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.