Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Christine Clavien on Evolutionary Ethics

30/10/2008: a lecture about Evolutionary Ethics by Christine Clavien, post-doc at the University of Lausanne, took place at Lyon 3 University, in the seminar organized by Denis Forest.

Christine Clavien did an excellent presentation of evolutionary ethics. You can find here the notes I took during the conference. I invite you to visit her homepage and the page devoted to her work (free access to many papers).

This is the english version of "Éthique évolutionniste: Christine Clavien".

1) Social Darwinism

a-Major Theses:

* The effect of evolution is selecting the best beings: the survival of the most fit is considered as a factor in the improvement of race (the weakest are eliminated). (Eugenism thesis.)

* The human race is divided into races. (Polygenic thesis.)

* The biological characters are more determinant than the environment. (Thesis of hereditarianism: Galton, inherited from Lamarck.)

* The relationship between individuals is basically the conflict. (Thesis of Struggle for life.)

b-The socio-political applications:

* The "laissez-faire" strategy: it is primarily an anti-"welfare state" policy (based on the principles of charity and solidarity, the WF allows the reproduction of the weakest).

* Intervention: from eugenic policy (promoting the development of the "better beings" and preventing the reproduction of the "lowest beings") to the policy of the destruction of the individuals (or races) considered as the weakest.
As we can see, it is difficult to associate Darwinism with any specific political doctrine.

* Imperialism: justification of colonization.

2) Problems with social Darwinism

* Evolution does not select the best in absolute terms, but those who are the most fit with an environment. "The selection can not produce perfection, because in the competition for reproductive success among members of a population, it is only needed to be better, there is no need to be perfect. "(Mayr, 1989).

* The polygenic argument is false and the differentiation of races based on criterion located at the individual level (color, shape of the face) is inadequate to characterize a race. These are minor characters in terms of organization and functioning of human beings.

* Biological causality is not determinism. "The animal that results is not the most perfect design conceivable, nor is it merely good enough to scrape by. It is the product of a historical sequence of changes, each one of which represented, at best, the better of the alternatives that happened to be around at the time. "(Dawkins, 1999: 46). Example: pandas eat bamboos; in order to help them to eat, evolution has selected a bone at the location of the thumb. But with this bone, they are clumsy. A real articulated thumb would have been undoubtedly much more convenient.

* In a hostile environment, animals are not necessarily in conflict: the emperor penguins, when it is very cold, form a very compact group, in "tortoise formation", in order to limit contact with cold air. And so that the peripherical penguins do not succumb, a rotation takes place between the individuals who are at the periphery and the individuals who are at the centre.

3) Evolutionary Ethics

a-A method:

* Evolutionary ethics (EE) is not social Darwinism. It does not draw any socio-political conclusions from his theses. While the social Darwinism is usually use to justify theories and socio-political policy, EE is entirely theoretical.

* EE is not a set of statement, but a (scientific) methodology applied to the field of moral philosophy. It is not a different theoretical option from those in the field of moral philosophy.

* With the help of other disciplines (biology, evolutionary psychology, game theory ...), EE is trying to understand the role of evolution in moral behavior and moral beliefs.

b- The 4 domains of ethics and evolutionary ethics:

One can distinguish 4 areas in Ethics: meta-ethics, applied ethics, descriptive ethical and normative ethics.

* Meta-ethic: branch of ethics that addresses the ontological nature of moral objects. EE does not seem to have decisive data or theory in this domain, because the evolutionary ethicists defend all positions in the spectrum of ethics.

* Applied Ethics: branch of ethics which addresses the application of moral standards. Because of the excesses of social Darwinism, evolutionary ethicists avoid this aspect.

* Descriptive ethics: branch of ethics which adresses the genesis of behavior and moral beliefs. The evolutionary approach assumes that morality is the result of a natural process of evolution. It is the stronghold of EE: it reaches "satisfactory" explanations of certain moral behaviors, including altruism.

Example: the reproduction of kamikazes bees (Hamilton (William), "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior (I and II)", Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, pp.1-52). We know that in a swarm of bees, most of them are sterile. The behavior of the kamikaze bees can be explained by the fact that they are dedicated to the community. The problem is how the property to be sterile in kamikaze bees could be selected instead of contributing to the extinction of these bees? In fact, since the bees have only, technically speaking, a single set of chromosomes (they have the same mother and no father), they have a common heritage with their sisters. That is why it is more interesting for the bees to protect their sisters rather than to trying to preserve themselves. By sacrificing themselves, they lose their genetic material, but they save the one of their sisters. This type of selection may be applied to men: genes that induce altruistic behavior may be selected by evolution because they are interesting, especially when they are reciprocal (especially in the context of parental love).

But as Christine Clavien demonstrated in her presentation, being able to explain the reciprocal altruism is not enough if our aim is explained morality in all its aspects.

According to C Clavien , there are two trends of explanation about the origin of morality:
1) Morality is a selective advantage, it answered a need that arose during human evolution, particularly in the context of a life in the middle of a community. This position is supported by Richards (1986 Richards, "A defense of evolutionary ethics," Biology and Philosophy, 1 (1986), pp. 265-293)

2) Several characters have evolved independently, but led by association, to morality. This position is defended by Stitch, Rottschaeffer, Prinz.

* Normative ethics: a branch of ethics that addresses the justification of moral judgments. EE does not solve the problems of ethical standards in a definitive manner, due to the dubious passage of facts to normative standards.

1) Reducing the "ought to" to the "to be". Moore has revealed that it is misleading to define the moral good (well) in descriptive terms (the pleasant, the desirable ...) because they do not belong to the same category.

2) Reduction of the "to be" to the "ought to". Hume noted that authors of moral philosophy tend to pass to remarks about facts to normative conclusions without any justification. Factual premises can not lead to a normative conclusion.

Even with this difficulty EE has its advantages. It helps to denounce the illusion of ethics: it cannot base all its statements on absolute standards. It must give up the search for ultimate foundations, it must seek the best possible reasons. And according to C. Clavien, EE can help moral philosophy in this quest.

4) Ethics and the quest for evolutionary basis of morality

To support their position, philosophers refer to common sense or fundamentals intuitions.

But a growing number of empirical data on human moral psychology contradicts the existence of those shared moral intuitions. These data are provided by the trolleybusology "(Appiah, 2008):

* 1st experience: you are the witness of the scene that follows. A trolleybus whose brakes no longer work is moving with celerity on a road where five hikers are. Beside you is a switch with a joystick, which can change the trajectory of the trolleybus. But if you change the trajectory, the trolley will go onto a sidetrack on which a railway worker is doing some repairs, who will surely be crushed by the trolleybus. Do you choose to pull the joystick?

* 2nd experience: the same trolleybus advances in the direction of hikers. This time, you are next to a big man on a bridge, over the sidetracks. If we push the man on the sidetracks, it will stop the trolley, saving the lives of five hikers. Do you choose to push the big guy?

Common sense leads to contradictory judgments because a majority of respondents chose to sacrifice the railway worker, but a majority refuses to push the big man on the sidetracks.

The brain of the interviewed subjects were scanned, using the brain imaging technique, during experiments on the trolleybus, by Greene and his colleagues (2001). The results of the experiment show that emotional engagement influence moral judgments: pushing a man provokes emotional reactions stronger than simply pressing buttons on a joystick.

The theorists of evolution can explain such phenomenon. At the time the social instincts were formed, human beings lived in small communities, where it was important to help members of this group. It is very likely that emotional altruistic mechanisms have been established for close relatives. According to this explanation, it is understandable that we have difficulty in accepting to push a person over a bridge.

Such an explanation requires to abandon the foundation on common sense, but to recognize that the relevant moral criteria depend on the lifestyle of the species.

I thank Christine Clavien for her excellent presentation, for her kindness and for allowing me to publish my summary of her conference.

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Christine Clavien on Evolutionary Ethics by Mikolka/Christine Clavien est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Paternité-Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale-Pas de Modification 2.0 France.

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