Sunday, December 27, 2015

Conundrums of moral obligation

Does one have greater personal obligation to the welfare of some individuals over others?  In my recent book (Aarssen 2015), I explore this question in term of its evolutionary roots. The answer is clearly yes for most people, at least in practice, and evolu-tionary theory explains why — based on genetic relatedness.  

I care immensely about my own personal welfare because I am 100% related to myself — ancient survival instinct in action.  But one’s sense of obligation to others generally falls off with decreasing genetic relatedness.  Hence, most people are motivated to come to the aid of an offspring or a sibling in need.  Commonly, they will also offer help — although less readily — to more distantly related kin.  This bias based on kinship (nepotism) is cross-cultural, and generally accepted as moral, without debate; it is ‘hard-wired’ in the ‘selfish genes’ of humans. 

But a moral dilemma unfolds as we move further down the genetic-relatedness scale, where we encounter additional levels of in-group bias — most notably based on racial membership (racism), and further down based on species membership (speciesism).  These are all anciently evolved components of human nature because in-group bias (including other forms based on nationalism, xenophobia, enthnocentrism, religion, and other cultural worldviews) generally rewarded gene transmission success in our deep ancestral past. However, they have commonly received variable ratings in terms of morality, and the dilemma then lies in defining (or in whether it is even possible to define) an objective basis for moral standards.

On the one hand, the bounds of morality are shaped in part by social learning within local cultures.  In other words, societies have always decided for themselves what is unacceptable, immoral, and unlawful for the best interests of the ‘public good’ (and some groups have made better decisions — for their own welfare — than others).  And this is why Darwinism can never be used to justify or excuse behaviours (e.g. sexual harassment / abuse and other crimes) that violate or compromise human rights or public safety.   Moral and social responsibility always trump genetic bequeathal.

At the same time, however (thankfully), evolution has also given us what can only be described as a ‘moral instinct’.  This is because what is good for the best interests (prosperity) of the social group — e.g. in the case of certain agreed-upon moral codes of conduct — is normally contingent on this also being in the best interests of gene transmission success for at least most of the resident individuals.  In other words, traits influenced by genes have commonly shaped the cultures that people like — because they were (commonly) cultures that rewarded ancestral gene transmission success.   In pondering on morality, Darwin (1859) wrote:  “As soon as this virtue is honored and practiced by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.”  Importantly however, humans evolved a moral instinct not in order to deliver us morality per se — only fitness.  As Alexander (1985) put it: “Although morality is commonly defined as involving justice for all people, or consistency in the social treatment of all humans, it may have arisen for immoral reasons, as a force leading to cohesiveness within human groups but specifically excluding and directed against other human groups with different interests.”

A comparison of racism versus speciesism particularly shows the confounds of defining moral standards.  Both — like nepotism — have been regarded as largely moral throughout much of human history.  But in most cultures today, racism is of course widely regarded as immoral, because it is never in the best interests of modern society. It undermines the ‘common good’, plus it conflicts with our evolved inclinations to show kindness and helpfulness towards fellow humans.  And yet, racism often still rears its ugly head. In contrast, speciesism today is still largely regarded as moral by the general public, and the philosopher might reasonably ask why — i.e. along a continuum of genetic relatedness, why should an immoral in-group bias (racism) be sandwiched between two (nepotism and speciesism) that are traditionally considered moral (e.g. see Lawlor 2012)?

Clearly the harvesting and exploitation of animals for human consumption has been a major boost to human prosperity and genetic fitness ever since our distant ancestors became hunters.  Speciesism, however has come under increasing attack in recent years over concerns about the ethical treatment of animals used in modern medical research and food production.  And a growing number of people now regard speciesism to be just as immoral as racism (e.g.  It will be interesting to watch how this movement unfolds, and to consider whether it has evolutionary roots. For example, has our empathic instinct evolved to become so acute that the emotion involved (perhaps partially modulated by social learning), has started recently to spill over somewhat towards the plight of individuals belonging to other species?  I wonder whether this might be connected with our uniquely human mortality salience and self-impermanence anxiety (Aarssen 2015). Cave (2014) offers an interesting perspective:

“This horror at the death of other creatures is intimately bound up with horror at the prospect of one’s own demise.  Flies come and go in countless masses, mostly beyond my sight and care.  But when something happens that causes me to empathise, to become the fly, then its death becomes terrible.  As the poet William Blake realised when he, too, carelessly squashed an insect:

     Am not I
     A fly like thee?
     Or art not thou
     A man like me?”


Aarssen LW (2015) What Are We? Exploring the Evolutionary Roots of Our Future. Queen’s University, Kingston.

Alexander RD (1985) A biological interpretation of moral systems. Zygon 20: 3-20.

Cave S (2014) Not nothing: The death of a fly is utterly insignificant – or it’s a catastrophe. How much should we worry about what we squash? Aeon Magazine.

Darwin C (1859) On the Origin of Species. Facsimile of the first edition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Lawlor R (2012) The ethical treatment of animals: The moral significance of Darwin’s theory. In, Brinkworth M, Weinert F (Eds). Evolution 2.0. Implications of Darwinism in Philosophy and the Social and Natural Sciences. Springer, Verlag.

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