Introduction to the Theory of Ethical Selection

The Missing Link between Evolutionary Game Theory and Metaethics.

[W]ho thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them.” Aristotle, Politics I.2 (1252b24)


Many ideas on “the good” have been held by humans since we began to think about our origins. In a great many cases humans have derived values from myths or theories of their own origins, and I think that there is good reason for this. Being an unbeliever and evolutionist, I have been reluctant to recognize the reasonable principles underlying so many creation myths, but I hope that the following thought-experiment can make it easier for my fellow modern people to understand how the fact-value distinction can be so counter to human nature.

I know that I am not the first person to pose the idea that evolutionary biology should somehow found ethics and value theory generally. To distinguish the present work from previous attempts, I stress that the theory of evolution must be interpreted so that it includes all of Aristotle’s “Four Causes”, including final causes. In my view, it is this lack that  has hindered evolutionary moral naturalism thus far, and I hope to remedy this by looking back to Aristotle.

On this view, certain types of “facts” suffice to specify certain types of values. To speak more precisely, it is not “facts” but rather the laws or theories which best explain those facts. The values vary with the content of the facts, but the nature of the “facts” is as follows: they should be the the most warranted explanation for the existence and nature of humans or other rational animals.


Science in a “Creationist World”

Let us imagine that some rational agent called “God” is the efficient cause for some possible world called “Creationist World” (CW). In CW, the ultimate explanation for everything about the human race leads back to this divine first principle. The curious inhabitants of this world might ask the same questions that we do:

  • Why are there various living creatures?
  • Why are there various types of people?
  • Why are there three spatial dimensions?
  • Why are there two sexes and not three or more?

In CW, all of the answers to this question would have to ultimately end with God as the ultimate Arkhe, and this would include questions of fact, natural law, and value. Clearly the distinction of faith and reason would be different here, and CW-science would perhaps in some way be a sub-field of theology.

Even from an atheistic perspective, it is in principle possible  to create a universe or even a multiverse by intelligent design.  In any case, here we shall imagine that we have a world where all rational beings were created by some “God”. Furthermore, this God’s whole purpose in creating them has something to do with ethics. In CW, we know for sure  that CW  was created specifically for the purpose of generating a large population of ethical subjects, giving them a set of Ethical Laws to obey or disobey, recording and evaluating the results, and then upon death uploading their minds into God’s Big Server (“Heaven”) where they will be categorized and stored for other purposes which humans cannot comprehend. We don’t have to understand why God is doing this in this thought experiment. We know he exists and He has revealed His desires to us, so the Euthyphro dilemma is not a problem for CWT.  All we need to know is that the ultimate purpose for the Universe is the exercise of ethical agency (“Free Will”), and for the final tabulation/evaluation of ethical decisions (“The Day of Judgement”). So the key thing to know is that CW has a proven theory which explains:

  • Formal Causes – What ethics is.
  • Efficient Causes – How ethics came to be.
  • Final Causes – What ethics is “for”.

As a result, CWT is useful for clarifying certain ambiguities and questions of application of the Ethical Law; since we know what ethics is for, we have a set of principles for resolving any difficulties concerning ethics that may arise.

The Case of the “Value-Atheist”

But let’s say that in this world we have some ignorant Dogmatic Atheists. In spite of the existence of a well-founded theory that explains physics, biology and ethics in a set of parsimonious and coherent laws, there are a few ‘irreligious extremists’ who refuse to ‘believe in’ God. I put ‘believe in’ in quotes because CW atheists are different from atheists in our world. In CW, there are very few people who think that God does not exist (‘metaphysical atheists’) , since God has been proven to exist by secular CW cosmology and biology. In CW, atheists tend to believe that even though a God exists, this God has no moral authority to legislate a so-called ‘Moral Law’. We shall call these atheists ‘value atheists’; they might say that

Sure God made us, but who is He to force us to suffer and die for no good reason? I never voted him God!  He might send me to Hell for saying this, but that would just be yet another wrong done to humanity by God. Just because God can enforce his so-called ‘laws’ does not make him right. After all, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. That would be the naturalistic fallacy.”

So my question for you is this- does the value atheist have any ground to stand on, or is he merely using words (such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) in a way that ignores their ‘real’ meaning? ( I mean ‘real’ in CW, not our world.)  When the CW theist uses ethical terms, these terms can be ‘cashed out’ in the facts of CW reality, can have truth values, are provable, and have practical results. But what about the value atheist? What does ethics mean for him? Basically, he is not completely without a basis, since he is using parts of God’s Moral Law as premises in his arguments. However, he is using them in a way that ignores the fundamental Ethical Telos in CWT. This is against CW’s well-founded scientific theories which explain everything in CW and CW itself. So basically the value atheist is saying that the fact that he does not like God is more valid than all of CW-human science put together. 

Does the AA have anything to say for himself? Not much. He can call the CWTs ‘reductionists’, since they try to ‘reduce’ value statements to factual statements. But the application of this label only seems compelling to people who have an ethics without any basis in fact. Furthermore, this accusation only works if you reject the very possibility of a factual basis for ethics. It’s hard to see how you can ‘explain’ anything at all without in some sense ‘reducing’ it to something else. Since Aristotle, ‘explanation’ has come to mean ‘to subsume a particular under a wider universal’, with said universal (e.g., a law or theory) being agreed upon by all or most of those who would know. In rejecting what he calls ‘reductionism’, in this way, the AA has also rejected the basis of all explanation. He is free to do so, but he ought not to.

My point here is that if we have a well-founded theory about the origin of ethical beings, the “purpose” of ethics, the conditions for the survival of ethical beings, and rules for the change of ethical cultures over time, explanation for why people find certain things ethical or not, then we know what ethics “is”. Some of us might not like it, but many are in a similar predicament as the value atheist. It seems likely that ultimately (by ‘ultimately’ I mean ‘in philosophy or science’) we have no right to use ethical concepts in any way that cannot be cashed out in terms of our world’s scientific theory, whether this theory is CWT (in Creation World) or whether it is based on Evolutionary Game Theory, as in our world.

In every sense, CW science and actual Natural Science play the same role in their respective worlds. In my view this holds whether or not the Ethical Telos is artificial (as in CW) or natural, as it is in our world. If so, those who claim that ethics is somehow exempt from rational principles are in the same philosophical predicament in both worlds.

On this view, ethical beings  are a subset of the realm of animals (beings with sensation and movement), which are a subset of the realm of living beings (which undergo Darwinian evolution), which is a subset of physical beings ( which undergo change over time and space ).  Thus ethical beings inherit many attributes from higher genera, and ethics can be seen from a real context that provides its arkhe. In this context, we can define ethical beings most simply as “animals having language” or “political animals”. These two definitions are functionally identical; they both imply that the human survival strategy is implemented in a social structure implemented with language.  In short, this means we have a ‘multiagent system’ as opposed to a single-agent system such as we find in a “hive mind”.

A Naturalistic Alternative: “Ethical Selection”

The relationship between Evolutionary Theory and Ethical Theory has long been controversial. Darwin’s early reflections on the origins of morality in the “The Descent of Man” claimed that ethical behavior was based on Utilitarianism and group selection. While the influence of group selection seems clear, Utilitarianism is not a defendable evolutionary ethic, and has hindered progress in evolutionary ethics until recently.

Many people who sympathize with the idea of evolutionary ethics have not been able to defend any interesting normative conclusions drawn from it. For example, does evolution favor or disfavor Virtue Theory, Utilitarianism, Contractualism or Deontology? What if it were proven that some ethical practice (for example, the promotion or restriction of contraception) were likely to prove maladaptive over the long run? Would that be an ethical refutation of the practice, or would that be a category mistake? The present work seeks to make avoiding extinction a central part of ethics, so that we need not jerry-rig this concern onto some standard ethical theory. The theory of Ethical Selection (hereafter “Selection Theory”) proposes to define ethical discourse and practice as a form of evolutionary selection, and so to exhibit ethical discourse as a selective force guiding the evolution of ethical creatures. Granted this conclusion, we can learn the purpose of ethical practices and thereby progress in our ethical debates.  

The Development of Evolutionary Ethics

Since Darwin, it has often been agreed by most that ethics can be best explained by the basic ideas he put forth in “The Decent of Man”.[CITATION Dar30 \p 230-231 \l 4105 ] On his view, altruism in humans is the result of group selection and is not radically different from altruism in the rest of nature.

Humans are not at all the most altruistic creatures on earth, so from a scientific perspective there is no reason go beyond nature to account for human morality. Even the greatest moral saints from human history fall within the range of altruistic behavior exhibited by existing animals. Indeed, it is a key part of Darwin’s theory that any trait that shows much diversity within an existing population will also show great differences between existing and past populations.[CITATION Dar99 \p 126ff \l 4105 ] The diversity of modes of cooperation and communication between humans and chimpanzees, will be proportional to moral diversity among extant humans, and furthermore those aspect of morality which are unique to humans will be the most highly variable compared to those which are shared among our closely related species.

However, while scientists per se find nothing mysterious about human morality, the same cannot be said for those who make a special study of human ethics, e.g. theologians and philosophers. Evolution makes very little contribution to these fields, and debates rage on about fundamental issues as if we had no well-founded theory to define our subject. Most curiously, evolution seems to have nothing to say about which school of ethical theory is correct. Virtue theory,Utilitarianism, Kantianism and Contractualism all seem to have nothing to do with evolution. Thus the majority of people seem to follow the venerable T. H. Huxley in claiming that the is/ought distinction means that much of ethics can NEVER be founded on any finding of science. [ CITATION Hux70 \l 4105 ]This seems to fit well with post-Hobbesean Social Contract theories. Such theories evade the commonly-felt need for a substantive conception of “ought” that people have in traditional societies.

Another type of evolutionary ethic includes Social Darwinism and Nietzscheanism. These seek to overturn common conceptions of morality in favor of some form of modern eugenics. The present work is devoted to refuting them on their own turf. I may be wrong, but I feel that evolution, when rightly understood, more often than not supports the moral thinking that is prevalent in the human race as a whole. Therefore my criticisms of radical evolutionary ethics will only emerge from the full development of my argument.

The Meaning of life = the Arkhe of bios.

Most respectable thinkers who are interested in evolutionary ethics are motivated by the virtues of subsuming different fields of study under a common arche, much in the way Aristotle did long ago basing his ethics on his outdated teleological physics.

Since the eclipse of Aristotle, the typical starting point for the long-hoped project of unifying physical and ethical theory has been Epicurus’ philosophy. This secular prophet used primitive atomic physics to found utilitarian ethics. However inspiring and edifying Epicurus may be, I cannot accept Utilitarianism as supervenient evolutionary theory in the same way that evolutionary theory is on physical theory. Evolution cannot correct any of the significant flaws in this ethical school – can anyone seriously tell me that the purpose of any existing organism is to “maximize utility”? Maximizing utility is one goal among many for some animals on the way to maximizing inclusive fitness. Ask yourself: “Why are there living creatures?”  Some people may give you an answer based on their personal feelings of some watered-down version of religion, but if you are looking for an answer that has the unavoidable compulsion of science, there is only one answer: the telos of all living creatures is to pass on their genotype. Maximizing utility is only a minor goal compared to survival and reproduction. The suffering of a religious martyr is not less natural than the suffering of a mother octopus guarding her brood. In both cases, is is useless to try to explain such self-sacrifice through some “higher form of pleasure”.  In this sense, Ethical Selection Theory is closer to Virtue Theory in the structure of its foundation. Ethical beings are a subset of living beings, and ethics serves the goals of Life. It follows that human beings are also here to serve their genotype, but not by following a “dog-eat-dog” strategy. ( I’m not aware of any creatures who follow such a strategy. ) What makes humanity so excellent in its fitness and adaptability is our ability to cooperate and communicate.

Now for the meat of my argument!

Ethical Selection” and Recognized Forms of Selection

All the heavy lifting of evolution is done by selection. Currently acknowledged forms of evolutionary selection include Natural, Sexual, and Artificial selection. Every claim I make in this work follows from the idea that there should also be recognized a fourth form called “Ethical Selection” to be added to this venerable list of selection types:

  • Natural Selection– Natural “selection” is where a population of living creatures suffers from some condition whereby only some of them manage to survive to inherit the Earth. In this case, the traits of those creatures that survive and reproduce are “selected for” and therefore are passed on to future generations.
  • Sexual Selection– Among sexually reproducing creatures, sexual selection occurs when an individual selects their mate(s). Since finding mates imposes significant costs on most sexual creatures, this selects in favor of the chosen mate, giving them a chance to pass on their genotype.
  • Artificial Selection – This occurs when some “higher” creature shares resources with another “lower” creature in return for some adaptive benefit, such as when humans domesticate plants or animals.
  • Ethical Selection – This occurs when creatures find others with whom they can cooperate in an adaptive manner; e.g. when people praise each other for acting in accordance with some virtue or ethical law. Individuals who are so recognized are generally accorded the chance to share resources with the ones who express that judgment.

On this view the adaptive “function” of ethical judgement is to select in favor of others whose traits complement the reproductive strategy of the person expressing the approval. Conversely, ethical disapproval functions to designate the object of the judgment as one to exclude from cooperation or resource sharing.

Just as prospective mates select each other, and animal breeders select their mating pairs of livestock, so also do members of any group of social animals select others with which to cooperate and share by using ethical criticism and praise.

This is a theory about how ethical discourse evolved, what it is for and why is exhibits the special qualities that puzzled so many thinkers for so long. This covers all forms of behavior associated with ethics: actions, speech, feelings, norms, rules, et cetera. All of these are for exerting selective pressure on our fellows. Ethical selection says that the arkhe of ethics is the strategy of regulating cooperation in this way.

On Murder: What it means to be “right” or “wrong” according to Ethical Selection Theory.

Let us illustrate Ethical Selection with the issue of murder. In this and all of other current schools of ethics, murder is wrong. The following section give examples of how Selection Theory implements the universal proscription against murder, as well as pointing out just what we mean by saying that something is “wrong”. It is not at all identical to what we think we mean when we enforce this rule in our daily life, although it does provide an ultimate and objective foundation for the belief that murder is wrong. Ultimately, we want to cash out normative language in terms of biology.

Many seem to think that a Darwinian morality would imply that murder is a good idea. These people have the mistaken idea that the law of the jungle is “dog eat dog”, even though dogs do not actually eat dogs. Nor do other social animals; the real law of the jungle is  “Ape not kill ape.” [Source: “Planet of the Apes”] If you are not aware of this fact, you may think that it’s suspicious that I am not going to argue for it; however this is well-accepted by ethologists. [CITATION Ric89 \p 67ff \l 4105 ]  Their explanation is that in killing one of your own kind you incur lots of costs for yourself. Not only do you risk your life, but others receive a lot of benefits when you do this and are “free-riding” on your efforts. The fact that you are risking your life to benefit your competitors greatly diminishes the  game-theoretical payoff of a strategy based on murder. Of course, in addition to the universal laws against murder there are also exceptional cases where killing is accepted. These exceptions are based on strict criteria that are easily verifiable and are beneficial to all or most concerned, and this is true in all wild animal populations, including humans. Only evolutionary biology can provide the ultimate principles that distinguish murder from acceptable homicide.

So How is Murder Wrong?

So when we say that murder is wrong under this theory, what are we saying? Something like this:

  • In any population that takes advantage of the following adaptive strategies:
    • Language
    • Culture
    • Political units – The zoon politicon cooperates through negotiation (kata logos) instead of instinct.
  • It will always be beneficial for this population to enforce on its members strong restrictions on almost all forms of conspecific violence.

Ways of enforcing such a ban are twofold:

  1. Threat of violence (highly inefficient)
  2. Physical restraint. (also highly inefficient)
  3. Ethical selection; meaning we select among others those who demonstrate that they follow the rules needed for our adaptive strategy. (Very efficient.)

Ethical selection can enforce this by paying attention to whether people enjoy engaging in, observing or discussing banned forms of violence. To discourage banned forms of violence, ethical practices can exert selective pressure against them. If there were a population that decided that murder were OK, they would suffer the fate of extinction. Extinction is the same fate suffered by any political animal who might allow lying, cheating, corruption, or stealing. You may not think that this is an effective deterrent for crime, but it does have the advantage of being proven by well-established science. People who lack respect for science can and do have recourse to nonscientific ideologies for the rationalization of their ethics. However, it has long been desired to have a scientific basis for ethics; whether you like it when you see it is another question.

Selection theory has the following advantages:

  1. Ethical Selection theory bridges the is/ought gap that has plagued modern ethics since its inception. In this respect it follows Divine Command Theory and Natural Law theory. In short, value can be ‘cashed out’ in terms of counterfactual and factual statements derived from a well-founded theory.
  2. It shows a clear distinction between natural and merely conventional morality. Natural morality is based on the most universal aspects of evolutionary game theory, while conventional morality is not although in everyday life these are often conflated.
  3. It defines ethics as a distinct subfield of a well-established science of Evolutionary Biology. In this respect it follows Aristotle, who saw human values in the light of the natural world.
  4. It has clear and distinct ethical ontology; this means we know exactly what sort of beings are ethical, why and in what way they are ethical. Even beings whose ethical stature is unclear in other theories (animals, the dead, future generations, the unborn, artificial intelligences) have this unclarity clearly explained by our theory. In short the unclarity is due to the fact that we don’t know whether or not the entity in question fulfills the ecological role of a fellow zoon echon logon.

So…What is Ethics now?

What I’m engaging in is called “metaethics” or “ethical theory”, the study of “what is ethics?”. Is the basis of ethical statements cognitive, emotional, religious or other? Can they be true and false or are they imperatives in disguise? It’s no surprise that we cannot agree on anything ethical unless we answer these questions.

The above is a naturalistic ethical theory based on an acceptance that since human behavior evolved, this is what human behavior most truly ‘is’. The fact that many ethical concepts are said to “not make sense” in light of evolution means nothing more than this: people did not evolve to be scientists, they evolved to be religious. Everyone has accepted the evolutionary origin of ethics; I am arguing that this origin implies that it also has an evolutionary nature

Different Senses of “Ought”

I take it as a given that all obligation derives from some sort of teleology, so I will not ague for that here. A common objection to the use of natural teleology for evolutionary ethics is that the different sorts of teleology in natural and other systems imply a radically different sense of “ought”. Thinkers as different as Plato and Sartre have focused on the overlap of artificial teleology with the moral telos. Here I will follow Aristotle, who has highlighted the parallels with natural teleology.

However, an inventory of the types of teloi show the following: There are already many accepted types that differ from each other quite as much as they do from the evolutionary telos. Previously accepted teloi (plus my new proposal) are these first three, and number four is my proposal:

  1. Natural Growth – The telos of ontogeny; development from zygote to adult organism. This development is toward manifesting the form of the species.
  2. Skill (In Greek: Poiesis or Tekne)The process of manifesting the form in the raw material by labor of the worker.
  3. Deliberate Action – In Greek “Praxis”. Action taken by a rational animal toward a telos which does not manifest a pre-existing form (As with the teloi kata phusis kai tekne).
  4. Evolution (Phylogeny)– Evolution is a process that does not progress to a preset form as its goal. However, as with praxis there is a science that deals with the final causes of evolution, and this is evolutionary biology. But it does have a telos: not going extinct a.k.a. “increasing inclusive fitness”.

For the genus of teloi, the full gamut of species are as follows:

Formal Telos Non-formal Telos
Natural Cause Natural Growth (Ontogeny) Evolution (Phylogeny)
Agent Cause /Responsible Skill (Tekne) Action (Praxis)

Ethical judgments are all a form of selection. Evolution runs on 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. When we explain ethical selection, we need to have two levels of discourse:

1) Science – The study of the ways that agents (humans, animals, computers) have to cooperate, by theorizing, testing, researching, et cetera.

2) Politics – The ways that agents discuss and engage verbally in their own forms of cooperation, by praising, blaming, exhorting, etc. Most of what people call “normative theories” fall into this category.

Science can explain why the latter sort of discourse motivates and seems persuasive, but science is only persuasive and motivating if: you both value the truth and desire to not go extinct.

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. As a matter of fact, 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. But even if this is not the case for humanity or a nation as a whole, we whose task is science must make the attempt, and we hope the present work may be of help in this regard.

Works Cited

Darwin, C. (1871, 1930). The Descent of Man. London: Watt & Co.

Darwin, C. (1871, 1999). The Origin of Species. New York: Bantam Books.

Huxley, T. H. (1970). Evolution and Ethics. In P. Appeleman, Darwin (pp. 402-404). New York: Norton.


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