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The Ethics of Evolutionary Psychology

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Forums: Index > Evolutionary psychology forum > The Ethics of Evolutionary Psychology


Introduction Edit

More than perhaps any other branch of the Social Sciences, and certainly more than any other approach to psychology, evolutionary psychology (lower caps) and even more so Evolutionary Psychology (upper caps) is frequently attacked on moral grounds. Charges range from such things as encouraging immoral behaviour, to justifying racism, or even just for "looking at the world in an ugly way". Why should evolutionary psychology in particular, ellicit such empassioned responses from its critics? What is the root of these kind of criticisms, are they at all reasonable? Should we be concerned that a certain way of stating what is (i.e. from an evolutionary perspective) may lead some to draw undesirable conclusions about what ought to be? Or are these just symptoms of arrogant anthropocentrism and confusion about the nature of science and the is/ought distinction? Orgone 23:02, 3 January 2007 (UTC)

Good questions. I think part of the problem stems from the abuses of biology historically, (i.e., Social Darwinism & eugenics). Some people also associate evolution with "genetic determinism". Even when evolutionary psychologists counter with the concept of "mental modularity", I suspect some feel that evolutionary psychologists are just making a shift from "genetic determinism" to some sort of "mental determinism". However, in my experience, I get the impression that criticisms against EP tend to be just as much epistemological (if not more so) than ethical. The ethical arguments against EP tend to be rather weak in my opinion. You may like the following papers:
  • Krebs, D. L. & Denton, K. (2005). Toward a more pragmatic approach to morality: A critical evaluation of Kohlberg’s model. Psychological Review, 112, 629-649. Full text
  • Krebs, D. L. (2005). An evolutionary reconceptualization of Kohlberg’s model of moral development. In R. Burgess & K. MacDonald (Eds.) Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development, (pp. 243-274). CA: Sage Publications. Full text
  • Wilson, D. S., E. Dietrich, et al. (2003). "On the inappropriate use of the naturalistic fallacy in evolutionary psychology." Biology and Philosophy 18: 669-682. Full text
  • Wilson, D. S. (2002). Evolution, morality and human potential. Evolutionary Psychology: alternative approaches. S. J. Scher and F. Rauscher, Kluwer Press: 55-70 Full text
Jason Bessey - Jaywin (talk) 04:30, 5 January 2007 (UTC)
Ive just read the Wilson, D. S., E. Dietrich, et al. (2003) paper, wonderful! Thanks for posting the links! Orgone 19:44, 5 January 2007 (UTC)

Orgone, let me try to answer some of the above which has not been. Interestingly, the passionate attacks are due to our evolved psychology. Humans evolved to define our groups by cultural means instead of kinship and this means that threats to our cultural beliefs trigger the same emotions as physical attacks. Evolutionary Psychology threatens the cultural foundations of Sociology, Geography, Women's Studies, and various sub-disciplines of Psychology. One can profitably think of these disciplines as tribal groups and they respond with the psychology that evolved for tribal living.

Humans have evolved psychological mechanisms that cause us, starting at the subconscious level, to have positive bias towards our own in-group; we see our group as the group of "good." Out-groups that are a threat, such as Evolutionary Psychology, are seen as the opposite of us, as having the opposite attributes. Sociology especially defines itself as the "good" tribe seeking to right all wrongs in the world, and therefore their evolved psychology tells them that Evolutionary Psychology is the opposite of good, we are "evil." This gets filtered through the academic mind and comes out as questions about our "morality," but it is the same psychological process that humans have used to prepare to go to war with an out-group for hundreds of thousands of years.

Compounding the above is their common misunderstanding of evolutionary psychology, really their assumption, that it says we are ultimately selfish and violent. This seems a personal attack on their self-image as altruistic peaceful "good." In fact evolutionary psychology does not at all come to the above conclusions so this is simply a misunderstanding. Our genes are selfish, but still we evolved to have altruism as an ultimate motive. We are predisposed to war, but most go to war as an altruistic act to help their group, not because they are "evil" or "aggressive."

What is certain is that denial of "what is," which is the preference of those attacking Evolutionary Psychology, is a very poor method for making progress. Alcoholics never become sober while denying that they are drunks and humans will never become peaceful as long as we claim we already are. Whatever objections one has based on worries that describing "what is" may make some feel we are excusing it pale before the alternative of simply letting "what is" continue to happen forever due to willful ignorance of it.

More links...Edit

I found another paper you might like:

Richerson, P.J. & Boyd, R. (2004). Darwinian Evolutionary Ethics: Between Patriotism and Sympathy. In Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss, (Eds.), Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective, Pp. 50-77. Full text ISBN: 0802826954 Jason Bessey - Jaywin (talk) 23:32, 5 January 2007 (UTC)

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