Moral Camouflage

Peter Railton, a very famous utilitarian has an interesting article in the NYT about evolution and morality.

The article is pretty rich and interacts with Peter Railton’s own naturalistic view of morality (the moral rules are given by impartial beneficence which mentions briefly in this article) and so honestly, I couldn’t really think of any points that I could just snap off about this piece.

Nonetheless, a few things came to mind.

The first is something that Railton goes straight for when he starts talking about rationality versus causality or simple drives that are implanted in us. Rationality concerns what we ought to do and so does morality. When we reason morally, we are trying to decide what we should do, not what we are most likely to do on the basis of our psychological make up or what we have a strong desire to do (many times we have a strong desire to do something and we don’t do it because we know it’s wrong).

So, we may be disposed by evolution to do all sorts of things, say protect our family at the expense of strangers or even favor our race to the exclusion of others. But again, no one thinks that we ought to do is most enhance the survival of our species, and so sometimes at least, it seems that morality will separate from biological necessity and the two will demand different things.

Some people, like Hume and Hobbes, however gave up on the notion of finding some actions that are rationally required for all people. Rather they embraced what could be seen as a forerunner of the modern evolutionary theories of ethics, which is that some (most) people are set up in a certain way to desire moral outcomes (in this article these desires are biological in origin and connect up with kinship groups and reciprocal altruism). For such people, the moral rules are what will most satisfy these desires or accord with their urges when systematized. However, someone who does not share these desires (say someone psycopathic or bent on hurting others) will have no reason to act morally. In short, Hume and Hobbes, as well as modern day biological theorists of morality see morality as an activity that many people are constituted to enjoy and care about (for Hobbes it was the idea that most people care about themselves, for Hume, others). In fact the point can be put very starkly. Evolution implants a strong desire for sex. We seek it out, we think about it, and we try to get more of it. By analogy, evolution implants in us a strong desire for justice. We seek it out, we think about it, and we try to get more of it.

But now the cost of this theory should be apparent. There is no requirement to have sex. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to engage in it. However, what about psycopaths? We usually think that just because they don’t happen to care about being moral does not excuse them from acting moral. When asked, “why did you have sex,” its perfectly ok to answer “well I didn’t feel like it.” But if someone is asked “why didn’t you save that little girl drowning in the pond?” it is not acceptable to say “I just didn’t feel like it.”

Lastly I want to make an aside. One point that the article made which I never appreciated before is the inherent contradiction of natural selection. I usually think of natural selection as slowly creating something that improves over time, but I often forget, as Railton points out, that natural selection is not only building but also destroying. As he puts it, our immune system isn’t perfect yet because as evolution is building our immune system with one hand, its also creating new parasites and germs on the other.


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