Ethics for Organisms: Introduction

The best lack all conviction, While the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.



The primary aim of this little book is to change the situation described by Yeats.

It is to convince you that there is an objective morality that tells us to save lives and minimize injury, provided we can do so safely, and to treat others as our equals and not to use them.  It is to persuade you that what you need to do to ensure that you act morally is to investigate the facts as thoroughly as possible.

It is to persuade you that we can know that we ought to do these things.

This book is called Ethics for Organisms because it embraces the fact that we are products of evolution by variation and natural selection.  It is not just that ethics is compatible with evolution but also that we need evolution to understand our nature as ethical organisms.  Thus, this book is primarily for people who have a scientific attitude.   It is based on my more scholarly book Evolutionary Intuitionism but makes new points and covers new ground as well.  The theory will be called evolutionary intuitionism here as well.

The aim is not to tell you what to do but to enable you to discover by yourself what you ought to do.  Even if you follow someone else’s advice and recommendations, you are responsible for making the decision to do so.  So, you might as well make your own decisions in the first place.


Clearing the Ground: The Rational Animal and the Moral Animal

Human beings have long been described as the rational animal.  It is an evolutionary possibility that the description is accurate.

None of the beliefs we acquire throughout our lives is a biological adaptation.  What is an adaptation is the ability to acquire beliefs.  In order for the latter to be an adaptation, the kind of beliefs that we are biologically programmed to acquire must be those that are advantageous (in that they enable us to increase our genetic legacy by making us more viable or more fertile).  But it is frequently impossible to distinguish advantageous from disadvantageous beliefs at the time of acquisition.  Their effects on our genetic legacy become apparent only when we have occasion to act on them in entirely different circumstances and at a later time, and they do not always become apparent even then.  Therefore, we need a property to act as a proxy for advantageousness.  The only plausible candidate for such a proxy is truth qua correspondence.  Advantageousness is the ultimate goal but truth is the proximate goal.  As truth-seekers, we rely on evidence for and against propositions, and on the logical relations between them.  This reliance on evidence and logic is what it is to be rational.

Our naturally selected capacity for rationality is like our immune system in many respects.  That we have an immune system does not entail that we never become ill, that we never encounter illnesses to which we have no immunity, that we cannot suffer accidents, or that there are no auto-immune disorders.  Likewise, our reasoning may be imperfect in a variety of ways.  There is variation in immune systems.  Likewise, there is variation in our capacity to reason.  The fact that we have an immune system does not entail that we cannot do more to maintain our health.  The fact that we have a natural capacity to reason does not entail that we cannot improve it in various ways.

It does not follow that all beliefs have to be acquired beliefs, that is, products of our naturally selected capacity to acquire beliefs.  It is possible that some beliefs are themselves adaptations. If they are themselves adaptations, they are advantageous, full stop, and it is unnecessary to rely on a proxy.  If they are advantageous, full stop, it does not matter if they are false.  There will still be selection for them once they have arisen.

The theory to be presented here, evolutionary intuitionism, is based on just such a naturally selected belief.  We have not acquired it in response to evidence that it is true.  The naturally selected belief can be expressed as “I am of value, full stop.”  It is this belief that is, ultimately, the basis of morality.

A human being is both a rational animal and a moral animal.  A human being is not a moral animal because he is a rational animal.  Nevertheless, the way to become a morally better human being is by becoming more rational, as we shall see.

Clearing the Ground:  The Evolutionary Folly of Non-Evolutionary Ethics

There are a lot of moral theories.  As a matter of logic, at most one of them could be right.  On the other hand, as a matter of logic, all of them could be wrong.

The only moral theories that we should take seriously are those that are compatible with morally-observant people leaving a genetic legacy in the evolutionary world in which we live.

Here’s why.  It is obvious that human beings can do wrong.  Since we can do wrong, there can be natural selection for dispositions to do wrong whenever doing wrong would help us achieve a greater genetic legacy.  This means that there is strong selective pressure for our behavior to conform to whatever would increase biological fitness no matter what is right or wrong.  But morality sometimes requires us to do things that reduce our fitness.  For instance, helping orphans involves using resources that we could otherwise use to raise our own children.  At least it did throughout most of human history.  Organisms with features that reduce their fitness relative to their competitors are quickly eliminated by natural selection.  So, natural selection ought to have eliminated organisms that help orphans in short order.  Generalizing, it ought to have eliminated morally-observant people.

The questions then are how morality originated, and how it can endure in the kind of biological world in which we live, which is apparently hostile to it.

There is no non-evolutionary theory that can answer either question satisfactorily.  None of them is adequate.  None even has the potential to be developed in such a way that it becomes adequate.  So, any true moral theory has to be an evolutionary theory.

It might be objected that moral truths could be logical truths and that logical truths are unaffected by natural selection.  So what?  Natural selection may be unable to change such truths but it can certainly affect our ability to grasp them.  It is obvious that there are many logical truths that many people cannot grasp – think of propositions in advanced mathematics – and there is no reason why there could not be some propositions that none of us could grasp.  If moral truths were logical truths and if understanding them would reduce fitness, there would be selection for an inability to understand them.

Furthermore, if morality does not help us to maximize our genetic legacy, it cannot itself be adaptive or an adaptation.  This is because an adaptive feature is one that helps us maximize our genetic legacy, and because an adaptation is a feature that has been naturally selected because it helps us maximize our genetic legacy.

At this point, we confront a dilemma.  The dilemma is that, if morality is not evolutionary, the lineages of morally-observant individuals will be supplanted by the lineages of the amoral, but if it is adaptive or an adaptation, it will differ too much from our actual moral codes to be plausible.  In other words, the dilemma is that non-evolutionary ethics is at odds with biology while adaptationist ethics is at odds with ethics.

The dilemma can be resolved.  It will be resolved here by arguing that morality is not an adaptation but the inseparable by-product of an adaptation, which gives us a non-adaptationist but evolutionary morality.   The adaptation confers benefits; the by-product imposes costs.  The benefits of the adaptation outweigh the costs of the by-product.  Thus, the combination is beneficial, albeit to a lesser degree than the unencumbered adaptation would be.  Since the by-product cannot be separated from the adaptation, the combination endures.

Clearing the Ground: The Uselessness of Utilitarianism


The general reason to reject non-evolutionary theories of morality, just discussed, is the fact that the lineages of their morally-observant individuals would be eliminated by natural selection, which would make it a mystery why we still care about morality at all.  But particular non-evolutionary theories have other flaws as well.

For instance, utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism are still taken seriously.  The trouble is that there is literally no evidence that any consequentialist principle is true.  There never has been and, after centuries of failures to produce any, there is no reason to think that there ever will be.

Jeremy Bentham invented modern utilitarianism in the 18th century.  There are many problems with the case he made for it.

Bentham attacked a straw man to make his own theory appear credible in comparison.  His bete noir was intuitionism.  He maintained that there was no way to distinguish reliable from unreliable intuitions.  He ignored the intuitionist explanation that intuitions were unreliable when they were contaminated by error or ignorance with respect to material facts, that is, non-moral facts.

Utilitarians like Bentham are in no position to ignore or reject the intuitionist explanation because utilitarian judgments can themselves be contaminated by the same kinds of error and ignorance.  You cannot maximize happiness unless you believe truly about what increases or reduces happiness.  Utilitarians have the same problem as the intuitionist, and need the same solution, namely, the rejection of contaminated judgments.

The contemporary utilitarian Peter Singer has proclaimed that we should reason with ourselves.  But there is a difference between using reason to apply a utilitarian calculus and using it to justify its application.  It is easy to do the former but impossible to do the latter.

Utilitarianism has results that people instinctively reject.  Most people believe that we should direct a runaway train so that it kills one stranger rather than five.  Most people also believe that we should not throw a fat man in front of the train to stop it.  Even if we could convince ourselves that we should sacrifice the corpulent individual, we cannot convince ourselves that we should throw ourselves, let alone our children, in front of the train.  But utilitarianism, to be consistent, must be just as insistent that we sacrifice ourselves, or our children, as it is that we sacrifice obese strangers.  (In contrast, we will see later how evolutionary intuitionism explains our instincts in such cases.)

The fact that utilitarians are committed to sacrificing themselves or their children for strangers also puts them obviously at odds with evolution.  The commitment would reduce their viability or fertility – their fitness – and utilitarians need to explain how morality could persist in an evolutionary world if their theory were true.

We should be able to find flaws in other non-evolutionary theories as well.  But there is no reason to try.  Questioning utilitarianism is worthwhile just because intuitionism will be rehabilitated later – the theory argued for here is called evolutionary intuitionism, after all.

Clearing the Ground:  The Irrelevance of Religion


Many people believe that religion is the foundation of morality.  This is not true.  What religion provides are a couple of false moral theories.

Religion is not the same as science because God is not good at being a theoretical entity.  Appeals to God only seem like explanations.  There is no significant difference between saying that God created morality, for instance, and saying that there is a being with the ability and desire to create morality and that the being created morality.  And, saying that is like saying that a detective has solved a crime when all he has done is write in his notebook that the crime was committed by someone with the ability and desire to carry it out.

Furthermore, if God were the explanation for morality, we could not know what was right or what was wrong on the basis of revelation.  Supposedly, God uses revelation to tell us things.  Assume that God always tells the truth.  Then a revelation from God would be entirely true.  Unfortunately for the theist, it is impossible to know that something is a revelation.  A revelation has to tell us something that we could not know in any other way.  But we would have to show that something was completely true to prove that it was a revelation from a truth-telling God.  Since a revelation must tell us something that we could not know in any other way, however, we cannot prove that any revelation is completely true.  So, we cannot prove that any revelation really is a revelation.  Thus, people who rely on “revelation” are always taking a leap in the dark.  The philosophical term for what they are doing is petitio principia, or begging the question.  It is a fallacy to beg the question.

As for so-called “natural law,” natural lawyers maintain that we ought to obey God’s will and that God’s will is discernible if we examine the natural world.  Natural lawyers infer, for instance, that God intended that we engage in sex only for procreation.  One problem here is that, according to biologists, human beings expend so much energy in connection with sex that procreation cannot be its only purpose.  If it were just meant for procreation, we would have a mating season like other species.   Thus, modern science is incompatible with the armchair observations of medieval philosophers who were unfamiliar with most of the world.

There is a worse problem with “natural law.”  Natural lawyers say, for instance, that human beings are essentially procreative and infer that gay sex is wrong.  In fact, if you define human beings as essentially procreative, what follows is that gay people are not human beings at all.  Since gay people are obviously human beings, natural law must be false.  It is impossible both to use essential properties to categorize individuals and to use a lack of the same characteristics as grounds to criticize them.  You can categorize or you can criticize but you cannot do both with the same criterion.  The same problem occurs with every norm proposed by natural lawyers:  we cannot show that people who violate the norm are wrong-doing human beings rather than unobjectionable members of a different kind.  Natural lawyers equivocate:  they use one concept of humanity involving parentage or appearance to categorize individuals as human, and a different, essentialist concept to criticize them.  Equivocation is another fallacy.

All that said, there is no reason why religion could not stop treating God as a theoretical posit and rely on evolutionary intuitionism instead of the false theories it has historically relied on.

Morality for the World We Live In: The Origin of Morality


There was natural selection for the belief, “I am of value, full stop.”

1) Why?  The belief increases the probability that we will start and stick to projects that are in our medium to long range interest.

2) How does it do that?  Anything that is of value should be preserved.  It should not be damaged or destroyed.  Projects that are in our medium to long range interest are projects that tend to preserve us.  Believing that we are of value therefore increases the probability that we will engage in, and complete, projects that preserve us.

3) What is an example?  Working a hot summer’s day with a view to preparing for winter when it is more tempting to go swimming.

4) Wouldn’t we still be selfish?  Initially, yes.  But there would also be selection for co-operation with others who also believe that they are of value, because a group can do more than an individual can.  Others would demand recognition as valuable beings before they would co-operate.  Once someone acknowledged others as being of value, they would be committed to refrain from damaging or destroying them, and committed to preserving them from damage or destruction.  They would be committed to believing that they are equally valuable.  Moral communities would develop.  Incidentally, this is not an explanation of co-operation itself but of the unique form of human co-operation.

5) Then why would we have to care about strangers?  It would be inconsistent to acknowledge some others without acknowledging all others unless there was a relevant difference, and there would be no relevant difference.

6) Why shouldn’t we be inconsistent?  There would be blowback that would eliminate the advantages of believing that you were of value.  You would be committed to believing that you both were and were not of value.  Consequently, you could act only in ways that were consistent with both, which would cancel out the benefits of believing that you were of value.  (We can act in accordance with both a proposition and its negation:  drinking coffee in the morning is consistent with Socrates being mortal, and also consistent with his being immortal.)

7) Wouldn’t one person have to give their life for others?   This would have been a problem in the evolution of morality.  A solution to the problem is to add a breaker that would turn the belief off automatically if people otherwise had no choice but to sacrifice themselves.  They would have obligations to save others only when they could desire to avoid injury or death more than anything else at the same time.  People could die for others voluntarily but they would not have an obligation to do so.

Morality for the World We Live In: The Evolutionary Story

There is individual selection for people to believe that they are of value because it improves their ability with respect to medium to long range projects.  The improved ability could obviously have a positive impact on their fitness, that is, their viability or fertility, in any environment.   Since there is selection for it directly, it does not matter whether it is true.  Biologically, truth is just a proxy for advantageousness and there is no need for a proxy here.

There is individual selection for us to acknowledge some other believers as being of value as well.  The reason is that it is advantageous to co-operate with others who believe that they are of value on medium to long-range projects.

Once we acknowledge some others, we are logically committed to acknowledge all other believers as being of equal value.  We do not believe that our value depends on any other properties we have.  (This issue will be discussed in more detail later.)  Therefore, there can be no justification for acknowledging some believers but denying the same acknowledgment to others.   There is no legitimate difference to which one can point to justify discrimination.

For the same reason, there is no way to maintain that some are intrinsically more valuable than others.  Some can be more instrumentally valuable than others in some circumstances, however, in the way that physicians are more useful than philosophers at accident scenes.

There is a breaker that switches off our belief.  The belief stays on unless it would commit us to sacrificing our own lives or health to benefit relatives, friends, or strangers.  In addition, it would stay on unless it would commit us to sacrifice the lives or health of our kin to benefit friends or strangers.  And it would stay on unless it committed us to sacrifice the lives or health of our friends to benefit strangers.  There is individual selection for the first limit on commitment, kin selection for the second, and the third would be the result of reciprocal altruism.  We can prefer ourselves to our kin, our kin to our friends, and our friends to strangers, in that order.  This hierarchy of preferences is biologically advantageous.  As always, the gains must outweigh the losses.

Normativity enters the physical world through the concept of value contained in the belief that we are of value.  Moral facts are constituted by the relationship between the belief and true descriptions of our actions.

Morality for the World We Live In: Evidence


Is there any evidence for evolutionary intuitionism?  There are confirmed predictions, which any good theory is supposed to have.  The confirmed predictions include the following.

1)  There would be no human society without a code of ethics.  The only ethnic group that any anthropologist has described as amoral are the Ik of Uganda, who were enduring a famine when they were observed.  When they found out what had been said about them, their first reaction was to investigate whether they could take legal action against the anthropologist.

2)  Anyone who was truly amoral would be bad at medium to long range projects.  The only truly amoral human beings are psychopaths.  They are also bad at medium to long range projects.

3)  People would rationalize wrong-doing because that would be, when doing wrong, the only way to preserve the advantages of believing that they were of value.  People do rationalize.  For instance, delinquents hold conventional moral views and rationalize their infractions of the moral code they maintain.

There are limits to the advantages of rationalization because it is in the interests of others to prevent it.  We all want freedom to rationalize for ourselves but want to deny the same freedom to others.

Rationalization doesn’t change morality because the rationalizer’s actions are inconsistent with their belief that they are of value no matter how they describe the actions to themselves.  Rationalization merely enables the rationalizer to avoid one of the consequences, namely, loss of the benefits of believing that they are of value.

4)  Different societies will have different moral codes.  You might think that the theory would predict that moral codes would be the same in every society.  But ignorance and error can alter moral codes; and different societies tend to be ignorant and in error in different ways.  Furthermore, when it comes to cooperation, it is more important to agree than to be right, so societies can – and are liable to – maintain mistaken codes, particularly when the societies are small and isolated.  Different societies also confront different circumstances:  we should minimize loss of life and that can mean care homes in some societies but ice floes in others, depending on the nature and resources of the societies.

5)  There will be moral reformers from time to time.  These will be people who have not been fully socialized into the moral code of their society, and whose grasp of morality has not therefore been distorted by mistaken societal norms.

6)  When moral reform occurs, it will be accepted by younger people before it is accepted by older people.  Younger people will not have been socialized to the same extent as older people.  They will also not have rationalized acting in accordance with the old code as much as older people.

7)  When different societies interact cooperatively on a basis of equality, their moral codes will tend to merge into a new moral code that they share.

8)  There will occasionally be moral saints.  These will be people who are unusually bad at rationalizing, as some people inevitably will be from time to time, given normal variation in characteristics.

9)  People will have moral intuitions, as we shall see.

10)  The norms of evolutionary intuitionism will constitute a plausible morality, as we shall also see.

Morality for the World We Live In: Moral Intuitions


There’s a toddler drowning in a paddling pool.  You are walking past.  Which would you do?

a) Pull the toddler out of the water and call for help?

b) Take out your phone and video the drowning death of the toddler to put on the net?

You have probably never heard this story before but you know right away that you ought to do a).  You are probably shocked by the idea of doing b).

Your reaction is immediate and instinctive.  You do not think through a moral theory.  And if a theory said that it was OK to do b), you would count that as a reason against the theory.   Your moral intuition is that it would be wrong to follow the course of action outlined in b).

You have lots of moral intuitions.

You share some of your intuitions with others worldwide.  I have told stories like this one to classes with students from a wide variety of backgrounds.  What is interesting is that, when asked, they often all instantly answer in the same way.  All.  Instantly.

How do moral intuitions work?  They probably work like other intuitions.  For instance, speakers of Standard English have intuitions about when it is correct to use sentences in the passive instead of the active voice.  Their intuition is that they should use the passive when they believe that some information is unknown to their audience and using the passive enables them to put the new information at the end of the sentence in which they convey the information.  But they usually cannot explain why they should use the passive voice in those circumstances.  Similarly, they have moral intuitions that are related to their belief that others are of value even though they cannot explain why they have the intuitions.

People can have different moral opinions because the belief that others are of value is not the only belief that determines someone’s intuitions.  Unless two people agree totally with respect to the other relevant beliefs, they not only can but also probably often will have different moral opinions.  The only differences that count against the foregoing explanation of moral intuitions would be differences that are observable even when people possess all and only the same relevant beliefs.

The normative results of evolutionary intuitionism should be intuitively plausible because norms and intuitions have the same causal basis.  Evolutionary intuitionism is the only theory that explains why we should pay attention to our intuitions.  This is important because all moral theorists rely on “methodological intuitionism,” that is, they rely on their intuitions to tell them whether a moral theory is plausible or not.

Morality for the World We Live In: What about Differences in Opinion?


Some maintain that moral judgments are just opinions.

The evidence for this is the fact that people disagree with each other about the right thing to do.

The disagreement is not the only relevant evidence, however.  It is also necessary to explain why morality is universal and to explain why it is more effective to say that something is wrong than it is to say that you do not like it.  If morality were just opinions, we would not need and probably would not have a special moral vocabulary.  If morality were just opinions, its effectiveness when it comes to influencing others would be inexplicable.

The relativist hypothesis is that different moral codes and opinions are all basic rather than explicable in terms of underlying factors.

But there could still be differences in moral codes and moral opinions even if the basis of morality was shared by all moral agents.

Two causes of differences would be ignorance and error.  Indeed, as we saw in the fourth paragraph in the section called “Evidence,” there are enough relevant causal factors that the differences are inevitable.

In view of all the relevant observations and the alternative possible explanations, it is irrational to be a relativist.

Factors like ignorance and error can also distort our intuitions.