International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics

by Paul Lawrence Farber

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This is an excellent short history of attempts to put moral reasoning, ethics, on an evolutionary foundation. It is balanced and fair, although, as the title rather suggests, the author is somewhat dubious about the success of all and any attempts in this direction.

Paul Farber begins his story with Charles Darwin, recognizing that not only did Darwin extend his theory of evolution through natural selection to our species but that he was also deeply interested in morality and in how such a phenomenon arises from a process that stresses conflict. Farber shows how cooperation rather than conflict can often be the key to success.

We then go on to look at thinkers of a more philosophical vein who would use biology not only to explain ethics but to justify it. Properly, Herbert Spencer is seen to have a major role here, arguing from the supposed progressive nature of the evolutionary process to the rightness of moral sentiments. That which has evolved must be for the good because it has emerged through a constantly value-increasing process.

This kind of thinking soon attracted critics. In the biological world, some, like Alfred Russel Wallace, objected to the kind of moral sentiments Spencer thought justified by evolution. In opposition to Spencerian laissez faire – often today labeled “Social Darwinism” – Wallace promoted a form of socialism. Others, like Thomas Henry Huxley, objected to Spencer’s justifications, arguing that there is actually nothing value-increasing about evolution. Successful evolutionary strategies, like the fighting instinct of the tiger, are often very much opposed to what we might judge to be moral.

Farber then turns to more conceptual critics. Well known is G. E. Moore’s critique of Spencer, which argues that evolutionary ethics was a classic case of committing the “naturalistic fallacy.” This is the error of trying to justify claims about morality – claims about what we ought to do – in terms of claims about the world – claims about what is the case. However, as Farber shows, philosophical refutations are rarely definitive, and this was not the end of debate. In the early part of the twentieth century, T. H. Huxley’s grandson Julian Huxley was an ardent proponent of the claim that evolution is the key to ethical understanding and truth.

More recently, and this was clearly a major motivation behind Farber’s writing his book, the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson came out four-square in favor of evolutionary ethics, arguing that we need to “biologicize” moral thinking. Farber, following other critics, shows that the biologist has ignored history only to reprise many of the same fallacies of yesterday. However, Farber does note that Wilson inspired others, including the philosopher Michael Ruse, to try for a somewhat different approach, one that instead of using evolution to justify ethics uses it to argue that perhaps ethics has no foundations at all!

Farber ends on a sympathetic but still skeptical note. It is this somewhat disinterested treatment that makes his book essential background reading for anyone wanting to understand the possible connections between evolution and ethics, although since this is a very rapidly forward-moving field it should be supplemented by later writings, for instance those of David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober.