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Evolution of Morals

Evolution of Morals

Andrew Bissell

3 Mins
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January 25, 2011

Question: People have evolved with intuitive ‘moral’ values, through natural selection, i.e., our ethics system gives the person the best chance of successful reproduction. Is it possible that some of the axioms of Objectivism are based on these values, such as an aversion to lying or killing? Why is it important that we respect the rights of others?

Question: As they evolved over hundreds of millennia, human beings developed some innate physical desires and psychological predispositions through a process of evolution. To take a couple of everyday examples, we feel these inborn longings and survival mechanisms whenever we become hungry or tired. However, we also have free will, and the power to overcome this built-in evolutionary code by the sheer power of our own volition. In fact, Objectivism holds that free will is axiomatic. So while hunger is certainly one of the most powerful evolutionary instincts, some prisoners, for example, have suppressed it and gone on hunger strikes to protest against political regimes, and a few have even starved themselves to death.

Proper ethical codes do not aim to maximize the odds of reproducing and passing on our genetic material. Rather, they answer the questions, “What are values?” and “What sorts of values should one pursue?” Objectivism applies an objective process, one that recognizes the supremacy of reason and primacy of existence, in answering these questions.

We can clearly see that evolution is not an objective process for arriving at moral intuitions, or even in constructing biological organisms. For all its power to weed out unnecessary physical traits and encourage the ones essential to survival, evolution has still not managed to dispose of the human appendix, whose only present function is, in some instances, to become infected and pose a serious risk of death. In the same respect, evolution has left human beings with useless or self-destructive physical and psychological proclivities. For instance, drug use can stimulate the release of pleasing neurotransmitters, but it destroys our cognitive abilities and, in the long run, our very lives. I would also argue that evolution has built in not an aversion to stealing, but its exact opposite. Many children exhibit a strong desire to steal—for instance, to take toys from other children or, later, items from store shelves—and it is only moral injunctions, social mores, and the threat of “getting in trouble” that stops most of them.

We need a system of values and virtues consonant with our needs for productive work, purpose, happiness, and pride.

So an objective morality cannot be found by a process that leaves us with this sort of physical and ethical baggage. Evolution is concerned with propagating a genetic code across hundreds of generations. The Objectivist ethics, in contrast, addresses our nature as individual, rational human beings, and how we should then relate to the societies and complex civilizations in which we live. To do that, and to survive and flourish, we need to do more than get enough food and have plenty of children to carry on the family DNA. We need a system of values and virtues consonant with our needs for productive work, purpose, happiness, and pride, and that is what Objectivism provides.

The Objectivist condemnations of lying and killing are based not on evolutionary processes or inborn desires, but upon certain facts about reality and our nature. If we wish to live as rational beings, in harmony with reality, and trading value for value with other rational beings, we cannot try to evade or fake the facts by deceiving others. And we certainly cannot kill them if we hope to benefit from them.

This provides the self-interested basis of the importance of respecting the rights of others. We can each provide best for our own well-being in a society based on trade and voluntary social interactions. If we are to have peace in our lives, and live something better than a hand-to-mouth existence where every other person is a potentially dangerous enemy, we need the security and freedom that comes from respect for the rights to life and property.

For more on the subject of evolution and its relation to Objectivism, see D. Moskovitz’s Taming the Animal Within.

On the self-interested reasons for respecting the rights of others, see the Q&A Rights and Self-Interest .