Evolutionary Ethics and Biologically Supportable Morality
ABSTRACT: Consider the paradox of altruism: the existence of truly altruistic behaviors is difficult to reconcile with evolutionary theory if natural selection operates only on individuals, since in that case individuals should be unwilling to sacrifice their own fitness for the sake of others. Evolutionists have frequently turned to the hypothesis of group selection to explain the existence of altruism; but group selection cannot explain the evolution of morality, since morality is a one-group phenomenon and group selection is a many-group phenomenon. After spelling out just what the problem is, this paper discusses several ways ...view middle of the document...
An organism’s evolutionary telos, or goal, seems to be to promote its own fitness in order to survive long enough to reproduce. In situations where an organism confronts a choice between enhancing its own fitness and enhancing the fitness of others, it would seem to follow that the organism will (or "ought to," or should be expected to) choose to enhance its own fitness. (1)
The paradox arises because empirical facts seem to contradict this prediction of evolutionary theory. In a wide range of cases, and among organisms of differing levels of sentience and sapience, individual organisms frequently behave in ways that promote the fitness of some group (especially but not always a kin group) at the expense of their own individual fitness. This phenomenon, which Elliott Sober labels "evolutionary altruism," calls for reconciliation with evolutionary theory. (2) Although it might be a mistake to think that moral traits among humans is coextensive with their actions that would correctly be described as altruistic in an evolutionary sense, it is probably true that some morally required actions promote the fitness of other people at the expense of the fitness of the individual. (3) Hence the paradox of altruism appears to have implications for evolutionary ethics as well, even if the relationship between morality and altruism needs further elucidation. If some moral traits are altruistic in the evolutionary sense, then the evolutionary explanation of altruism will constitute a part of the explanation of morality.
Darwin’s own response to the paradox of altruism was to tweak evolutionary theory. He appears to have thought that it was a mistake to think that natural selection operates in every case on individuals; sometimes selection can operate on groups. (4) This conception of group selection" answers the paradox of altruism by explaining why altruistic behavior can promote an organism’s evolutionary telos. The selective advantage of the group over competing groups (which do not contain altruistic members) entails improved prospects of survival and reproduction for group members. (5) In this way, it can be shown that the evolution of altruistic behaviors is consistent with natural selection, provided that we reinterpret natural selection to allow group selection.
I wish to argue that something is amiss with the picture that is developing here: group selection cannot explain the evolution of morality, at least not universalistic morality. Morality is typically understood to involve elements that take into account just one group, namely the group of all moral beings, whereas group selection essentially involves many competing groups. At bottom, morality is a one-group phenomenon and group selection is a many-group phenomenon. After spelling out just what the problem is, I will offer several suggestions about how to overcome it.
Sober distinguishes three concepts, which he calls ‘evolutionary altruism’, ‘psychological...