Darwin vs Morality: Part II

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins attempts to describe the biological roots of morality. He begins by saying:

“Natural selection favors genes that predispose individuals, in relationships of asymmetric need and opportunity, to give when they can, and to solicit giving when they can’t. It also favors tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships and punish cheats who take, but don’t give when their turn comes.” (Dawkins, p. 217)

One problem with these claims is that they beg the question. We do not know that morality is the result of genes and natural selection. He makes a factual claim without evidence. Dawkins is assuming the very thing he is supposed to be arguing for – the biological basis of morality.


It cannot be the case that all feelings, thoughts and actions concerning morality are the result of natural selection favoring genetic predispositions. If it were, our belief that all moral feelings, thoughts and actions are the result of natural selection favoring genetic predispositions would itself be the result of natural selection favoring genetic predispositions, putting this belief outside the domain of rational reflection. Some of our thinking about moral issues needs to be free from genetic predispositions in order to rationally believe that some of our thinking about moral issues is determined by genetic predispositions!

Once rational reflection enters the picture we are in a position to assess the truth claims concerning particular moral issues. Genetic predispositions seem likely to undermine these reflections rather than to assist them. If moral talk identifies real features of the world, then genetic predispositions ought to be inconsequential. And if, upon rational reflection, there are no features of reality corresponding to moral categories, then morality, and talk of it, ought to be abandoned. If you say that the truth of moral assertions is irrelevant because our belief in moral assertions is undeniably a good thing, then you are using moral realism to defend a morally skeptical position, which is incoherent. It’s akin to using a Lamborghini to jump start a motor scooter. Forget the scooter and just go with the sports car.

As we saw with the Vedantam article, introducing mechanism as an explanation for human behavior is a dangerous argumentative gambit. If the only reason we have for accepting moral categories is due to a genetic predisposition favored by natural selection, then morality is null and void. The more successful Dawkins is in positing biological grounds for morality, the more moral and epistemic skepticism is promoted. We cannot identify the biological foundation of something that doesn’t exist. His argument, like many such arguments, is self-defeating.

Later, Dawkins says:

“Reputation is important, and biologists can acknowledge a Darwinian survival value in not just being a good reciprocator but fostering a reputation as a good reciprocator too.” (Dawkins, p. 218)

Here Dawkins gives us “reputation” as an extrinsic value that derives its value from the intrinsic “Darwinian survival value.” Calling the survival value “Darwinian” makes survival value sound biological and scientific. However, intrinsic value is not discoverable using Darwinian evolutionary theory or any other scientific theory. Dawkins has succeeded in hiding his use of an unscientific intrinsic value by giving it a scientific sounding name.

On top of this, survival value is not and cannot be the foundation of morality. Whether biologists acknowledge survival value or not is irrelevant. Morality requires the notion that human life, at least, is valuable. If it is not, then murder is not wrong. Mere survival is morally neutral.

Moral and immoral people are likely to turn up to work on time, to do what is asked of them by their bosses most of the time and to work diligently. They are likely to do this because doing such things is necessary in order to keep one’s job and to get promoted. The moral may also do these things because since they are accepting payment for work, the work should be done and done properly as a matter of fairness. Additionally, job satisfaction requires it.

What is morally important is why one is acting in these ways. Do you care about other people and about justice, or are you perhaps entirely egocentric? The aim of getting promoted could be pursued by immoral means, such as taking credit for someone else’s work. Or, acting morally may mean becoming a whistle-blower, thereby jeopardizing one’s career forever. In some situations, getting ahead in one’s job is consistent with morality, in others, not.

As Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy, pointed out, it is when one’s apparent self-interest conflicts with doing the right thing, that one gets to reveal one’s true character. If one is being a good reciprocator merely to develop a good reputation, then morality doesn’t enter the picture.

The connection between reputation and morality was discussed in detail by Plato in The Republic. Dawkins writes as though Plato never existed, which I have to admit to finding frustrating. In The Republic, Plato sets himself the task of trying to prove that being a good person is a benefit to oneself even if one unjustly has a reputation for being a bad person. This is to counter the suggestion that the best situation would be to be a tyrant acting out of unscrupulous self-interest, killing, torturing, stealing property and exiling at whim and yet to have a reputation for justice.

In Plato’s Gorgias, Polus asks Socrates whether he would choose to be a tyrant unjustly burning an enemy to death after gouging out his eyes and doing the same to the enemy’s family before the enemy himself was murdered, or instead to be the victim of the tyrant. Socrates claims that though both situations are miserable and not to be desired, but that if a choice must be made, it is better to be the victim. The victim is innocent, the tyrant a monster.

Survival cannot be the end morality promotes because survival may or may not be consistent with moral behavior. If survival really is the be all and end all, then we can forget morality and simply act in the most cravenly self-serving fashion possible.

If the only thing making reciprocity good is that it promotes self-survival, then would anything adversely affecting survival be immoral? Dawkins is not committed to saying this, but he makes no indication that he is conceptually capable of condoning non-self-interested behavior. In fact, later in the chapter we will find Dawkins calling truly moral, non-self-serving behavior a mistake while simultaneously calling it morally good.

Evidence of Dawkins’ real attitude towards morality may be the following:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you don’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins R., “River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life,” BasicBooks: 1995, p.133.)

I agree entirely. This is the logical implication of the universe as Dawkins sees it. Similar statements can be found in Nietzsche. Dawkins, like Nietzsche, appears to relish his manly acceptance of these horrors. It’s a position that can be refuted by pointing to the fact that if even one person cares about you, then “the universe” is not indifferent to your existence. That person is part of the universe and that person cares; unless we are to think of people and their actions as the product of “blind physical forces and genetic replication.” In that case, the value of caring is eliminated, since it is not voluntary and doesn’t mean anything. Unfortunately for Dawkins, if he is correct, his own words are the product of the same, and are wasted on an audience which is also conforming to blind physical forces, which is the logical import of all arguments for physical causal determinism as well.

In the God Delusion, however, Dawkins is eager to distance himself from nihilism. He recognizes that identifying atheism with nihilism is hardly going to help win adherents to his attempts to debunk theism.

Dawkins continues in The God Delusion: “Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority.” (Dawkins, p. 218)

The sentence is ambiguous. There is no indication that Dawkins thinks there is anything ironic in what he is saying. Altruism involves caring more about someone else’s welfare than your own. Are we to think that altruism is really just an advertisement of dominance or superiority? If that is all it is, then altruism does not exist and is in no need of biological explanation. Nor can altruism, if it doesn’t exist, be said to be promoting any biological end. If altruism actually exists, it must be more than such an advertisement.

Alternatively, the advertisement of dominance or superiority might be an unintended side effect of genuinely moral behavior. However, evidence that Dawkins intends the former interpretation can be seen when he says “Chiefs might compete as to who is the most generous; really a kind of way of advertising your success.” (Dawkins, 218)

Again, generosity turns out to be a rather ugly thing with a nonmoral motive. Instead of explaining morality, Dawkins is explaining it away as being hypocritically self-serving.

Dawkins claims that Darwin would like reciprocity – note the scare quotes around “moral.”

“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or “moral” towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favors given, and the giving of favors in “anticipation” of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.” (Dawkins, 219-220)

The limitation, Dawkins thinks, is that reciprocity and reputation depend on living in small groups where the individuals know each other and meet each other repeatedly. You can’t help me in turn if you never see me again and I can’t develop a good reputation if I am an anonymous stranger.

In this scenario, in our communal origins, in being moral we would be likely to help others who share some of the same genes. The moral virtues of kindness, generosity and giving back to those who have given to you, all benefit us.

However, Dawkins thinks that when we move to larger communities all this pseudo-Darwinian biological explanation of morality falls to pieces. We can’t rely on developing a good reputation in a large social setting and we are no longer primarily benefiting people we are genetically related to.

Dawkins thinks that natural selection has produced moral rules of thumb, but like feeding the squawking chicks in your nest, when a cuckoo gets in the nest, this rule misfires.

Morality as a “misfiring”

“Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings? … I must rush to add that “misfiring” is intended only in a strictly Darwinian sense. It carries no suggestion of the pejorative.

The “mistake” or “by-product” idea, which I am espousing, works like this. Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on.” (Dawkins, 220-221)

Dawkins then makes an analogy between sexual desire and procreation. He says that sex and procreation were once linked, but now, thanks to the pill, the connection is broken. “[Sexual desire] is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale.” (Dawkins, 221) It’s a problematic analogy because we know that aspects of sexual desire do have a biological basis, but we do not know of any biological basis for morality.

“An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges is procreation. They know that the woman cannot conceive because she is on the pill. Yet they find that their sexual desire is in no way diminished by the knowledge. Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual’s psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale.” (Dawkins, 221)

So, sexual desire is not diminished, though its ultimate Darwinian rationale is gone. Sexual desire is still a driving force in an individual’s psychology. It is just now devoid of purpose.

The argument is that Darwinian biology gives morality its ultimate rationale. But, now that we live in larger groups, that rationale is gone. There is no longer any reason to be moral. Morality is nothing more than a misfiring; a mistake.

“I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.

Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity.” (Dawkins, p. 221)

Dawkins apparently thinks that the fact that we have the opportunity to be altruistic towards people to whom we are unrelated is a good thing. From whence does he derive the judgment that it is a “good” thing? From an outmoded, defunct Darwinian urge, according to his argument.

Dawkins is employing a full moral realism, the notion that this opportunity for altruism is good, in order to explain why we shouldn’t worry too much about the morally skeptical implications of his Darwinian theorizing. Thus, as could be predicted, Dawkins is introducing moral realism and the existence of genuine intrinsic moral goods divorced from all the self-serving elements of the supposed Darwinian basis for morality!

Having effectively explained morality away, as having its basis in being self-serving and altruism as just the quest for dominance and superiority, Dawkins wants to say that our continued moral behavior is a truly good and beautiful thing, even though it has nothing to do with being self-serving.

Where is Dawkins getting this moral judgment from? According to his own argument, his belief in the goodness and rightness of morality is just a misfiring from tendencies developed long ago and no longer relevant. No wonder he assures us twice that all this Darwinizing is not reductive or demeaning. It is both reductive and demeaning. However, Dawkins is going to save us from this miserable consequence by claiming that morality is “good” using criteria entirely free from biological determinants and never mind the contradiction.

Dawkins can either acknowledge that we have no right to be moral anymore; morality is dead and redundant because divorced from the conditions that supposedly produced it, or he can introduce a concept of moral goodness not at all derived from biology, in which case morality does not require biology for its support and the whole discussion was a waste of time and a wild goose-chase.

This is entirely typical of many such discussions. They introduce moral skepticism by claiming that morality is really something else; for instance, that it’s just a genetic predisposition over which we have no control. Or it’s a convenient fiction that is a useful lie in continuing the species. Then, at the end, they tell us that these genetic predispositions or convenient fictions are a good thing, i.e., morally good, thereby introducing a concept of morality that is independent of their biological explanation. Again, if we take their biological explanations seriously, then we know that their assessment about the goodness of morality is simply the result of convenient lies, useful fictions and genetic predispositions. They have to introduce a nonbiological notion of morality or produce a morally nihilistic position.

The absurdity of Dawkins’ position should become evident when he says “Both [sexually desiring an infertile person and morality] are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes. (Dawkins, 221) Calling morality a blessed mistake is particularly nauseating and provoking for someone writing a book called The God Delusion. There is an interesting analogy to be made, however. Just as Dawkins can no longer help himself to religious language like “blessed,” having attempted to debunk religious belief, Dawkins cannot call morality a precious mistake having debunked moral evaluations as misfirings stemming from conditions that don’t exist any longer.

What criteria is Dawkins using for assessing the moral worth, or “preciousness” of these misfirings? The very criteria he has explained away in the process of trying to explain the biological and Darwinian foundations of morality.

Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.

Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.