Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Genealogy of Morals

I can't now remember how I came across Morality as a Biological Phenomenon: the Presuppositions of Sociobiological Research, edited by Gunther S. Stent and published by the University of California Press in 1980, but I'm glad I did. Stent's introductory essay, which I want to write about later, is especially interesting, and I'm still working my way through the book.

"The Biology of Morals from a Psychological Perspective," by P. H. Wolff, seems at odds with the general approach of the collection. Wolff, a developmental neuropsychologist in Boston, puts his foot in it on the very first page.
Like other natural scientists, biologists are guided by an ethical code of procedure, but they usually take for granted the values implicit in the scientific method. The scientific study of human morals, however, makes values themselves the subject matter for investigation, and therefore requires an explicit definition of morality and of the criteria by which various behavior patterns can be categorized as moral. The ultimate criterion applied by biologists to evaluate the relevance of social behavior is survival of the genotype. Natural selection operates on social behaviors that promote reproductive advantage, whereas the individuals whose moral behavior has evolved are not, or need not be, aware of the reasons for the selective fitness of their behavioral genotype.
By contrast, moral philosophers, and at least some psychological theories of morality, consider as moral only those forms of human behavior for which intention, deliberate choice among equally determined actions, and awareness of the social consequences of alternative actions can be assumed. Social behavior that is so rigidly determined by biological mechanisms as to be involuntary is considered to have no more moral content than the human sucking reflex or the gaping response of the herring gull. Yet, from a rigorous biological perspective, both reflex behaviors would have moral relevance. The biological and psychological approaches to human morals may therefore diverge so greatly as to be irreconcilable.
By positing survival of the genotype as a necessary and sufficient sufficient criterion of moral behavior, the biological approach either trivializes the central problems of human morality, or dismisses them as irrelevant epiphenomena. ... We are inclined to absolve transgressions of responsibility when medical diagnosis identifies the physiological causes of antisocial behavior, but we insist on moral responsibility when no such causes can be demonstrated. Thus, we arrive at a classification of human morals under which only social behavior is considered to have moral content for which no causal mechanisms can be demonstrated. Should progress in biological research eventually all varieties of pro- and antisocial behavior in terms of metabolic processes, the belief in moral autonomy and freedom of choice would itself be shown to have genetic determinants, and the traditional views of human morality would evaporate as historical curiosities [83-85].
It's true that the ultimate criterion in evolutionary theory is survival of the genotype, but I can't see any reason to call it moral. Scientists are of course free to grab any term they like, redefine it to suit their research program, and use it happily. Physicists who refer to the "color" or "beauty" of subatomic particles are in little danger of confusing non-physicists or themselves with the possibility that beauty in a quark is the same as beauty in a person, let alone that quark beauty is True Beauty, and that traditional views of human beauty are curiosities suitable for museums and the scrap heap of history.

When biologists and wannabes borrow terms like "moral" or "selfish" for their own use, though, trouble usually ensues. Not only the ignorant masses but the scientists themselves have trouble distinguishing between the different meanings, and it doesn't help when scientists claim that their definition is the real deal, and the "traditional view" just a superstitious vanity. So you get someone like Richard Dawkins insisting that the "selfish gene" isn't selfish in the same way people are, that in any case having selfish genes doesn't make individuals selfish, though he also says that we are born selfish, but are able to "transcend" our genes in some mysterious way.

While "the sucking reflex" that enables a newborn to get nourishment from its mother's breast is valuable for its own survival and so for the survival of Homo sapiens as a species, it really doesn't make any sense to call it "moral", even biologically moral. I suspect that behind such redefinition there lurks a Platonic conception of "species" as some sort of transcendental entity more real than individuals, whose survival isn't just a metaphor but a higher truth. I also suspect that the biologists who do this believe that they really are using "moral" correctly according to its platonically true meaning, and that any other use is not just unscientific but wrong, and superstitious nonsense to boot.

To put it bluntly, where the biological and psychological approaches to human morality clash, the biological approach should lose. Wolff should have included the philosophical approach among the alternatives, though, because moral philosophy is the field of study that actually addresses the meaning of human morality on its own terms (however badly it often does its job).

The really bad thing about positing biological morality as genotype survival is that biologists are perennially tempted to apply biological morality to social morality. If survival of the genotype is true morality, then anyone who chooses not to have offspring is immoral for not doing their part -- except for biologically inferior individuals however they are defined, who should not reproduce at all. Homosexuals, the celibate, all are biologically immoral if they don't reproduce; the sick, the lame, the halt are biologically immoral if they do. It also means that biological morality, far from applying to social behavior -- that is, between individuals of the same species -- is really about the relation between the individual and the Genotype. We've been there before.

Also, it doesn't take Darwinian theory or modern medicine to claim that some individuals, because of their physiological condition, are not responsible for their acts. What we suppose to be the true cause of that condition has changed over the centuries, but it's not a modern development to make allowance for people who aren't in their right mind. What is somewhat new is the scientific notion that biology determines behavior totally, and that no behavior whether pro- or anti-social is the result of "metabolic processes," so that choice is an illusion.

I'm not sure to what extent Wolff actually believes all this. After surveying "social learning theory" for a few pages, he advocates "a more flexible approach to sociobiology," and concludes that
The capacity to reflect on and choose among alternative outcomes is inherent to mature human intelligence. ... Biological evolution does not specify what forms of social action regulate moral conduct, but it defines the boundaries of ethical behavior compatible with species survival. Biology does not specify the choices made, but it prepares the structural conditions without which there can be neither intention or deliberate choice [91-92].
It seems, then, that Wolff considers intention and deliberate choice to be realities, rather than the illusions many sociobiologists and other scientists suppose them to be. His conclusion is basically a platitude, though, which requires neither biology nor psychology to state. Like too many scientists, he seems to think that a person with scientific training doesn't need to be informed philosophically about issues like morality, even though science is nowhere near encroaching on them. That was true in the 1970s when Wolff wrote his paper, and it's still true now.