Natural morality by natural selection. A moral Equation?

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Scientific American columns

This is a mistake. We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields. The Is-Ought problem sometimes rendered as the "naturalistic fallacy" is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing.

Free Thought Lives

Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let's give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live. We begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context— is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature.

For example:. These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle's virtue ethics, Kant's categorical imperative, Mill's utilitarianism, or Rawls' fairness ethics, but in science as well.

Consider the following example of how science can determine human values. Question : What is the best form of governance for large modern human societies? Answer : a liberal democracy with a market economy. Evidence : liberal democracies with market economies are more prosperous, more peaceful, and fairer than any other form of governance tried.

My response to that is it isn't an adequate explanation at all, because the category of things that we call moral is not adequately engaged by mere descriptions of past behavior.

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That morality entails a look forward to the future, not just to the past, not just looking backwards to what we have done, or what was done by certain individuals, which they happen to call moral. But it is a look forward into the future about how we ought to behave.

Since morality is prescriptive, not descriptive, and if it is normative -- if it talks about how we ought to behave -- and the evolutionary description of moral behavior doesn't engage that very fundamental, core element of morality, then it hasn't explained it and morality still needs to be explained. There was another bit of step by step reasoning that I used to show, I think, very clearly that what evolution might describe couldn't possibly be what we understand morality to be.

Natural morality

They are explaining something different. I get to that by asking a series of questions. Instead of looking backward, I look forward, and I ask a question of moral behavior like "Why ought anyone be unselfish in the future?


  1. Kant’s Moral Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)!
  2. Progress in Heterocyclic Chemistry: 25.
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The question came up yesterday regarding an observation that was done with chimpanzees. There was a group of chimpanzees which had, in a sense, punished one member for being selfish by withholding food from that member and therefore teaching that member moral behavior. Apparently, the moral rule that undergirded the lesson was that the other chimpanzee ought not be selfish. That's a moral statement and the question I'm going to ask is "Why ought the chimp or human not be selfish? The answer is going to be that when we're selfish, it hurts the group.

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But you see, that answer isn't enough of an answer because that answer itself presumes another moral value that we ought to be concerned about the health of the group. So, I'm going to ask the question, "Why ought we be concerned about the health of the group? Then you can imagine the next question. Therefore, it can't be the explanation of morality.

The Man Who Gave Himself Away

When I ask the question "Why ought I be concerned with the species? The answer is, "I ought to be concerned with the species because if the species dies out, then I will not survive. If the species is in jeopardy, then my own personal self interests would be in jeopardy.

Darwin and Intelligent Design: Morality in Natural Selection

So why ought I be unselfish? Because it is better for me.

How Do Evolution and Natural Selection Affect Morality?

But looking at what is better for me, is selfishness. That is silly. Because we know that morality can't be reduced to selfishness.


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  • Why do we know that? Because our moral rules are against selfishness and for altruism. They are against selfishness and for the opposite. When you think about what it is that morality entails, you don't believe that morality is really about being selfish.

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