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Tag:evolutionary ethics

Tag:evolutionary ethics

Yesterday’s most-viewed New York Times article was by purported philosopher Peter Singer, who asks whether it might be ethical for us to all stop having children, and in effect commit societal suicide.  He wonders whether life contains too much suffering to make it worthwhile.  Ultimately, he concludes that life is actually worth it, but only because he is optimistic about humanity’s prospects for learning from our past mistakes.

But there is something deeply troubling about resting a valuation of life on how much pleasure it contains.  Studies show that no matter how healthy or prosperous, or unfortunate and impoverished, most humans return to a baseline level of satisfaction set by genetic factors or upbringing.  Chasing pleasure therefore is a fool's errand and certainly should not be the cornerstone of any ethical philosophy.

Moreover, the conflation of "pleasure" and "benefit" is a purely arbitrary decision on Singer’s part.  If the promotion of life itself is chosen as the route by which we can best understand "benefit," the "deep issues" raised by Singer melt away.  Using the promotion of life as our basic ethical measuring stick, we can derive the importance of quality of life and health, while at the same time shedding ourselves of the ludicrous suggestion that we have an ethical imperative to commit societal suicide.

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Lord Winston of Imperial College, London, said recently that he believes pig organs will be available for human transplant within ten years. Porcine valves are already widely used for human heart patients, but this kind of experimentation often provokes revulsion and ethical outrage, despite its potential to save lives. Why?

The argument made by those who oppose interspecies transplant is that humans are sacred and that we ought not play God. Further, genetic experimentation is dangerous because gene modifications could have unintended consequences. And for many of us who do not oppose stem-cell research or other research avenues, porcine organs just seems revolting.

And there may be another motivation for opposing research into life-extending therapies. Religions serve their interests when they oppose medical research, because they prevent progress that has the potential to increase lifespan. If medical science can provide immortality, that’s one less perk of signing up for a religion that promises eternal bliss and salvation.

If human beings are chemical concoctions lacking free will then the ethical objections to interspecies transplant and genetic modification melt away, except to the extent that these practices harm either our survival prospects or harm ideas which promote survival.

Of course, if all of the ideas that compose our intuitive ethic arose through evolutionary processes, it could be argued that revulsion with mixing our genetic material with that of animals must confer an evolutionary benefit.

The trick in tackling controversial ethical propositions using an evolutionary ethic is sometimes teasing out which aspects of the intuition, or socially or biologically conditioned ethical feeling, actually produce the survival benefit, and which aspects are mere side effects. Evolutionary biologists who believe that all traits produce survival benefits are “adaptationist,” but the non-adapationists have strong arguments; so many human behaviors seem like they are just side-effects.

Why do men wear neckties? I cannot imagine even the beginnings of a theory to explain how this behavior confers some evolutionary advantage over wearing some other attire or wearing no neckwear at all. Wearing neckties must be a behavioral consequence of some other general behaviors and preferences which increase our chances for survival. The necktie-wearing behavior is just a side effect.

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