welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Ethics and Evolution

Ralph Blumenau reviews The Ethical Primate by Mary Midgley.

The purpose of this book is to suggest how the ethical sense of humans is likely to have developed in the course of evolution. Many so-called Darwinians have seen this development as ‘merely’ another mechanism in the struggle for survival. They have argued that morality, properly understood, is nothing other than a more or less enlightened codification of self-interest, a view that had already been put forward by Hobbes and by Bentham. For Herbert Spencer moral feelings that weaken the human species in the struggle for survival were aberrations to be corrected: on these grounds he thought that the desire to help the unfit poor should not find a place in a proper system of ethics. Man was part of Nature; Nature was ‘red in tooth and claw’; and this fierce competition was supposed to make evolutionary progress. (Social Darwinists never really bothered to study animals, or they would have seen that in the natural world cooperation and interdependence are at least as important as competition). Another Darwinian, T.H.Huxley, was so appalled by this approach to ethics that he removed ethics from the evolutionary process altogether: Man’s moral ends, he said, were not those of the ruthless cosmic process.

Mary Midgley rejects both these reactions to Darwin’s work: the Hobbes-Bentham-Spencer view because it is reductionist and Huxley’s because it is untenable. The thrust of her book is to show that genuine altruism is as much a product of evolution as are other developments; it is partly rooted in our physical instinctual inheritance, but it is also the result of the special way in which humans are conscious of themselves and can enter imaginatively into the feelings of others.

She develops these ideas in the last third of her book, and devotes the first two thirds to a comprehensive attack on all reductionist theories of behaviour; that is, ones which purport to explain complex human behaviour in terms of something simpler and fundamental, such as purely physical processes. Most of these theories claim to base themselves on the physical sciences, and many of them continue to do so even though modern physicists are no longer certain that in the last resort everything can be reduced to fundamental particles. Even in earlier centuries, when physical scientists did have this conviction as far as the analysis of material bodies was concerned, extrapolations of this materialism by philosophers and social scientists into the field of morals were really quite illogical. Even if science can determine which neurological or cerebral pathways are taken by moral thought, it can no more teach us about the content of moral thought than knowing which parts of the brain handle mathematical thinking can lead us to better knowledge of mathematics. The physical sciences can give us valuable information about how our minds work; but they can never be the only valid explanation, and it is absurd to dismiss other explanations as ‘unscientific’. But reductionist philosophy can also be found among thinkers who do not claim to base themselves on the physical sciences: Bentham trying to explain all human motivations in terms of the principle of utility or Nietzsche in terms of the Will to Power were equally guilty of over-simplification.

Human beings are much too complex for us to understand them in terms of one fundamental explanation which underlies everything, like a solid base upon which rests a derivative superstructure. Mary Midgley prefers the image of a mountain, which presents many different aspects depending on the angle from which you see or approach it. We need many angles from which to understand human beings, and one of the most important viewpoints is that of the person himself, of the subject. One of the most damaging aspects of reductionist philosophies is that they treat humans only as objects, seeing them as the helpless victims of processes (of physics, medicine, economics) over which they have no control and which they themselves do not see as the factors which determine how they act. Equally damaging is the corollary of reductionist thought, the implication of fatalism, which in turn threatens the concept of freedom, responsibility, and blame. Midgley acknowledges that concepts of blame and punishment have often been harshly misused. But understanding the problems of others is only one part of an ethical agenda: its more important part is that we should think about how we ourselves should behave now and in the future. If we too readily include ourselves among the people who ‘couldn’t help’ behaving in a blameworthy fashion, then we easily begin to act in bad faith.

‘Bad faith’ is of course a concept developed by Jean-Paul Sartre, but Midgley equally criticizes Sartre for his insistence that the will is totally free. This, too, is a myth, though Midgley exaggerates the Sartreian position: Sartre knew very well that the freedom to which Man is ‘condemned’ is limited by what he called ‘facticity’, and that facticity includes not only certain aspects of the external world, but also aspects of a person’s own make-up; I may wish to be an artist, but if I have no artistic gifts, that facticity will limit my freedom; and Sartre says that under some circumstances denying one’s essential makeup is likewise an example of bad faith.

Midgley is not quite fair to Kant either. She rightly says that the interdependence between our bodies and our minds means that, when we come to consider the derivation of our moral sense, we have to look at the interdependence between our reason and our feelings. She is right when she says that Kant derived moral precepts from pure reason; but she is surely wrong when she says that he “took for granted an emotional background which he did not notice.” Though Kant denied that moral precepts are based on a moral sense or feeling, he knew very well that it is these latter that give the precepts their exceptional strength.

Having attacked the reductionist attitude and having in the process defended the need for a variety of perspectives, for balance, for the importance of considering the subject, and for the value of common sense and of ‘folk wisdom’, Midgley then considers how in evolutionary terms our moral sense might have developed. Her starting point is a hitherto littlenoticed comment of Darwin’s: indeed, most people did not seem to know that he had written anything at all about ethics. Darwin had observed that parent swallows follow one of their instincts in joining migrating flocks while being apparently untroubled by the rival instinct not to desert nestlings who are left behind to die. In this case an instinct which is temporarily very powerful quite blots out one which Midgley describes as “a habitual feeling which is much weaker at any one time, but is stronger in that it is far more persistent and lies deeper in the character.” The reason why the swallows evince no hesitation or feeling of conflict between the two courses is that their intellectual power is not highly enough developed. It is, Darwin wrote, “exceedingly likely that any animal whatever, endowed with wellmarked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed, as in man.” Morality develops when creatures become conscious of the inevitable conflict in their feelings; and in the more highlydeveloped animals the signs of the struggle between opposing impulses are quite clearly observable.

Human thought brings with it a number of characteristics which, if they exist at all in animals, do so to a much weaker degree: humans have a welldeveloped possibility of imaginative empathy with the feelings of other creatures: they become not merely self-conscious but also conscious of others. They care about what others are thinking and feeling, not least about themselves. They understand the consequences of actions. When they have violated what the weaker but deeper feelings tell them, they feel guilt; when they observe others violating them, they become judgmental. They understand the consequences of actions. They want to have some control over their conflicting emotions – not just for mechanically ‘evolutionary’ reasons, but because they value the freedom which may prevent them from being passively swept hither and thither by their instincts like a piece of flotsam on a powerful wave. Having become conscious of their instincts clashing, they want to establish for themselves a system of priorities; and the purpose of a moral code is to establish that system of priorities. The priorities they establish bear some signs of ‘selfish’ evolutionary programming: to put the interests of one’s children before those of the needier stranger, for example; but it is the capacity of thought and of feeling (Midgley constantly stresses that theories which set these two in a hierarchical scheme are badly reductionist) which gradually widens the range of creatures towards whom we accept increasing degrees of responsibility.

This reviewer is not in a position to pronounce on the validity of the origins of morality as Mary Midgley presents them. He would suspect that reductionist arguments cannot be quite as crass as she suggests, were it not for the devastating quotations she adduces from some of their academic exponents. As usual, she writes extremely well and lucidly. She is totally devoid of philosophical jargon, and almost every page has a memorable phrase or striking image, as well as a fine sweep of reference to which a short review like this cannot do justice. It is a deeply humane and attractive book.

© Ralph Blumenau 1996

The Ethical Primate by Mary Midgley (Routledge, 193pp, £19.99 hardback, £8.99 paperback)

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X