Ethics in the Here and Now

AB’s post gets at the heart of why I’m hesitant to concede the point that it’s all about darwinian fitness or pleasure or utility. In the moment, or even for making and sticking to long term goals, no one asks “which goal will maximize my darwinian fitness?” Even people who strongly believe a darwinian narrative with regard to morality rarely (if ever) rely on such a narrative to make choices in their own lives.

And how could it be otherwise? Fitness is prospective, we have no idea what’s going to maximize it. Some might argue that AB’s choice 1 is the best route because it’s tried and true. But some version of choice 2, where we jump from bed to bed, might result in having many more kids and thus increasing your odds of having high darwinian fitness Genghis Khan-style. The number of strategies that could plausibly fit into the rubric of darwinian fitness is unhelpfully large, and in practice often boils down to rationalizing what traditions already bias us towards valuing. Not that that’s any great critique of darwinian ethics—most ethics seem to boil down to that sort of rationalization.

I think it is possible to say that our preferences and ideas about ethics were shaped by darwinian processes without making those processes our final end, our telos in Aristotle’s sense of what we must order our life as a whole around. When we look at what sort of creature humans are—the nature of which was, once again, determined by evolution—we see that they rely on one another for examples of virtuous behavior. As Protagoras said thousands of years ago, we constantly learn from and teach one another right and wrong throughout our lives. It is within this frame that AB’s question can be answered, not from some reductionist consequentialist that tries to crush down the vagueries and richness of human experience into something like darwinian fitness or pleasure.

As Daniel Estrada once put it in response to this dialogue, there are questions about science and then there are questions about practice and action (praxis). They are not disconnected but the conclusions of the former do not necessarily help us inform the latter.

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