Morality for the World We Live In: An Objection



Hume’s Law says that we cannot logically derive prescriptions (oughts) from descriptions (is’s).  Hume’s Law is true.   Evolutionary intuitionism does not violate Hume’s Law.

Here’s the kind of argument used here:  “You are of value.  If someone is of value, they should be preserved from damage or destruction.  Therefore, I ought to rescue you when you are in danger.”

The connection between value and its preservation is conceptual, so it is no problem.  What we have to explain is the premise “You are of value.”

There is an evolutionary account of the origin and development of belief.  Unlike most beliefs, it is not acquired in the light of evidence.  It is naturally selected rather than acquired.  It is not true.  There is no sense in which we ought to believe it.  It is not derived from other beliefs.  We end up believing it for evolutionary reasons that are independent of logic.  Once we believe it, however, we have commitments.

Here is an analogy.  No individual has an obligation to adopt a particular child.  Once they do, however, they automatically acquire obligations with respect to the child.  The explanation of the origin of the obligations goes back to the adoption.  The explanation of the adoption is not, however, part of the explanation of the origin of the obligations.

An evolutionary explanation for a belief is not the logical derivation of the belief from other propositions, which is what Hume’s law declares to be impossible.   Indeed, the way outlined here, which involves a naturally selected belief with normative content, is probably the only way in which to explain how there can be prescriptions in the natural world without violating Hume’s Law.

Morality for the World We Live In: A Relational Morality


Utilitarians argue that we should maximize the good.  Evolutionary intuitionism tells us to minimize losses.  The reason is that the former deals in quantities while the latter is relational.  I have an obligation to help other members of the moral community, and I have the same obligation to help each of them because I have the same relationship to each.  I do not have a relationship to the non-existent, and there is no sense in which it is better to have more of these relationships.  In contrast, utilitarians traffic in lumps of value and maintain that it is better to have more lumps than fewer.

Utilitarians see no difference between redirecting a runaway train to kill one rather than five and throwing a fat man in front of the train to stop it.  In each case, you lose one but save five.  It is the same with sacrificing yourself or your children.  Only the totals matter.

But there is a profound difference if relationships matter.  We have the same relationship to the five and to the one when they are all on the tracks.  In that case, our obligation is to minimize the losses.  We have a different relationship to the fat man than we have to the strangers on the track, however.  If we throw the fat man onto the track, we commit ourselves to conceding that it would be all right for others to do the same to us.   If we made that concession, we would have to desire something more than to survive.  Since our belief in our own value depends on our being able to desire to survive more than anything else, we cannot have an obligation to sacrifice the fat man – even in order to save five.  Thus, evolutionary intuitionism gives us results that agree with our intuitions.

We believe that we are of value.  If our belief were true, we would have to sacrifice the fat man.  It is false, so we do not.  It does not matter that it is false because it is not an acquired belief and we therefore do not need it to be true, truth merely serving as a proxy for advantageousness.  There was natural selection for it because it is advantageous.

But it is still true that we have obligations.  In the simplest case, the fact that it permissible to do something is like the fact that a set of propositions is consistent.  A set of propositions can be consistent even though some or all of its members are false – it can still be true that the set is consistent.  A set can be consistent even though its members are false because consistency is a matter of the relationships of the members to each other, not a function of their relationships to reality.  Our belief in our own value is held in place by its adaptiveness, not by its having a true relationship to reality.

It is permissible to act in ways that are consistent with our belief in our own value.  It is obligatory to do something when it is the only consistent act available and we can perform it while desiring to survive uninjured, etc., more than anything else.

Morality for the World We Live In: The Moral Community

R. M. Hare’s classic example of supervenience is that if one room is nice, then another room that is the same in all other respects is also nice. The niceness of the rooms supervenes on their other characteristics. This is clearly right.  However, it is also true that if one room is nice, then another room is nice provided it is the same in all respects except that there are testimonials to its niceness.  Niceness does not supervene on testimonials to niceness.

Most philosophers believe that membership in the moral community is a supervenient property.  Here, it is maintained that it is a matter of testimonials and that it is not the case that value supervenes on the testimonials.

Here is how it works.  People naturally believe that they are of value, full stop.  They do not naturally believe that their value supervenes, let alone that it supervenes on particular properties they possess.  They effectively provide testimonials to their own value and have a naturally selected disposition to accept the testimonials of others.  Once someone accepts someone else’s testimonial to their own value, they are committed to accept the testimonials of everyone else who gives a testimonial to their own value.  Thus, people who believe they are of value are committed to the existence of a moral community that includes everyone who believes they are of value.

Since people effectively affirm that that they are of value but not that their value supervenes, they effectively affirm that they are of value throughout their existence, no matter how they change.  Therefore, although infants do not give testimonials to their own value, it is reasonable to believe that they are of value because they will grow up to give testimonials.  They are of value throughout their entire existence but they do not have to give testimonials throughout their entire existence to be acknowledged to be of value.

Morality for the World We Live In: Animals

It is fashionable to hold that at least some animals have moral standing in the same sense that people do.  The justification for the view involves reliance on the supervenience of value.  However, they are not members of the moral community to which people belong because they cannot and do not give testimonials about their own value.

There could still be an argument for relieving their suffering and for not causing them to suffer.  For instance, it might be the case that we have a secondary obligation to relieve the suffering of animals because being disposed to respond compassionately to all cases of suffering without regard to the moral standing of the sufferer increases the probability that we will respond appropriately to the suffering of those whose suffering we have a primary obligation to relieve.  Animals would be the unintended beneficiaries of a policy that was justifiable in light of the ethical needs of human members of the moral community, and the cognitive weaknesses and limitations of human moral agents.

Normative Bounds: The Basic Norms of Evolutionary Intuitionism

For evolutionary reasons, we end up believing that some other believers in their own value are of value and logic commits us to accepting that all other believers in their own value are of value.  For evolutionary reasons, we end up believing that some other believers are of equal value to us, and being committed to believe in their equal value commits us to believing that all other believers are of equal value.

If something is of value, we should neither damage nor destroy it, everything else being equal.

If something is of value, we should preserve it from damage or destruction, everything else being equal.

If two things are of equal value, we have no reason to prefer one over the other, everything else being equal.

No one is committed to suffer destruction or significant damage to preserve another from damage or destruction.  This is because of the “breaker” described paragraph 7 of the section entitled “The Origins of Morality.”

So, to sum up, we should prevent injuries and deaths but we do not have to die or be badly injured ourselves to achieve that aim.  We should not kill or injure others.  We should hold that others are our equals.  We should not use others.  This constitutes a plausible moral code.

Normative arguments against evolutionary intuitionism would have to show either that it omits something so important that any plausible normative moral theory must include it, or that it includes something so outlandish or outrageous that no plausible normative theory would include it.  The following discussions show that the theory implies plausible positions on a number of issues.

Normative Bounds: Building Institutions

We can save a lot more lives if we work together.

We can increase the effectiveness of our cooperation if we create institutions.

If we are committed to save as many lives as possible, and to prevent as many injuries as possible, we are, for example, committed to building hospitals, medical colleges, and healthcare systems.  If we can, we must provide universal healthcare.

It is that simple.

In principle.

Sometimes, it is simple in practice as well.  For instance, should we rely on private companies or public institutions for research into medical treatments?

The answer is that we should rely on the latter.  There are two reasons.  First, it is cheaper to rely on public institutions.  If we spend less money on medical research, then we can spend it on other things.  The potential savings are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.  Second, public institutions can do research on anything that shows promise.  Private companies only do research on things that both show promise and are potentially profitable, which means that private companies will never do all the possible and desirable research.  They will research drugs but not diets.

Normative Bounds: Free riders

Free riders are wrongdoers.  They use other people.

In contemporary politics, people on the left emphasize the importance of minimizing losses while people on the right emphasize minimizing the number of free riders.  People on the right probably think that people on the left are abetting free riders out of misplaced sympathy for them.  If so, the more people on the left attack people on the right, the more the latter will be disposed to resist and reject the positions advanced by people on the left.

The best way to respond to free riders depends on how many there are, on what they are actually doing, and the cost of responding.  Consequently, there is no general response to this problem.

It is also necessary to identify free riders correctly.

In the old days, when we were hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers, it was fairly easy.  Free-riders were individuals who could support themselves but who did not.  They were people who did not hunt, gather, or farm.  They were people who did not work.

In the contemporary world, however, employable people who do not work are not necessarily free riders.  In recent decades, governments have maintained what is called the natural rate of unemployment in order to keep the system functioning by supposedly preventing an accelerating rate of inflation.  If too many people get jobs, governments raise interest rates to throw some of them out of work again.  The interaction of government policy and employer preferences results in some people literally becoming unemployable.  Such unemployables are not exploiters but the exploited.  They deserve compensation because they have been sacrificed to keep the system running.  The people who benefit are the people who have jobs or who own businesses.  Therefore, it is not the unemployed who are free riders but everyone else, who literally exploit the unemployed or otherwise benefit from the fact that some people are unemployed.  This is a case in which ignorance causes immorality.

So, we must identify and take steps to prevent free riders from succeeding, but we must also be careful to identify free riders correctly.  We should not overgeneralize either.  We should certainly not confuse being a free rider with being a member of a group that is identifiable on other grounds such as race.

Normative Bounds: Creations of the Law

No hunter-gatherers are billionaires.  Therefore, no billionaire is a “self-made man.”  Instead, billionaires are one of the by-products of a state that creates property rights and corporations through its laws, and that protects its creations.

It is possible to acquire property rights by mixing your labour with things.  So, if you catch a fish, it is your fish.  It would be wrong for someone else to take it from you.

It is not possible to acquire freehold property rights in land by mixing your labour with the land.  Cultivating land enables people to produce more and this gives people ownership of the increased production but not the land itself.  And others cannot interfere in someone’s efforts to increase production any more than they can interfere with someone fishing.  But you cannot cease using land for production and automatically have a right to keep others from using it.  When it comes to cultivating land to increase production in the state of nature, it is a matter of use it or lose it.

But it is justifiable to create property rights in land if doing so would make society as a whole better off.  And, it can do so because it prevents the tragedy of the commons, where people exploit resources with only their own short-term gain in mind, with the result that the environment is degraded.  Likewise, inheritance rights can also make everyone better off, also by preventing the tragedy of the commons.

Other institutions can also be justifiably created when they benefit society as a whole.

When we create institutions that enable people to increase production or to own real estate, there is no moral reason why we cannot tax the gains or the property.  Thus, for instance, there is no moral reason why corporations should not be taxed.  Pragmatically, however, it is pointless to impose taxes so high that we lose the intended benefit.

If an institution has unforeseen side effects, it is permissible to take action to deal with them.  If billionaires acquire inordinate political power by means of their wealth, there is no moral reason why their wealth should not be taxed highly enough to eliminate their political power.  On the contrary, it is probably morally necessary to do so.

A common objection to this sort of reasoning is that billionaires have played by the rules.  This is true only if we interpret the relevant law literally, as it is interpreted in common law jurisdictions.  But we could instead interpret the law purposively, as it is interpreted in civil law jurisdictions.  If the rules that enable people to become billionaires are justifiable because they benefit society as a whole, the same kind of reason can be used to justify inheritance taxes, and even outright confiscation.

The point here is not that we should or should not adopt any particular policy but to indicate the permissibility of a range of policies.  The precise policy that we should follow depends on the specific facts of the situations we confront.

Normative Bounds: Sex


There is no moral objection to consensual sexual activity between adults unless one of the participants has made a promise to a partner not to engage in it with others, unless the activity would transmit a disease, unless one partner has used power over another to induce the other to acquiesce, or unless one partner uses deceit to induce the other to acquiesce and the other is unaware of the deceit.

Marriage has evolved into a formally acknowledged, permanent, and consensual relationship between two individuals that is accompanied by a variety of legal privileges.

In older times, it was frequently in the interest of everyone to maintain marriages as exclusive unions.  It was in the biological interest of the male partner that he not raise other men’s children.  It was in the biological interest of the female partner that she have a male partner to help her raise her children.  It was in everyone else’s biological interest because it minimized the risk of their having to care for fatherless or motherless children.  Marriage is no longer the only way in which all of these interests can be served.

There is no moral reason why granting privileges to two-person partnerships should commit the state to granting the same privileges to multi-partner relationships.  On the contrary, it is probably the case that limiting privileges to two-person partnerships is the best way to ensure equality.  There is, however, no moral reason to prohibit unsubsidized but consensual multi-partner relationships either.

There is no moral reason why the two partners to a marriage must be of different sexes.  This does not necessitate granting privileges to multi-partner relationships, for the reason just given, or permitting adult-child marriages, let alone human-animal marriages.  In the case of the latter two possibilities, neither children nor animals have the capacity to consent to marriage.

There is no moral objection to the law establishing an age of consent and deeming those who are under-age to be incapable of consent.  On the contrary, establishing an age of consent is a way of protecting the vulnerable.

It is bad to transmit diseases through sex.  It is wrong to do so negligently, recklessly, or intentionally.  Every sexually active individual has an obligation to maintain their own sexual health for the sake of their partners, their partner’s partners, and society as a whole.

It is obviously wrong to deceive others in order to engage in sexual activities with them.  In such cases, the deceived do not consent and, obviously, non-consensual sex is wrong.

Normative Bounds: Abortion

When you acknowledge another as being of value, you acknowledge them as being of value throughout their entire existence.  Their existence begins at conception.  You would need supervenience to show that they began later and we do not have that resource here.

Abortion involves removing a foetus from a woman’s womb, which causes the death of the foetus.  This means that abortion is prima facie wrong.

However, because of desire-dependence, no one has an obligation to die or suffer significant injury for the sake of another, even when the result is that the other dies.  So, a woman does not have to forgo abortion when the foetus endangers her life, or her health to a significant degree.  She does not have an obligation to sacrifice herself for the foetus.  More abstractly, she does not have an obligation to succumb to an innocent threat with moral standing.

The rest of us are free to help her if necessary.  If we had an obligation not to help her to avoid succumbing to an innocent threat, we would ourselves have an obligation to succumb to innocent threats with moral standing.  But we do not have such an obligation.

It does not follow that we are free to kill others for gain.  If we were, we would be committed to the view that it would be permissible for others to kill us for gain, and we do not hold that view.