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

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

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“.


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

  1. “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.”

    I don’t understand why you think I’m invoking a God’s eye view. I’m stating things the way a biologist would state them. Foot is trying to use her concept of a “bad” animal as a justification for human ethics and she’s claiming that her position is consistent with evolutionary biology. I’m saying that it isn’t. A biologist doesn’t recognize a bird like the Cuckoo as bad or defective nor does she view vampire bats who don’t share their blood with others (as most but not all do) as bad or defective. There is no appeal to God in any of that. Only descriptions of game theoretic models and mathematical formulas such as reciprocal altruism and kin selection.

    It is true of course that as Cuckoos get more adept at laying eggs in the nests of other birds that puts selection pressure on those birds to develop adaptations to better detect parasitic eggs and that vampire bats are less likely to share blood in the future with conspecifics who haven’t shared with them in the past. However, there is no need to bring ethical terms into this and I don’t know of any serious Neodarwinian biologist who would, certainly neither Robert Trivers (the inventor of Reciprocal Altruism) nor Richard Dawkins would.


  2. “Morality is itself an evolved behavior;”

    I agree with that as do many people: Noam Chomsky, Jonathan Haidt, and Marc Hauser for example.

    ” As far as I can see, there have only been two other sorts of explanations given for morality: theism and dialectical materialism. ”

    I think there have been many other explanations for morality besides theism and dialectical materialism. Kohlberg for example, took a Piagetian developmental approach and posited various stages of moral development and from what I know had some fairly good evidence for his hypothesis.

    I think the most likely evolutionary explanation for morality based on current theory is that morality evolved as a way to encourage sharing behavior that would make the tribe better off than they would be if everyone acted selfishly. Essentially morality evolved (according to this hypothesis) as a solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Several people in evolutionary psychology have put forward various forms of this idea. it is essentially the idea behind Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory.

    The problem with this hypothesis is that it is a group selection argument and hence subject to the standard Neodarwinian arguments against group selection: that an adaptation for the benefit of the group automatically creates selection pressure for an alternative adaptation for selfishness and that such an adaptation would rapidly take over a population. See Pinker’s description of the problem with group selection for example:

    I think there are ways to address this question. Some people such as Sloan and Wilson in their book Unto Others just think group selection could work in regard to morality. However, I agree with Robert Trivers that Sloan and Wilson don’t provide a compelling argument:

    I think there are other ways than group selection that can still address this question. It’s a very interesting open research question and one I plan to work on but as for now it’s very much an unresolved issue.

    However even if we had a complete evolutionary explanation for where our moral intuitions come from (I think we clearly don’t) that wouldn’t answer the question of what our morals should be now. To think it would is to commit what Dawkins and others call the Naturalistic Fallacy: to assume that because something is natural it is somehow good. I think Foot commits this fallacy as well. As Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Sam Harris would argue: just because something is natural hardly means it is what modern humans should consider moral.

    It is natural for alpha male predators such as polar bears and chimps when they take a new mate to kill the children of that mate from previous males. We certainly wouldn’t consider such behavior moral. It is natural for humans to crave sugar and fat because for our late pleistocene hunter gatherer ancestors (who we are essentially genetically identical to) starvation was much bigger a health risk than diabetes. That doesn’t mean that it is good for modern humans to gouge ourselves on candy and Big Macs.

    It is natural for humans to be fiercely tribal. All hunter gather tribes that I’m aware of have this feature: they view members of their tribe as inherently good and other tribes as inherently evil. It is natural for these hunter gatherer tribes to routinely kill members of other tribes that they find walking or hunting alone in their territory. See Chritopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins. I would argue that not only is this tribalism not moral simply because it is natural but it is likely the source of many things that most modern people consider immoral: racism, religious intolerance, imperialism, and nationalism.


    • Thanks for the informative comment, Michael. I have read very little of what you reference, so it is very interestting to hear. I am suspicious of group selection as well. How much a role it plays in the evolution of morality is up for debate, but I see it kind of how Dawikns does. The way I read him, group selection is what people thought before they had the gene’s-eye view.

      As to whether Kohlberg or Piaget have a theory of what morality is or not, I would like to hear. Before you tell me what it is, let me tell you what I mean by “theory”. The way most people say it, untilitarianism falls under ethical “theory”, but in my view, this leaves something out that is shared by theism and moral materialsim a la Marx and myself. What utilitarianism lacks is a description of how obligations, values, and imperatives came to exist and what sort so things they are. If utilitarians claim that evolution is the origin of their moral axiom, then I have to aske them why would living creatures evolve whose sole purpose in life is to enjoy it? How would that increase inclusive fitness? If it does not make evolutionary sense, then does that mean that God intervened in nature to create a species of utilitairans? Because that what we would be. A species of utitlitarians would demand an evolutionary explanation that would be hard to give. As it is, we have a race of religious conservatives who do not fit the description given by Piaget or Kohlberg. Once you start paying attention to what is believed by real people as opposed to idealizations of liberals, an evolutonary account of actual morality is not hard to find. Ethical theory is an empirical science, remember? Real people count, even those who are not PhDs. or Westerners.

      Once you have explained morality behaviors exist, then you are in a position to know what it is for. What function does it serve? I am not asking you about your feelings about what system of moralitity you would like to lchoose for the rest of us. I am simply using the same logic that we use to determine what a good diet is, or a good mating strategy, or a good pair of hands. Just ask what they are for, and how form relates to function.

      Of course you are not obligated qua human to accept this idea, since most humans do not care for science or reason concerning morality at all. Why should they? Life is not about finding the truth, it is about not going extinct. But if you are discussing this qua scientist or qua philosopher, then what sort of alternative standard of value are you using to make normative judgements? Your feelings? Your friends feelings? Certainly this is part of the data set, but how do we analyze them? What is our research paradigm? SInce we are discussing the behavior of living creatures, I am using biology. FOr some reason, many people think this is evil. Whatever.

      Morality is nothing but feelings, thoughts and actions. All of these are accepted elements of evolved behavior. Valueing things is a behavior. Moral values are behaviors. It really could not be more simple. You are over-thinking this. Cut the Gordian Knot and face reality.

      P.S. And to pre-empt the inevitable reply: this is a normative theory. Anything that refutes utilitarianism is pretty normative. Goodbye to the “Repugnant Conclusion”, and anything Peter Singer has ever written.


    • The alpha male predator behavior that you cite is not what I would call moral, because I am a human. That is the entire reason. That is not human morality. It is lion “morality”. If there is anything that lions do that can be called morality, then this is one of them. They do it for the same reason that we follow our morality. And we both follow our morality for the same reason that we eat food and breathe air: because it prevents our extinction. That’s what the behavior living creatures is for.


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