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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. One of the most significant challenges in approaching Levinas’ concept of the Face is understanding the relevant circumstances in which we ought to find ourselves properly situated in order to comprehend the phenomenological perspective on philosophical inquiry. In part, what is assumed by phenomenology is that we are somewhat clouded by what we can observe as regularities in our behavior or in events of natural causation; our standard and traditional methods guiding us to ignore the realm of the immediate, thus negating what is right in front of us as depthless and unworthy of investigation. Dismissing that which we are arguably habituated to and moving towards questions that address the unseen, the un-experienced, and the absolute. This deductive method has effectively bypassed the most fundamental intelligence about our world that through a more experiental and descriptive approach may be learned. Evolutionary ethics seems to correlate with this particular defining aspect of phenomenology. It would seem that in the type of immediacy required by a phenomenological intake of an onslaught of sense data, we couldn’t possibly be conciously processing it all. In fact, the neo-Freudian would certainly affirm to the opposite: most of what we are exposed to processes unconciously. While we dedicate our frontal lobes to judging and ascribing a logical hierarchy on what the rest of our brain has perceived using faculties of the analytic type, volumes of sense data and lightning-fast asthetic impressions are seeping into the far corners of our minds, forever participating in the evolution our cognitive infrastructures. And if this is correct, it would seem that those very infrastructures as quickly as they are built and constantly remodeled, based on new sense data, may be, along with some endocrinological influence, the source of our most immediate emotive reactions, in effect, what constitutes our ethics. This does not negate experiences to which we give our full attention to being just as psychologically influencial, such as those producing conciously derived pathology (i.e., defense mechanisms, phobias, and the like) , furthermore this doesn’t included necessarily the type of ‘deep’ evolutionary capacity that a process would necessitate to have a genetic impact. The distinction might be analogous to the building of a house: From the outside, we can readily and comprehensively observe brick laying, window placement, door nailing and lawn construction. While on the inside, smaller and seemingly infinite pieces of flooring, wiring, plumbing, and wooden structures are all finding their appropriate places. Structures that though absolutely critical to the integrity and function of the home, play their role unseen, and mostly unperceived. One might even go as far as to say that in this intentionality dynamic we assimilate, consciously or not, as part of a Husserlian ego-world, a subjective morality. As may be assumed, the Other’s identity is constituted by his or her ego-world and as two seperate individuals cannot constitute for each other, this relation is by nature permanently a conflictual aspect of human existence. It is in questioning this permanence that Levinas begins to investigate the validity of this conflict as the natural state of human relations. I would have loved to have had the pleasure of listening to what he might have offered as an opinion on this evolutionary approach so close to why he believed we have not been “duped by morality”.

  2. Maybe I’m missing something, but how is this “an approach” to ethics? Isn’t this behavioral science? This isn’t saying what our ethics ought to be as much as it saying how ethical feeling are processed in the brain. Even if this is true, and there appears to be good evidence it is, why must this be the silver bullet to the problem of ethics and not simply one input in the debate?

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