In the previous post on Ethics and Biology, I was making the claim that ethics is the general term for human behaviors adapted to regulate selfishness and promote altruism within a society. These behaviors help to increase the chances of survival and the level of success that a society experiences. As societies enter into competition with one another, the society that demonstrates the best ability to hem selfishness eventually wins out; when resources are not extremely limited, selfishness and the struggle between individuals for resources and power are at the heart of all society-internal conflicts, conflicts that result only to the detriment of the society’s fitness.
Yet the ethics of today was not immediately born from this need to control selfishness. Morality is an ever growing compendium of behaviors adapted for this purpose, a collection of the behaviors and beliefs that have been handed down by successful societies that were selected for via the principles of natural selection (more specifically, group selection). Societies that could not find ways to control the spread of selfishness (the result of the “subversion from within” principle) suffered one of two fates: either they could not grow and were eventually absorbed by more successful societies, or they suffered some collapse of internal structure due to the struggle between many individuals, leading to societal reversion (stagnation or depopulation) rather than progression (population growth).
Before I Go On: What’s at Stake
There is something that I haven’t really talked about that fuels my desire to write about this topic, and it is something beyond mere fancy. The purpose of my talking about Ethics and Biology is to justify ethics through reason and empiricism; by grounding ethics in the more universal languages of reason and empiricism, we come to realize that there is an important reason for us to be ethical and moral people, one that goes beyond any one person’s individual happiness. I’ve talked about how ethics is a collection of behaviors and ideologies that is selected for through the principles of natural selection; societies experience success through the cooperation of individuals and the control of selfishness. What I’ve come to realize is that ethics and morality aren’t for individuals in the sense that living an ethical and moral life guarantees you happiness in this life or the next. Morality is not for the fitness of men, is is for the fitness of mankind. What’s really at stake is here is more than just the lives of individuals; it’s the life of the human race that we now hold so precariously in our hands.
Ethics and morality are not principles that give happiness and fitness to you or to me – they are principles that give happiness and fitness to all of us. We should not want to be ethical and moral because of fear of punishment or in hope of reward in this life or the next. We should be ethical and moral because of fear for the happiness of future peoples – our future selves as well as our children and their children. The faster we escape from the illusions of punishment and reward from without and learn about the punishments and rewards that come from within, from our minds, the faster we can propel society forward into the future.
So, without further interruption, allow me to paint my picture of the evolution of ethics, and why good and evil are notions more universal and scientific than anyone cares to believe.
The Cycle of Strife
In the last post I mentioned that for every society of organisms, the opposing forces of group selection and individual selection create a sort of equilibrium between the amount of selfish members and the amount of altruistic members. By the “subversion from within” principle, the amount of selfish members (who enjoy an increased fitness) has a tendency to increase over generations, increasing the ratio of selfish members to altruistic members slowly over several generations. Some philosophers think that, because of this tendency towards selfishness, altruistic tendencies aren’t likely to have evolved in this manner; the eventual result of this process, according to them, would be the complete elimination of the altruistic behavior over time.
I don’t necessarily think that this is plausible; if there was a time in which a society of organisms was enjoying the benefits provided by the work of the altruistic members, then the behavior could never be completely eradicated from the society because such an event would have profound negative impacts on the fitness of every single member of the society, even the selfish ones. Before the complete eradication of altruistic behavior is even possible, the effectiveness of the benefits provided by the altruistic members will have decreased below a critical level, when the benefits are not enough to support the habits of the selfish members. What this means is that the society will regress, entering into a state of “collapse.” This can cause either the conversion of selfish members into altruistic members, cutting or stemming off the regression, or, if the regression continues unhindered, a significant drop in the fitness of the group as a whole, which entails a drop in the growth and success of the population until the population actually starts to experience negative growth.
Regardless of what happens, the society will eventually return to a state of equilibrium, when the effectiveness of the altruistic behavior is again just enough to support the habits of the selfish. This prompts the return of individual selection, eventually leading the society back to regression. This cycle of equilibrium, spread of selfishness, and regression is what I call the Cycle of Strife; unchecked competition between organisms within the society leads eventually and inexorably to the regression of the society back to an equilibrium, the staging point for the competition to begin anew. The only way to avoid this cycle is for the altruistic behavior to evolve such that it is able to provide for more members at the same cost to the individual, or for more members to become altruistic. Technological and cultural progress, respectively, are examples of these two phenomenon. While many people have written great works about the first (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is one great example), I would like to focus on how cultural progress, has beneficial effects on the fitness of groups, especially through the effects of ethics on regulating selfishness.