil, and our motivations for being moral. What is seems to be going on here with evolutionary ethicists is that they are taking (1) and saying that it can give all the information we need about (2). The problem is, of course, that we can't appeal to evolution itself as a reason for being moral, because, as just mentioned, there are things we could do that would benefit our species but would be immoral. We could, for example, euthanize and/or abort every child that had a possibility of being born with mental retardation or deformities; euthanize anyone who is not blessed with superior physical (or mental) genetics, etc.

    So, then, what is the big picture? Well, I think that it is arbitrary to base morality on things that are random and contingent, because the state of affairs that "gave us" morality could have given us an entirely different set of morals. I don't think that you can base your theory of how you "ought" to act on processes that are almost completely random, anymore than you should roll dices repeatedly to see what movie to watch, what food to eat, what career to have, what woman to marry, etc... it isn't rational to base your thinking - and actions - on logically unnecessary and random processes.

    Hope that clears things up =)

  3. 1883? Why are you looking at such old stuff? Bryan Caplan has repeatedly proven the worthlessness of everything done before 1971.

    I think we learned a lot about ethical evolution since the mid 60s, since until that time co-operation was a problem for any evolutionary theory of ethics.
    Of course natural selection can only explain why we develop certain mental attributes, not how we assemble rules from them, that requires cultural history at the minimum. Still understanding the underlying mental apparatus is useful.


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