Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Is morality undergirded by biology?

By Heraclitus

I always find attempts to find some basis for morality in evolutionary biology woefully misguided. At times I suppose I can see them as at least well-meaning, but usually I just find them annoying and risible. The pseudo-religious overtones of such attemtps are obvious enough; now that God is dead, or, to quote Nietzsche again, now that the study of the monkey has replaced the study of God, some mysterious but presumably all-powerful process called evolution must stand surety for a moral world order, must assure us that our moral intuitions have something other the accidents of history to back them up. Personally, I'm not buying it. There are some many obvious problems with this claim--why do people so rarely act as they ought to? Why are human beings so very good at ignoring injustice in their midst if it serves their interests to do so?--but one in particular I want to say a little more about.

But before I criticize the particular claim put forward below, I should also note that it's all to the good of morality that it not be the result of biological impulses. How can an action be moral or ethical, in any meaningful sense of the word, if it's not freely chosen? Again, the rump religiosity of the proponents of these theories becomes transparent in their eagerness to find some super-human authority in the cosmos who is making sure things turn out alright for them after all. If God can't be the cosmic parent tucking them in at night, maybe evolution can.

The New York Times has an article in today's paper about a new book arguing a version of this thesis. The book is called Moral Minds, and its author is Marc Hauser, a biologist at Harvard. I don't actually want to be too critical of the book, in large part because I don't trust The New York Times to give it a fair summary (aren't I obnoxious?). So, for instance, according to the article, Hauser seems to think that human beings are "hard-wired" for morality by evolution, where "morality" is understood as acting according to group norms. So, on this view, regarding oneself or others as individuals rather than members of a group (read: herd) is unnatural, and, presumably, immoral and bad. I don't want to assume that Hauser actually holds this view, but I do want to use the following paragraph from the article as an example of what I maybe find most ridiculous about attempts to ground morality in evolution.

Dr. Hauser believes that the moral grammar may have evolved through the evolutionary mechanism known as group selection. A group bound by altruism toward its members and rigorous discouragement of cheaters would be more likely to prevail over a less cohesive society, so genes for moral grammar would become more common.

So, cohesion is a social value that helps a society thrive and replicate its DNA (if we're going to take that absurdly reductionist view of human motivation, which most people arguing for an evolutionary basis for morality do). But that means that altruism stops once one goes beyond one's community. Cohesion within one's group is an evolutionary good, but altruism towards those outside it is not. The tribe that would be most successful in replicating its DNA would be the one that uses its internal cohesion to attack all the tribes they can, kill their males, and enslave and pregnate their females. Evolution would dictate empire, not democracy, and certainly not an international regime of human rights. Ancient Rome would be the most advanced society we've ever seen from a purely evolutionary point of view, and there would be no explanation for why humanity, or at least humanity in the West, moved from the morality of ancient Rome, a morality of imperial subjugation and slavery, to the morality of Christianity, which taught that every human being has absolute dignity because he or she is made in the image of God.

To put the matter more succintly, the Great White Shark has not evolved in millions of years. Why? Because it cannot kill any more efficiently than it already does. That's what nature is: animals literally eating each other alive. Trying to show that this natural world somehow constrains us to act morally strikes me as not only contemptibly slavish but ludicrously wrong-headed as well.

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