Where do Morals Come From?

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Where do Morals Come From?

Rebekah Rich

Science can give us as good a moral code as any religion. Or so Daniel Dennett claims in his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Dennett provides the tools to explain human morality, and inadvertently leads the way to the conclusion (which he does not share) that science can clarify how human morality came about, but not serve as a substitute or model for moral codes, religious and secular alike.

It all begins with Dennett's assertion that everything- everything- is a product of an algorithmic process, which comes about as a result of random change. By definition these algorithmic processes, evolution included, are "matter first". Dennett uses a metaphor of "cranes"; that new changes in species or anything else are made possible by what already existed in the material world. When speaking about life it is also usefully explained by considering adaptation to be, in practice, exaptation. Nothing in the Darwinian story of the world suggests that anything about better or worse, or for that matter, good and evil.

This is the main point commonly used to dispel notions of Social Darwinism. But it, in my mind, is not sufficient. A few people are doing better in the world than others, and it is not because they are better than the others, or that the others are inferior, it just happened that way because of social circumstances. It has nothing to do with biology. So what! Science here offers no ethical insight; it only prompts indifference. Even if Darwinism is no justification for social injustice, it does nothing to suggest that there is an urgent need for social change. At worst, if one does not take away from this a warning not to mix ideas about society and biology lightly, it might lead one to think that social circumstances are just another random difference that exists within all populations; therefore it is still fair game to better one's circumstances even further with them. Consider it exaptation.

Can altruism- true altruism, not altruism among kin, not reciprocal altruism, but the fabled Good Samaritan altruism, exist as a product of evolution? There is no clear evolutionary advantage to helping those in the "out-group" that deals strictly with biology (which is not to say that there are not brands of altruism for which there is an evolutionary advantage). Those who accept only matter-first explanations of the world may be likely to argue that people do not, in fact, commit purely selfless acts. Others, including Mayr, allow that Good Samaritan-style altruism exists, but only as a product of culture. It would be hard to find an evolutionary advantage to many products of culture. Take monogamous males for an example. Of course there are plenty of them out there, just as there are plenty of people who commit acts of true altruism, but like altruism, monogamy is hardly the rule. While the question of altruism is by all means an important question, it may not take us where we want to go.

The question Dennett then asks is, if morals cannot be derived from the value-free natural world, then from where? His answer is "...ethics must be somehow based on an appreciation of human nature- a sense of what a human being is or might be, and on what a human being might want to have or want to be."." (p.468) Dennett tells us that though culture (ethics included) has a foundation in biology, it is largely autonomous of biology, and presumably it got to be that way because of human's fantastic capacity for learning. (p.491) Yet he also concedes that there is little hope that we will find an algorithm for ethics (culture presumably included). The reason may be that it is simply too complicated an algorithm, but if an algorithm must have a finite number of steps, it seems very dubious to try and apply it the infinite number of human beings and cultures and circumstances.

Dennett skips right over the key. If our brains "were truly capable of nonalgorithmic activity, and if we have such brains, and if our brains are themselves the products of an algorithmic evolutionary process, a curious inconsistency emerges: an algorithmic process... creates a nonalgorithmic subprocess..." (p448) That said, he goes on to ridicule what another scientist might make of this, without addressing this possibility seriously.

The idea that the human mind is at least in part a mind-first agent opens the possibility that we ourselves determine meanings by consciously choosing what we want something to mean. In class, Prof. Grobstein demonstrated our mind-first-ness best by explaining that a piece of written music, while it is matter, does not become music until it is interpreted by the human mind and made music.

Human nature, just as it implies, should be understood to be, and be defined by, nature. Therefore our understanding of human nature should be that can be neither inherently good nor evil. Nonetheless we do indeed have "a sense of what a human being is or might be, and ... what a human being might want to have or want to be" by which we create stories and go beyond nature. These stories themselves are often the motivation for what we determine to be evil upon examining an alternate story, but we do not have a choice about whether or not we tell stories at all. That is in our nature. Alternately, without our stories we would not experience good and beautiful.

The most dissatisfying aspect of a matter-first explanation of morality is that it absolves us from any responsibility for how we impact the natural world and other human beings. This could come as a welcome relief, after considering the incomprehensible responsibility of being an agent of creation. But consider again all the hope and possibilities that lie in being able to tell stories that change the world!

Works Cited

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York, NY: Simon&Schuster, 1995.

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