Friday, April 9, 2010

An Evolutionary Explanation for Morality

It seems as though college students want to be lectured more about morality these days. At least that's the impression we get at one community college in south Orange County. In addition to the February 26th McDowell-Corbett debate (organized by Apologetic Junkie) on the question “Is God the Best Explanation for Moral Values?” there was another moral-themed academic event on the Saddleback College campus on the same night, on the same topic, and in the same room that we used for the overflow crowd just a few hours later. World renowned evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala was a guest lecturer in a lecture series sponsored by the biology and chemistry departments in a talk entitled “Biological Foundations of Morality”.

Ayala’s argument is that morality comes from both biological and cultural evolution which he develops through two main contentions: 1) The human propensity for a “capacity for ethics” (ability to perceive moral actions as good or evil) is a result of biological evolution, and 2) the development of “moral norms” (socially acceptable conduct) comes about through cultural evolution.

#1: Capacity for Ethics
1. Three factors are necessary and sufficient for a being to possess a moral sense:

  • a) Ability to anticipate consequences from a particular action
  • b) Ability to make value judgments between courses of action
  • c) Ability to freely decide between two or more courses of action

2. Humans are alone in the animal kingdom among beings who've developed these three abilities. We've done so through a process of natural selection which resulted from bipedalism, an enlarged brain, and the use of tools.

Conclusion-1: Humans biologically evolved to a point of moral awareness.


#2: Moral Norms
3. All cultures demonstrate a code of moral norms, albeit in their own ways
4. Religious beliefs and civil authorities reinforce moral norms, but are insufficient themselves to justify them. Something more is needed to account for the internal drive to be moral.
5. Moral norms are determined by their usefulness to the survival of the tribe
6. While tribes with greater survival success pass along these moral traits to offspring, natural selection occurs too slowly to explain the rapid progression of moral norms which can move horizontally (through non-relatives), across culture, and in as little as a single generation
7. This kind of moral development is a result of a non-biological social process called cultural evolution

Conclusion-2: Moral norms are grounded in cultural evolution.

In his postscript at the end of the paper, Ayala steps in line with Dr. Michael Ruse (Philosophy of Science Professor at Florida State University) who argues objective moral values exist only in our minds:

I join Ruse (1995, 2009), in his unambiguous rejection of any efforts to justify
ethical values on the supposedly progressive character of the evolutionary process. “It is far from obvious,” he writes “that natural selection promotes progress or that progress actually occurs in any clear definable and quantifiable way” (Ruse, p. xx). I would add that this is the case because the concept of progress contains two elements: one descriptive – that directional change has occurred; the other axiological – that the change represents an improvement or betterment. The notion of progress requires that a value judgment be made of what is better and what is worse, or what is higher and what is lower, according to some axiological standard (Ayala, 1974).

It sounds like Ayala agrees with the inevitable conclusion of Ruse's reasoning which quite correctly says that in the absence of an "axiological standard" (i.e. a goodness/badness barometer) we have no grounds for recognizing moral judgments or even moral progress. Considering Ayala "joins" with Ruse that no such axiology exists, let's see where his reasoning goes from here:

8. If an axiological moral standard exists, moral values exist
9. An axiological moral standard does not exist (hidden assumption from Ayala quote above)

Conclusion-3: Moral values do not exist.

As a publicly confessing Roman Catholic, Ayala accepts the existence of a triune God so a sudden atheistic presupposition seems odd. No where in the paper does Ayala even mention God as a possible axiological option. He hints at it with a passing reference to natural theology and a mention of "religious beliefs" as moral motivating factor, but never considers what has been obvious throughout most of western civilization - that God is the axiological source for objective moral values.

Though appearing to be in lock step with Ruse, Ayala parts company when Ruse makes the case that objective morality is nothing more than a useful delusion, put in place to make us think there's something real about moral values when it’s actually just nature’s way aiding our survival. Having already given far too much credit to Ruse, Ayala's criticism is on shaky ground here. He argues that morality is objectively real “because our exalted intelligence allows us to anticipate the consequence of our action sin regards to others and to evaluate the actions in terms of these consequences” (Ayala, p42). In other words...

10. If humans have a capacity for ethics, objective moral values exist
11. By anticipating and evaluating consequences of our actions on others, we have a capacity for ethics (see points 1a - 1c above)

Conclusion-4: Objective moral values exist

For those who are paying attention, you might notice that Ayala's conclusion here contradicts his previous one. Earlier, he agreed with Ruse that no axiological standard for moral values exists, but now he says that our ability to comprehend sin's consequences somehow qualifies as that standard. Ayala seems to rely on the subjective state of the individual mind to ground objective morality, but this confuses categories. He suggests that objective moral values are nothing more than the subjective moral awareness of an individual but this cannot be so. What is objective cannot, by definition be subjective. This distinction is so obvious that I can't believe Ayala, an ivy league philosopher, misses it.

This error shows Ayala’s confusion and highlights a mistake that runs throughout the entire paper. Instead of grasping moral values as independently existing objects in the universe grounded in a transcendent God, Ayala merely appeals to abstract moral concepts comprehended by a human mind. He argues that moral values are evident when a person can “anticipate the consequence” and “evaluate the actions.” Notice that these qualifiers only describe mental processes inside each person, but they don't necessitate the objective reality of moral values themselves.

Here lies the heart of Ayala’s error, and arguably the most common mistake skeptics make when wrestling with objective morality: knowing moral values (epistemology) and the existence of moral values (ontology) are not the same thing. The distinction makes an enormous difference in the topic at hand. The former is a subjective state of mind whereas the latter is an non-contingent state of affairs. If objective moral values only exist because we comprehend them, does that mean they didn't exist before the first human was able to think morally? Did moral values exist before we came along and we simply discovered what was already there? Or, did we invent them out of culturally evolved moral norms according to Ayala's theory?

The answer to this comes down to whether one speaks of values in the objective or subjective sense. Ayala's position that morality doesn't exist in the animal kingdom, so it would make no sense for someone to say, for instance, that love existed prior to our species when there was no one who would have been capable of conducting loving actions. But this idea of morality focuses on the subject rather than the value of the object itself. There's no reason to think that values could not have existed independently, and prior to, humans even if we weren't created yet. Love is still a virtue even on Mars or other places humans are absent. Love could have been a good value regardless of who's around or their ethical capacity.

The skeptic is warned however, that such a concession comes at a cost. For if moral values existed before and independent of mankind, it's as if the universe knew we were coming. The unimaginable odds of moral values being set in place ahead of any creature's ability to know them, multiplied by the odds that a creature with a capacity for ethics would appear on earth, is a strong inference to an intelligent and benevolent designer consistent with God of the Bible. For a committed evolutionist, that's a difficult thing to accept, but not for a Catholic. So I'm not sure why Ayala takes this path.

Ayala's three-prong criteria for moral awareness seems to imply the rightness or wrongness is dependent not on the particular action itself, but completely determined by the mental awareness of the actor. Moral values can't be objective if they are dependent upon a human being's ability to have a moral awareness as Ayala proposes. Ayala follows the ideas of Ruse too far. He takes morality to the subjective realm where it need not go. If God exists, which Ayala says he believes, there's no reason to reject the objective nature of moral values as existing independent of either of Ayala's two contentions: 1) human capacity for ethics and 2) moral norms. If objective moral values exist, Ayala's case collapses. On the other hand, we could even grant Ayala's two contentions as a means to knowing morality, but not of moral values themselves. But he doesn't seem to allow that option for us as well see below.

After Ayala’s lecture, a 30 minute period was allowed for Q & A. Eagerly, I raised my hand for the chance to ask the first question and here’s what I said:

Thank you, Dr. Ayala, for taking the time to speak to us here at Saddleback College. I admire your work and have read parts of it before attending today’s lecture; however, something troubles me. As a professional philosopher, you're certainly aware of the difference between epistemology (knowing about something) and ontology (the existence of something). You mentioned moral values that Darwin observed in strong societies such as patriotism, freedom, and parental respect, as though they actually exist in reality. Your implication was that those moral values were intrinsically good while contrasting values of betrayal, coercion, and dishonor are bad. You told us a great deal about how we are biologically capable of ethical reasoning and how cultures develop moral norms, but nothing was said about the source of the moral values which serves to measure the most essential moral standards of goodness or badness. So, my question is this: Rather than calling your lecture “The Biological Roots of Morality,” wouldn’t a more appropriate title be “Biological Roots of Knowing Morality?”

Ayala didn’t accept my suggested new lecture title and he didn’t directly answer my question. Instead, he went on a sidetracked discussion about how survival by natural selection provides grounds for moral goodness.

Rather than rely on my experience, I suggest you read Ayala’s paper which was the basis of this lecture and see how he handles morality’s roots for yourself. I think you’ll see the same problems I pointed to and more. Unfortunately, this already lengthy blog post could not address all the logical fallacies in his arguments, but I tried to point out the big ones. The event was recorded so the video might be available by contacting the Saddleback Biology or Chemistry departments.

After the lecture I told Dr. Ayala about the debate we had planned for later that evening and asked him if he would be interested in debating on this topic he just presented someday. He looked up at me, smiled, and said that he would.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Great insights, Dan! You are right on about the difference between moral epistemology and moral ontology. I hope he accepts that debate offer. Sean McDowell