Grayling’s Question: Ethics and Darwin

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Grayling’s Question: Ethics and Darwin

Morals from monkeys?

Morals from monkeys?

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

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  1. January 10, 2009

    David Heigham

    A Discussion

    (The scenario is, of course, virtual. Whether it is hypothetical is moot.)

    Solon: You decided to launch this topic, Grayling. Was that decision an act of free will?

    Grayling: I so perceived it; but I cannot offer any conclusive proof.

    S: Could your decision be the result of a chance or random process?

    G: I cannot rule out that possibility; though I did not perceive it as such.

    S: Alternatively, could you have decided as a result of some necessary cause hidden from you?

    G: Again, I cannot rule out that possibility.

    The stickit Minister : (He was trained as a Calvinist divine, though his current occupation is as an actuary)
    You allow the possibility of divine predestination?

    S: Divine predestination is included in the class of possible necessary causes hidden from us, is it not?

    M: It is properly described as the model of all such causes.

    S: Free will, a random process or a hidden necessary cause; what other cause might have produced this decision?

    G: I do not, for the present, perceive any other possibility not included in those three.

    S: Are all three possible?

    G: A random process and a hidden necessary cause are always possibilities. Can free will be ruled out as impossible?

    S: If all events follow necessarily from earlier events, free will is not possible. However, twentieth century physical science appears to have demonstrated that there are events of which that cannot be said, at least at the quantum level. At the macro level, it also appears to have been demonstrated that in the general class of chaotic systems, a class of which most human affairs seem to be a subset, events occur which we will never be able to predict. If these latter can occur because of infinitely small causes, there is a conceptual link between quantum and macro uncertainty. Whether or not that link holds, it is clear that macro physical events can occur which cannot be deduced by human wit from the prior conditions.

    The Imam: You imply that we cannot rule out free will as impossible?

    S: If we accept that agents exist who might be capable of choosing. Do we?
    G: You postulated earlier that I might be capable of choosing.

    M: You said “ which cannot be deduced by human wit.” You have not ruled out that, for divine providence, one event may follow another in predestined sequence.

    S: Minister, we have already admitted that hidden necessary cause might be present. All we have shown is that it is beyond our wit to rule out free will.

    The school Principal: (she is recently retired) We have still not got to the question. Could natural selection have produced free will?

    I: I think that establishing that we cannot rule out free will is a legitimate prior question.

    S: I have often suspected that good teachers and good leaders have the trick of calling groups to order when they are just about to come to order. In the theory of evolution, what is supposed to produce change by natural selection?

    Charles Darwin-Jones: (He is an enthusiast for neural networks) My revered ancestor presumed that it was the appearance of a variant of an organism that was better fitted to survive and reproduce in an environment than competing variants.

    S: The process by which variants appear is not distinguishable from random?

    C: No-one has yet been able to distinguish that process from random chance.

    M: But it could be divine providence?

    C: It could, but there is no need for the assumption. Occam’s razor suggests that we leave it out of this argument.

    S: William of Occam was a theologian. I am wary of setting one divine against another. I should have said that the process is not humanly distinguishable from random. Is it right to say that once such a variant appears, it conveys an evolutionary advantage to that organism?

    C: Yes, but where does that get us?

    S: Towards the question of whether the occurrence of the variant of a degree of free will would convey an evolutionary advantage on the organism. Before that, do we accept that there are some decisions taken by any agent to which it does not make sense to apply the description of free will? I refer to decisions taken without conscious thought?

    G: When I play rapid ping pong, I certainly do not think consciously about each stroke, but I do shape my play by conscious choice.

    S: A very appropriate example. You feel that you could be attempting to exercise free will over your style of play; but you do not see the possibility within that prior decision of varying the programmed response of individual strokes. You therefore are admitting that free will could apply in some cases, but not in others.

    G: You leave me with the feeling that you do not play ping pong; but I accept the general point.

    S: So there are degrees of free will, if it exists. Do we know any reason why a degree of free will could not appear as an evolutionary variant?

    I: God appears to have admitted an almost infinite variety of evolutionary variants, I see no ground for excluding one embracing a degree of free will.

    C: Nor do I; though I stress that I see no need to admit the hypothesis of God.

    S: Having admitted the possibility of free will appearing as an evolutionary variant, what evolutionary advantage or disadvantage might it confer?

    P: In individual decisions, surely none. How could an uninformed free will decision be any better than a random decision?

    G: But if the free will decision were informed by the results of earlier random or automatic decisions, on average free will decisions could confer an advantage over random or automatic decision.

    C: Could, but need not. Free will decisions might require a greater investment of time or effort.

    P: But if there are cases where the evolutionary costs of free will decisions do not exceed the evolutionary advantage, evolution would tend to establish free will in these cases?

    S: So it appears. We have established that free will is not conceptually impossible; that there is no known a priori or empirical reason why a degree of free will should not appear as an evolutionary variant; and that it is possible that such a variant could confer an evolutionary advantage on an organism possessing memory of previous decisions.

    P: Quod erat demonstrandum?

    S: Not quite. We have established no reason for thinking that an evolutionary variant conferring free will would be limited to adaptations otherwise distinctive of human descent. Is there any need, or any case, for such a limitation?

  2. January 24, 2009

    Gerry Porter

    Allow me to set aside the metaphysical dialogue on free will and ethics for a moment and offer for consideration a creation that I believe strongly supports the notion that man is innately ethical, i.e. a consequence of natural selection.

    The creation to which I refer is Western civilization. It is a system of governance that evolved, over several centuries, from the bottom up. To paraphrase Lincoln, it is: by, for, and of the people. Western civilization was not imposed upon its citizens by a more powerful entity; it evolved incrementally as a result of the efforts of many individuals and institutions over a relatively long time. By any measure, Western civilization is a fundamentally ethical place, i.e. it tends to nourish what is good in humanity and to restrain that which is not.

    While, as individuals, our behavior ranges from incorrigibly evil to supremely good, our overall behavior rests slightly on the benign side of the balance. I thus take the existence of Western civilization as proof that, as a species, humankind is innately moral and ethical.

    As for free will. I suggest that, as has been discussed above, quantum indeterminacy opens the door to free will. Quantum considerations probably don’t guarantee the existence of free will, but I view it as a positive indication rather than a neutral or negative indication. A deterministic universe is no longer in the cards since all future events can be described only in terms of probabilities ranging from greater than 0% to less than 100%.

    A second argument in favor of free will is neurological; our sense of guilt. If each of our actions were pre-determined, choice would not be an option and guilt would be an alien sensation. But we do feel guilt (notwithstanding psychopathic behavior) if we do or say something contrary to our template of ethical behavior.

    However, our innate template provides us with only the wherewithal to be ethical. Because of interactions between our genetic endowments and our environments, the template – almost certainly more influential in nurturing ethical behavior in some than in others – does not automatically yield ethical behavior in all.

    Gerry Porter

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