I used to divide human beings into two moral classes: (1) strong, virtuous individuals who live true to their biological nature and (2) weak, over-civilized degenerates who don’t. I thought that any action that arises from a man’s true, healthy, natural being is morally good, and any action that doesn’t isn’t.
We evolved to move (fight and flight), to eat (feed), to procreate (fuck), and to cooperate (be virtuous). So I believed that every action that honors our evolutionary history is inherently good, a step toward deep happiness, and that, conversely, an action is bad if it causes estrangement from one’s biological roots and fails to promote life, fails to increase one’s fitness for survival.
The critical problem with such a naturalistic, tribalistic, biologistic view of morality is not only that it may be an unwarranted appeal to nature that may have savage consequences, but also that it is incompatible with the civilization we live in today.
Exalting the survival of one’s genes as the greatest moral good has absurd implications, for example:
As the psychologist Steven Pinker has observed, if conforming to the dictates of evolution were the foundation of subjective well-being, most men would discover no higher calling in life than to make daily contributions to their local sperm bank. After all, from the perspective of a man’s genes, there could be nothing more fulfilling than spawning thousands of children without incurring any associated costs or responsibilities. But our minds do not merely conform to the logic of natural selection. In fact, anyone who wears eyeglasses or uses sunscreen has confessed his disinclination to live the life that his genes have made for him. While we have inherited a multitude of yearnings that probably helped our ancestors survive and reproduce in small bands of hunter-gatherers, much of our inner life is frankly incompatible with our finding happiness in today’s world. (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape)
My initial response to this argument was, “Ok, but this doesn’t disprove my moral philosophy; it merely demonstrates how degenerate our modern civilization has become, or how degenerate we have become in it. If we lived true to our nature, we would not have sperm banks, eyeglasses, or sunscreen.”
Do you see why my response is fundamentally flawed? It is flawed because I have read that argument on my Kindle and am now writing a counter-argument on my computer. How primal, how “true to my biological nature” is that?
Never have I ever truly lived beyond civilization. Experientially, I have no clue what that would even mean. Every idea I have about a primal, barbaric, tribal life is fantasy, and every moral ideal I base on that idea is hypocrisy. My talking about the goodness of a savage, uncivilized life is like a virgin talking about the zestfulness of a rough, unprotected pounding.
Still, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For there are two important merits of a naturalistic virtue ethics that can practically supplement the view that objective moral truths lay the foundation of ethics.
According to Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), an action is morally good if it promotes the well-being of conscious beings. We thus have to know at least two things in order to make moral judgments: what constitutes well-being, and what promotes it. Since we can scientifically investigate both questions, we can be certain that objective moral facts exist.
The problems with this view, however, are that cognitive science is still in its infancy, that a single action’s effects on well-being can be infinitely complex, and that we typically lack the time and resources to scientifically evaluate all possible actions in a given situation before we make a moral decision.
This makes Harris’ view impractical for the moral assessment of most of our everyday actions. A naturalistic virtue ethics can thus be of immense value in two respects:
- By considering our animal bodies and evolutionary history, we can gain heuristic knowledge of what constitutes human well-being.
- By orienting our actions toward virtue (courage, justice, compassion, insight, discipline, honesty, etc.), we can implement our heuristic knowledge of what promotes human well-being.
While our reflections on biological roots and tribal virtues may not suffice to establish an ethical theory, they can well help us—with their implicit heuristic power—to pragmatically bridge the knowledge gap to objective moral facts that are too underresearched or too complex to give actual moral guidance in real-life situations.