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In 'Geach on Good' [1] Charles Pigden examines the progress made by the research programme (variously named 'Naturalism' or 'Neo-aristoteleanism') initiated by Professor Geach in his paper 'Good and Evil' [2] He concludes that that there has been little progress. Indeed, (he remarks): "the project of spinning a set of plausible moral requirements out of human nature seems to be unviable . . . . We cannot extract human goodness from what we are." [3] Pigden then sets three restrictions on any attempt to build an Aristotelian ethic on the basis of modern biology. 

Such an evolutionary ethic must be "(a) reasonably specific; (b) rationally binding or at least highly persuasive; and (c) morally credible." [4] Pigden illustrates what he means by the first restriction in his criticism of Mary Midgely's [5] evolutionary ethic. "Midgely has a . . . notion of a natural pattern of human behaviour. There is a way of life (or a range of ways of life) for which mankind is emotionally and intellectually fitted and which people find fulfilling . . . . The problem here is that any plausible attempt to depict a natural life either lets in things many of us would like to exclude or excludes things we would like to put in." [6] 

In short, unlike Midgely's ethic, an acceptable evolutionary ethic must actually be specific enough to rule out those things which our intuitions oppose and rule in those things we intuitively favour as features of an ideal life (though we might be prepared to adjust our intuitions a little). The evolutionary ethic that I suggest here does give us some guidance on how to live and though this guidance is not very specific, perhaps it is as specific as the subject-matter (ethics) calls for. With reference to ethics, Aristotle remarked: "we must be content to indicate the truth roughly and in outline" [7] and "It is the mark of the educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject allows." [8] 

Nevertheless, on Pigden's side, we want to squeeze as much guidance out of the evolutionary ethic as we can, since, unless the guidance is reasonably specific, the momentous exercise of advising the young on what is the best life will only take about two minutes. Most of this paper is therefore, devoted to this question of how an evolutionary ethic can give us reasonably specific guidance with regard to the question of what is the best way to live. With regard to Pigden's second restriction-that an evolutionary ethic should be rationally binding or at least highly persuasive-this means simply that the arguments used to develop it should be capable of motivating any normal person who understands them. 

I consider this point in Sections Two and Three. The third restriction-that an ethic be morally credible-is the demand that the ethic should be compatible with the practical outcome of everyone taking up the way of life it advocates. 

What this involves will be considered in Section Four. Section One The link between an evolutionary ethic and Aristotle's conception of Ethics Following Aristotle I will regard ethics as a practical discipline that tries to answer the question: "What is the good (i.e., the best, the ideal) life for a person?" Aristotle's method of approaching this question [9] was to take the attributive use of good as his clue: thus to know what a good knife is-i.e., what attributes a knife must have to be a good knife-you must know what a knife is for. Similarly, to know what a good life is you must know what the purpose or point of human life is. Thus, for example, if the purpose of life is to glorify God then a good life is one spent pursuing this end efficiently. Therefore, if we follow Aristotle's model, the key preliminary question is: What is the purpose of a human life? One non-religious approach to the question is offered- in a back-handed fashion-by the theory of evolution. So far as we know, human beings-along with the other living things on this planet-have evolved under the auspices of time and chance. Evolution is, therefore, not a process that is appropriately described as purposeful. However, there is a weak sense in which the lives of the individuals of a species could be said to have a purpose: they play a role in the evolutionary process in that they produce offspring which is a necessary condition of a species evolving. Therefore, the purpose of my life from an evolutionary point of view is to reproduce. However, this notion of an evolutionary 'point of view' is a bit of nonsense. ‘

Evolution' is the name of a process, not the name of some sort of spirit or demi-urge which is capable of purposeful behaviour. Therefore, when I say (in what follows) that, from an evolutionary point of view, my purpose in life is to reproduce, this must be regarded as short for the following: Evolution is a complex natural process. Individual members of species are its results. The process of evolution will continue only if those individuals reproduce. By assumption, evolution has no purpose, therefore it does not matter whether individuals reproduce. The process of evolution is a natural one -a mere fact about the world-and has no value except in so far as we ascribe value to it. Thus to squeeze an ethic out of a consideration of the natural process of evolution we must regard this process as intrinsically valuable and transfer that value to our own role in the evolutionary process. 

To make this plausible we might say that although we recognize that evolution is simply a natural process, it is nevertheless very impressive to impressionable types like ourselves. It may not be leading anywhere in particular but on the way to nowhere it has thrown up all sorts of fascinating creatures including you and me. We experience a great deal of aesthetic delight when we contemplate the process and its results, and on the basis of this alone most people would think it 'a good thing' if this process continued. The continuation of this vast process depends-in a small way-on our participation in it. Since we can certainly approve of the process from an aesthetic point of view [10] we could find a purpose in our lives by regarding ourselves as agents in this unfolding story-despite the fact that we firmly believe that the story has no plot. 

Now I think we can safely say that no one will be likely to embrace the thesis that we can find purpose in our lives by acting as agents for a purposeless process-on the slender grounds that contemplation of the process produces, as a by-product, aesthetic delight among members of one of the species which have evolved. However, there can be no difficulty accepting the fact that our causal role as individuals in the evolutionary process is to reproduce the species. Accepting this fact we can then look to see whether a life in which we play this causal role is-as a matter of fact-a better life than one in which we do not. By better we simply mean a life which brings more flourishing and with it more joy or delight. 

Here again I simply adopt Aristotle's view that different ways of life are to be ranked according to the amount of flourishing (with its attendant joys) that such a life involves. In short, we will be asking whether a life which makes room for reproduction brings more joy, more flourishing, than one which does not.

Section Two: A Problem for any Evolutionary Ethic

 The problem is a general one which questions the whole evolutionary approach to ethics: Why should we care whether or not we reproduce or whether the species survives? Why then reproduce? As we have seen, according to Pigden an evolutionary ethic should be rationally persuasive. In other words it should be self-evident that survival of the individual (and with it, the likliehood of reproduction and the continuance of the species) is a good thing. But surely this is an open question. In the present case this 'open question' objection to the idea of an evolutionary ethic runs as follows: "You say that, from an evolutionary point of view, the notion of life having a purpose can only be construed in terms of an individual living in order to reproduce and thus ensure the survival of the species. "This may well be what our lives are for, from an evolutionary standpoint, but is the fulfillment of this purpose worthwhile? What is good about an individual's contributing to the survival of the species? Surely from the evolutionary standpoint the very fact that, over time, innumerable species have evolved, flourished, and become extinct would indicate that there is no imperative which declares that any particular individual should make it its business to try to reproduce. It is doubtless true that there is, as a matter of fact, competition among individuals to take part in the reproductive process, but is the game worth the candle?" The only effective answer to this question would be an argument to the effect that a life which makes room for reproduction-for raising children-involves more flourishing, more joy, than a life which ignores it. (This reply assumes that a flourishing, joyful life is self-evidently a good life-one worth pursuing-and that one cannot seriously ask of such a life 'What is good about it?' without raising the Collective Eyebrow [11]). Therefore if the reproductive life is superior in this respect then an ethic advocating this way of life would be rationally persuasive. 

Section Three: Ethics as a rational discipline

 It is with the reference to the effect of experience on our conception of the good life that rationality enters ethics. By consulting experience, we can compare and contrast the outcomes of various styles of living on various types of individuals and thus gain some insight as to what sort of life might suit a given person. In short we can employ inductive arguments based on empirical data which will yield ethical principles in the form of generalizations about the best way to live a flourishing life. These generalizations reflect the broad experience of the community. When we offer them as advice to the young we do so with the explicit rider that these are the views of the majority and that some individuals have not found these views congenial. Do these ethical generalizations support the evolutionary ethic? They do in that, for example, the idea of marrying and having children would be a consideration that no one would ignore in giving advice to the young. People can flourish without reproducing, but again, experience teaches that the joys associated with child-rearing, though not unalloyed, are generally thought to be of the highest order-a central aspect of a flourishing life. In this way the evolutionary ethic is justified by referring to the experience of the community. It is simple a fact that, in general, reproduction is the central motivating force of most people's lives-in the sense that it is an unchallenged fact that most people make room for it in their lives. 

When we advise young people using the evolutionary ethic, we advise them not only to survive and flourish but also to reproduce. It is this last bit of advice that distinguishes the evolutionary ethic from any rival. In the real world, reproduction is a consideration which serves to restrict the paths which we might otherwise choose in developing our potential. But why does reproduction matter to us? Reproduction is required for evolution to take place but evolution has no purpose. Therefore we cannot cite evolution to explain why reproduction should matter to us. We can only say that, for the most part and for most people, it does matter. 

We care whether we have offspring. The human species whose members did not care died out. (This is the knock-down argument for the view that an evolutionary ethic is actually in force whether we acknowledge it or not.) Does this effectively deal with Pigden's second restriction? That is, what are we to say to someone who does not find the advice of the evolutionary ethic "highly persuasive"? What are we to say to someone who recognizes that while she is certainly keen to survive and flourish, she finds that she is really not particularly interested in reproducing, and, indeed, regards it as an impediment to her flourishing? Judging by our behaviour most of us care more about reproducing than anything else, but, of course there are exceptions to this generalization. 

However, exceptions do not disprove empirical generalizations. In ethics our advice is not meant to have universal application. Ethics is not a science: it investigates norms and advises accordingly and this very fact saves it from having to accommodate itself to abnormal cases. Therefore, unlike scientific theories, the empirical generalizations which underpin ethical advice are not discredited because there are exceptions to these generalizations. Rather the exceptions prove the rule, by emphasizing what the norm is. 

This truth about the disciplines (including philosophy) which deal with the norms of human behaviour is often forgotten due to the current tendency to try to turn the humanities into sciences. This is the real point behind Aristotle's reminder "to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject permits." In other words, ethical advice has general application, not universal application and should be judged accordingly. 

Section Four 

Now I want to consider the third restriction which Pigden places on an evolutionary ethic, namely that it be morally credible. To what extent can the evolutionary ethic provide some guidance from a moral standpoint? First of all a distinction needs to be drawn between the enterprise Aristotle called ethics, which we have construed as setting forth a basis upon which one could give advice on the best way to live, and the province of morals, which has to do principally with the ways in which our preferred mode of living may affect other people. The concerns of ethics and morals meet as soon as it is realized that human beings are social animals. As a consequence, advice on the best life for an individual must harmonize with the fact that this same advice may be followed by every individual. Thus ethical advice must meet the moral restriction: it must be compatible with the practical outcome of everyone taking up this advice. If it is not thus compatible then it will not be regarded as morally credible. Thus a necessary condition of an ethic's being morally credible is that I must be able to follow its advice in such a way that others can also follow it. The task of determining how this might be accomplished is the business of politics, the art of the possible. 

Politics is an art because the harmony between individuals (in families, larger groups, communities, and nations) which is the necessary condition for individuals being able to lead the best lives possible for them, must be worked out, not according to any hard and fast rules-none are available-but by rule of thumb judgements in response to a host of contingencies and claims that must all be balanced and harmonized. Does the evolutionary ethic have anything to say about what these rules of thumb should be? Social harmony is in the interests of all since none can hope to long survive, flourish and reproduce without the cooperation of others. People will find that their interests (survive, flourish, reproduce) are best served if they adapt their pursuit of these ends to harmonize with other people's pursuit of their interests (and vice versa) because only if all do so will each be able to find fulfillment. 

All the traditional moral imperatives stem from this key restriction (in a single word: "cooperate!") upon our individual endeavours. Since an evolutionary ethic is not incompatible with this familiar social conception of morals (indeed, it depends upon its adoption for the ethic's realization) it meets Pigden's third condition, viz., that any proposed evolutionary ethic be morally credible. Section Five Differential evolutionary theory. At this stage of the argument, Paul Griffiths (in conversation) pointed out an obvious problem: there is certainly evidence for the existence of a degree of cooperation among individuals within society but there is also a lot of competition. Rational individuals would cooperate fully in pursuing the evolutionary imperative ('Survive, Flourish, Reproduce.'). 

Why then is there competition as well as cooperation? Are people partly irrational? The explanation lies in a differential fitness interpretation of biological evolution Under this interpretation of biological evolution each individual in a population strives to maximize the number of its descendants which are to survive in the gene pool. Now if the evolutionary imperative is really: 'Survive, Flourish, Reproduce differentially', then it can hardly be call a morally credible ethic, since any cooperation apparent in society will be simply a veneer covering the competitive struggle for differential fitness. How does this suggestion that we are actually in some sort of differential competition with regard to reproduction square with our intuitions? Although we care about reproducing-the proof is that the majority of people arrange their lives (determine in what ways they will flourish) so that this desire to reproduce can be satisfied-it is not obvious that we make similar efforts to cater for differential considerations. For example, the whole business of adoption seems a curious anomaly in this context since here the desire to raise a child is divorced from any differential considerations associated with biological evolution. Indeed it is hard to think of examples from human history which illustrate a desire on the part of individuals to leave more offspring than their fellows and to behave in such a way as to promote this end. People care about reproducing but they seem to be largely indifferent about the numbers involved in their own families and supremely indifferent as to the reproductive success of other people in the community. 

There seems to be no rivalry between individuals with respect to the numbers of their issue. Does this mean that human beings are an exception to the evolutionary imperative: "Strive to leave the largest number of descendants that you can in the surviving gene pool."? No. When we look at the matter more closely, the differential treatment of our own offspring becomes obvious. Thus I will first attempt to see that my child lives and prospers before I worry about yours, even though I might be quite ignorant about or indifferent to the genetic constitution of my child. Moreover, this differential interest extends to the members of my extended family which I will favour over the members of yours. Indeed this phenomenon seems to exhibit itself in a kind of nested hierarchy. I favour the children of Anderson's Bay (my suburb) over those from St. Kilda's, those of Dunedin over Christchurch, and so on, until I favour the offspring of the human race over any alien spawn. It is evident that this differential consideration which is reputed to have a biological basis [12] is at odds with the universal character of morality. The differential evolutionary imperative says: survive and flourish so as to be able to favour your own offspring, if necessary, at the expense of others. The categorical or moral imperative says: treat everyone in an even-handed fashion however they may be related to you. The conflict is obvious but it does not mean that the evolutionary ethic is not morally credible. It simply explains the up-hill task of morality. 

This task is to try to get people to extend their conditional willingness to cooperate-a willingness which is a necessary condition of following the evolutionary ethic within my (extended) family-to everyone: to make my family the human family, or, ultimately the family of all rational creatures. Whether this is a practical goal for morality, given the almost universal sway the differential evolutionary imperative has over our behaviour, is another matter. Perhaps we should simply recognize that this differential imperative underpins the special obligations and duties that we typically feel towards our nearest kin. This would give a biological explanation for the existence of the intuitive acknowledgement we have traditionally accorded to these special obligations and duties within the family which C.H. Sommers has called attention to. [13] 


The evolutionary ethic amounts to this: it is a fact that human beings care about reproducing themselves. Judging from our behaviour, most of us care more about this than anything else. When we develop our potential this consideration must therefore, be paramount. Social cooperation is the necessary condition of our all being able to develop our potential. Morality has thus come into existence under the pressure of the desire to reproduce: no cooperation, no flourishing, no survival, no offspring. Differential considerations work against the establishment of a universal morality. I only cooperate insofar as it serves my purposes (i.e., increasing my legacy in the gene pool). Where I deem that competition will serve these purposes better than cooperation, I compete. Morality (understood as cooperation) itself stems from the conditional cooperation which a social animal such as a human being must exhibit within the favoured group (the family/the tribe) if it is to survive [14]. With the development of our mental powers we see that it is to our advantage to foster cooperation within ever larger groups. The characteristic move of morality-to universalize cooperative precepts- reflects this. So the old puzzle about why what we ought to do tends to be at odds with our inclinations, the more remote the recipient of the benefit, is explained. Our moral evolution has outrun its biological basis creating the puzzle that Hume noted in the Treatise of Human Nature: “

Before I proceed any farther, I must observe two remarkable circumstances in this affair, which may seem objections to the present system. The first may be thus explained. When any quality, or character, has a tendency to the good of mankind, we are pleas'd with it, and approve of it; because it presents the lively idea of pleasure, which idea affects us by sympathy, and is itself a kind of pleasure. But as this sympathy is very variable, it may be thought, that our sentiments of morals must admit of all the same variations. We sympathize more with persons contiguous to us, than with persons remote from us; With our acquaintance, than with strangers; With our countrymen, than with foreigners. But notwithstanding this variation of our sympathy, we give the same approbation to the same moral qualities in China as in England. They appear equally virtuous and recommend themselves equally to the esteem of a judicious spectator. The sympathy varies without a variation in our esteem. Our esteem, therefore, proceeds not from sympathy." [15] Summing up the case Hume remarks: "Tis seldom men heartily love what lies at a distance from them, and what no way redounds to their particular benefit; as 'tis no less rare to meet with persons, who can pardon another any opposition he makes to their interest, however justifiable that opposition may be by the general rules of morality. Here we are contented with saying that reason requires such an impartial conduct, but that 'tis seldom we can bring ourselves to it, and that our passions do not readily follow the determination of our judgment." [16] Hume's discussion in terms of the conflict between our passions and our judgment is suggestive of the contemporary analysis [17] of behaviour in terms of proximal and distal desires. 

Proximal desires are those which actually move us to action and provide an immediate reward in terms of different sorts of pleasure, whereas the desire to reproduce or (more specifically) to maximize our contribution to the surviving gene pool, is a distal desire, one we never actually experience. Distal desires are simply abstractions derived from evolutionary theory which give no immediate counsel (in the form of a desire) as to which behaviour to engage in at any given moment. The distal goals of an evolutionary ethic can be translated into an account that deals only in proximal desires. Suppose our young person approaches Aristotle with the following supplication. "I have thus far in my life experienced a variety of desires for food, for sexual pleasure, for companionship, etc. In the course of pursuing these various satisfactions I have, from time to time, followed a desire which has led to an outcome which made me regret my action. Regret is a particularly bitter experience which has engendered in me the desire to avoid it at all costs in my future life. I therefore have come to seek advice from you as to which (proximal) desires are most likely to lead to joy in a flourishing life unstained by regret." At this point Aristotle dons Darwin's cloak and replies as follows: "The desires you experience have evolved because they have contributed to the inclusive fitness (the tendency to maximize the contribution to the gene pool) of individuals. [18] There is a pecking order among proximal desires that reflects the distal hierarchy of evolutionary goals discussed previously: cooperate, flourish, compete, reproduce. [Spelled out: cooperate to the appropriate degree with those you interact with (within the nested hierarchy of social relations, family, extended family, tribe, etc.) in order to be able to develop your faculties (flourish); where you can develop your potential more through competing, compete; and thus increase your fitness, i.e., your chances of establishing a stable sexual partnership and reproducing.] 

"To reflect this pecking order, the proximal desires you experience should be given priority as follows: "First comes love for your immediate family, then for kin and tribe. (Love given will generally be reciprocated. The resulting behaviour, which constitutes a state of reciprocal altruism, serves the distal goal of cooperation which is the sine qua non of an individual being able to flourish.) Second comes ambition to develop your faculties. (This serves the distal goal of flourishing: i.e., increasing your overall fitness to survive.) "Third, comes the desire to earn the esteem of others and thereby feel pride. (This desire serves the distal goal of competing as a means of further advancing your fitness.) "Fourth, sexual love (lust) centered upon a particular person coupled with jealousy, the desire to have exclusive access to that person as a sexual partner. (Here the distal goal served is differential reproduction). 

"The important thing to remember is that these proximal desires are ranked in a means-end ordering. We love (cooperate) in order to be able to be ambitious (flourish). Having flourished, we are then in a position to gain esteem and feel pride (via competition) and thus be in a better position to indulge our lust (reproduce). The long preparation that precedes sexual union is necessary because I cannot be said to reproduce (from an evolutionary point of view) unless my children reach adulthood themselves. This is much more likely if I have followed my desires in the above order so that when I have offspring I am in a position to ensure-if I am a male, that the offspring are mine-and that they subsequently reach sexual maturity. "This, then,is the formula for the good life for an individual who is a member of an evolving species. Forget the contemplation.”


[1] C. R. PIGDEN (1990) Geach on good, The Philosophical Quarterly, 40, April. 

[2] P. T. GEACH (1956) Good and evil, Analysis, 17, 2. 

[3] Pigden Op. cit., p. 152, 

[4] Op. cit. 

[5] M. MIDGELY (1978) Beast and Man (Ithaca, Cornell University Press). 

[6] Pigden Op. cit., p.151. 

[7] Nichomachean Ethics 1049b, 26-7, translated by W.D. ROSS in MCKEON (ed.) (1947) Introduction to Aristotle,(New York, Random House). 

[8] Op. cit., 1094b, 25-27. 

[9] Op, cit., 1097b, 25-1098a, 15 

[10] Indeed, according to Kant (in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement) it should be a quintessentially aesthetic experience to contemplate the evolutionary process: Kant argues that our delight in the beautiful stems from our feeling that the beautiful thing has a purpose though we cannot divine what it is (thus, the grand 'design' of Nature). 

[11] cf. McKeon op.cit., 1097b, 7-23

[12] W. D. HAMILTON (1964) The genetical revolution of social behaviour, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7 . 

[13] See C.H. SOMMERS (1986) Filial Morality, Journal of Philosophy , 83, 8; and 'The philosopher's war against the family' in G. GRAHAM, (ed.) Person to Person (Philadelphia, Temple University Press) pp. 82-105. 

[14] See R. L. TRIVERS, (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism', Quarterly Review of Biology, no46, 1. 

[15] D. HUME, (1967) A Treatise of Human Nature. Selby-Bigge ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press). p. 581) 

[16]1967 p. 583

[17] See R. MILLIKAN,(1990) 'Truth, rules, hoverflies and the Kripke- Wittgenstein paradox.' Philosophical Review, 99, 3. In Millikan's work the terms are used as follows: the hoverfly follows the proximal rule 'chase small, dark, moving things' in order to follow the distal rule 'chase females'. My thanks to Richard Goode for pointing out that my analysis of the evolutionary ethic was strictly in terms of distal desires and that these needed to be related to proximal desires in order to count as an evolutionary ethic. 

[18] See Trivers, op. cit.