Right from Wrong: What Can Science Tell Us?

Looking to science, especially the study of evolution, for lessons on morality is a controversial business. A century ago the wealthy adopted the phrase “survival of the fittest” to justify their power and to rationalize the neglect of the poor and sick. World War II put the usage (mostly) out of fashion. Today, neuroscientist Sam Harris claims that science provides valuable information about how to maximize well-being, but even this seemingly modest assertion is hotly contested. No wonder scientists are reluctant to speculate about the ethical consequences of their field.

But despite the hazardous nature of this line of thinking, we should not stop considering the work of biologists for its potential usefulness in sharpening our sense of right and wrong. There is so much information that we–nonscientists as well as scientists—can’t afford to ignore about the conditions that advance or retard the pursuit of a flourishing life. Let’s draw what conclusions we can from it. Let’s look not just at altruism among higher animals but also at the long history of behaviors that have been helpful and harmful for all living things. Here are some samples of what we might find:

  1. The study of evolutionary biology broadens our awareness of types of relationships and interactions among living things. Our vocabulary for moral and immoral relationships is quite limited when compared to the study of how other living things interact. Biologists classify relationships according to whether the relationships leave each party better off, worse off, or unchanged. In two familiar types of interactions, for example, competition leaves A better off and B worse off, while cooperation improves the lot of both A and B. Less well known and rarely applied to humans are amensalism and commensalism. These are relationships in which A does something that helps B (commensalism) or hurts B (amensalism) but A is not affected one way or the other. A shark leaves left over food that it doesn’t want and the food is gobbled up by the hungry remora; that’s commensalism. An organism that secretes a substance toxic to other organisms is a common example of the opposite, ammensalism. As a human example, I picture a powerful boss whose casual actions help or hurt those in weaker positions without impacting the boss in the slightest. Are the boss’s actions matters for moral judgment? Comparable behaviors in other species might help us think about that.
  2. By being aware of evolution, we can gain an appreciation of our place in the evolution of morality. That is, while evolution is not a force that moves living things towards specific goals or virtues, the changes that have taken place among organisms include what we view as moral developments. Living things have gained the ability to help others of their own species and even members of other species as well. Simple plants have no relationship to their seeds after their dispersal. Higher animals care for their young until they can fend for themselves. We humans, with our imaginations, can care about people we have never met and even species we have never seen. Our ability to live moral and generous lives constitutes one of the great threads of evolutionary change.
  3. A basic understanding of evolution gives us added perspectives on ethical quandaries. We debate the ethics of abortions, eating meat, and the death penalty in terms of human rights and in terms of sentience, the capacity to feel pain. Adding an evolutionary perspective to such discussions brings an understanding of other, older dramas of power, trust, betrayal, and the expendability of life. Even the everyday doubts described in The New York Times’ Ethicist column take on a rougher urgency when we view them through the lens of survival. A business flyer who is bumped from a flight and rebooked and is then given $800 for his inconvenience worries whether he should reimburse the company’s client who paid for the original seat. A civilized, ethical fine point, but the scenario evokes the uncertainty of the hunting animal that has eaten more than his fair share of the kill and now fears that the pack leader might challenge him. At their core, ethical dilemmas go to survival.
  4. Finally, our turning to evolution and natural history to look for models of beneficial and harmful interactions helps us deepen our niche in the secular something-larger that we long to feel a part of. Looking at the roots of morality among other and older living things links us more deeply to the phenomenon of life on earth.


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