Response to “A Critique of Foot’s Natural Goodness ” by Michael DeBellis

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The following is my response to an essay by Michael DeBellis criticizing Phillipa Foot’s thesis that virtue ethics can be based on a neo-Aristotlelian analysis of human behavior as a biological process. Below I will only respond to the first major section of the essay and hope that the reader will be able to see how I may approach the rest. As for Foot’s work, I have not read it but from what I have heard second-hand it seems to resemble mine in many respects, insofar as it takes interest in the sense that Aristotle treated ethics to be a subfield of natural science. Indeed any modern person is compelled to believe something like this upon the reading the “Physics” followed by the “Nicomachean Ethics”. So what I say below should not be taken as saying anything about Foot’s presentation of these ideas. Rather it is only concerning the issue she, Michael and I deal with in our work: the deeply Aristotelian idea that moral criticism of behavior might somehow be based on the same implicit biological teleology. In my view, the “implicit teleology” of biology is not that of form but of telos. What does this mean in normal non-philosophical English? When you hear people claim that “evolution has no telos”, this is correct if they are saying this in one of three ways:

  1. Evolution does not have intentions in the same way that an animal or human might; i.e. some subjective sense of purpose for action.
  2. Evolution does not aim at a particular form as its end point. It does not inevitably create humans or any other lifeform.
  3. Evolution does not arrange things to benefit any particular living creature or species. Nature is not ultimately “for” human benefit or welfare.

I do not deny any of these theses, but they do not exhaust the senses of natural purpose or function that are accepted among biologists. To see how this is so, I suggest you read the latter section “Different Sense of Ought” of my “The Theory of Ethical Selection”, where I have a taxonomy of goal oriented behaviors from Aristotle and show how phylogenetic evolution (teleology that is not oriented toward a particular form or beneficiary) is purposeful in a way that fits comfortably within an Aristotelian view. I think that the only reason that this is not common knowledge among philosophers is due to the contingent fact that the readership of Aristotle and evolutionary theory are somehow distinct. This need not be so, and this contingent fact makes much mischief with moral theory’s inability to deal with natural teleology and natural axiology.

DeBellis: “Aristotle or Evolution?”

From DeBellis: “In Natural Goodness (Foot 2001) Philippa Foot bases part of her argument on her interpretation of biology and what biology defines as a good non-human animal. I think her understanding of biology is flawed and her concept of a good or defective animal is incoherent. Early in the book, Foot declares that a wolf who is a free rider is defective. This is not accurate from a biological sense. Free riding is an example of a game theoretic strategy. It is usually the case that within a species different organisms adopt different strategies depending on the genes of the individual and/or the characteristics of the environment. Free riding is no more an a-priori defective strategy than sharing. They both emerge at various points in most social populations. Biologists analyze how often and when free riding occurs in social animals such as wolves and primates and the consequences that may apply to them by others in the pack when they do. However, these free rider animals are not considered defective, indeed in some species virtually all the conspecifics are free riders at some point in their lives.”

My Reply:

The main problem with this paragraph is that when discussing “ethics” DeBellis implicitly assumes that ethics is from a “God’s -eye view”. Indeed, he is correct in the sense that from a God’s eye view, parasites are just fine and in no way defective.  But no living creature exhibits cognition from God’s persepctive, they all seem to take on their own perspectives, and their perspectives always seems to be oriented towards increasing their inclusive fitness.

So parasitic species such as cuckoos and ticks do exist, and from a God’s eye view they are just as “fit” as other species, but this does not mean that we do not try to deny parasites the opportunity to free ride on our resources or bodies. But we do not ascribe moral vice to them; they are merely “bad” creatures, creatures whose badness is inherent in the entire species. Note that this “badness” is not from God’s eye, but from the “gene’s eye view”. From the view of our gene pool (the “gene’s-eye view”), parasites are indeed very bad and we should expect that any creature with any feelings or thoughts would dislike parasites. In fact, we can go further than this and say that any sentient creature ought to hate parasites. And more than that, all non-sentient creatures ought to behave as if they hate parasites. Why? From a gene’s eye view, it is obvious why, and this is the same reason why real actual creatures who actually believe in God (as in traditional peoples and modern conservatives) tend to believe in a God who hates parasites. (Surprise, surprise!) Why? Because they, just like everything else in the natural world, evolved. This fact alone, according to evolutionary theory, is enough to imply an objective and essential telos. In natural teleology, according to Richard Dawkins:

We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. (“The Selfish Gene”, preface to the 1976 edition, pp. 1)

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. (“The Selfish Gene” pp. 2)

This is nothing other than a teleological argument, which claims that the axiom of modern biology is that all living creatures qua living creatures are for something. The “something” is none other than reproductive fitness over the long term (i.e. evolutionary or geological timescales), and this goal is what I will call “The Final Cause” (with capitals). It follows that everything about any living creature is either for The Final Cause, or is a by-product of some other trait which is for The Final Cause. Now you can doubt Dawkins on this point and claim that he is merely going with his religious instincts, but I will assume that he and Aristotle both know what they are talking about.

So now we turn back to morals: morality is not some imagined “God’s-eye” cognition, but rather evolved for The Final Cause. How would it benefit The Final Cause for a pack of wolves to accept a free rider or other parasite? It would not; on the contrary, it would cripple “their” Final Cause very much. In other words they ought not to allow parasites and free riders. By this use of “ought” I am not making a claim about what biologists should feel or think about the wolves, but only what wolves should feel or think about the creatures they meet and deal with.

Morality is itself an evolved behavior; its imperatives and principles are derived from those of life itself. At least that is my hypothesis, and it is falsifiable in the same way as any other hypothesis of ethology (the biology of animal behavior) is. Before you decide that it is wrong, perhaps you should ask your self if you actually have another explanation for moral behavior. As far as I can see, there have only been two other sorts of explanations given for morality: theism and dialectical materialism. Both of these share with my own Darwinian materialism the axiom that the cause for being of a thing is the essence of the thing. The parallels of Darwinian materialism and theism are explaored in the the section “God vs. the Fact/Value Distinction” of “The Theory of Ethical Selection”. (Someday I may explore the parallels with dialectical materialism. )

The key thing is that morality (qua animal behavior) originates from within the process of evolution and its imperatives are only meaningful from within that context, not from the deist God’s eye view standing outside the world. But this does not mean that these imperatives lose their force, on the contrary they gain their force from our status as living creatures of a certain type. So just as most standard non-Darwinain moral theories assume that moral laws only apply to humans and are based on human nature, so also do Darwinian materialists. The main difference is the we moral materialists have a defensible explanation for why all creatures could have different moral codes that are binding on each of us differently. All moral laws, for wolves or humans, only apply to the beings for whom they evolved. This does not deprive them of their imperative force, but is its “originative source” (Greek- “arkhe” a.k.a. “principle” or “foundation”).  In that sense they are all different, being specific in the original sense of “specific” – referring to a species of some genus (e.g. rational animal), but not to all the members of that genus (in my example, the genus “animal”).  On the other hand, all the specific animal moralities are not merely synonymous by chance (as where two unrelated things are called by the same word), but all refer to a common telos, sincethey all are based on the pursuit of the same thing: The (biological) Final Cause. In this sense,  darwinian materialism is closer to traditional human beliefs than the modern secular ethical theories of recent times. In fact, it never fails to astonish me just how effective religious practice is from a Darwinian perspective. And how could it be otherwise, given that the principles and causes underlying the behavior of living creatures be they religious or otherwise? The laws of nature are not up for ratification by anyone regardless of creed, we can only choose how we follow them. If you want to be moral, you will behave in such a way as to increase the fitness of your gene pool, if you behave the opposite, then you will be “immoral”.

If you like this post check out my podcast “The Aristotle Project“.