The Evolution of Ethics
Why evolutionary ethics should be considered
to be in the field of science and not in philosophy
There are several reasons why formal ethics cannot resolve the issues of ethical theory. What hinders problem solving in ethics is the very language of ethics. There is an analog to this in the development of engineering. Until the world had calculus, tall buildings and long bridges in deep water could not be built. The language of algebra and geometry could not address the complexities of their construction. In the same way metethical discourse does not contain the necessary tools to describe the complexities of ethical theory. The history of evolutionary ethics tells us otherwise. Past attempts to construct a theory of the evolution of ethics have failed.1 Two of the more significant reasons given are G.E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy and David Hume’s is-ought dichotomy. Part of the argument says that since words like good and moral are indefinable one cannot state what is moral and what is not. However, if one changes the language of ethics from meta-ethics to cybernetic ethics a solution to complex ethical theories can be found.
For, instance, there is the puzzle of first principles and cultural/ethical relativism that has not been solved for more than two thousand years. Second, there is the centuries old problem of altruism and ethical theory. The two are briefly described in the next paragraph. Cybernetics as a science, is described in mathematical notation, can analyze informational feedback loops in social systems, economic systems, electromechanical systems and so forth. The autopilot in an airplane is an example of an electromechanical system that relies on informational feedback to guide the plane. When the pilot enters the altitude, speed, and direction of an aircraft these settings define the behaviors that need to follow. For example, if the course is set at 251 degrees, and the plane is blown off course to 236 degrees, informational feedback begins to flow prompted by the disparity between the present course and the desired course. Those behaviors that are predefined will result in the rudder turning until the compass reads 251 degrees. It is informational feedback that keeps the aircraft on course, proper altitude, and at the right speed.
In theory, moral systems evolve from the effects of social feedback. The effects of reward, pleasure, pain suffering and death all influence the perception of right and wrong behavior. For instance, if people drive too fast speed limits are set in place to reduce accidents. When crime is allowed to flourish there is social feedback in the form of pain and suffering, and death that drives the evolution of new laws to minimize crime. It is easy to see the underlying principle of an autopilot because it has a tangible destination but more difficult to see the same process as a function of human evolution. While we do not know what the destination of human evolution is, it appears to express itself as “the survival of the human species." This becomes an underlying principle of human action that shows itself in the smallest details of life. Individual survival, family survival, and national survival are all subcategories of the principle of human survival.2 Within that context rule systems such as legal codes, moral codes, traditions, and customs all are directed towards human survival. The fact that there are many moral systems reveals a compartmentalization of social systems which adds another dimension to "human survival." Simply because there are many moral systems does not necessarily mean there is a contradiction with first principles. In this context another puzzle is solved. Altruism fits neatly into ethical theory since there is no conflict between saving oneself and saving the society. Altruism is an integral part of human survival. This underlying principle of survival shows itself in the smallest details of life. Individual survival, family survival, and national survival are all subcategories of the principle of human survival. Within that context rule systems such as legal codes, moral codes, traditions, and customs all are directed towards human survival.When people work together towards a better world it increases the survivability of the human species in ways that working towards ones own selfish interests cannot.
The evolution of traffic laws illustrates the principle of survival at work using informational feedback. In the early days of a city, two roads intersect. As the city grows, the streets are improved and widened to carry more traffic. But, as the volume of traffic increases so does the number of traffic tie-ups and accidents at the intersection. These problems inspire the creation of stop signs and stop lights to lower the number of accidents. Moreover, putting up stop signs, stop lights and improving the surface of the road all work to increase the systemic efficiency of the highways. Increasing the flow lowers the cost of driving in terms of accidents, fuel, and wear and tear on the auto. Here, the more systemic flow there is in a social system, the better able that society will be to survive among competing systems. This type of evolutionary process can be described mathematically. But social systems are obviously more complex than traffic laws. Finding variables to define human behavior is most difficult. However, in cybernetic ethics quantifying human reactivity 3 presents mathematicians with a starting point for analyzing events that follow.
Other related problems with philosophical language
Ethics should be approached in scientific terms because it can explain ethics in meaningful terms while conventional ethics cannot. In meta-ethics one enters into arguments that cannot be resolved for three reasons. One of these reasons is the linguistic limitations words impose on philosophical concepts. Certain words have intensional meanings or extensional meanings. S.I. Hayakawa defines the words as follows. “The intensional meaning of a word or expression is that which is suggested (connoted) inside one's head. Roughly speaking when we express the meanings of words by uttering more words, we are giving intensional meanings or connotations...when utterances have extensional meanings, discussion can be ended and agreement reached, when utterances have intensional meanings,arguments may, and often do, go on indefinitely.” 4
The second problem with meta-ethical language is that there is no meaningful distinction between the general and specific case of words. Using words like good and moral means that you begin with words that are general yet in the end begin to represent themselves as the real thing. The word good used in metaethical dialog is not the thing symbolized. S.I Hayakawa might say, "The symbol is not the thing symbolized. The map is not the territory.The word is not the thing." 5
Third, words like Good evolve from the doing of specific acts of good. 6 This conflicts with deductive reasoning found in meta-ethical reasoning where one moves from the general to the specific. There are specific reason why a photograph in a gallery is a good one. A good carpenter is noted for the precision of his work; how straight the walls are, how fine the detail is, and how long the structure lasts. The sum total of all acts of good converge on a theoretical center defined as the generalized word Good. Metaethics does not make the distinction between "indefinable Good" and "definable good." As such, it lacks the requisite precision to solve ethical problems. In cybernetic ethics the goal is to reduce all mathematical statements concerning the evolution of ethical systems "to accounts of observable phenomena."
There is one last issue that ties into conventional ethics. To demonstrate an empirical base to ethics is to say that there is evidence that Steven Jay Gould's non-overlapping Magisteria 7 exist. There are boundaries, for instance, that separate religion and science. Science cannot explain religion and religion cannot define science. Ethics has been wrongly characterized as being a function of philosophy. There was no science in the early days of philosophy, however now is the time to make the change if the difference between right and wrong is to be quantified. The language of philosophy cannot meaningfully explain much about the dynamics of ethical theory.
1. See Paul Lawrence Faber, for a history of arguments about evolution and ethics in The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics, University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London) for a detailed history of evolutionary ethics
2. The principle of survival can be seen in the tendency of people to avoid pain, suffering and death and move towards peace, prosperity and productivity.
3. In cybernetic ethics human reactivity is broken down into many categories such as emotional reactivity, intellectual reactivity, professional reactivity, moral reactivity and so forth. Emotional reactivity could be defined as follows. "...emotional reactivity is generally conceptualized as the intensity of reaction to specific contextual or environmental stimuli." A definition as described by Elizabeth Noemilima in her Masters thesis Emotional Reactivity, Trait Affectivity, and Child Conduct Problems, 2004 at Florida State University College of Liberal Arts. For more on reactivity click here
4. S.I. Hayakawa, Language In Thought and Action, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, inc, (New York, San Deigo, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta) p. 53
5. ibid, p.25
6. The word good with a capital G is defined a good in the general sense, and good defining the specific sense. Metaethics is talking about statements denoting Good while Cybernetic Ethics is talking about actions that are good.
7. A term used by Stephen Jay Gould. See John Teena and Christopher diCarlo in an Internet article titled On the Naturalistic Fallacy: A Conceptual Basis for Evolutionary Ethics. A good source for text on the Naturalistic Fallacy, Evolutionary Ethics and Gould's Magisteria. Web site at