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Trip Adler

Moral Reasoning 72
Longer Paper #2
Does the Theory of Natural Selection Have Any Consequences for Morality?

Does the theory of natural selection have any consequences for morality? To be

able to focus on the more interesting part of this question, will take it as a given that

every moral belief held by humans can be explained by natural selection. With this much

understood, we can ask: Can natural selection explain the way morality ought to be? It

turns out that there is no simple answer to this question. While Michael Ruse and

Edward 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 see

that their argument is deductively incorrect. A stronger counterargument belongs to

Elliott 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 “The

Argument from Queerness,” Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, we see that Sober’s

claim has weakness. Therefore, it is impossible to conclude from these arguments

whether 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 a

general sense, asks: Why do we have the moral beliefs we do? The second question is

more 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 automatic

connection between these two questions. Sober admits that Ruse and Wilson adequately

address 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 the

origins of our moral beliefs (Sober, 95-99). Although the question of whether natural

selection can fully explain all of our moral beliefs can be debated, we are going to take

this 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 and

Wilson have a very different opinion from that of Sober.

While Ruse and Wilson adequately answer our first question about why we have

the moral beliefs we have, they take their argument further and attempt to answer the

second: “We suggest that it will prove possible to proceed from a knowledge of the

material basis of moral feeling to generally accepted rules of conduct. To do so will be to

escape – 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 the

words is and ought, what Ruse and Wilson are saying is that the theory of natural

selection can answer our second question; it shows that no ethical statements are true. In

other 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 to

explain the way morality should be.

Sober’s counterargument will quickly demonstrate that this second part of the

argument 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 a

discussion of the “is / ought gap” (Sober, 102) formulated by Hume. While an is-

statement describes something without any moral judgments, an ought-statement makes a

moral judgment about whether something is right or wrong. Hume’s thesis is that “a

deductively 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 and

Wilson’s claim that no ethical statements are true; it is not deductively valid to derive

such 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-conclusion

from purely is-premises, Sober emphasizes that this thesis leaves open the possibility that

“purely is-premises provide nondeductive evidence for the truth of ought-conclusions”

(Sober, 109). In the case of natural selection, this would mean that there could be some

sort of correlation between the moral beliefs that evolved through natural selection and

what are ethical truths. However, Sober argues against this idea, producing a

generalization of Hume’s thesis: “Purely is-premises cannot, by themselves, provide

nondeductive 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 at

one 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 first

statement provides evidence for the second, he suggests that “the two are connected in
this way only because of a background assumption […] that pleasure is usually good and

pain is usually bad” (Sober, 109). Although he makes the point, that facts about how

people form their ethical beliefs can provide evidence concerning whether those beliefs

are true, he says that “descriptions of the process of belief formation cannot provide

information about whether the beliefs are true unless we make assumptions about the

nature of those propositions and the connections they bear to the process of belief

formation” (Sober, 110). Therefore, Sober’s conclusion is that any statement about the

way things should be must be based on at least one evaluative premise, and cannot even

be nondeductively related to pure is-statements without an ought-statement.

While Sober’s presentation of Hume’s thesis adequately discredits part of Ruse

and Wilson’s argument, I personally take issue with his claim that it is impossible for is-

premises to provide nondeductive evidence for the truth of ought-conclusions; this would

mean that ethical facts have absolutely no relation to is-statements. The reason there is a

flaw is that when ethical facts are so severely separated from is-statements, which are all

we really know are true, we can provide a counterargument using “the argument from

queerness” as explained by Mackie. To understand what this argument is, Mackie

explains that it has both a metaphysical and an epistemological part. In this case we are

concerned with the epistemological part, because we are interested in our awareness of

ethical truths. Mackie explains that if we were aware of ethical truths, “it would have to

be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our

ordinary ways of knowing everything else” (Mackie, 38). Because this is not the way

things are, it cannot be true, at least according to this argument, that such ethical truths

exist that are totally unrelated to all existing is-statements. He says that in making moral
judgments, “it will require (if it is to yield authoritatively prescriptive conclusions) some

input of this distinctive sort, either premises or forms of argument or both. When we ask

the awkward question, how we can be aware of this authoritative prescriptivity, of the

truth of these distinctively ethical pattern of reasoning, none of our ordinary accounts of

sensory perception or introspection or the framing and confirming of explanatory

hypotheses or inference or logical construction or conceptual analysis, or any

combination of these, will provide a satisfactory answer” (Mackie, 38). This queerness is

present when one considers ethical facts as something totally unrelated to is-statements.

Therefore, Mackie’s argument from queerness shows that Sober’s claim is imperfect.

We started with the assumption that the theory of natural selection can explain

why we have all the moral beliefs that we have. We then showed that the attempt by

Ruse and Wilson to answer our second question, in which they say that natural selection

proves all moral truths are untrue, is deductively incorrect; it is in direct violation of

Hume’s thesis. Sober makes this point clear, and then tries to demonstrate that there is

absolutely no relation between the moral beliefs we have and ethical truths, which he

shows by the fact that all ought-conclusions must be based on at least one ought-premise

in addition to is-premises. However, using Mackie’s argument from queerness, we seen

that Sober’s argument is week, even though it may be a better alternative than that

provided by Ruse and Wilson. So does the theory of natural selection have any

consequences for morality? According to Ruse and Wilson, it does have consequences

for morality, while according to Sober, it does not have such consequences. But we have

shown that both arguments are weak, and therefore, it is impossible, at least based on

these arguments, to rule out either possibility.