Sunday, April 11, 2010

Biological Definition of Virtue

So, I'm reading The Evolution of Virtue by Matt Ridley and he made what I thought to be a brilliant and subtle point.

pg 38--"Selfishness is almost the definition of vice...virtue is, almost by definition, the greater good of the group."

Examples of crimes he gives that exemplify selfishness--murder, theft, rape and fraud.
Examples of virtues--cooperation, altruism , generosity, sympathy, kindness, selflessness (that one's pretty blatant).

Do you see the fire within that thought?  It's both a definition and an explanation wrapped in one.  Yes, he's defining morality, but at the same time he's giving a delightful explanation of how it might have evolved--concern for group/kin welfare.

Let me ask you some questions to drive this home:

Can you be immoral to yourself?
Does being just to yourself make any sense?
Can you think of an immoral act that doesn't fit the selfishness definition?  As in, an act that somehow promotes the good of the group, but is still bad?

The answer, of course, is 'no'.  It's interesting to think about if we were a different species what our morality might be like (the above would always hold true, though.  It'd just look different).  Imagine we were praying mantis and it'd be a moral imperative to eat your husband.  Or, if you were a worker ant it'd be immoral to think about reproducing on your own.  Or, perhaps if we were some bird species plagued by parasites it might be immoral to not groom a friend.

Let's put it another way.  Look at Haidt and Joseph's domains of morality below and notice how the totality of morality can be summed up as evolution's 'desire' to maintain a certain group size (in order to be able to pack hunt, in order to be able to defend from predators, in order to have a division of labor, etc.).

Domains of Morality--Haidt and Joseph 2004

  • Harm/Care--don't harm those that either have your genes or could promote and aid the protection/duplication of it.
  • Reciprocity/Fairness--shun those that don't return favors.  When resources are limited it pays to give now in your abundance to get later in your poverty.  If you or others don't play by that rule it needs to be punished.
  • Authority/Hierarchy--groups are most cohesive with the decision making leadership of an authority figure and are most stable with their arbitration in disputes.  Thus, leaders ought to be respected.
  • Community/Coalitions--give your fair share.  Be a good citizen.  Help out another in times of need.  Promote the good of the group and you might just help out your own genes.
  • Purity--don't reproduce with a relative to avoid a build up of mutations.  Don't eat rotten foods.  Don't excreciate near where you live/eat.

This is a salient point when thinking about matters of contention.  Why is it that some religions place such inordinate attention on matters of sexual purity such as not engaging in homosexual acts?  What's the adaptive function of that?  Evolutionarily ingrained aversion to inbreeding (or, put another way, desire to only breed 'properly')?  There just may be some evolutionary history worth uncovering there.  Or, what about environmentalism.  Under what conditions might we be able to adapt to viewing pollution and environmental pillaging as severe moral infractions?

What are your thoughts?

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