Noramativity a la Nature

In Evolutionary Ethics, ethics is an adaptation that comes from evolutionary processes. A common response to this is “It may be empirical theory, but is it also a normative theory? If evolution can can say why ethics exists, but can it say what we should do?” In the following I argue that it can in the following ways.

  1. Ethical Selection Theory gives a final cause for ethics, not merely a formal or material cause. Only a final cause can provide a normative theory.
  2. It constrains our choice of ethical theory based on the final causes for ethical behavior.

Once we see that ethics is essentially evolutionary, then evolutionary ethics is at least as normative as any ethical theory that has ever been proposed, in addition to having a factual basis in a well-founded theory of natural science concerning humans, the creature widely known to be ethical in nature.

The Final Cause of Ethics – “Not going extinct.”

  1. Evolutionary theory accepts final causes. It has to. Evolution is the explanation of adaptation. Adaptation is always essentially adaptation for something. As in for a purpose. “What is the purpose (Grk. telos) of bird’s wings?” Is a perfectly answerable question from within biology; not requiring any input from a non-naturalistic value theory. This is because evolution cannot be defined without adaptation and “adaptation” cannot be defined without teleology or “final causes”.
  2. Evolution is not merely about physical structures, but also about behavior.Behavior includes not merely physical movements, but also speaking, thinking and feelings. Your feelings of anger, love, or hunger are adaptive or maladaptive and serve a purpose. There is no ethologist in the world who does not think that animal feelings are not explained by evolutionary biology.
  3. Thus our ethical intuitions, both rational and sentimental, are all of them adaptive. This is proven by thinking what would happen without them. If one group people started murdering, lying, and stealing from each other without remorse, how could they compete with people who related to each other decently and morally? If this is true, then it necessarily follows that ethics is adaptive.Ethics are also inherited; by far the majority of ethical intuitions and concepts can only be understood and acted upon by humans. No animal raised as a human could ever be held ethically responsible nor hold other ethically responsible for acting from the respect of duty.
  4. Thus ethics is a evolved adaptive behavior, not just bodily movements or working together, but also the words, ideas and feelings that are also part of cooperation. Even the common idea that ethics is somehow supernatural is part of ethical behavior and should be explained by evolution.
  5. In science, the purpose of anything is “How it contributes to preventing extinction.” (Cf. Darwin 1859 )
  6. Therefore,  the purpose of cooperation is to avoid extinction.
  7. By 4 and 6, the purpose of ethics is to not go extinct. Q.E.D.

The normative value of avoiding extinction. Part 1: The Simple Cases

The most simple cases; or the paradoxes of modern non-evolutionary ethics:

  1. “The Repubnant Conclusion” – a paradox of utilitarianism.
  2. Extreme pacifism a la Tolstoy and Jesus.
  3. Voluntary Human Extinction
  4. Fad diets that do not suit your system such as vegetarianism and veganism. (Note that I am assuming that these diets are not healthy. I might be wrong. My point is that any diet which does not suit you is by that fact alone eliminated from your list of moral duties.)
  5. Many forms of radical feminism that discourage the reporductive role of women.
  6. Universal celibacy
  7. Extreme versions of animal rights.
  8. Extending full civil rights to children.

In all of these cases, we might have a hard time justifying our common practices within modern non-teleological ethical theories, but once ethics is placed in the context of natural final causes, their refutation is trivial. Furthermore, the way in which evolutionary ethics handles these paradoxes is quite in keeping with out naturally evolved moral intuitions.

Part 2: The Categorical Imperative as Evolutionary Stable Strategy

By the above Final Cause of Ethics, you can never be obligated to go extinct, because that would contradict the entire point of ethics. In other words, we can eliminate or argue against any ethical principle or rule that we have good reason to believe is maladaptive. “Maladaptive” in biology means that it cannot become part of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy.(ESS). Conversely, we can argue for actions that are part of our current ESS or may become our future (successful replacement) ESS. This means many things; but one of the most interesting is that an ESS must be able to be followed by the vast majority of a population and not lose its competitiveness. In my view this is the truth behind Kant’s requirement that the Moral Law must be universalizable. Any moral precept must be able to be followed by a moral community as a whole for it to be an ESS. There are many strategies which are “stable” (in another sense) but are rather parasitic, for example being s a thief or liar are stable in that there will always be individuals who follow this strategy, but they can never be ESSs because they can never define an adaptive strategy for an entire gene pool. As such, an essential part of many ESS is the naming and shaming of these deviants. Ethical discourse evolved in humans as part of this need to protect the current ESS against those who seek to disrupt its effectiveness and drive their population extinct. In this way, we can derive the need to make ethical judgements from evolution. I propose that any species that uses language like we do must also follow a somewhat similar morality.

Of course, there is always room for debate; one generations deviants can eventually define the next ESS. This is rare but possible, ands is an essential part of evolution. But whether the ESS will continue to be stable or not, it is a natural fact that is so or not so. The fact of real issues for ethical debate is not one strike against moral naturalism if we have a natural account of this debate.

Secondly, we can use biological reasoning in normative criticism of human action. Before we do this, let’s see how normativity can be used in normal biological theory.

If you take any trait in any non-human species where one allele has so much more diversity and provenance and is spreading faster and faster through time than some other allele, then you would have to say that it is “better” from an evolutionary perspective. (I’m following Richard Dawkin’s practice from the “Selfish Gene” to put scare quotes around the use of the evolutionary “should”.) Notice how sexual creatures are rapidly diversifying and outcompeting asexual creatures over the long term. This is basically what it means to be “better”.

Sometimes you might have a short burst of reproduction that is not “better”, like rats breeding on Easter Island. This is not a long-term gain because this habitat will not support much more expansion and the rats are not diversifying. Soon they will reach a limit and their population will crash. If they were diversifying, then they might come up with a new strategy that would allow them to continue to expand. Perhaps they would be able to fly or swim or learn to utilize some completely new resource that previous generations of rats did not use. Compare this with humans. Humans are “better” from an evolutionary perspective because our population is not only expanding, but creating new strategies and niches that never existed before. They are not only accessing new resources, but new types of resources. Our diversification and innovation is unparalleled in all of nature. The closest competitors are ants. However, ants are developing very slowly and I highly doubt that they will be able to survive the event of the Earth being swallowed by the Sun in 5 billion years. It is far from certain that humans will survive this, but it is a strong possibility. Ants evolved 40 million years ago, if humans survive for that long, we will certainly never go extinct. But ants are pretty much stuck. They are pretty cool and rather advanced, but they are not really going places in the way that humans are. And this fact is what is means by saying the humans are better from an evolutionary perspective.
Of course, we may still go extinct since nothing is certain, and there maybe some evolutionary bottleneck ahead. However, something line of development like what we are now following is surely the only possible way to avoid extinction. And that’s good. If you disagree with that, then I could argue that point, but on second thought I will just ignore it, because some of us like to argue useful things.
To return to our example, if you look at the metazoans that practice sexual reproduction and compare them with asexuals, you can’t help but notice that reproducing sexually sure seems to be “better” than asexuality, and evolutionary theory has a lot to say about why this is so that is very interesting.

That’s not to say that sexuality is not without its drawbacks, it’s just that sexual creatures are really doing a lot *better* than asexual creatures, so it must be the case that its advantages outweigh its costs. They are more numerous and more diverse. In fact they are more numerous because they are more diverse. More diversity gives evolution more to select from. Likewise, humans are “better” than other creatures because we are the most diverse species on the planet (and vice-versa, we are diverse because we are “better”.). So with this in mind, can we use these same criteria to point out which subsets of the human race are “better” than others? Yes, those cultures which have more diversity will tend to become more numerous over time for the same reasons as our biological examples above; greater diversity gives more raw material for evolution to select from.

And this is true not only of humans, but also of mammals. Mammals are the most intelligent Class of creatures on the Earth, and one of the most diverse. If we are merely counting species, then Beetles and Hymenoptera have us beat, but what about if we compare the diversity of habitats and survival strategies? All insects are terrestrial, whereas some mammals live in the ocean. Sperm whales even obtain most of their food from the deep ocean where sunlight never shines. That’s something that no insect could ever do. Insects are also lacking in intelligence. Every mammal is smarter than any insect. While I agree that intelligence way be overrated, it is one trait that has made mammal very competitive. For example, the cetaceans (whales, etc.) have driven many sharks extinct, and this is due in large part to their intelligence. Sharks will never come up on land and drive any mammal extinct ever. So it seems that mammals arte also “better” than your average life form. Likewise with bacteria, vertebrates, insects and angiosperms; each of these taxa are so diverse and numerous because they are “better”.

Now let’s say that you answer the above argument with the rebuttal: “Just because humans evolve to think and feel a certain way does not make it right.” Yes it does. You may as well say that “Just because female Cardinals are most sexually attracted to red males does not make red males more sexy.” What is there to being sexy besides being sexually attractive to others?  If you can answer this, then you can tell me what there is to being “good” than being to the long-term inclusive fitness of living creatures. And of course whether something is adaptive or not is not always clear ahead of time, but it is a natural property open to empirical study, not something that is magically indefinable. And if I have a word, I like it to refer to something real, especially if it’s an important one like “good”. If we take our cue from reality, we know what ethics is: it’s a set of adaptive rules for cooperation, and the feelings that motivate us to follow them. That’s good.

I’m not saying that you can’t use “good” in some other way, or that when you use it in your daily life, you have to think like this. All I’m saying is that this is what “good” really means. There are a lot of words that we use in our daily life to mean one thing and in science it means another. For example “up”. Most people think of up as one single direction, but in reality, it is any direction as long as it is away from the center of the nearest planet. So you can keep on talking and feeling about the good as you have been all your life. But if you would like to really figure out if you or anyone else is really good apart from conventional definitions, there is no other way than to take your normativity from nature. And that is what philosophy really is.


2 thoughts on “Noramativity a la Nature

  1. If you are very clever, you may have noticed that by my definition, science counts as a parasitic strategy, since it seems unlikely that an entire population could adopt it as their ESS. Fair enough, and I compliment you on actually finding this interesting objection.

    However, it is not a fatal objection. In my opinion, the practice of tolerating the practice of science in spite of it’s obvious heterodox implications is itself adaptive. Perhaps I am mistaken, but this is my defence of science. I highly doubt that an entire population of humans can actually accept the scientific worldview as their explicit strategy, The existence of secular states here and there in the world does not count against this belief, since such states are interdependent with many others having higher religiosity.

    However, my thinking on this facet of the question is still under development, and any suggestions are welcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is not a matter of what people accept in science but about what scientific concepts can usefully be applied to human living means and their living standards. Today the science of our social system or macroeconomics has been badly and deliberately developed so that certain politically motivated classes of people get more than a fair (ethical) share of the wealth. This means that a polarization of society results in poverty and hardship as well as fabulous lives for a few “fat cats”.

      This situation seems to have occurred in all of our past and present civilizations, in spite of the many idealists who continuously write about more equality and the better sharing of produce, etc. Whilst these idealists which include myself, continue to prescribe how we should be living, in practice there seems to be no actual change toward this hoped-for state and in fact today in many “Westernized” places the degree of this anti-ethical polarization seems to be getting worse.

      So I have serious doubts if the evolution of our society toward being more ethical is able to succeed and that in His wisdom, God has already decided that here on earth the whole of His hopes for a better community are doomed. Perhaps He has or will cause other planets to develop life on a more potentially evolutionary scale with a different natural attitude to greed and self-interest. Or perhaps some miracle will occur (like the becoming popular of my writings about understanding how society works) and a more sincere mankind will repent for its past ways and allow its civilizations to grow without the present unstable nature we see and worry about so much.


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