Posts Tagged ‘ethics’
I recently read an article entitled “Ethics Without Religion,” by Philip Kitcher of Columbia, that discusses and endorses the separation of ethical principles from religious origin. Leading with the famous Dostoyevskyan sentiment that without God, anything is permissible, Kitcher refutes that standpoint by invoking Darwin’s name and constructing an evolutionary model of ethical development:
So there grew up the rules of kinship still evident in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, rules designed to settle issues about alliances in cases of conflict and about potential mates… Yet this was only the beginning. Different bands could experiment with different systems of ethical rules, and the successful experiments were passed on.
I do agree that human ethics emerged from an evolutionary process and continues to be changed by it. I have no serious quibbles with moral relativism. (I accept the fact that future generations will consider certain things that I do to be barbaric and wrong, just as I consider ancient societal practices like human sacrifice, slavery, and pederasty to be barbaric and wrong, and that it is almost as impossible for them to think like me as it is for me to think like them.)
However, I think it is questionable to conflate ethics with the evolution of altruism and self-inhibitory behavior designed to benefit an individual’s community at his personal expense, as I think Kitcher does:
At cost to themselves, chimpanzees sometimes give aid to an impaired relative, or carry out a task that another has tried without success. These altruistic tendencies make their social lives possible. Nevertheless, these capacities for sympathy are easily strained. Chimpanzee social life is often tense, because loyalties are discarded and selfish impulses override their limited altruism… We became fully human when we were able to find ways of inhibiting tendencies to socially disruptive action and ways of reinforcing our altruistic capacities… we invented a crude system of ethics.
My complaints are based in my agreement with the gene-centered view of evolution, whose best-known proponent is the biologist Richard Dawkins. This perspective reduces evolutionary behavior below the level of individual organisms to the level of genes, which are selected for their ability to replicate and spread. The organism is viewed as a sort of protective construct that genes have found valuable to help themselves propagate.
Viewing evolution at a genetic level helps explain phenomena like why animals are altruistic towards family members: relatives are more likely to have genes in common, and thus such behavior encourages the propagation of those genes, even if they are found in another’s body. Animals that are far more mentally primitive than chimpanzees protect their young. And insects in a hive serve their community in specialized ways that often do them no direct individual good. These behaviors can be explained at the gene level; Dawkins’s book The Extended Phenotype has an interesting tangent on the insect example (from which I learned the term “haplodiploid”).
Are we ready to say that wasps have a system of ethics, perhaps a more sophisticated one than a solitary mammal like a tiger? One might say that perhaps entire insect hives should be considered as individuals and individual insects as body parts, driven by chemical signals and electric impulses with no ethical meaning of their own. But to the genetic evolutionist, human compulsions to behave in an ethical way are also a series of chemical signals and electric impulses, though a far more complex one. Our ethics are not governed by a fundamentally different impetus than the ant, from the evolutionary standpoint. In both cases genes are manipulating their environments and their bodies along certain behavioral patterns.
You could try to attribute ethics at the genetic level, discussing the morality and immorality of different genes’ replication schemes. But I think we should be satisfied to consider ethics (as with all other aspects of human culture) simply to be an incidental product of evolution, like wings and muscles, and nothing further. And if we do not worry about deriving ethics from first principles or trying to define an objective standard of our humanity, we can spend more time thinking about the practicalities of what makes us happy and content – which is really what Kitcher’s main point was in his article anyway.