It’s Just a Trick of Evolution!

by Gene Callahan

In a blog discussion, I recently ran across, yet again, an extremely odd and quite empty argument against morality being objective. “Ha,” the poster proclaimed, “morality is just a product of evolutionary selection!” At this point, it’s supposed to be obvious that moral principles aren’t “real” but are merely some sort of illusion fostered on us by natural selection to promote survival of the species.

Well, no doubt evolution had something to do with our ability to formulate and comprehend moral principles. But so what? Evolution also selected for our ability to both build and perceive chairs! Does it somehow follow from this that chairs are “just an illusion” foisted on us by evolution?

17 thoughts on “It’s Just a Trick of Evolution!

  1. But our behavior is so similar to other mammal herds, so I would look for moral principle in, say, cows.

  2. Good point. I see no reason why there shouldn’t be fixed points for the evolution of moral norms in the same way that there are fixed points for the evolution of norms for organizing spatial perception.

    To respond to an earlier comment, perhaps a chair is just a physical entity, but there was not rule for projecting its three-dimensions onto two until one was adopted by painters. Moral norms might seem more ephemeral because we receive moral stimulus far more seldom — in the United States, how often are most of us faced by a moral dilemma unless we seek one out? — but over long time periods and large geographical scales, certain moral norms recur.

  3. “No, because a chair is a physical entity.”

    Arrongantscientist, perhaps the idea of ‘physical entities’ is just a trick fostered on us by evolution! (I don’t believe this, but the logic is the same as that that states just because morality is a product of evolution it must be an illusion. Perhaps it is, but its evolutionary roots say nothing on the matter.)

    Or, if somehow you think the concept of ‘physical entity’ is sacrosanct in this regard, consider our knowledge of mathematics. ‘2’, ‘+’, ‘=’ and ‘4’ are not physical entities — does the fact that our ability to do mathematics evolved mean that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is just an illusion?

  4. Even if the capacity for moral judgment was something that humans (uniquely or not) owed to evolution, I hardly see that as problematic in that we also possess stereoscopic vision and opposable thumbs. In general, humans are capable of understanding and using logic, mathematics and pure reason. Even if it were true that evolution were the cause, the obvious consideration for me is not that evolution is just another bit of junk DNA, but; are we as a species ready to attain a scientific, objective morality? I’ve not yet finished handling Kant’s work in the original, and I refuse to answer that question until I have done so.

  5. Arrogantscientist, for the purpose of my example, they are equivalent, for the reason I gave: If the fact that some supposed “way of knowing” evolved is a reason to be skeptical about it, then we should be skeptical about chairs as well as morality.

  6. Gene,

    I want to go with you on this one, but doesn’t this conflict with your standard argument about materialism (or something)? I can’t quite remember, but when you are arguing with people you often say something like, “But if you believe you are the product of blind mutation and natural selection, then why do you trust your mental operations?”

    I am probably not correctly stating your position, but I swear you have said arguments similar to morality-from-evolution claim.

    Do you know what I’m talking about, and can you clarify?

  7. “But if you believe you are the product of blind mutation and natural selection, then why do you trust your mental operations?”

    Yes, Bob, but my point here is that most times I’ve seen this used it is directed only against morality, ethics, and/or religion. If the fact that those things evolved makes you consider them “just illusions”, then you’d better do the same for chairs and squirrels!

  8. Just to clarify: Something that evolved may be an illusion, a maladaptation, etc. But the bare statement “Morality evolved, so it’s an illusion!” only works, without further argument, if you also hold, “Our concept that there is an external world evolved, so it’s an illusion!”

    Oh, and Bob, the argument you attribute to me is from Platinga, although I’ve doubtlessly cited it.

  9. Gene wrote:

    Yes, Bob, but my point here is that most times I’ve seen this used it is directed only against morality, ethics, and/or religion.

    Right, and you approvingly cite Platinga when he does the same exact move, right? I.e. Platinga is saying, “There must be a God to give us universal, absolute notions of good, truth, etc., because if you think your ability to recognize these things is due to blind evolution, then why would you trust your own faculties?”

    To me that sounds very similar to the viewpoint you are knocking down here.

    So I’m not being a wiseguy, I’m asking if you can explain exactly what Plantinga’s argument is–which you cite with approval–and why it is different from the one you’re knocking down here.

  10. That’s not quite Platinga’s argument — he says that if:
    (N) naturalism; and
    (RE) evolution by random selection
    are both true, then there is no reason to trust the ‘truth-tracking’ abilities of one’s ideas.

    (I.e., this argument doesn’t get us monotheism, but just is a defeasor for the combination of N, RE, and a high epistemic regard for science.)

    The problem I am pointing out here is that the people who wield “it’s just evolved!” against morality seldom want to wield it against science as well. (They’ll often say something like, “Science has shown that morality is just an illusion fostered on us by evolution!”)

    So, my point is, if you think the Platinga argument works against morality, to be consistent you ought to think it works against commonsense and physical science as well.

  11. I’m happy with N, RE, and low epistemic regard for science. That combo does not exclude that science is our *best* bead on the truth even though a lousy one. (BTW: Gene’s typo makes it seem that selection is random, rather than variation.)

    I think ethics and science are similar. In both cases you have a naive system appropriate to our original condition in band-level society and that naive system is corrected by systematic inquiry. In both cases the life of the thing is something that transcends one calculating mind, but depends on a larger social process. In the case of morality we give the name “tradition” to the social process and in the other case we call it “science.” But you have a kind of spontaneous order that (to crib from Adam Smith’s discussion of the “woollen coat”) “exceeds all computation,” even though we can and must subject the system to constant incremental adjustment.

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