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Does the Theory of Natural Selection Have Any Consequences for Morality?

Does the Theory of Natural Selection Have Any Consequences for Morality?

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Published by Trip Adler
I was clearly a great philosophy student.
I was clearly a great philosophy student.

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Published by: Trip Adler on Jan 03, 2007
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12/21/2012

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Trip Adler Moral Reasoning 72Longer Paper #25/4/05Does the Theory of Natural Selection Have Any Consequences for Morality?Does the theory of natural selection have any consequences for morality? To beable to focus on the more interesting part of this question, will take it as a given thatevery moral belief held by humans can be explained by natural selection. With this muchunderstood, we can ask: Can natural selection explain the way morality ought to be? Itturns out that there is no simple answer to this question. While Michael Ruse andEdward Wilson in “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” from
Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology
, argue that the theory of natural selection can do this, we will seethat their argument is deductively incorrect. A stronger counterargument belongs toElliott Sober, which he writes about in “Prospects for an Evolutionary Ethics,”
 From a Biological Point of View
. However, looking at the writings of J. L. Mackie in “TheArgument from Queerness,”
 Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong 
, we see that Sober’sclaim has weakness. Therefore, it is impossible to conclude from these argumentswhether natural selection does or does not have any consequences for morality.It is important to specify exactly what we are asking about morality. In particular,we will use the two kinds of questions posed by Sober. The first kind of question, in ageneral sense, asks: Why do we have the moral beliefs we do? The second question ismore along the lines of: Do we have the moral beliefs we should have? In the words of Sober, the first question poses a problem of “explanation,” while the second is about“justification” (Sober, 94). Sober does discuss the issue of whether these questions are
 
related to each other, but for now, the important point is that there is no automaticconnection between these two questions. Sober admits that Ruse and Wilson adequatelyaddress the first question in explaining how our moral beliefs can be the product of natural selection. Sober even expands their argument, providing more evidence for theorigins of our moral beliefs (Sober, 95-99). Although the question of whether naturalselection can fully explain all of our moral beliefs can be debated, we are going to takethis as a given and trust that the arguments of Ruse and Wilson and Sober are correct.This will allow us to spend more time discussing the second question, in which Ruse andWilson have a very different opinion from that of Sober.While Ruse and Wilson adequately answer our first question about why we havethe moral beliefs we have, they take their argument further and attempt to answer thesecond: “We suggest that it will prove possible to proceed from a knowledge of thematerial basis of moral feeling to generally accepted rules of conduct. To do so will be toescape – not a minute too soon – from the debilitating distinction between
is
and
ought 
(Ruse and Wilson, 423). Although we will soon discuss exactly what is meant by thewords
is
and
ought 
, what Ruse and Wilson are saying is that the theory of naturalselection can answer our second question; it shows that no ethical statements are true. Inother words, once we have a better scientific understanding of the way our minds work,which is a product of natural selection, we will be able to use this understanding toexplain the way morality should be.Sober’s counterargument will quickly demonstrate that this second part of theargument by Ruse and Wilson is flawed. While they make such statements with little justification, Sober provides a convincing and detailed argument for why Ruse and
 
Wilson cannot answer this second question so easily. While they adequately “explain”morality, they do not “justify” it. To understand Sober’s argument we must begin with adiscussion of the “is / ought gap” (Sober, 102) formulated by Hume. While an
is
-statement describes something without any moral judgments, an
ought 
-statement makes amoral judgment about whether something is right or wrong. Hume’s thesis is that “adeductively valid argument for an
ought 
-conclusion must have at least one
ought 
- premise” (Sober, 103). It is on this thesis that Sober bases his argument against Ruse andWilson’s claim that no ethical statements are true; it is not deductively valid to derivesuch an
ought-
statement from the
is
-statements that make up the theory of evolution.Although Hume’s thesis says that it is impossible to deduce an
ought 
-conclusionfrom purely
is
-premises, Sober emphasizes that this thesis leaves open the possibility that“purely
is
-premises provide
non
deductive evidence for the truth of 
ought 
-conclusions”(Sober, 109). In the case of natural selection, this would mean that there could be somesort of correlation between the moral beliefs that evolved through natural selection andwhat are ethical truths. However, Sober argues against this idea, producing ageneralization of Hume’s thesis: “Purely
is
-premises cannot, by themselves, providenondeductive support for an
ought 
-conclusion” (Sober, 109). Therefore, Sober goes beyond Hume’s thesis, claiming that there cannot even be a nondeductive connection between
is
and
ought 
. To explain why he thinks this in a little more detail, let us look atone specific argument he makes. He starts with two statements worded as follows: “(1)Action X will produce more pleasure and less pain than will action Y. (2) You should perform action X rather than action Y” (Sober, 109). While he agrees that the firststatement provides evidence for the second, he suggests that “the two are connected in

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