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Is evolutionary psychology important for ethics?

As part of my research into the theory around the Consumer and the Citizen, I’m undertaking some study in applied philosophy – after all, quite a lot of thinking has been done around the world over the last few thousand years on these questions, and it would be a little arrogant to break into that without doing a little pre-reading.  Some interesting questions have been posed to me as part of that study, and I wanted to share some rough thinking in response – as ever, feedback welcome!

The question of whether evolutionary psychology is important for ethics holds some assumptions implicit within it.  The tendency is to think of evolutionary psychology as a discipline with a singular conclusion, namely that following the Darwinian logic of natural selection, we evolved as a species by virtue of pursuing our own narrow self-interest.  This then comes together with the ideas of enlightenment thinkers, most notably the invisible hand of Adam Smith, and is taken as an endorsement of the idea of either psychological egoism – whereby it is seen as inevitable human nature that we are inherently selfishly motivated, making ethical questions seem largely irrelevant as we cannot overcome our evolutionary limits – or philosophical egoism – whereby we actually conclude that egoism is not only inevitable, but the good.  In philosophical egoism, the claim is that we are actually serving the interests of humanity best by following our nature in preserving ourselves – the right thing to do is to let natural selection do the rest.

This worldview is extremely pervasive.  It underlies much of the conventional thinking in business ethics, having clear links to Milton Friedman’s idea that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” and underlies also the most logical explanations for our continued apathy to situations such as global poverty, via the Garrett Hardin notion of so-called “lifeboat ethics”.  In both Friedman and Hardin, we are encouraged to see that in the long run, harsh as it may seem, the best possible outcome will obtain if we simply focus on narrow self-interest and do not try to be too clever.

To the extent that this worldview is pervasive in our everyday lives, I think it is clear that evolutionary psychology has become very important for ethics in a practical sense.  But if this worldview is extremely pervasive, it is also extremely misleading.

The argument must be made explicit in order to be fully analysed.  I believe the argument from evolutionary psychology to the foundation of the sort of position taken by Friedman and Hardin can be structured as follows:

1)      Humans have evolved like all other species by natural selection

2)      Natural selection works by each creature ruthlessly pursuing his own self interest to survive and pass on his genes

3)      It is right for each of us ruthlessly to pursue our own self-interest; If we don’t, we risk messing up natural selection and compromising the future gene pool

Once exposed in this way, it becomes clear that the problems are manifold.  We do not have to disagree with the initial premise that humans evolved like all other species in order to see this; the problems really begin at step two, because the focus on the pursuit of individual self-interest as the mechanic of natural selection is only part of the story.

There are three aspects to this.  The first regards the relative importance of competition within the wider function of natural selection, a dynamic which seems dominant under the usual reading of “the survival of the fittest” as the survival only of the things that fit.  My contention is that the idea of “the survival of the fittest” is just as viably interpreted as “the survival of as many things as possible that fit” – making the exploration and filling of all niches as much a driver of natural selection as competition.  This balanced assessment is just one of multiple studies from multiple fields over recent years to have explored this idea.

This matters deeply because if mutation and creative exploration of opportunity are as important as ‘every man for himself’ competition, the idea of a Darwinian justification for egoism recedes dramatically.  Difficult situations then demand not just self-preservation, but exploration and solution.  Taken into the context of business, for example, while an exclusively competition-focused interpretation of Darwin might well endorse the current activities of energy companies to lobby against environmental restrictions on their business models, an interpretation that balances competition and creativity would endorse an approach that saw them originate new platforms for community-owned renewable energy generation.  Philosophical egoism can’t stand with this.

The second aspect then relates to the idea that natural selection focuses on each individual ruthlessly pursuing his own individual self interest.  This is manifestly untrue – as examples from bees to ants show, individuals of other species often sacrifice themselves for the sake of other individuals.  This is a phenomenon known in biology as ‘kin selection’.  But the expansion of ‘kin selection’ is a dynamic that means you can feasibly explain pretty much any action in terms of self-interest – even giving to charity can be rationalised as such an act, since it preserves the ‘self’ when defined as the human species.  The only question, once kin selection is allowed, regards not whether self-interest should be pursued, but what the limits of the self are  considered – and at that point narrow philosophical egoism is long dead.

The third aspect then comes specifically to the case of humanity.  If we have evolved by natural selection, then our ability to understand and empathise with others – our capacity for love – has been a vital part of that.  If we have that capacity, then we should use it to understand and adapt to our environment.  Not to do so, to suppress this evolved capacity, would be as illogical like the finch with the long beak refusing the deeply hidden seeds.  As Jeremy Rifkin suggests in ‘The Empathic Civilisation’, we have the capacity to consider others – including the more-than-human world – as included in our own self interest.  If we want to survive, perhaps we ought to use it.

The question that then arises is whether these dynamics that contextualise the role of competition in natural selection are merely subsidiary elements or are sufficiently important to play a role in our ethics.  Barbara Ehrenreich, in her formidably researched study of the origins of war called ‘Blood Rites’, is sceptical.  Her position, which seems the result of genuinely open investigation, is that the need to compete has been the key driver even of fellow feeling – because this has arisen from needing to find solidarity in order to win against greater foes rather than from some more positive natural tendency.

This qualifies the task ahead of us as difficult, but it does not take us back to the beginning.  My argument, then, is that evolutionary psychology is indeed important for ethics.  But what it teaches us is that we have a capacity for love as well as a capacity for self interest.  When we put the two together, we can see that we have an ability to consider our self interest in a way that goes beyond any other species in its inclusivity.  What evolutionary psychology teaches us about ethics, then, is not that we should focus on our own individual self interest and compete ruthlessly to survive, but that we should focus on expanding our concept of self – because that is the source of our greatest resilience.  That is not to say there is not a place for individual competition, and we may need to find ways to understand and define our expanded self interest against something else in order to make it actionable – but to focus on competition and individual self interest as the sole valid dynamic for action is at best naive and short-sighted, and at worst deadly and destructive.

2 thoughts on “Interesting questions #1

  1. Pingback: The illusions of evo-psych in a nutshell

  2. Pingback: Lunacy at this level with make (a new) communism inevitable

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