Darwinian Theory and Ethics


In another forum, I recently posted an essay that asked readers to contemplate the message being communicated in PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) slogan “Meat is Murder.” The post generated much stimulating discussion. I found particularly interesting the efforts of some respondents to bring evolutionary theory to bear upon the question of meat-eating, partly because I had just finished reading Rod Preece’s book, Brute Souls, Happy Beasts, and Evolution: The Historical Status of Animals. In that work, Preece throws cold water on the notion that Darwin’s theory of evolution facilitated the rise of a more compassionate animal ethic. As Preece states (p.359-360),

“The much vaunted claim that increased sensibility to animals was stimulated by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution does not stand up to careful scrutiny. The sensibility has existed in perpetuity, and to the extent that it became more pronounced in the Darwinian age, its consequence was anything but Darwinian. In fact, those whose source of inspiration was quite other than Darwinian displayed a far greater sensibility to animals, at least on the issue of animal experimentaton. [In the preceding chapter, Preece identifies Christians as the chief advocates who brought about change for the better in late nineteenth-century attitudes and practices towards animals]”

As Preece notes (p.347), Darwin defended vivisection at a time when others were denouncing it with great force. Even as he experienced some emotional discomfort over his killing and dissecting of animal subjects, Darwin nonetheless defended animal experimentation, including that which was intended purely for the sake of gaining knowledge, and so too did many of his followers.

Now, one may wish to argue that on the matter of animal ethics, Darwin was simply blind to the ramifications of his theory – that somehow, common descent via natural selection provides the basis for a no-kill stance. Others insist, however, that Darwinian theory provides adequate justification for our making use of animals for food, fiber, etc. As one medical researcher once told me not too long ago, the consequence of evolution is “we won!” and so, as “victors” in the struggle for life, subjugation of other species is our natural right.

The appeal to Darwinian theory by advocates of polar opposite views on the issue of meat-eating raises an important question about the connection between evolution and ethics – specifically, is there one? Can we truly find the basis for ethical judgment in the narrative of “survival of the fittest?” Only, it would seem, if we are content to leave ethics at the level of mere description of what happens in nature. But then we wouldn’t truly be talking about ethics as most seem to understand it – a sense of oughtness that regulates, and even trumps the natural impulse. Preece notes two significant vegetarians and animal advocates, Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw, as examples of animal advocates who perceived the inability of Darwinian theory to deliver the moral sense (p.346). As Tolstoy put it, “Darwinism won’t explain to you the meaning of your life and won’t give you guidance for your actions.”

The problem to which Tolstoy points is often labeled as the “is-ought dilemma.” Uttered almost in passing by David Hume three centuries ago, the is-ought dilemma came to the forefront in discussions of evolutionary ethics through the writings of George Edward Moore, a philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Principia Ethica, Moore spoke of the “naturalistic fallacy” in reference to Herbert Spencer’s attempt to derive ethical principles from an evolutionary narrative. The problem, Moore argued (and Hume before him), is that determinations of value (what is good as opposed to what is bad; i.e. what ought to be pursued) are of an entirely different category than statements about what transpires in nature. To argue that some natural property or process is morally superior entails a categorical shift that requires the importation of values that nature cannot, in and of itself, supply. So, we may make many correct observations about the behavior and biological needs of animals, but those in and of themselves do not yield moral guidance; only when united to the moral presupposition that the animal’s nature ought to be respected, might they come into play.

Ardent Darwinists protest the charge of fallacious reasoning. Among them are E. O. Wilson, who has asserted that there is no dilemma as “ought” is simply an “is” that needs no further justification. Ought, he believed, consists in what our ancestors chose to do and then codify into law (see his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge p.275). More sophisticated is Michael Ruse who has argued that Hume and Moore have it exactly right and that the solution lies in simply giving up the search for an objective basis for ethics. Nature has, Ruse argues, foisted upon the human species a highly effective deception – specifically, an ingrained sense that right and wrong transcend the individual. Morality, he believes, is simply smoke and mirrors that masks the selfish core ‘bequeathed’ by natural selection. (See Ruse’s recent essay  “The Biological Sciences Can Act as a Ground for Ethics,” in Ayala and Arp’s 2009 book,  Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology).

In the end, Wilson and Ruse argue that morality is a purely natural phenomenon – that nature (matter), and nature alone, provides both the basis and content for ethics. I, myself, am quite skeptical of such a proposition, partly because I fail to see how such can treat human freedom and responsibility as anything more than mere illusion. Deep down, we all know that not every natural impulse is to be acted upon. In denying the natural impulse, we bear witness to the fact that we are more than molecules and atoms arranged in space and time for chemistry (matter) cannot break free from the laws of physics (it is, in fact, the predictability of matter that makes science and technological innovation possible). The capacity to contravene the natural impulse derives not from the material but from an immaterial aspect of our nature – what some call “spirit” or “soul.” Apart from this immaterial reality, there is no accounting for the human freedom and moral agency, among other qualities.  If we are purely material beings, then strict determinism is our lot.

There are, in fact, numerous obstacles to naturalistic ethics. One of the more helpful reads along this line is L. Russ Bush’s book, The Advancement: Keeping the Faith in An Evolutionary Age. Whether or not one is sympathetic to the Christian worldview, Bush’s book offers readers a helpful resource as it lays out in clear language the challenges posed in adopting the naturalistic worldview that typically undergirds evolutionary accounts of ethics and morality.

Your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
1 Comment threads
1 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
Erik ClaryJoseph Gibes Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Joseph Gibes
Joseph Gibes

Thanks for this post on a critical issue for our time. Lewis put it in terms of grammar and logic in The Abolition of Man: “The Innovator[i.e., the evolutionary ethicist] is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible.”