Each month in the magazine, philosopher AC Grayling answers a question sent in by a Prospect reader. This month Richard Wilkins, of Watford, asks: “Can ethics be derived from evolution by natural selection?”
Given that human beings have evolved by natural selection (with genetic drift and some other factors perhaps assisting), and are ethical creatures, it follows ab esse ad posse that ethics can be derived from evolution by natural selection.
That, though, might not be to answer the purport of the question, which asks: would natural selection be sufficient to produce creatures with a consciousness of ethical principles and a tendency to wish to observe them and see them observed?
The idea might be that whereas other social animals have evolved behaviours that subserve the interests of their sociality—dominance orderings, co-operation in hunting and watching for predators—this does not amount to ethics, the idea of which at least premises an awareness of the demands and responsibilities ethics involves, and the possibility of their non-observance, not least deliberately. Among other animals the evolved social behaviours are largely invariant and automatic; a putative “ethics” that is choicelessly a result of hard-wiring could not be ethics.
Immediately one says this, one has begged what is possibly the hardest question known to metaphysics and moral philosophy: that of free will. Almost every indication from sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and neurophilosophy supports the deterministic side of the argument, entailing that our sense of being choice-makers, deliberators, option-possessors, who could have done otherwise in most of our actions, is an illusion. On the evidence flooding in from these sources, we are as other social animals, only worse off in that we operate under an enormous error theory about our own nature, falsely thinking that we have free will and that we are therefore genuinely ethical creatures. It was from this error—if it is one—that Spinoza sought to free us by arguing in his Ethics that once we recognise that we live by necessity, we cease to repine, and thus are liberated from unhappiness.
For of course the very idea of ethics premises freedom of the will. There is no logic in praising or blaming individuals for what they do unless they could have done otherwise, any more than one would praise a pebble for rolling downhill upon being dislodged by rain. So this month’s question becomes, by these selective pressures: could natural selection, resulting in the adaptations otherwise distinctive of human descent, have produced free will?
To answer that requires a clearer conception of “free will.” Its formal identifier is the “genuinely could have done otherwise” requirement: but not only does that itself require unpacking, we also need to look for the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) traces that suggest which structures in the brain import novelty into the world’s causal chains, making their possessor a true agent, and not merely a patient—a sufferer—of the universe’s history. So the question evolves yet again: could finding such a thing even be a possibility?