The Science of Ethics
Philosophical Reflections XXXVIII
Part A: Genes
In the last Philosophical Reflections, we saw how science is beginning to encroach on topics that used to be the province of philosophy, in this case the nature of consciousness – but that a proper understanding remains dependent on the broader integrations of philosophy rather than simplistic conclusions from focused but limited experiments.
The study of consciousness is not the only area where this is happening. There is a growing trend to scientifically explain human behaviour, choices and ethics, with authors such as Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate) and skeptic Michael Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil) attempting to explain human decisions or morality by reference to genetics and other influences.
Pinker draws on evidence which indicates that around 50% of certain choices can be explained by genetics, parents, teachers and the like, leaving 50% other causes, which he assigns rather blithely to peer group influence. Where does this leave free will, reason and choice?
While it has become trendy to seek genetic correlations with our choices, the logic behind it is extremely fragile. Consider the broad ways in which people’s personalities differ measurably, in factors such as sociability, conscientiousness, independence and impulsiveness. While it is clear that these can be influenced by environment (e.g. a childhood of repression versus freedom, safety versus danger or poverty versus wealth), if you have observed young children growing up you would not be surprised if such broad qualities had a strong genetic component. I will make a scientific prediction of my own: the vague genetic correlations with detailed matters of choice such as political affiliation are simply consequences of correlations between broad personality traits and those choices. Consider that someone more comfortable with safety than boldness will gravitate towards groups and activities that provide the one and protect them from the other – and vice versa.
That last point also points to the flaw in Pinker’s peer group hypothesis. Anyone who takes a more than cursory glance at their own life will see that as far as possible you choose your peer group. It is not something you drift into by chance which then proceeds to mould 50% of your personality without your active input. It is literally proverbial: “You choose your friends but not your relatives.”
Of course, your choice of peer group may be constrained at multiple levels, from your neighbourhood to your culture. That is why religions are so geographically and culturally inherited (even religious people must agree with this, as every religion is outnumbered by all the rest: so something must account for inherited faith in all the others!). In many countries, you might have a choice of friends, but little choice of religion. And if it is all you have ever known, you tend to take it as a given.
Meet the Ancestors
A related line of thought is evolutionary psychology, which seeks to explain human behaviour in the light of what was successful for our evolutionary forebears, and how we might have inherited certain psychologies or tendencies from that. Thus things like aggression, cooperation and average behavioural differences between the sexes are interpreted in the light of how their various manifestations might have helped the survival and reproduction of our pre-human ancestors.
This overlaps with Pinker’s thesis because such influences will be genetic, but is more concerned with “universal” human qualities than with variation between individuals – though even the latter could have similar origins. That last point is because natural selection can preserve variation in a population as well as drive uniformity, notably where variability “spreads the risk.” A classic case is the bane of organ transplantation, the enormous inherited variation in our antigen-presenting systems. Its result is that different people have different resistance to different diseases, so no matter how bad a plague, someone nearly always survives. Similarly, we can see a plausible advantage in any given population having a range of personality types – adventurers versus conservatives, warriors versus more peaceful farmers and builders, etc – each with their own individual benefits under different circumstances and (not coincidentally) providing the population as a whole with flexible responses to diverse challenges.
Genes Rule – So They Don’t
There certainly seems to be some validity in evolutionary psychology. After all, we do have emotions such as love and anger with both a physical basis and evolutionary utility; and there are measurable differences between the sexes in things like aggression that correlate with relevant physical differences like height and strength. Being species specific, such things are are undoubtedly genetically based and related to the conditions, including social structures, our ancestors lived under.
However, sometimes too much is made of them, as if we are just puppets of inherited psychology: as if rather than beings of “self-made soul” as Aristotle put it, we are but putty kneaded by our genes.
The flaw in such thinking is that for all its focus on our genes, it ignores the one major genetic inheritance that defines our species, the one that above all others is truly universal except in extreme cases of disability, and the one that has driven our evolution for millions of years. We have evolved into thinking beings, and our brains are what make us what we are. Unlike lower animals, we do not have to take our tendencies, short-range preferences or urges as a given to be obeyed without thought or choice. For we have thought, and therefore choice. We can look at our life, look at the reality we are living in, and decide what is best for our life – not be slaves to what worked for some ape on a wild savannah. In short, it commits the same fallacy as the kind of behavioural psychology that denies thought and free will: it omits consideration of our mind, the one chief defining character that separates us from the animals and makes evolutionary theory, behavioural psychology and all other products of the mind possible in the first place.
Any theory of human nature and behaviour that ignores the mind and its role in making choices and shaping its own character therefore ignores the largest (and indeed, most blatant) influence on who we are and what we do – so should be sent back to the author for some serious revision. It is like discussing a theory about fish – while pretending that they don’t live in water.
It may well be that where you lie on the spectrum of risk taking to risk aversion is largely genetically determined. But what you do about it is up to you, especially in any given situation where the fate of the things you hold dear is involved.
Us and Them
Evolutionary angles on human behaviour have not stopped there. In response to the claim that religion is the only source of morality, attempts to derive a strictly secular basis for morality have been growing. Notable among recent ones is skeptic Michael Shermer‘s The Science of Good and Evil.
Attempts to find a secular basis of morality are to be applauded. The alternative is to leave morality either subject to religion or, if one rejects all religions, without any basis whatever. The problem with the former should be plain even to the religious: as noted above, every specific religion is outnumbered by the others, so whence can any kind of universal morality come, and how can it be defended on the world stage? If religion as such is the only guide, then what answer is there to the kind of internally consistent fanatic who thinks it is a highly moral act to hijack a passenger jet and fly it into a skyscraper? Far too much religious faith is impervious to reason, often proudly so.
Unfortunately science is not the place to look for morality. Certainly to the extent that it can discover precise facts about human nature it might inform some detailed aspects of philosophy. However ethics and morality require the broad abstractions of philosophy – abstractions based on the widest analyses of observed human nature that can be (and have been) achieved just by observing people as they are and what their nature is and requires. Just as we don’t need the science of genetics to know that children take after their parents, and we don’t need to know how the brain works to know that we are thinking beings, so we don’t need the depth of detail science can provide in order to derive an objective ethics. The required data is not hidden from our eyes, but is all around and within us – ready to be found just by looking and thinking.
Consider Shermer’s thesis. Taking his cue from evolutionary psychology, he identifies human good and evil as consequences of the disparate behaviours that served our ancestors. Thus the good – cooperation, kindness and altruism – reflect our ancestral within-group requirements. Our ancestors, like many apes today, lived in groups and needed an “us versus them” attitude. None could survive on its own, so had to be helped by – and therefore help in its turn – the others. Combine this with the concept of kin selection (genes can spread not only if they benefit the individual but also if they benefit relatives who share those genes) and with the degree of genetic relationships within families and tribes, and loyalty to tribe and even stronger loyalty to family follow.
But the “them” doesn’t apply only to prey, predators and deserts. Out there are other tribes (and even other families within the tribe), who by competition for resources can be a threat. Thus hand in hand with the good comes the evil – xenophobia, rape, pillage, murder and war.
And therein lies the flaw. By what criterion is the former equated with “good” and the latter with “evil”? The most science can tell us is this is how our ancestors survived, and propose that this is why those attitudes persist. It cannot tell us that one is good and the other is evil. Perhaps Shermer is merely using those terms to stress the contradictory impulses involved. But that would be smuggling in his thesis under camouflage: good and evil are moral terms, and if science has nothing to say about the morality of these things, then their use is misleading.
On the contrary, one could better argue that if this is what human nature is, then both types of behaviour are moral in their respective contexts. What could be more moral than following your nature? And indeed, throughout most of human history that is exactly what people have thought. They have not felt conflicted about these conflicting actions. They have believed that it is good to be loyal to family and tribe, and that it is equally good to not only defend against other tribes but to actively raid, conquer and enslave them.
Just look at the actions of the Israelites in the Old Testament, where such things – both of them – were not only par for the course but demanded by God Himself. Look at the ancient Greeks: thoughtfully discussing the rule of law and the life of the moral man on one hand, yet happily slaughtering each other and anybody else in tribal conflicts or wars of conquest – and seeing no contradiction between the two. Look at the ancient Romans: civilized, ruled by law and the rights of citizens, while casually cruel to their neighbours (“a regular massacre ensued” is one description of the fate of villages that did not surrender) and riven by inter-group treachery and betrayal within.
Part B: Altruism
Part A concluded with the observation that Shermer’s “science of good and evil” is a misnomer. While science might tell us something about why humans do what they do, that in itself tells us nothing about what is right and wrong.
To the degree that Shermer literally means good and evil, then, he is simply assuming that altruism (defined to include cooperation and kindness) is good while selfishness (defined as good for us and bad for them) is evil.
And therein lies the flaw and the clue. That is a philosophical judgment, not a scientific one. But it is a poor trade to replace religious morality accepted on faith with a secular morality that takes altruism on faith – merely a faith directly in an ethical precept instead of in a god who prescribes it.
But a truly secular morality requires a morality based on reason applied to observable reality, not unconfessed faith in a principle. So this leads us to the question: is altruism moral?
First we need to identify the essence of altruism. We cannot blithely lump together kindness, cooperation and love under its banner. These can (and indeed should be) profoundly selfish, and so altruism is not needed. Indeed, while people often assume those things are selfless and use them as reasons why one should be altruistic, the actual ethical prescriptions altruism leads to show its true essence: as its name indicates, it is the theory that the moral good is defined by what is good for others. In its most consistent application, this means what is good for others independent of and if necessary in contradiction to what is good for you. That is why the demands of altruists – and the laws they self-righteously impose – have slowly grown from robbing Peter to pay his neighbour Paul, to robbing Peter and Paul to pay the poor in a far country, to despoiling all of them for the sake of swamps and deserts. And none object on moral grounds, for how can one object to selflessness?
But if you are going to sacrifice your interests on the altar of a moral precept, you need to be sure it is moral. So why is altruism moral? One cannot merely assert it. What facts in reality make it good? As Ayn Rand observed, “this is a question to which there is no earthly answer – and no earthly answer has ever been given.” That would be sufficient to damn it, for if something has no basis in reality, then it is a lie and, as life depends on consistency with reality, anti-life.
In contrast, an objective, secular morality looks at the nature of reality, including and specifically the nature of man, and draws its conclusions accordingly. This is the kind of morality first developed consistently and in detail by Ayn Rand and on which Philosophical Reflectionsconverged. What it finds is that your own life, being conditional on your actions, is the foundation of morality and links what is (the nature of man and reality) with what ought to be (ethics) – the critical linkage specifically absent from attempts to base ethics on science. What it then finds is that our fundamental tool of survival is our mind. From that follows a morality of rational selfishness, where the good is what advances your life, and what advances your life is identified by your mind, at all levels from the broadest abstractions to concrete decisions. The result is a view and prescription of human beings as independent, sovereign beings who must deal with each other by reason not force or fraud, in honesty and justice. Then, one’s proper attitude to others is as neither slaves who exist for your pleasure (the traditional meaning of “selfishness”) nor masters for whose happiness you exist (the actual meaning of altruism): but as independent people you trade with in things of matter and spirit, to mutual benefit or not at all.
Where proponents of altruism attempt to show that it benefits you, they at least recognise a key truth, that your own good is fundamental to you. But they don’t approve of that, and so such arguments are just the start: camouflage for making the unsupported and unsupportable jump that therefore you should be altruistic even where it is not in your own interests, because somehow it “really” is.
It can be seen from the foregoing that an objective morality cuts right through the dichotomy of “good and evil” Shermer presents.
Is cooperation good? Yes, not because it was required by ancestral tribes beset by bears and starvation, but for the reason it was: other people, to the extent that they are thinking beings acting in their own best interests, are productive beings. So it is in all our interests to live by trading value for value, including working together for shared goals. Is love and friendship good? Yes, not because it provided social cohesion on a savannah, but for the reason behind that: because when other people are good, they enhance your own life. Thus love and friendship are the natural and proper response to the values of character in other people that match your own values and goals. Is kindness good? Yes, in context, because helping people you value or who otherwise deserve your kindness serves your own real values and therefore your own life.
Is love and kindness to everyone, irrespective of their nature or their value to you (especially relative to the other things you can spend your time or money on), good? No. There is no justification in reality for betraying your own values. Anyone who demands that from you, by the very act shows their moral unworthiness to receive your help.
Is xenophobia bad? Yes, if it is based on irrational prejudice – because then you are betraying your most fundamental value, your reason, and consequently all your other values. No, if it is based on objective reality (e.g., they’re out to rob or kill you). Are rape, pillage and murder wrong? Yes, because all are manifestations of the initiation of physical force against others. By its nature, that is an attempt to steal values while destroying that which makes values possible (e.g., instead of producing yourself, stealing from those you are relying on to do the producing). Is war bad? Again, it depends. A war of conquest whose goal is theft or murder is wrong but to fight in defence of liberty (objectively defined) is good.
Thus self interest is not the rapacious monster painted by the acolytes of altruism. That picture assumes a particularly pernicious view of man: that our interests are in fact, in reality served by violence, rape and robbery. But the only person whose character you have direct and intimate knowledge of is yourself. So prima facie, anybody who thinks that way is basing it on their assessment of their own character – and you should run a mile. On the contrary, man is by nature a thinking being and our interests are served by dealing with each other as thinking beings – in reason, in justice, in peace and in honesty. That achieves all the supposed aims of altruists – except their true aim, seizing from those who produce for the sake of those who do not.
Certainly there may be reasons to help someone who is down and out, depending on why they are down and out and how helping them fits in with your other values. There is a prima facie case for helping a stranger in trouble, where that help can be given without sacrificing your greater values: where other people are attempting to live as rational beings, they are a benefit (actual or potential) to your own life. But that is the criterion, the sole criterion, for helping others – in an objective morality. It is not their need that gives them a claim: it is their character, and whether helping them serves your own life and values. But to found any such help in altruism is a reversal of morality (and an insult to those who deserve your help): it is to put failure and absence of value as a higher value than success and production. Thus it attempts to reverse cause and effect (values cannot exist without those who createthem) and to reward failure because it is failure. As life depends on production, justice and rights that is profoundly anti-life and should be rejected root and branch.
Thus deriving a secular, objective morality is a noble pursuit, but attempts to find it in science are misguided. Science can find the facts of reality – but it cannot itself evaluate them. And you do not need a microscope to find the facts of reality required to develop an objective ethics.
One cannot criticise past ages too much for the apparent dichotomy in morality between existing by trade on the one hand and casual cruelty on the other. There was no other way to live. Philosophy is an act of induction from the facts of reality, and the facts of reality then were rather grim.
But the rise of science and industrialisation has shone a light on what was always true, only harder to see: that the mind is our tool of survival, and its use requires freedom from force initiated by others. And not only has it shown this truth, it has shown us that there are no limits. The world is not a fixed pie, doomed to warfare over limited resources. For uncounted millennia, the world’s population crept along in the millions, slowly increasing as new advances from the mind increased productivity and allowed more people to live: but for all those millennia the Malthusian limits were never far away, and “us or them” was an inevitably recurring theme.
Yet now, with a world population over 6 billion and control of birthrate both easily achievable and personally desirable, with advances in genetic and physical technology showing promise of easily feeding all those people and with outer space itself soon within reach, the old limits no longer apply. Other people are not a threat, can never be a threat – unless they choose to be, by living as animals rather than men. Potentially they are all rational people who are a value to us in the myriad ways only people living their own lives for their own sakes can be. When men realize that the good is living their own life for their own sake and that requires no victims, only trade for mutual benefit, then that potential becomes reality.
That is the kind of high-level integration that is the province of philosophy, and requires no specialised equipment to acquire, just the use of your eyes and reason. That is why science, for all its power, may advise philosophy, but will never make it redundant. Indeed, philosophy informs the conclusions even of those who deny its power, whether or not they acknowledge or even know it.