Refuting Alonzo Fyfe on: evolution cannot account for morality.

Alonzo Fyfe is an atheist who writes extensively on the subject of ethics. His ideology is called desirism. Desirism is an ethical subjectivist view which holds that our “desires,” defined as any motivating factor, justify moral judgment. It also holds that people must impose their subjective desires on others by altering other people’s behavior.

My objective in this entry is not to refute desirism but rather to examine Fyfe’s argument concerning evolution. He contends that evolution cannot account for morality. His basic thesis seems to be that evolution is somehow inadequate to explain our ethical problems:

[T]he response [of evolution] ignores 10,000 years of human history filled with horrors beyond imagining, that evolution also invented the concepts of predator and parasite, that our evolved dispositions also contribute to such things as racism and rape…

“How are you going to keep me, my family, and those people I care about safe?”

In the face of this question, the answer, “Evolution” can be seen as . . . well . . . jaw-droppingly stupid.

I don’t understand why Fyfe thinks it’s an ethicist’s job to keep people’s families safe. Protection from crime and other hardships is a social function, not a job left to armchair theorizers. Perhaps I misunderstand his point here, but it doesn’t make much sense to me.

The first objection makes more sense, but does not help his case at all, since the objection must apply to his own ethical worldview as well. If desirism was true, then how could Fyfe explain “10,000 years of human history filled with horrors beyond imagining”? After all, people were following their “desires” and trying to “alter behavior” for those 10,000 years also. Indeed, a great deal of this horror was the result of trying to “alter behavior.”

From a social constructionist standpoint, the horrors of humanity are not unexplainable. People’s decisions can only be understood in relation to the institutional incentives they are presented with, and the more warped the incentives, the more warped human behavior will become.

Referring to the original quote he is debunking, Fyfe asks:

Are you saying that, thanks to evolution I do need to worry about people doing harm to me and those I care about because we evolved to be perfectly kind and altruistic creatures? Because I can think of few things so idiotic.

Seriously, this is how the quote above reads – as if to say that we have no reason to worry about evil because we are evolved to a point to have eliminated it.

It is easy to mislead people like Fyfe into thinking that evolutionary morality entails that we are perfectly kind and altruistic. This is the result of the overemphasis on altruism, which is understandable given that selfishness is considered the default assumption and evolutionary morality is proposed as an alternative to that morass. But certainly it is not true that we evolved to be “perfectly kind and altruistic creatures.” A human being is composed of innumerable motives, some of which pull against each other, and sometimes selfishness wins out.

Here is another part where Fyfe seems to slip into fundie mode:

We see in the news a mass shooting at a school or movie theater. Parents live in fear of their children being raped or murdered – or ending up on drugs or with some deadly venereal disease. We see whole populations living in fear and poverty under a dictatorship.

The accusation that evolution cannot account for morality is the claim that evolution fails to prevent these things – an accusation that is entirely true.

Here is another example, from a different entry:

Take, for example, the Holocaust. Did evolution prevent it? Answer: Obviously not. Can we count on evolution to prevent something like that from happening in the future? Answer: Of course not.

But this is a complete misrepresentation of evolution. Evolution is not a moral agent which can prevent a mass shooting, a rape, poverty, or the Holocaust. All these things are caused by moral agents. Evolution is a biological process which acts upon heredity. It has nothing to do whatsoever with preventing a crime. He seems to be confusing evolution with God. And indeed, everything he says makes sense if you replace “evolution” with “God” in these quotes.

He also commits the same error in earlier quotes where he says “evolution invented.” Evolution is not an agent that can invent anything. You might argue it’s a metaphor or a figure of speech, but since the topic is morality and moral actions it’s particularly important to be precise when we talk about actions here. This is incredibly sloppy writing at best.

Although what Fyfe may be trying to say here, and I could be wrong, is that the ethics that result from evolution applied to human beings fail to prevent mass shootings, rapes, poverty, or the Holocaust. But again, so would desirism. Desirism is no more a moral agent than evolution, and, as a form of subjectivism, can no more prevent these disasters than evolution.

Also, it is particularly curious that an ethical subjectivist seems to be making the blanket assertion that mass shootings, rapes, murders and poverty are undesirable. This would seem to go against his whole enterprise of disproving any objective, universal basis for moral judgments.

The fact is that Fyfe, like any opponent of intuitionism, must use intuitions in his reasoning in order to arrive at moral judgments. Fyfe is implicitly using his moral intuitions about murder, rape and poverty to make an argument from their existence. He is cutting off his own philosophical head. Here is another example:

Morality is fully and adequately accounted for by the fact that we are intentional agents with malleable desires.

Where do these desires come from, if not from evolution? Blank. He simply assumes they exist, and that they provide us with a justification to judge things like the Holocaust to be bad.

Fyfe’s rejection of evolutionary morality relies on Special Pleading, in that he treats ethical issues differently from issues of fact. Here is an example:

For one thing, this “deep sense of right and wrong” is often wrong. People have – or have had – a deep sense that interracial marriage or homosexual relationships are wrong. Many Muslims have a deep sense that creating depictions of Mohammed are wrong. They kill their own daughters in “honor killings” out of a deep sense that their daughter’s behavior was wrong.

But this is not an argument against evolutionary morality. To see why, consider the case of science. I know Fyfe and I both agree that science is our best method to find truths about natural law. And yet evolution, which seems to us obviously true, was only discovered in the latter part of the 19th century. Same for the germ theory of disease. Before that time, people had completely different, and often ridiculous, beliefs about the origins of the variety of life and the nature of disease. According to Fyfe’s reasoning, this should disqualify science as a valid method of inquiry. After all, scientific truths have often been wrong, sometimes massively wrong.

Yet Fyfe, equally clearly, is pointing us to one reason why people are wrong about their moral judgments: bias. Religion, for instance, functions by hijacking the individual’s moral sense and substituting it for obedience to a dogma and a church. Therefore it is not surprising that such suspension of morality leads to people being wrong, but this would seem to be an argument in favor of evolution accounting for morality, not against it. I don’t know why Fyfe thinks the opposite, because he doesn’t tell us.

Here is another quote:

Is homosexuality wrong? Well, to determine this we need to look at whether humans evolved a disposition to kill homosexuals and feel justified in doing so. If they have, then homosexuals deserve to die – at least according to the thesis “evolution accounts for morality.”

But this should be trivially easy for Fyfe to answer. Does he want to kill homosexuals? If he doesn’t, then the question automatically becomes moot (if he did, then we’d have to start by asking why).

More importantly, there’s no reason why Fyfe, as a subjectivist, should consider killing homosexuals to be bad; that we should be fair and care for others are a priori judgments that only make sense if intuitionism is true. Fyfe cannot demonstrate that desirism can account for such judgments in the absence of intuitions to that effect.

Like all forms of subjectivism, the concept of desirism suffers from many problems. For one thing, it cannot refute the fact that people may desire to do things which are (intuitively) clearly evil, such as murder, rape, and so on. Fyfe initially seems to have an “out,” since his position also includes social feedback:

Finally, we will add one more stipulation – that this “ought” refers not to C’s desires alone, but to what people generally have reason to praise or condemn. In this sense, where A says to B, “You ought to do X”, he plants a flag and says, “People, look here. Among you are many and strong reasons to praise those who would do X, and condemn those who would not do X.” If this is not true, his claim would be false.

But this only pushes back the problem from individual subjectivism to cultural relativism. What if one lives in a (intuitively) particularly evil culture, like Nazi Germany or modern Saudi Arabia? Fyfe has run out of safeguards at this point, and must concede that his ethical system provides no explanation for what he considers (intuitively) grossly wrong.

One thought on “Refuting Alonzo Fyfe on: evolution cannot account for morality.

  1. […] have previously written an entry against Alonzo Fyfe on the subject of meta-ethics, where he completely butchered the idea that […]

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