Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Euthephro and Biological Ethics


I recently saw a lecture on SCTV (not the Canadian comedy show, but an academic chanel on cable) in which a professor proclaimed that "Socrates Kicked the ass of moral philosophy." Of course she was quoting her student, but she clearly agreed with him. Her solution was to replace "Moral philosophy" as religiously based, with biologically based social contract theory. Unfortunately I never did catch the woman's name or what the lecture series was. But please bear with me, as these are commonly held opinions anyway.

First let's consider the idea that "Socrates kicked ass on moral philosophy." How did he do this? He supposedly did it with an argument that atheists sometimes use on message boards called "The Euthephro Dilemma." It goes something like this:

Socrates asks Euthephro (who is of course, an idiot and a priest--thus giving Soc religious people to be his foils) "Is the good good, because the gods say it is? Or is the good good because there's some reason beyond the gods?" Euthephro knows he can't say the good is good just because the Gods say it is, that will never work, the gods might change their minds tomorrow. This would leave morality as totally arbitrary, it wouldn't be really good and it could change daily. Today it's wrong to torture babies for fun, tomorrow it might not be. So Euthephro says there is something that makes it good apart form just the gods word that it is good. Then Socrates says that something is higher than the gods. So this is supposedly the ass kicking for moral philosophy, morality can't be based upon the word of God, because it would either be arbitrary (God says so) or based upon something higher than God.

To answer this problem the professor on TV said that we should ground our understanding of ethics in our own biology. We are geared as biological organisms to help the group, to share the load and to be part of the team. So being part of the team becomes our highest value because we are geared biologically to be part of the team. We will consider this in a minute.

The problem with the Euthephro dilemma as it has been so defined above is twofold:

(1) It seeks to ground morality in contingent gods who are not the basis or ground of being and who could never ground moral axioms to begin with.

(2) In this pre Christian paganism the Greeks did not have love as the background of the moral universe, precisely because they didn't have a single all pervasive God who was the ground of being and whose character defined reality.

The Christian God not only creates all that is, but is also the fountainhead of all potential being as well. Not even the possibility of being can exist apart from the mind of God. That means that no standard could be higher than God. Thus if good is good because the Christian God says so it is, it is both grounded upon the word of God, and based upon a timeless principle that establishes the good; God's character. Augustness tells us that love is the background of the moral universe. Thus all moral axioms that are truly good are grounded in the notion of love, they all relate back to it and seek to fulfill it. That means God's character is the basis of moral axioms. Thus, the standard of the good is not independent of God, but based upon God's very character. The Greek gods were not capable of this, the Christian God can provide this basis in the ground of being.

In any case, what about the biological part? What this professor overlooks is that there is no moral axiom attached to genetics, nor can there be. As Hume said "you cannot derive an ought from an is." Just telling us the facts about our genetic structure can never tell us that we should, or should not accept any particular axiom, no matter how scientifically it may be grounded in our genetic heritage. She is also overlooking the fact that humans are bundles of competing drives and interests. We are genetically predisposed to pull with the group, but we are also genetically predisposed to betray the group and seek our own way when it serves our interest to do so. Who is to say that this is not the true moral stance, after all this is also biologically based. Thus a biological basis for ethics is a pipe dream.

This seems like a really overwhelming objection. The notion of "herd instinct" has been around as an explanation for morality for a long time. But, in the 1970s E.O.Wilson invented the theory of sociobiology, which basically said that our genes determine everything in an attempt to mate, and what seems like our own ideas and concerns are all really a ploy my our gene pool to further itself. Morality, in this context is just an attempt to aid the pack. Even self sacrifice is just an attempt to save some part of the gene pool. IN the 1980s sociobiology became known as "naturalistic psychology" and under the lead of Richard Dawkins became an overwhelming force; thousands of websites exist to support sociobiology, and there is no real adequate Christian response. This seems like such an overwhelming flood time of support that there doesn't seem much hope for the moral argument.

Answer: The genetic argument really doesn't defeat the notion of a universal moral law, but it is problematic. The moral law "written on the heart" (Romans 2:7) could well be genetic at its root. Those Christians who have no trouble understanding that God used evolution as a method of developing life can easily imagine that the moral law in encoded into the evolutionary process and is found from the ground up. The problematic part is that it blunts the thrust of the causality argument. Perhaps there is a basic humanity to humans which recognizes moral motions, but how to use that as a proof of God's creation when it could as easily be the product of evolution? More on this at the end of the argument.

a) sociobiology enshrining values of reductionism and consequentualist ethics.

First Things, May 98, 59

The Social Meaning of Modern Biology: From Social Darwinism to Sociobiology. By Howard L. Kaye. With a new epilogue by the author. Transaction. 208 pp. $19.95 paper.

"Sociobiology is a secularized form of natural theology, Kaye explains: an attempt to "translate[e] our lives and history back into the language of nature so that we might once again find a cosmic guide for the problems of living." But the attempt fails, he argues, because in order to derive moral guidance from things like genes, socio biologists first have to attribute to them various cognitive and moral attributes (e.g., "selfish genes"). In short, the socio biologist first reads his own moral program into nature and then, unsurprisingly, discovers it from nature.

b) Reductionism of Sociobiology negates ability to discuss ethics.

(from First Things )

"Moreover, Kaye argues, these attempts at moral guidance are logically incoherent, given sociobiology's reduction of human beings to "mechanisms," "programmed" by natural selection. What, then, can it mean to talk about choice and values? Evolutionary psychology avoids some of the cruder reductionism of the older sociobiology. But by attempting to unmask all thought and feelings as genetically programmed survival strategies, Kaye warns, it may still "have a corrosive effect on our moral principles, social order, and even our souls."

c) Sacrificial (moral) genes is confusion of members and sets.

Val Dusek, Science As Culture "Sociobiology Sanitized: the Evolutionary Psychology and Enic Selectionism Debates"

this Dusek article is no longer located where I linked to. I will try to find it, its' been years.

"Despite the new name, the general lessening of totally off-the-wall speculation, far-fetched animal analogies to very distantly related species, and the avoidance of grossly sexist remarks, evolutionary psychologists present the same theories as the sociobiologists. Central to the work of most of them is the genic selection theory, claims that genes, not organisms are selected. It is most well known as selfish gene theory in popularizations by Richard Dawkins. This doctrine, genic selectionism, has been criticized by biologists such as Gould and Lewontin, but many journeyman biologists accept the theory, even attributing the details of the theory to Dawkins himself, when he was only popularizing certain trends in genetics and theories of Hamilton and others. The debates concerning evolutionary psychology have revived the debate about genic selectionism. Part of the debate concerns whether genes alone are selected, as Dawkins claims, or whether individual organisms and species (and perhaps also groups) are selected as well...."

"This fits with the theory of kin selection, in which and individual can reproduce some of "its" genes by sacrificing itself for a relative which carries a proportion of the altruist's genes. Lewontin has criticized Dawkin's theory by claiming that it confuses classes with individuals. The genes which are reproduced by the relative are not physically identical with the sacrificed individual's genes, but are simply similar, the same kind of gene. Lewontin counters Dawkins claim that an extraterrestrial, to gauge earthly intelligence would ask "Do you understand the theory of natural selection?" with the Platonic question "Do you understand the difference between a class and its members?"--which, according to Lewontin, Dawkins, in his "caricature of Darwinism" flunks. Sober and Lewontin have put the distinction in more philosophical jargon, distinguishing genotokens from genotypes." (Sober and Lewontin, 1982, p. 171)

d) Other scientific objections and ethical problems.


"Lewontin, Gould, and some other writers have emphasized against selectionism a number of random and non-selective factors in evolution. These include 1) purely random recombination 2) genetic drift, in which random sampling errors in reproduction change the distribution of genes in a population 3) so-called non-Darwinian evolution, which involves the random mutation of the third letter in some DNA code words, in which two or more words are synonyms which code for the same amino acid, and hence the difference in the third letter makes no difference in the resultant organism, and is not selected for (a significant theory Dennett does not even mention) 4) structural constraints, such as basic body plans, which may become far from optimally adaptive, but which are too difficult to change by piecemeal natural selection without making many other features of the organism maladaptive. 5) geological or astronomical catastrophes such as the asteroid collision causing mass extinctions. 6) species selection, in which differing rates of extinction, and, more importantly, speciation (branching) produce more species in some lineages than in others....."

"There is [in Dennett] a discussion of the naturalistic fallacy in ethics, but no further discussion of scientific reduction. Apparently all that Dennett means by "draining the drama" from the problem is to deny that awful ethical consequences directly follow logically from selfish gene theory. But this ignores the more indirect ideological consequences in terms of cosmologies or models of nature that in turn can have ethical effects. An interesting sidelight of this is that Dennett, like Dawkins holds the Dawkinsian vision of all lower organisms. The are robots, but we, in Dawkins words can rebel against our genes. Surprisingly Dennett, the militant denier of dualism and of non-naturalistic mind, draws as strong a line between humans and other animals as does Descartes."

"What Dennett would have to counter is Lewontin and Sober's argument that when selection coefficients of genes are context-dependent and selection acts on gene complexes, the artificially constructed selection coefficients of genes do not play a causal role. (Sober and Lewontin, 1984). It is true that if one claims that what is selected are not genes but replicators as the later Dawkins does, then whole genomes, incorporating all the contextural effects of genes on each other, might be the object of selection. This would preserve the restriction of selection to the genic level, but it would give up the atomization of modular traits with which evolutionary psychologists work. On the other hand Dennett, surprisingly, does not dismiss the "selfish gene" image as a "mere metaphor" as do many scientists (somewhat in bad faith) but claims that if corporations can have interests, then so can genes (neglecting that corporations are made up of individuals who have interests but genes are not) (p. 328). Perhaps Dennett holds a view which "dissolves" the issues concerning reductionism in relation to levels of selection, but he nowhere argues for it of even states it clearly."

"Although Dennett chastises B. F. Skinner and E. O. Wilson for assuming that their opponents must be religious mysterians, Dennett himself accuses Steve Gould of all people of having secret religious motivations, based on the fact that Gould often quotes the Bible as literature the way he does Shakespeare. Ironically, the one "Biblical" passage in Gould that Dennett quotes is in fact not from the Bible but from a familiar African American song. Similarly Dennett grossly misrepresents the anthropologist Jonathan Marks, portraying him as a new Bishop Wilberforce, denying humans ape ancestry. In fact Marks pointed out the worse than shoddy treatment of data by C. G. Sibley and J. E. Ahlquist in their claims concerning hybridization of human and ape DNA. Dennett makes it sound as if Marks criticisms of Sibley and Ahlquists data was roundly condemned by the scientific community, as evidenced by an apology in the American Scientist. What Dennett neglects to note is that there was a lawsuit threatened against the magazine threatened by one of the criticized authors because Marks review suggested excessive massaging of the data. Despite the quality of Sibley and Ahlquists earlier raw data on bird classification based DNA, it is generally agreed that their work on human-ape relationships was worthless, and molecular evolution anthropologist Vincent Sarich has suggested that even the published versions of their bird conclusions is valueless, despite the value of the voluminous but unavailable raw data. Because of Sibley's eminence the human molecular evolution community has been unwilling to criticize the work, for fear of harm to the reputation of the field. This is far from the sort of replay of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate in which Dennett and other evolutionary psychologists wish to portray themselves as involved."

"Interestingly several of the leading sociobiologists and popularizers of evolutionary psychology, such as E. O. Wilson, Randy Thornhill, and Robert Wright hale from Alabama. One can speculate that the religious fundamentalist atmosphere of the American Deep South may have led those who defected to Darwin to find in Darwinism a cosmic world-view answering the same questions that the dominant religious view claimed to answer. Robert Wright (1988) is quite explicit about this."


"The notion that human beings have evolved from other animals and are a part of biological nature is tremendously important. It is unfortunate and misleading that the evolutionary psychologists make it appear that a commitment to evolution and to the importance of natural selection necessitates a commitment to pan-selectionism, genetic selection and the "selfish gene." We have seen how Wilson and now Dennett attempt to identify their opponents with anti-evolutionist. Even Barbara Ehrenreich dubs her opponents the "New Creationists." The split between selfish gene evolutionary psychology and cultural constructionism in anthropology can only prolong the delay in the development of a genuinely evolutionary view of humanity. "Evolutionary psychology" by preempting the field of evolutionary accounts of human nature and potential helps to prevent a non-reductionist biosocial account of humans.

3) The Inhumanity of humanity.

Many skeptics point out the extreme cases of the holucost in which normal law abiding citizens, chruch goers and Christians, did the most horrid things to babbies and old people and suffered no pangs of guilt over it. Moreover, we have seen on the evening news in Bosnia, in Ruwanda, and other places the most inhumane treatment of helpess victims which surely demonstrates that there is no moral law.

Answer: The explanitory power of the moral argument is demonstrated in this argument. The other side of the moral argument equation is that we are not able to live up to the moral law. There are times when we turn it off, when it can be circumvented. Urges and temptations, ideology, socialization, many things can divert the basic motivations of compassion. If it was simply genetic and the instinctive urge to save the gene pool than why are we so bad at keeping it? While certain extreme examples where the moral law is circumvented do not disprove that there is no moral law (because special circumstances intervened) our anguish (ours not that of those whose consciences were cleared but that of those who look in horror at their deeds) demonstrates, along with our feelings of failure at living up to the mark, that there is a moral law. But it if is genetic why are we unable to live up to the standard that we feel passionately should be met?

C. Explanatory Power argues for God.

How can these moral motions demonstrate that God is the origin of such motions when there are also such strong indications that is genetic? Isn't this merely assuming God as an explaination when none is required?

That we feel such moral motions, both for compassion, and outrage over injustice, is better explained by an appeal to the God hypothesis since it demonstrates the depths of human depravity in man's fallen nature.So much of what we term "evil" is "over the top" and pointless, while the noble aspects of humanity cannot be reduced to mere behaviors. Morality is more than mere behavior, it is also deliberation, moral agency,and the ability to understand constitutive frameworks which embody self and our deepest values. This is so much more than just behavior, an attempt to save the gene pool. That is take is merely enshrining the ideology of consequentialist ethics. See also my take on the Fall of Humanity and what this means on the Gospel page. Without the notion of God a merely genetic morality reduces to behavioral urges and becomes relative and discard able. Yet the outrage and feelings of compassion remain. These are reduced to unimportant epiphenomena without God. This means that we are actually explaining away the phenomena. God is crucial as an postulate of practical reason; without metaphysical assumptions we cannot derive an ought from an is (Hume). But if we think of this observation in terms of the explainitory power of the God hypothesis that hypothesis becomes more than just a useful fiction. Since God explains morality and human nature better than any other view, in so far as it is honest about human depravity and nobility, we have a strong indication of the validity of the God hypothesis.

1) Regulative principle of practical reason (Kant)

We have this urge to condemn with outrage human attrocities and to extend compassion and justice. As with the Holocaust, we know it is evil; merely saying that it violates our genetic code isn't enough! But without assuming God as a regulative principle the alternative is that it does reduce to mere behavior and the moral outrage is groundless; yet we never lose it. That does't prove there is a God, but it at least justifies the notion as a regulative principle.

2) Regulative principle has explanatory power.

Both in explaining why we have these moral urges and yet can't live up to them, and in explaining why we need a regulative principle, why we can't just say it's not right or let it go.

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