Natural = Good? A Moral Philosophical Appraisal of Evolutionary Ethics and Metaethics

Is good and evil immanent in nature or embedded in our evolutionary past? Can evolution resolve lingering moral dilemmas?

Evolutionary metaethics is the metaethical stance that posits that human moral conation, moral systems contrived by humans, and universal moral precepts shared cross-culturally should be understood through an evolutionary perspective that conceptualizes moral phenomena as offshoots of the ancestral ecological niche of humans. Meanwhile, prescriptive or normative evolutionary ethics is a branch of moral realism that posits that the adaptive traits selected for by the virtue of their enhancing the reproductive fitness of the phenotype ought to be derived moral facts.

Both of these stances, from their very debut in moral philosophy to the contemporary disputations in the philosophical community, have attracted a deluge of both objurgation and adulation from a motley of metaethical and moral philosophical stances. Whereas the former has been polemicized and transfigured into a political utensil with schismatic separation of its practitioners into the two camps of “evoconservatives” and “evoliberals”, the latter has proved amply more controversial, as the very notion of prescriptive evolutionary ethics in contemporary discussions evokes phenomena currently conceived as morally repugnant beyond consideration at face value, such as Social Darwinism.

Contiguous to the moral-philosophical deliberation on these stances are the very fields of evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology which scientifically investigate the nature of selection for and the contents of adaptive behavioral patterns present in modern human populations. The advent of the revolutionary, maverick field of sociobiology inflected the very crux of the contention by applying unprecedented scientific rigor to the study of animal -including humans- behavior by treating them as evolutionarily selected adaptations explicable through the unraveling of the respective life histories and the selective pressures which held sway over the ecological niche of the stirps in question. The scientific merit of the field of sociobiology and its rigorous application of evolutionary heuristics to the behavioral characteristics of individual organisms and populations made it part and parcel of the stance of subsequent evolutionary meta-ethicists.

The sociobiological notion of gene-culture coevolution, which postulates that the genetically predisposed behavioral patterns of individual organisms cascade throughout the population engendering transgenerationally replicated cultural paradigms whereas the latter redounds also on the former, further solidified its acuity as a mode of inquiry in elucidating the nature and ontogeny of moral phenomena. Whereas the consolidation of sociobiology as a scientifically legitimate discipline, which nonetheless attracted vociferous yet arguably hollow criticism from socio-politically motivated figures in the natural sciences, laid the groundworks for a novel approach within evolutionary metaethics, it stood aloof to the theoretical framework within the prescriptive evolutionary ethics operated apart from producing copious empirical findings from which such ethicists can draw moral facts from.

Given that humans are in fact ineluctably within the same evolutionary framework as other animals, are subject, in the same way, to ecological selective exertions which direct their evolution, are primarily shaped by their genetic architecture as a natural corollary of the theory of evolution, along with secondary or tertiary environmental factors, evolutionary metaethics appears as a promising and potentially auspicious mode of interpreting moral phenomena.

E. O. Wilson presented a witty and, at the same time, intellectually profound metaphor in obliquely demonstrating the validity of evolutionary metaethics in his book, In Search of Nature. He contrived an alternative reality by superseding the overweeningly anthropocentric humans with the overweeningly termitocentric termites who cannot, as the complacent product of billions of years of evolution, help but baulk at the presumptuousness of the assertion that their mundane nature rather than their unique rationality underpins their entire civilization:

On one thing we can surely agree! We are the pinnacle of 3 billion years of evolution, unique by virtue of our high intelligence, employment of symbolic language, and diversity of cultures evolved over hundreds of generations. Our species alone has sufficient self-awareness to perceive history and the meaning of personal mortality. Having largely escaped the sovereignty of our genes, we now base social organization mostly or entirely upon culture. Our universities disseminate knowledge from the three great branches of learning: the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the termitities. Since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved 1 o-kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the later Tertiary period and learned to write with pheromone script, termitistic scholarship has refined ethical philosophy. It is now possible to express the deontological imperatives of moral behavior with precision. These imperatives are mostly self-evident and universal. They are the very essence of termitity. They include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic penetralia of the soil; the centrality of colony life amidst a richness of war and trade among colonies; the sanctity of the physiological caste system; the evil of personal reproduction by worker castes; the mystery of deep love for reproductive siblings, which turns to hatred the instant they mate; rejection of the evil of personal rights; the infinite aesthetic pleasures of pheromonal song; the aesthetic pleasure of eating from nestmates’ anuses after the shedding of the skin; the joy of cannibalism and surrender of the body for consumption when sick or injured (it is more blessed to be eaten than to eat); and much more…

Some termitistically inclined scientists, particularly the ethologists and sociobiologists, argue that our social organization is shaped by our genes and that our ethical precepts simply reflect the peculiarities of termite evolution. They assert that ethical philosophy must take into account the structure of the termite brain and the evolutionary history of the species. Socialization is genetically channeled and some forms of it all but inevitable. This proposal has created a major academic controversy. Many scholars in the social sciences and termitities, refusing to believe that termite nature can be better understood by a study of fishes and baboons, have withdrawn behind the moat of philosophical dualism and reinforced the crenellated parapets of the formal refutation of the naturalistic follary. They consider the mind to be beyond the reach of materialistic biological research. A few take the extreme view that conditioning can alter termite culture and ethics in almost any direction desired. But the biologists respond that termite behavior can never be altered so far as to resemble that of, say, human beings. There is such a thing as a biologically based termite nature…

Edward O. Wilson
E. O. Wilson is an American evolutionary biologist, the founder and a pioneer of the field of sociobiology. He dedicated much of his career to the study of ants, particularly their behaviour.
E. O. Wilson is an American evolutionary biologist, the founder and a pioneer of the field of sociobiology. He dedicated much of his career to the study of ants, particularly their behaviour.

It is clear that the very same infraspecific exclusivism elicited by an indignant incredulity vis-a-vis a revolutionary hypothesis volte-facing the idiosyncratic rationality of the given species taints the human species as well. Counterintuitively, those embroiled in the scientific contention over the applicability of an evolutionary perspective in explicating not only morality but also culture as a whole have as the dissenters those with the same socio-political beliefs as the most tenacious exponents of the applicability of sociobiology in the moral philosophical contention, typically the moral skeptics who advance this heuristic as an attempt to attest for the non-authoritativeness of absolutist moral judgments.

However, even a field as meticulous as sociobiology in explicating the content and provenance of human behavioral patterns is replete with disputes ranging from frivolous to salient in respect to the degree of the social significance of the trait in question. One such lingering and polarizing dispute in sociobiology still remain and that is the question regarding whether humans are socially monogamous or polygamous, with a paltry of trivial pretensions to human social polyamarousness. A peculiar stance in this contention is exemplified most precisely with the epithetic doggerel written by William James:

Hogamous, Higamous,

Man is polygamous,

Higamous, Hogamous,

Woman is monogamous.

This stance, initially burgeoned in a psychological rather than a sociobiological context, postulates that human mating strategies, culminating in the form of marital relationships, are sexually dimorphic in nature. This was postulated to be due to the disparities in the gametic potential of the sexes engendering natural proclivities for polygynous males and monogamous females.

The aforementioned disparity in gametic potential pertains to the gargantuan dissimilarity in the rate of gamete production of males and females in that females produce roughly 400 eggs over a lifetime whereas males produce 1,500 sperms per second, a state of affairs deeming females as the limiting factor in reproduction. For a more profound insight, this would permit a single male with an unlimited supply of females to repopulate planet Earth single-handedly in roughly two months -excluding the period of time required for gestation- whereas a single female with an unlimited supply of males could only repopulate a trivial quantity amounting at best to quarter of a modest rural town. However, the stance regarding human mating strategies inferred from this disparity in gametic potential is by no means the most corroborated nor the most acclaimed amongst the other major theories on the natural mode of marital relationships in humans.

The crux of the matter, apart from concrete inferences in the field, is, however, the validity and reliability of a scientifically rigorous sociobiological approach to scrutinizing and interpreting moral phenomena which effectively narrows the breadth of the potential theories regarding the evolutionarily selected adapted traits which give rise to moral phenomena to adjudicate between and veers the focus of metaethics from forcefully reified abstract, metaphysical deliberations to empirically testable and falsifiable inferences from evolutionary theory.

As for prescriptive evolutionary ethics, sociobiology ushered in a suite of novel prospects for this ethical stance by broadening the horizon of inferences from evolutionary theory, providing the groundworks for a more consolidated and theoretically structured evolutionary morality, and highlighting the role of evolutionary mechanisms as fundamental to the development of ethical precepts.

The Anti-Naturalistic Fallacy

A commonplace, generic assertion in moral philosophy is the platitudinous reiteration of Moore’s naturalistic fallacy or the similar Humean is-ought gap, typically in order to dispel the various forms of moral naturalism without begrudging it benefit of the doubt and fair consideration. Both the naturalistic fallacy and the is-ought gap posit that the purely normative propositions cannot be inferred solely from purely factual statements without any apparent reason, or in other words, that which is natural or immanent is not ipso facto that which ought to be.

An example apposite to the evolutionary ethical context would be arriving at the conclusion that warfare is a morally good phenomenon solely from the empirical fact regarding the capacity for coalitionary aggression and out-group enmity immanent in human nature as an evolutionarily selected for rudimentary psychological mechanism in the vacancy of any intermediary reasoning. Thereby, the burden of proof zeroes in on the prescriptive evolutionary ethicist who must provide the intermediary reasoning bridging the rift between the purely descriptive sphere of facts and the purely normative sphere of propositions.

Strictly within the context of the example provided above, the aggrieved retort of the moral philosophers who utilize the naturalistic fallacy and is-ought gap in warding off any moral naturalistic argumentation appears to hold merit. However, it is imperative to clarify that such dismissal of moral naturalists and, more exclusively, prescriptive evolutionary ethicists indispensably entails the consideration of a preconceived archetype of a naturalist moralist whose array of ideas is bereft of an intermediary constellation of justifications serving as a nexus between factual and normative spheres. Ergo, any moral naturalist who does not fit into the mold that is a prerequisite for the naturalistic fallacy to be effectively applied as a cogent rejoinder is sure to confound the typical utilization of the fallacy as a tool for refuting moral naturalist propositions.

More saliently, however, one particular shortcoming of the naturalistic fallacy or more precisely its hackneyed version relegated to a mere fodder with the intensity that it is churned out has been labeled the anti-naturalistic fallacy. This novel fallacy postulates that whereas an inference of normative moral propositions from purely descriptive natural facts is in fact unmerited, this by no means precludes a sociobiological approach to interpreting moral phenomena in that any given normative moral proposition is inextricable from descriptive natural facts. In other words, whereas the mobility from the factual to the normative sphere is implausible, the mobility from the normative to the factual sphere remains unscathed by the menace of the naturalistic fallacy and sociobiological along with evolutionary psychological approaches to interpreting moral phenomena -which are normative- as being of biological provenance and having a causal relationship with the evolutionary selective pressures present in the ecological niche of the given organism. In fact, the parroted and colloquial version of the naturalistic fallacy appears to be fringe by analogy with the initial formulation by Moore:

Far too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; that these properties, in fact, were simply not ‘other’, but absolutely and entirely the same with goodness. This view I propose to call the naturalistic fallacy.

G. E. Moore was a British philosopher who was a co-founder and a major figure in analytic philosophy. He formulated the naturalistic fallacy in his magnum opus, Principia Ethica.
G. E. Moore was a British philosopher who was a co-founder and a major figure in analytic philosophy. He formulated the naturalistic fallacy in his magnum opus, Principia Ethica.

In all clarity, Moore appears to be castigating the misbegotten inferences of the type which was explicated above as those without a clear nexus bridging the schism between the factual and normative spheres. That established, the platitudinous usage of the naturalistic fallacy which permeates contemporary moral philosophical discourse is effectively a runaway quip perpetuated either by ardent philosophers or ill-informed dilettantes, at least in the context wherein it is alluded to in a deliberation on evolutionary metaethics rather than prescriptive evolutionary ethics.

The Ebb and Flow of Naturalistic Axiology

Mencius and Human Nature

Mencius was amongst the most prominent Confucian philosophers of the Warring States period along with his formidable Confucian rival who propounded ideas in diametrical opposition to his, Xunzi. Whereas the former advanced the idea that human nature was fundamentally, in its rawest form, good, the latter strictly adhered to the idea that human nature was fundamentally and irremediably, at least through Mengzian means of self-cultivation, diabolical and is contemporarily construed as the forerunner of the Legalist (Fajia, 法家) school of thought. Mencius roundly averred the goodness of human nature by asserting:

As for what they are inherently, they can become good. This is what I mean by calling their natures good. As for their becoming not good, this is not the fault of their potential. Humans all have the feeling of compassion. Humans all have the feeling of disdain. Humans all have the feeling of respect. Humans all have the feeling of approval and disapproval. The feeling of compassion is benevolence. The feeling of disdain is righteousness. The feeling of respect is propriety. The feeling of approval and disapproval is wisdom. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them. It is simply that we do not reflect upon them.

Mencius, or Mengzi, was a Chinese philosopher who is considered second only to Confucius himself in his influence and salience. He contributed to a variety of moral naturalism in that he advanced the idea of the innate goodness of human nature (xing, 性).
Mencius, or Mengzi, was a Chinese philosopher who is considered second only to Confucius himself in his influence and salience. He contributed to a variety of moral naturalism in that he advanced the idea of the innate goodness of human nature (xing, 性).

Mencius deemed plentiful humanly virtues as part and parcel of our natures which ought to be cultivated akin to the meticulous cultivation of a seed sprouting unto the air with an innate sense of direction and purpose with the provision of a healthy nurturing and proper watering. According to him, notwithstanding the preponderance of many with malicious intentions and misbegotten dispositions, naught but a forestallment of the natural cultivation of the innate proclivities of man could engender evil. In providing concrete epithets for demonstrating the validity of his moral philosophy, Mencius concocts a rather shoddy, by modern standards, yet illuminating hypothetical scenario:

The reason why I say that all humans have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others is this. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: anyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among one’s neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries. From this we can see that if one is without the feeling of compassion, one is not human.

This quaint thought experiment demonstrates his point by alluding to an ethical precept which stands close to universality cross-culturally and temporally, which Mencius would elucidate through the core essentialistic component of human nature that is benevolence but which is in actuality almost entirely a product of evolutionary processes that engender the permeation of its prevalence across a welter of species.

Independent of the philosophical causal structure he provides for his pretension regarding the goodness of human nature, however, his ethical system provides a tenuous yet foundational groundwork upon which normative moral naturalism and prescriptive evolutionary ethics can build. Mencius particularly stands out both amongst his contemporaries and later philosophers expounding on moral affairs due to his peculiar reputation in having proclaimed the fundamental goodness of human nature, which is the reason that consideration of his ideas will suffice without further unraveling of the divers moral philosophies of the ancients and their subtleties.

Supersession of Pagan with Abrahamic Morality

Both Hadrian’s sacking of Jerusalem which ensued from his intervention of the Great Jewish Revolt and Julian the Apostle’s avid attempts at consolidating and re-establish pagan customs in vain in an incrementally Christianizing Rome proved to be against the current and the Abrahamic religions gradually ushered in an everlasting epoch of hegemony over European nations and beyond. With the advent of a new mythos that dawned initially on Rome and pervaded Europe and beyond in several centuries, the moral precepts which captivated the public imagination, held sway in the higher echelons of each polity and pervaded the daily lives of plebeians during the pagan era were supplanted by a panoply of moral precepts encompassed by a structurally enhanced system of teachings and dogmas enforced by an established, centralized institution.

However, these foundational vicissitudes in the philosophical dimension of the structure of moral systems were coupled by the yet more drastic alterations of the content of the prevailing moral systems of the respective epochs. This alteration of the content was a volte-face in effect in regards to the crux of the respective moral systems in that pagan morality coagulated around a naturalistic point of reference whereas Abrahamic morality did so around a transcendental, supernatural point of reference.

In spite of the improperness of vastly generalizing the suite of localized pre-Christian religions and belief systems, a core element that permeates the overwhelming majority of their axiologies is a vestigial pantheistic morality which deems nature, either understood as the constellation of cosmic forces at play in the order of the universe or as the characterization of natural forces as deities -the idea of which was most vehemently propounded by Max Müller-, as worthy of veneration and deference.

This underlying naturalistic moral system is evident in the prevalence of tutelary deities in many contemporary indigenous belief systems in that the deontic distinction between good and evil is not posited to be absolute and unequivocal but subject to the particular context within which one exhibits their conduct. For example, a pious Norse pagan would be inclined to propitiate Tyr, the Norse god of war, with offerings or sacrifices prior to a battle so as to attain the favor of the gods whereas a Scythian patriarch would propitiate Tabiti in order to ensure prosperity and auspicious prospects for his family. Despite the fact that pagan cosmogonies are essentially and unmistakably supernatural, their polytheistic pantheon being immanent in the material universe and the respective gods embodying one or another aspect of the material universe or of humans and their societies such as war, wisdom, and -much more essentially- sky and earth, attests for the naturalistic twist of pagan religions.

In comparison to the propitiatory immolations and human sacrifices which were especially prominent amongst the Celtic druids with the sacrificial bargaining with the fertility deity, Crom Cruach, and the immolation of a mass of people in effigial wicker men, Abrahamic religious rituals were embedded in an anthropocentric morality which deemed these obstreperous heathen practices as inhumane and barbaric. This holds true for both Christianity and Islam which are contemporarily adversarial enough to have their common roots obfuscated by the dissimilarity of their tradition and other cultural subtleties. In particular, Christianity in Europe flourished and developed into a tortuously structured, stringently hierarchical systematic religion and retained its status as an autonomous entity embodied by the Catholic Church.

The localized, particularistic, and tribal moralities of the throng of various differentiated pagan religions were thus gradually supplanted by the universalistic, absolutist, and deontic morality of the Abrahamic religions. No longer were the naturalistic hues present in the moral precepts prevalent among the bulk of the people. In their place, the structured moral system of Christianity drew transcendental values from written, and thus immutable, sources.

However, as Abrahamic religions matured and consolidated their hegemony over the vast swathes of land extending from Europe to the Middle East, they grew out of their inchoate inwardness and theologians commenced concerted efforts to draw influence from and build upon the ideas of the ancients such as Plato and Aristotle who were deemed virtuous pagans.

Thomas Aquinas was one of the first scholastic theologians who contributed to this strand of excavating and repurposing ancient philosophical ideas by rejuvenating the idea of natural law and incorporating it into Christian juristics, whereas al-Maturidi was one of the few Islamic theologians who posited the existence of a natural law predicated upon inherent human intuition within the Sunni denomination. The latter was especially exceptional in that the few prominent figures in Islam, besides the Sufis with a pantheistic mysticism that sought consonance with the universe and nature, ever propounded ideas that accommodate a kernel of naturalism as much, hence the reason why modern Traditionalist figureheads have almost unequivocally converted to a peculiar sort of Sufi esotericism bolstered by a puristic supernatural and transcendental metaphysics repudiating all forms of materialism and naturalism which they allude to as heretical, mundane and degenerate aberrations. Among such figures are Frithjof Schuon, Rene Guenon, and Martin Lings, all of whom have devoted a great portion of their lives to churning out dissertations on a perennialist metaphysical system.

Returning to the main subject, however, in spite of the preeminence of the idea of natural law in Christianity, the aforementioned supernatural moral tenets have largely prevailed and overshadowed the naturalistic connotations of Aquinasian natural law.

An artistic depiction of Saint Boniface cutting down Donar’s Oak as a form of religious iconoclasm in that it was a sacred tree and an object of veneration for the Germanic pagans.
An artistic depiction of Saint Boniface cutting down Donar’s Oak as a form of religious iconoclasm in that it was a sacred tree and an object of veneration for the Germanic pagans.

A Brief Conclusion

Ever since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God and heralded the sequelae of the decease of divinity as the tenebrous “will to nothingness”, nihilism, a panoply of secular moral systems have flourished and reigned over the ashes of the once puissant hegemony of the mundane shadow of the transcendental kingdom on earth. A few have reached feats seldom paralleled in achieving widespread consensuses such as Kantian ethics and the major stances of consequentialism and virtue ethics, so much so that some of the tenets parroted by the relatively fringe purist moral philosophers are the cardinal virtues of modernity to the point that their mere assertion could amount to casuistry. In tandem with the upsurge of post-theological secular surrogates of moral systems arose sundry forms of moral naturalism albeit having developed an unbridgeable rift with preceding forms of moral naturalism through the shifting of the moral philosophical landscape to formal logical grounds -excluding entirely evolutionary ethicists- from sophistic jibber-jabber.

Even though the present tenure of moral philosophy by non-naturalist stances, findings from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology and the long-established field of sociobiology expectedly further compel for evolutionary metaethics and provide a broader horizon for the various kinds of prescriptive moral naturalisms that continue to subsist after an appreciably long period of ostracism throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

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References & Further Reading

  1. A. Buchanan, et al. (2018). The Evolution Of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory. Publisher Name: Oxford University Press.
  2. E. O. Wilson, et al. (1997). In Search Of Nature. Publisher Name: Island Press.
  3. A. Walter. (2006). The Anti-Naturalistic Fallacy: Evolutionary Moral Psychology And The Insistence Of Brute Facts. Evolutionary Psychology, p: 147470490600400. doi: 10.1177/147470490600400102. | Archive Link
  4. G. E. Moore. (1903). Principa Ethica. Publisher Name: Dover Publications. p: 10.
  5. B. W. Van Norden. (2009). The Essential Mengzi. Publisher Name: Van Haren Publishing. p: 20-21, 72.
  6. K. White. (2020). The Plain Of Blood, A Study Of The Ritual Landscape Of Magh Slecht, Co. Cavan. Academia. | Archive Link