The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

On Morality, Part II — An Evolutionary View

As previously expressed in part one of this series, while morality may be relative—or more radically non-existent—these positions are entirely misguided and hypocritical when held in light of belief in science. All scientific claims about reality, no matter how rigorously proven, have an unjustifiable foundation just like morality. Knowledge of the world ultimately depends on our perception, which cannot be demonstrated as accurate. Any apparent “proof” of perceptual accuracy would merely be another perception, succumbing to all its potential failures. Yet, we do not embody this fact when interacting in the world. Why should morality be any different? With this in mind, most of the moral legwork involves determining the proper axiom with which to build a moral framework. From there, fascinating forms of science, reason, and rational discourse produce viable answers to complex moral questions.

Examining morality through the lens of evolution and its natural logic lends major headway in determining a foundational moral axiom. More significantly, it is instrumental in discussing metaethical propositions and human moral intuition, especially traits like altruism and empathy. Evolution is such an important piece of moral dialogue, in fact, that many erroneously—often unknowingly—cite it as evidence for universal moral truths. One, for example, would likely note that most have an intense, intrinsic disgust for human dismemberment—barring some pathological anomaly like psychopathy. Subsequently, they may argue that the nearly ubiquitous nature of this response must be grounds for some moral law that is a discoverable feature of the universe. After all, such a capacity is etched in our genes. Though, when following the natural logic of evolution, this reasoning quickly disintegrates. At its core, evolution functions entirely on the basis of reproductive success, a criterion with no connection to objective truth. Therefore, since evolution is not a truth-tracking process by necessity, it cannot single-handedly ground objective moral values.

A brief look into the Interface Theory of Perception (ITP) unravels exactly what connection, if any, exists between evolution and truth. ITP relies on evolutionary simulations with differing strategies of perception. From these simulations, it was found that strict interface strategies consistently outperformed realist strategies. (In general, a realist strategy is one where perception correlates with objective reality, whereas a strict interface strategy does not and is instead fine-tuned to a different parameter—in this case, payoffs.) On its face, a strict interface strategy seems useless. However, distinguishing between truth and payoffs illustrates how an interface strategy can drive realist strategies to extinction. Perceptually, truth can be best described as an accurate model of objective reality, while payoffs simply refer to reproductive success. When there is incongruency between the two, payoffs always supersede truth for evolutionary success. Taking evolutionary logic to its natural conclusion here, this claim seems almost tautological—payoffs are defined as reproductive success, and reproductive success is the measure of evolutionary fitness. As such, our perceptions, along with our moral intuitions, are calibrated not for truth but for payoffs.

Yet, what often comes as a surprise to many—and is the likely source of error in evolutionary arguments for moral realism—is that traits like altruism and group cooperation are fitness-enhancing. At first, it appears as though altruistic individuals would be at a disadvantage since they would forfeit resources for the good of other individuals. Selfish individuals would likely exploit and push altruistic individuals to extinction. However, this assumes the isolated individual, not their genes, as the selection unit and fails to recognize the group context in which the individual resides. When viewing altruism based on the recipient of the generosity, a fitness advantage begins to emerge. In an isolated interaction between an altruist and a stranger, the altruist incurs the entire cost with no benefit; but, if the stranger were instead a close relative, the receiver of resources would share genes with the altruist. While this doesn’t benefit the altruist specifically, it does benefit the altruist’s genes shared by kin, which could include those responsible for generosity, leading to the propagation of altruism in a population over time. 

Altruism can further extend to non-relatives as well through a variety of mechanisms. The first arises when considering the discrepancy between false positives and negatives in terms of kin recognition and altruism. Mistaking a non-relative for kin would cause, at worst, a fractional loss of food or other resources. On the contrary, incorrectly recognizing kin as a non-relative could result in their death and cede an opportunity for the spread of shared genes. Thus, false positives are a much less costly mistake for organisms to make, which increases altruism toward non-kin. Additionally, mechanisms that propagate altruistic genes can occur at the group level.Imagine two neighboring groups, one with cooperation and one without: in the event of a resource scarcity, the group with higher levels of cooperation would, undoubtedly, fare much better. The result would be an increased frequency of cooperative individuals since those within the group would reap the fitness benefits of a prospering tribe. Similarly, intergroup altruism could serve as a potentially gene-saving insurance policy. For instance, during the Paleolithic era, humans mainly lived in bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers with periodic food scarcities caused by bad luck while hunting, poor weather, or a collection of substandard environmental conditions. Altruism from other nomadic groups preserved the survival of individuals enduring times of struggle. Likewise, altruistic groups would receive protection from future struggles through the reciprocity of previously struggling groups. In this case, the status gained through altruism increases the likelihood of receiving subsequent help, thus preserving altruistic genes.

Evolutionary explanations of altruism put moral realism in a precarious position in which the amoral selection of altruism based on reproductive success would simultaneously have to track the objective truth of morality. Barring some uncanny supernatural or religious claims, this hypothesis will simply never make it off the ground. Since evolution tracks fitness, not truth, it doesn’t follow that evolution would produce organisms with moral intuitions matching universal moral truths. Moreover, the likelihood of natural selection coincidentally resulting in accurate moral agents seems remarkably small. Therefore, any moral framework closely matching our moral intuitions appears to seriously cast into doubt the validity of moral values being a true feature of the universe. What’s the alternative? And can evolution still be used to guide a moral framework? More on that in Part III of this column.

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