What is Evolutionary Ethics?

What I’m engaging in is called “metaethics” or “ethical theory”, the study of “what is ethics?”. Are ethical judgments cognitive, emotional, religious or other? Can they be true and false? Or are they by definition neither true nor false? To answer certain questions like this, we need to decide what sort of thing ethics is. One sort of thing that ethics could be is some natural phenomenon rather than some transcendent Platonic or mystical reality from another level of reality. If you believe this, then you are a “moral naturalist”.

Here I am presenting a type of moral naturalism based on an acceptance that human behavior evolved. I know that this seems pretty obvious in certain sense, but lots of people do not like to apply this truth to ethics.  When some non-naturalists say that many ethical concepts “do not make sense in light of evolution” ultimately means this: people did not evolve to be scientists, they evolved to be religious. That’s all that really means, because ethics makes very good evolutionary sense. If humans stopped being ethical, they would go extinct. This is simply true and accepted by science, and since this is the case, morality is one of our most adaptive traits. Seekers of knowledge who cannot accept this fact must propose a counter theory for ethics or accept evolutionary naturalism.

The closest thing we now have to a counter-theory is theistic natural law. The ethical “theories” that are spoken of in secular ethical theory ( e.g. virtue theory, utilitarianism, deontology, etc. ) are not really “theories” in the way that I am using it here because even if we humans were to agree that Kantian ethics were correct, we would still be left with the problem of figuring out how humans evolved to have such a morality. Theistic natural law, would go further than most ethical theories by explaining the purpose of life in terms of God’s Will. This bridges the alleged gap between “is” and “ought”. Without such an account, the numerous problems in what is normally called “ethical theory” would require a higher-level basis from which to resolve these difficulties. For example, all the paradoxical actions that seem to be derivable from Kant or Utilitarianism would be explained away by reference to the ultimate basis for theses moral theories, which would also bridge the fact/value gap. But modern ethical theory cannot bridge this gap. Why? There is no other real or scientific basis for any sense of “ought” than the following:

  1. For an artificially created system, there are normative statements like – “A vehicle ought to travel.”, “Humans (as God’s creation ) ought to serve God.”, “A tool handle ought not to break.”, “Citrus fruits ought to be harvested in the winter.”, “Mulberries ought to be sweet and juicy.”
  2. A naturally-evolved system, there are normative statements like- “Caterpillars ought to become butterflies.”, “Leaves ought to be exposed to sunlight.”, “Parents ought to care for their children.”
  3. For any combination of the above, there are normative statements like.- “In this weather, we ought to construct shelter.”, “We ought to prevent human extinction.”, “The government ought to promote the general welfare.”

Ethical judgments are all a form of selection, and this fact alone is how selection theory bridges the is/ought gap. Evolution runs on a few types of selection: natural, sexual and artificial selection are all well known, but “ethical selection” should also be added to the list. Just as we choose sexual mates with whom to cooperate in our reproduction, thus engaging in sexual selection, all other forms of cooperation require ethical selection to determine who we share resources with. One form of ethical selection consists of making ethical judgments about others or debating their character. Both sexual and ethical selection are oreciprocal or “peer-to-peer” selection.

When we explain ethical selection, we need to keep separate two levels of discourse:

1) Folk Morality – The discourse of our day-to-day ethical judgments themselves, the ways that agents discuss and engage verbally in their own forms of cooperation, by praising, blaming, exhorting, etc. Wen we judge people in our daily lives, we are not bound by the scientific worldview.

2) Ethical Theory – The study of the ways that agents (humans, animals, computers) have to cooperate, by theorizing, testing, researching, et cetera. Our scientific discourse about ethics proper, which is bound by scientific worldview.

Any reference to ethics needs to keep from getting these two levels confused, because the scientific worldview is most certainly not going to sit well with ethical common sense, nor need its approval. Expecting scientific ethical theory to be ethically uplifting is like expecting a biological theory of sex to be pornographic; the two levels are essentially separate. Ethical anti-naturalists base their entire position on this confusion.

All confusion in ethics can be avoided if you clearly distinguish which of these you are doing. Of course, all claims made in the second category of speech have their ultimate basis in the statements of the first category. Many speech-acts in the second category have no basis at all and may even have no truth value at all since they are merely exhortations for one’s political unit to cooperate, schism, attack, etc. But there is no reason that a group may come to exist in some future time for whom all political speech-acts are reducible to some set of scientific statements.

For example if I say that “murder is wrong, x murdered y, therefore x is wrong”. This is a true statement and is completely within category 2, but if we ask WHY murder is wrong at all, we must leave category 2 and go to category 1. At this point we shall have to explain modes of cooperation the same way we explain hair color, body shape, immune systems, et cetera, either by saying “God made it that way.” or “That’s the best Evolutionary Stable Strategy. (ESS)” or whatever.  And it’s actually true that murder is not a good ESS; animals rarely every kill their own kind, and this can be explained using Evolutionary Game Theory. Most people who have not studied evolution have this idea that evolutions favors the wicked, but wickedness destroys itself in short order if it takes a dominant role in any context. It can only “dominate” on the fringes of a stable ecology or economy, and “goodness” is that which makes for the best long-term evolutionary outcome. Evolution actually favors the good over the long term, so never lose hope!


How did ethics evolve? Just like any other social behavior. There are three parts to it:

  • Behavior
  • Feelings
  • Thoughts/speech

Everything we call “ethics” is included in each of these, and evolution has no trouble whatsoever explaining them. It is only people who refuse to see that ethics must be evolved who get snared in paradoxes when they try to come up with some reason why morality cannot be evolved.

If it is not an adaptation, what is it? Some feeling you have? Something given to / imposed on you by your fairy godmother? I can’t think of any other possible explanation. If you have some meaningful explanation that might just possibly be proven sometime someday by some person, I would like to know it.

Ethics can be explained by God or by Evolution. (Assuming that there is a God…) Both of these have the common advantage that they have a clear basis for ethics in an explanation of why people exist. For God, the punishment is the Afterlife. For Evolution, the punishment is going extinct. Yes, social creatures will go extinct unless they observe social rules of cooperation. It’s a fact. Both of these punishments have a common problem: the are both ignored by bad people, and are thus not as effective as we would like.

If someone decides to break the rules that make our society function, they are bringing themselves and everyone around them closer to extinction. So over time we would expect that the people who do not go extinct would get better at preventing unethical behavior. Which is exactly what has happened since primates have evolved. Everyone knows this, but people really dislike bringing real science into ethics so they try to ignore the role of evolution.

Slavery is a great example of this. Why is it wrong? Because it does not work, and by ‘work’ I mean it cannot outcompete freedom. ( I am here using ‘freedom’ to refer to any non-slavery system. ) If it could outcompete freedom, then slavery would be a lot more common today. On the contrary, it is actually a wasteful and inefficient way to get things done. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the USSR all used tons of slave labor in their war effort, and they lost to all the countries who used very few if any slaves. Look at all the countries that use slaves today; are they well off? No. Nobody wants to move there and buy slaves. Ultimately, slavery is wrong for evolutionary reasons, and successful groups of humans tend to dislike having slaves. There is a lot more to be said on this subject, but the key thing is that anybody can just ignore the Moral Law no matter what they believe about its source. Theists are famous for  ignoring the possibility of Hell. And we all see lots of people who are going extinct due to their lack of fitness. Both groups are in the same boat in terms of their lack of virtue.

Theistic Ethics has the weakness in that it lacks any factual basis. Evolutionary Ethics has the weakness that it’s hard to explain to kids and the uneducated. Of course evolution has the advantage that it is true no matter what you believe; religion is better in that it is easier to believe and thus makes a suitable ethical ‘operating system’ for most societies.


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