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Evolution and Ethics

In an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (edited by J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen in 2003) entitled Evolutionary Ethics, author Jeffrey P. Schloss (Westmont College, Santa Barbara, USA) explains that there are three ways to connect ethics and evolution. We may (1) study how ethics evolved in the cultural history of human civilisation (evolution of ethics), (2) reflect upon the ethical-normative content of evolutionary processes (ethics of evolution), or (3) attempt to derive ethical principles or guidelines from biological and/or socio-cultural evolution (ethics from evolution). Unfortunately, this rather poor article is short, incomplete, highly selective and a bit outdated. Worst of all, it is not precise, neither in the definition of ethics (especially its distinction from and relation to morality) nor in that of evolution (obviously assuming a strict Darwinian evolution model with a selection factor that is necessarily natural). That inspired me to think a bit deeper about these three fields of inquiry and write down my own reflections.

  1. Evolution of ethics

“What shall we do?”, or better: “What is right/good to do?”, are questions that people ask themselves or each other ever since man is able to reflect on that question. Whenever the action in question is one that affects people or instances other than the actor, it is a matter of ethics. How to treat others and how to control one’s decisions and actions in terms of certain values, virtues or other factors constitute one of the major branches in academic and applied philosophy around the globe. With a growing complexity of options and possibilities, the answer to those questions becomes more and more demanding and challenging. Whereas basic codes of conduct and moral rules for behaviour in small and pre-civilised communities (like tribes and ancient societies) can be sufficiently governed by simple principles such as “Don’t treat others like you don’t want to be treated by them!” (the Golden Rule), contemporary issues in applied ethics (like bioethics, medical ethics, questions of global justice, business ethics, technological impact, etc.) require sophisticated reasoning strategies and rational discourse in order to mediate between different interests and colliding values. A short look at the history of ethics reveals a trend that confirms this idea of ethics evolving over time: In Europe, the ancient Greek answered ethical questions with a virtue approach (“In a situation of ethical decision-making, choose what the ideal person would do!”). 2000 years later, Kant built a metaphysical theory of rational beings having intrinsic self-value, which puts the duty on everyone to respect that value (“Always treat people as ends, never only as mere means!”, “Always act as if the maxim of your will could at the same time serve as a common law!”). A little later, Bentham and Mill developed an ethical theory that focuses on the outcome of an action as the determining factor (consequentialism, most prominent form: utilitarianism, “Good is what brings about the biggest benefit for the largest number of entities.”). In very recent history, more elaborated theories such as contractarianism (based on John Rawls’ theory of justice) or discourse ethics (from Jürgen Habermas’ model of communicative rationality) have been presented and exploited for real-life cases. These later ideas help finding solutions for questions of distributive justice, human rights, political affairs, global economy and ecological or environmental sustainability. Similar developments of a sophistication of philosophical ethics can certainly be drawn in other cultural realms like the Asian (from Confucian and Daoist ethics via Mohism, Legalism and Buddhist ethics to contemporary Asian scholars).

It is important to note that an evolution of ethics must not be mixed up with an evolution of morality! I don’t think that human morality “evolves”. People today are not better people than people 500, 2000 or 10000 years ago! Ethics (the English singular term) is the endeavour to derive and reason morals (or ethics as the English plural term). It is this intellectual attempt that evolves in its strategies, methodologies and techniques, but not the sum of ethical codes (as the morality of a society) or even to what extent people obey to them. Before going into detail in the illustration of how ethics evolve, it has to be clarified what counts as evolution here. Darwin’s concept of biological evolution needs the trinity of reproduction, variation (for example by mutations) and natural selection as the factor that determines the success of a variation. Ethics as a completely human concept does certainly not evolve through a selection process of viable ethics theories by any “natural” entity. Rather, the selection is an artificial one, carried out by humans individually or as a societal agglomerate. When ethical theories are not successful in practice, they are challenged, modified, contested, refined or sometimes thrown aboard and substituted by new theories that serve the desired purposes better. Ethics is, therefore, a cultural achievement, not a natural one (but more on that in section 3).

Let me try to draw some lines of development from ancient humans until today (without having a solid knowledge background, I admit). The very basic human trait that makes people consider the rightness or goodness of an action is, probably, our emotional capacity, most of all empathic abilities. We are able to anticipate feelings, to “put ourselves into others’ shoes”. Our psychological demands, most of all the feeling of belongingness and as a result our family ties and desire for social embedment, make us want to see the people that mean something to us be happy and feel good. In the next step, we expand this capacity to people we don’t know. We rescue a child that fell into a well because we anticipate its suffering (and that of its parents) and feel the immediate obligation to save it from suffering. Nietzsche pointed out three possibilities here: (1) Ignoring the child and doing nothing, (2) rescuing the child for selfish reasons (a reward, or to stop the child’s annoying crying), (3) rescuing the child out of altruistic pure moral heartfelt concern. Only the third attitude is a purely ethical one, since the second one appears to us as a coldly calculated “reasonable” decision. It seems, there is an undeniable emotivistic foundation of morality. Rudimentary ethics, therefore, is the empathic observation of others’ wellbeing and satisfaction of interests. From this, considerations for right or wrong behaviour are deducted.

When larger societies formed and required new forms of governance and inner organisation (as in the ancient Greek Polis), these simple decision aids (“I do what doesn’t harm you.”) did not succeed in solving the urging issues of the time. Wise scholars modified the emotivist ethics, starting from the general premise that in principle we all know what is good because we feel it, suggesting to align one’s decisions to the behaviour of widely respected and admired ideal figures. “Look at that soldier! He is a good soldier because he is so brave, neither a coward nor a daredevil! That’s how you as a soldier should act!“. There is not much sophisticated philosophical reasoning in virtue ethics, yet. However, in order to achieve wisdom (the highest of all virtues), one must have a certain degree of knowledge, for example of state affairs, of contemporary crafts skills, of the world (today we would say science), of social organisation. An important factor in many societies of those times (3000-2000 years ago) was religion, here defined as the belief in powerful divine entities, while school education was not available for the majority of people. In this environment, knowledge is power of a few over many, and religious and political authorities constitute a new source of morality (“It is right because I tell you so, authorised by God!”). Ethics, then, is more strictly separated from morality itself: Those who perform ethics are a few while morality is inflicted on the ethical laymen (the majority of people), communicated by religious or state institutions and passed down from generation to generation via cultural customs and traditions.

Over the centuries, knowledge increases, libraries are filled, societies reform and revolutionise, education systems arise, political systems transform. A growing knowledge base almost necessarily changes the Menschenbild (image of man) that people have. Again from a European perspective: Galileo (and others) took Earth out of the center of the universe, Darwin took man out of the center of creatures, Freud took the ego out of the center of a person. The authority of church was sustainably shattered, enlightened humanism was on the rise. In the spirit of the French revolution, everybody was equal (more or less), everybody was free and self-determined (more or less), everybody was rational and reasonable (always more “less” than “more”). The answer to the question of what was right to do had to be reconfigured and put onto new grounds. The philosophical giant Immanuel Kant, father of European enlightenment, formulated his famous categorical imperative (see above) which impacted European law-and-order systems and political philosophy immensely until today. Ethics, then, becomes a normative science: An active elaboration (like “mental research and innovation”) of principles and theories that have to prove their viability by being applicable for the solution of particular ethical problems. In terms of evolution: Human problems that exist ever since continuously required answers (the reproduction of ethics in everyday life) while traditional value- and worldview-systems were not sufficient any longer so that they were varied (input of contemporary knowledge, adaption to new social circumstances, etc.) until normative theories were found that met the goals of solving the issue at stake (the artificial selection in terms of success criteria) in view of an ever increasing knowledge foundation. These criteria vary from society to society and over time, of course. Today, almost all social processes are regulated in normative terms, most prominently in professional fields (medicine, science, engineering, business, etc.) and in environmental issues (including the relationship between humans and nature, humans and animals, humans and plants, etc.). Ethics is now a field of expertise of mostly academic scholars that acquire a large amount of knowledge in particular specialised fields in order to tackle the pressing problems that arise in those narrowly confined areas. In order to answer normative questions in the field of nanotechnology, for example, one needs to be an expert on nano-science and nanotechnology itself, but also on ethics (as philosophical discipline), sociology, economy, technology governance, etc. Ethics is no longer a matter of interpersonal attitude, but one of roundtables and commissions.

Evolution of ethics is an inquiry that results in descriptive statements about historical and cultural developments and events. It can facilitate the understanding of particular societies in their temporal and regional frames. It is in a way neutral that it doesn’t tell anything meta-ethical, like the appropriateness or correctness of an ethical theory. As always with historical and cultural studies, the true value lies in what we do with what we learn from it: In the face of inevitably revolutionary insights from scientific, technological, cultural and societal progress, will we be able to align our normative standards and their reasoning to our new knowledge horizons?

For more information on the development of ethics systems around the globe, have a look at one or all of the following books:

  • Kenan Malik, The Quest For A Moral Compass – A Global History Of Ethics, Melville House Pub., 2014
  • Harry J. Gensler, Ethics – A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2011
  • Lisa Rasmussen, Ethics Expertise. History, Contemporary Perspectives, and Applications, Springer, 2005
  • Tad Dunne, Doing Better – The Next Revolution in Ethics, Marquette Univ. Press, 2010
  1. Ethics of evolution

From my point of view, the case is simple here: There is no ethics of evolution. Evolution as a process that occurs in nature (the biological evolution from which life forms emerge and that works in accordance with material cause-effect-relations and with fundamental principles of the universe like striving for harmony and balance, interconnectedness and conditionality) and culture (social progress, technology, politics, worldviews, etc.) is value-free in the sense that it simply follows pathways that are shaped by certain conditions. The most prominent opponents against my view are the religious institutions, above all the monotheistic churches. In his famous book Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, Thomas H. Huxley (1894) draws a picture of evolution as a process full of evil: In Darwinian evolution, suffering and death become primal features rather than post-hoc additions to creation. The role of natural evil changes from an ancillary intrusion upon God’s mode of creation to the central driving force of the process itself. Moreover, the Darwinian picture of the world is coloured by dominant hues of self-interest and an utter absence of natural beneficence. Huxley obviously misunderstood completely what evolution is about, partly due to improper wording of early evolutionists. Educated people of today know better, of course. The “fight for survival” is actually not a fight among individuals or species in the direct meaning of the word. The fittest is not a dominant egoist but always that one who has better chances to succeed in a particular situation with a particular set of conditions that – co-incidentally – the fittest one meets best. Evolution is a cosmic process that – as I insist – is non-teleological and, therefore, non-ethical (unless you believe in God as creator, but then you better go and get some education). Ethics is a human system for the evaluation of actions and decisions which simply doesn’t apply to natural processes.

  1. Ethics from evolution

If not ethical as such, can evolution (better: our insights into the mechanisms and pathways of evolution) at least tell us anything about how we can elaborate a valid and viable ethics theory? Two viewpoints would definitely answer “No!”: Monotheistic religions that insist on morals provided by divine command, and moral realism that regards moral value as intrinsically existing unshakably in the world. I am entirely non-religious, so I won’t even comment on the former. Apparently, I am also not a realist, but the case is more complicated here. Normativity, ethics, laws, cultural codes of conduct, are constructions by human intellect and reflection. However, it is essential to apply a holistic viewpoint here: The human mind can’t be seen without its embedment into the environmental system that developed and shaped it – by evolutionary processes! As explained before, harmony and balance are major driving forces of universal processes. Evolution, then, is not an entirely random undirected emergence of co-incidental features and entities. Rather, it is a fine-tuned balancing-out of conditions in which a certain state (for example, a life form with a certain ability) can only sustain because it fits. That means (as Nancy Murphy puts it), the universe operates in such a way that what comes into existence (which means “what works”) inevitably tends toward the right or the good. Here, I run the risk of being accused of a naturalistic fallacy: I derive an ethical evaluation from what simply is. Indeed, the introduction of value statements (something is good or right) only works on the premise that it is justified to see value in cosmic harmony and its striving for balance.

If we can accept this point – that evolution itself proceeds on the basis of an intrinsic value – what does it actually tell us? The insight that everything that evolved has the same intrinsic value just because it has evolved is too simplistic and relativistic. Limiting our ethical vision to what conforms with prevailing views of the natural dismisses the human trait of karmic power, the ability to choose consciously even when it is “not natural” (which is, of course, part of the nature). I suggest that the link between ethics and evolution must be regarded as a rather loose one. The best ethics (from a meta-ethical perspective) is one that is informed by rationally acquired knowledge (for example by scientific inquiry) to the largest possible extent. Rather than deriving ethics directly from evolution, we align our normative understandings and evaluations with what we know about the world we live in. For example, with our knowledge about the evolution of life forms, we can’t regard mankind as “the crown of creation” any longer (like Christian ethics would), but appreciate and protect other environmental entities or even give them higher moral significance than human interests – an important insight for environmental ethics and bioethics. We would be able to argue from an evolutionary perspective against speciesism, racism and global injustice. Insights into psychological traits and how they arose in the anthropological history of mankind may equip us with the skill of empathic benevolence, thus reducing prejudice, hatred and interpersonal disharmony.

This view builds the bridge between knowledge of nature (what is) and normativity (what ought). A separation is necessary for many reasons (discussed elsewhere). But an alignment and reasonable adjustment of the latter by the former is necessary as well. This protects us from our mindless default-setting, from religious or other dogmatism and moral preaching, and from naturalistic moral absolutism. I am firmly convinced that only then will we be able to face and solve the urging ethical questions that arise in contemporary societies and their sub-spheres.

For further insights into this field of inquiry, check this book:

  • Scott M. James, An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, Wiley Blackwell, 2011

Or a rather critical one (because it is always better to know all perspectives):

  • Paul Lawrence Farber, The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics, Univ. California Press, 1994



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