Morality and Evolution

Some days ago, I stated that ethics is more flexible than many people suppose. One reason for this is the nature of the moral object. I tried to explain how this works in the last post; more detail is found in the comments there. A second reason is that human nature itself is less fixed than many people suppose. This follows from the theory of evolution.

This issue is related to a post by Alexander Pruss, where he raises the question of why immoral behavior is not necessary for human flourishing:

Andrea Dworkin argued that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is always wrong because it involves a violation of the woman’s bodily integrity. She concluded that until recent advances in medical technology, it was impossible for humans to permissibly reproduce. The antinatalists, on the other hand, continue to hold that it is impossible for humans to permissible reproduce. Such views lead to an incredulous stare. It is very tempting to levy against them an argument like this:

  1. Coital reproduction is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions.
  2. Whatever is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions is sometimes permissible.
  3. Coital reproduction is sometimes permissible.

The condition “under normal conditions” is needed for (2) to be plausible. We can, after all, easily imagine science-fictional scenarios where something immoral would need to be done to ensure the minimal flourishing of the human community.

Reproduction is not the only case where issues like this come up. For instance, the destruction of non-human organisms, say plants, seems necessary for our flourishing. And I suspect that under normal conditions the killing of non-human animals is necessary, too (if only as a side-effect of plowing fields, say). Taxation may be another interesting example.

I have heard it argued that (2) is in itself a basic moral principle, so that killing non-human animals as a side-effect of vegan farming is permissible because it is permissible to ensure minimal human flourishing. But that seems mistaken. Rather, while (2) is true, it is not a moral principle, but a consequence of a correlation between (a) fundamental facts about what moral duties there are actually are and (b) facts about what is actually needed for minimal human flourishing under normal conditions.

This leads to an interesting and I think somewhat underexplored question: Why are the moral facts and the facts about actual human needs so correlated as to make (2) true?

Theists have an elegant answer to this question: God had very strong moral reason to make humans in such a way that, at least normally, minimal flourishing of the community doesn’t require wrong action. Non-theists have other stories to tell. These stories, however, are likely to be piecemeal. For instance, one will give one evolutionary story about why we and our ecosystem evolved in such a way that eating persons wasn’t needed for our species’ survival, and another about why we evolved in such a way that morally non-degrading sex sufficed for reproduction. But a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers, especially when the unified answer is compatible with the piecemeal ones and capable of integrating them into a single story. We do, thus, get some evidence for theism here.

I tend to agree with Pruss here on a certain level. Thus I have argued myself that the fact that the world is good implies that its principle is good. However, his argument is more particular than that. He is claiming that principle (2) could have failed to be true empirically , and consequently that there was a need of some special effort to make sure that it did not fail to be true. He is presumably not rejecting the theory of evolution, but he is arguing that God needed to take special care to ensure that evolution did not follow certain paths where (2) would have ended up being false.

In contrast, I would argue that (2) could not possibly have failed to be true. This follows from an Aristotelian view of ethics and from the nature of moral obligation. Virtue simply means those habits that lead to human flourishing, and moral obligations are simply those things which are necessary for the human good. So it is evident that there was no need for any special measures to prevent immorality from being necessary for human flourishing. Whatever was necessary would have been moral.

Pruss gives examples: why isn’t eating persons necessary for survival, and why isn’t morally degrading sex necessary for reproduction? (In the comments he gives rape as an example of morally degrading sex.) As Pruss points out, a reasonable evolutionary account can be given for each thing of this kind. Generally speaking, prey populations must significantly outnumber predator populations for stability, and this implies that even if it is possible for some species to prey on itself to some extent, as in cannibalism, it is not likely to be necessary; most of the nourishment must come from elsewhere.

Similarly, given the nature of rationality, it would be highly unlikely for lack of consent to be necessary for a reproductive process between two individuals. One could imagine its necessity: perhaps reproduction only happens when hormones are present in the blood which are only emitted in circumstances of distress and unwillingness. But the fact that this might be possible in principle does not make it a likely thing to evolve; to the extent that a rational party is unwilling to reproduce, reproduction is unlikely to happen at all. So this kind of situation is likely to lead either to extinction, or to a new situation where lack of consent is no longer necessary.

Pruss’s response is that “a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers.” But this only works if it is in fact true that (2) would have been false if eating persons had been necessary for survival, or if lack of consent had been necessary for reproduction.

I would respond to Pruss in two ways. First, as I have already stated, (2) could not have been false, and would not have been false even in Pruss’s imaginary scenarios. Second, human life as it actually is has properties which directly suggest that no special effort has been taken to avoid such things. These two claims might seem inconsistent. I will explain their consistency when I come to the second point.

Regarding the first point, suppose eating persons were necessary for the survival of the human race. Let’s say that when someone reached the age of 15, it was necessary for him to eat an older person or die of a fatal disease. This would be part of the human growth process.

It is obvious, and Pruss concedes that it is true, that if this were the case, all humans would agree that it was morally acceptable for the 15 year old children to eat the older adults. This would presumably have some concrete social arrangement, perhaps with the very oldest being eaten. They might not like the fact, but even the ones being eaten would presumably accept the necessity of the situation, and in most cases consent to it. Pruss simply claims that despite the fact that all humans would agree that the behavior was moral, it would be objectively wrong.

This seems to me to deserve the “incredulous stare” that positions like Andrea Dworkin’s and the antinatalists’ receive. What could even be meant by the supposed objective wrongness in that situation? And if there is such a thing, perhaps many things that we do in everyday life are objectively wrong as well, and we simply don’t know it, in the same way those people would not.

Again, consider the idea that non-consensual sex might have been necessary for reproduction. This situation seems even more unlikely than the previous, for the reasons given above, but given that it were an actual situation, again, virtually all humans (possibly with exceptions like Andrea Dworkin) would agree that reproduction was moral. Lack of consent would no more make reproduction immoral, in that situation, than the fact that children do not consent to much of the treatment they receive from their parents means that raising children is immoral.

This point is in fact a good transition to my second claim. Human life requires that children receive a good deal of treatment to which they do not consent, and with which they often strongly disagree. There is nothing great about this situation, but it is inevitable. And this kind of point illustrates my claim that no special effort has been taken to avoid such situations. If eating people had been necessary for survival, or non-consensual sex had been necessary for reproduction, we might very well have recognized that these things were unfortunate necessities, but we would not have concluded that they were immoral, and in fact they would not have been immoral, given those circumstances.

We could find other examples of “unfortunate” situations in human life as it is:

1) Breastfeeding tends to space births by preventing conception. But there is some evidence that occasionally it can cause an abortion, or at least contribute to causing one. Alan McNeilly says regarding this point:

The foregoing discussion has made it clear that suckling is the key to the suppression of fertility. The variable return of ovarian activity is related to the variable pattern of suckling input and how fast the baby feeds. It is known that conception rates in women who are still breastfeeding but have resumed menstrual cycles are lower than those in women who have resumed menstruation after stopping contraception. The reason for this has now become clear. When ovulation occurs during lactation, it is often associated with reduced or inadequate corpus luteum function, resulting in reduced progesterone secretion [23-25]. The implication is that conception in a number of cycles can occur, but inadequate luteal function prevents continuation of the pregnancy.

Some people would argue that this definitely cannot happen, using an argument somewhat analogous to Pruss’s own argument that God makes sure to avoid such unfortunate situations. Thus someone says on the Catholic Answers forum,

You have to be careful about the crazy things that are put out there. Where did you read this?

Surely you’re not suggesting that breastfeeding is a sin?

Breastfeeding does NOT hinder implantation. It really wouldn’t make sense for G-d to give us the ability to lactate for which to feed our children while potentially destroying fertilized eggs by preventing their implantation

Naturally, nothing is settled by this argument. But the commenter here is right about one thing: we already know that breastfeeding is not immoral. And that fact is not going to change, not even if we discover that it frequently causes abortions.

2) The headship of the man in a family is arguably necessary for human flourishing, or at least was in the past, but the resulting subjection of the woman seems somewhat unfortunate, even though (by my own argument) not wicked. Even the book of Genesis suggests that something is not quite right there, by making it a consequence of original sin.

3) Religion and philosophy are arguably necessary for human flourishing. But it is difficult to know the truth about these matters, and humans tend to hold positions regarding them for social reasons. And if we suppose that we personally possess some part of the truth about these matters, it follows that most of those in the past were substantially mistaken about them, given the extent of human disagreement in such matters. This is not merely a question of lacking the good of truth. Rather, the fact that people do not naturally care much about that truth seems to be an unfortunate moral situation, much like the imaginary situations invented by Pruss.

Finally, we can consider one more imaginary situation. Suppose that the real world turned out to be like the world of Horton Hears a Who! Suppose that every time you took a step, hundreds of tiny rational creatures were killed. No normal human would lie down and die after discovering this fact. Pruss, I think, would assert that it would be the right thing to do, but he would be in a tiny minority. Most people would change nothing, and I would agree with them. I would respond that 1) the situation would not change the moral object of any human action, which would mean that anything we are justified in doing now, we would remain justified in doing; and 2) the population comparison involved implies a vastly higher economic value to normal human beings, which would imply that we would remain justified in living normal human lives even after considering the secondary consequences of our behavior.

The arguments of this post imply that in principle morality could have been somewhat different, depending on the details of how human life evolved. But the arguments imply not only that it could have been different, but that it remains changeable in some ways, because the process of evolution does not come to an end, since it is a necessary result of imperfect copies. Naturally, this kind of change should be expected to take place mainly over very long periods of time, but this will not necessarily prevent it from happening.

Intrinsically Evil

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, discusses actions which are always evil:

80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.132

With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general”.133

81. In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.

82. Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.

The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order”135 and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.

The basic idea is that we can speak of certain actions, like murder, and say that they are always wrong. However, we need to carefully understand what it means to be an action of a certain kind such as murder. Several paragraphs earlier, the Pope states:

78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas.126 In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.127 And Saint Thomas observes that “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. ‘There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just’ (Rom 3:8)”.128

The moral object of an act is not “a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world.” Instead, it is what a person is choosing to do, and this must be understood in relationship with reason and will.

We can say that killing an innocent person is always wrong, then, if we mean by “killing an innocent person,” making the choice to kill an innocent person. But we cannot say that it is always wrong, if we mean by killing an innocent person, any action which happens to have the effect of an innocent person’s death, when the person performing the action may be choosing to do something other than killing someone.

As a kind of example, we can look at St. Thomas’s explanation of self-defense:

I answer that, Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

In St. Thomas’s case, the attacker is presumably not innocent, but the situation would be the same if the attacker were insane or mistakenly believed that the person was engaged in a violent attack. In any case “one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s,” and consequently defense would be legitimate, even if the attacker is strictly speaking an innocent person.

Someone might object to St. Thomas’s account here. It seems that the man who defends himself is not merely seeking to defend himself and incidentally permitting the death of the attacker. Rather, he seems to be choosing to kill the attacker in order to preserve his own life. Thus, if the attacker were merely insane or mistaken, he would be choosing to kill an innocent in order to preserve his own life.

The problem here is resolved exactly by pointing to the distinction between the moral act and the physical act. The defender may be choosing to strike the attacker, but it is wrong to say that he is choosing to kill the attacker, since “killing the attacker” is not the act as perceived by his reason and will here. Rather, the fact that he is more bound to preserve his own life implies that the correct description of his action is something like, “striking an attacker in order to preserve my life.”

There is therefore something potentially misleading about Pope John Paul II’s affirmation that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” This would be true as long as the moral object remains the same. But as St. Thomas stated,

A circumstance is sometimes taken as the essential difference of the object, as compared to reason; and then it can specify a moral act. And it must needs be so whenever a circumstance transforms an action from good to evil; for a circumstance would not make an action evil, except through being repugnant to reason.

And in a similar way, a circumstance may transform an action from evil to good, when it changes the action from one kind of action to another kind of action. Thus striking the man with a lethal blow would be “killing an innocent,” when the man is simply standing there. But when the circumstances change, and the man is charging with a knife, a similar lethal blow constitutes a legitimate act of self-defense. This can happen due to the fact that the change in the circumstances, in this case, implies a change in the moral object as well; and this can happen without any change in the external physical act. The lethal blow may be physically the same.

The Pope’s statement can be understood to be consistent with this, since it can mean that an action always remains evil as long as the moral object is evil. Still, the repeated emphasis on the division between moral object and circumstances, in phrases such as “quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances,” and “independently of circumstances,” might suggest to someone that the moral object is complete in itself, due to the physical action or something similar, such that a change in circumstances cannot change the moral object. This seems even more strongly suggested by the claim in paragraph 77, “The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” In other words, it sounds like he is saying that perhaps some circumstances can change a moral action from one kind to another, but that foreseeable consequences, at least, can never do this. Now it may be that the Pope is simply saying that given that an action is evil, changing the circumstances will never stop it from being evil without changing the moral object. And this would be true.

But if he is understood to be saying that an action that looked at locally would be a kind of action which is morally evil, cannot become a kind of action which is morally good, once certain foreseeable consequences are taken into account, this would be a mistake. Breaking into a person’s house and taking something, which looked at locally would be an example of theft, might cease to be a case of theft given certain foreseeable consequences of doing it and of failing to do it. The reader may doubtless find many other examples.

It is on account of these facts that I said earlier that the truth about ethics is more flexible than people suppose. This is not because people do not understand examples like the one about theft, or about self-defense, but because people generally fail to see the general principles involved, despite being able to see the truth about such particular cases when they are raised. There may even be an example of this failure to see the general principle in the text of St. Thomas, in objection 4 and its reply:

Objection 4. Further, murder is a more grievous sin than fornication or adultery. Now nobody may lawfully commit simple fornication or adultery or any other mortal sin in order to save his own life; since the spiritual life is to be preferred to the life of the body. Therefore no man may lawfully take another’s life in self-defense in order to save his own life.

Reply to Objection 4. The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one’s own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man’s life.

It is not entirely clear what St. Thomas means by “necessarily directed.” If we are speaking of the physical actions involved, it could be true that “unless I do this, I will die,” just as much in the one case as in the other, even though such situations would be much rarer than cases in which self-defense is necessary in order to preserve one’s life. Such cases come up from time to time in hostage situations.

Because of the difficulty of seeing the kind of moral action involved in such cases, someone might be tempted to assert that the persons involved are morally obliged to become martyrs: they should refuse, even if this results in their deaths. But this is probably a mistake. Even fornication and adultery cannot be defined by the mere physical actions involved, and the relationships with reason and will that would typically identify such activities are not present in such cases.

It should also be considered that if one says that there is such an obligation, it would apply equally to the case of a woman attacked by a rapist. If she were to cooperate physically in the slightest degree, in order to avoid death, she would be doing evil. This seems unlikely. One should not say, “Well, she is objectively doing evil, but she is not fully responsible, due to force and fear.” Rather, she is not doing evil at all, but behaving prudently, even if it is possible for someone laudably to behave otherwise.

There are other, possibly even stronger, examples of the same point, but I will leave this issue as it stands, at least for the present.

Some Catholic traditionalists such as John Vennari say that Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church on morality. He says,

What is a key problem with the document?

Amidst great drifts of verbiage – some not bad, some remarkably tedious – Francis effectively canonizes situation ethics. He furtively opens the door for Communion to the divorced and remarried on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, which destroys key elements of Catholic Moral Theology. In particular, his approach undermines recognition of intrinsically disordered acts, and once this is undermined in one area, it is undermined in all areas. Progressivists immediately celebrated Amoris Laetitia as a “radical shift.”

Among other texts, Vennari cites paragraph 304 of Amoris Laetitia as an example. We can look at the text of Pope Francis:

304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail”. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

It is true that one could interpret this to contradict Pope John Paul II’s claims about intrinsically evil actions. But this would mainly happen if one were to understand Pope John Paul II’s statements to be asserting something false, namely that a morally evil action is self-contained in such a way that the addition of circumstances cannot change it into a different kind of action by changing its moral object. I have no doubt that this is in fact exactly how John Vennari would understand Pope John Paul II.

Leaving aside Veritatis Splendor, Pope Francis’s claim here is true, understood in the sense that one cannot determine the moral truth about all particular cases by means of general rules which refer to physical activities and circumstances. Whenever we say that something is always wrong, we already include some reference which labels the action in a moral way. Thus for example, both “murder is always wrong,” and “adultery is always wrong,” refer to the idea of injustice, namely something which is undue, because murder is unjustified killing, and adultery is sexual intercourse which is unjust towards the spouse of the person. One cannot describe these in merely physical ways and get things which are always wrong. Neither “a physical action which results in the death of a person,” nor “a physical action which results in sexual union with the spouse of another person” are names of something intrinsically evil.

In this sense, it is possible to reconcile the opinions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Nonetheless, it may well be the case that Pope Francis does not understand the relationship of his teaching with the previous moral teaching of the Church.