Evolutionary Ethics

An evolutionary approach to ethics made it to the op-ed pages of the New York Times today. David Brooks reports that “many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers” are beginning to reject the notion that moral thinking “is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation.” Instead they are coming around to the idea that “moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.”

Brooks quotes Steven Quartz’s statement at a recent conference: “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but … what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.”

To the consternation of Kantians and other champions of reason, this view holds that, as Jonathan Haidt writes, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

A Kantian would be consternated because he or she presumes that emotions are self-serving enemies of morality, but Brooks explains how this is not the case:

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

Brooks finds much in this view to be nice: it emphasizes our social nature and our tendency toward cooperation; it also “explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice”; and it turns our focus to how people are in fact motivated more by “feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central.”

It seems to me that there is a convergence between what continental philosophers have been saying for half a century (especially Levinas) and what this new breed of Anglo-American philosophers are saying about morality.  We are not just, if at all, rational moral calculators. Emotion is not the enemy of morality but perhaps its greatest ally.

At the same time, I think that even Kantian moral philosophy begins with feelings of awe and reverence; otherwise morality would never get off the ground.  A while back I quoted Christine Korsgaard to show how even Kantian philosophy begins with a feeling:

It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values. We think of ways that things could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than they are; and of ways that we ourselves could be better, more perfect, and so of course different, than we are. Why should this be? Where do we get these ideas that outstrip the world we experience and seem to call into question, to render judgment on it, to say that it does not measure up, that it is not what it ought to be? Clearly we do not get them from experience, at least not by any simple route. And it is puzzling too that these ideas of a world different from our own call out to us, telling us that things should be like them rather than the way they are, and that we should make them so.

Korsgaard’s description belies her claim that this moral sensibility is not gotten by experience: in this kind of moment one is seized by an idea that the world ought to be otherwise than it is.  We find ourselves thinking / feeling something.  This doesn’t seem to be unlike what the evolutionary ethicists are saying; nor is it unlike what a Levinasian might say — that in beholding the face of a vulnerable other I find myself needing to respond.

I welcome other people’s thoughts on these matters.