Evolution and Ethics Précis
In “Evolution and Ethics: The Sociobiological Approach”1, Professor Michael Ruse lays out his foundation for an objective morality based on mankind’s evolutionary path. Ruse starts by looking at a historic evolutionary ethics approach: Social Darwinism, which is the view that evolution’s endpoints are good.2 He concludes that while Social Darwinism is perhaps not so great an evil as is commonly thought, it is also “deeply flawed”.3
Having dismissed Social Darwinism, Ruse moves on to sociobiology as a foundation for evolutionary ethics. He proposes that the particular evolutionary path of homo sapiens sapiens requires altruism and cooperation to further survival.4 Ruse proposes three ways altruism can work, and that humans have elements of all three: hard-wiring, negotiation, and adaptive strategic thinking.5 These three altruistic methods provide humanity with its moral rules.6 To prevent constant self-interested destruction of our species, evolution has adapted moral rules into us and instilled us with an urge to follow them.7
Ruse’s brand of ethics is, as he readily admits, without transcendent foundation.8 They are simply rules enforced by evolution into our genetic makeup which we have collectively agreed to follow, akin to sporting rules.9 If someone breaks the rules, we call “foul” and enforce a penalty; however, there is no reason – other than evolutionary advantage – the rules could not be something different. We all must believe these rules for these bodies on this evolutionary path to survive. Therefore, evolution has decreed within our genes that these particular moral strictures will be bound to our molecular makeup.
For ethics to be successful, it must make sense of three common human experiences: a sense of objective, transcendent morality, a sense of free will, and a sense that we are not capable of perfectly freely choosing correct morality. Ruse’s sociobiological evolutionary ethics only seem to succeed on one count, perhaps two if we’re generous. Ruse explains our sense of objective, transcendent morality by showing how evolution could trick us with a powerful moral sense even though, in reality, no such morality exists objectively or transcendently.
On the charge of determinism, materialistic evolution would objectively – though perhaps not subjectively – falsify the second common human experience: free will. Ruse, as a soft determinist10, believes that humans have a measure of free will to make choices against their biology. If this view is incorrect however (and it seems to me nonsense on a materialistic worldview), the only remaining option to him is hard determinism, and the human sense of free will becomes considerably more difficult to explain. Ruse could plead evolution once again and say our sense of freedom is illusory, but Ruse has perhaps pled too much at this point.
The third common human experience is yet more difficult to explain. If evolution required of us a common morality, why can we not follow it? If evolution has set up rules, why are we incapable of following them as well as we might wish? This relates somewhat to point two, but even if we grant Ruse his soft determinism, evolutionary rules seem like they ought to do a better job of pressing us toward moral decisions than our common experience suggests. There is much more to say on Ruse’s ethical theory and more criticisms to level. Nevertheless, when his theory is faced with common human experience, its plausibility strains.
Michael Ruse, “Evolution and Ethics: The Sociobiological Approach,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 6th ed., ed. Louis P. Pojman, James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011), 640 ↩
Ibid., 641 ↩
Ibid., 642-644 (quote from 644) ↩
Ibid., 646 ↩
Ibid., 647-648 ↩
Ibid., 648 ↩
Ibid., 652 ↩
Ibid., 654 ↩