Last week I discussed how morals are nothing more than rules for survival. If they contradicted this purpose, if they were rules that encouraged behavior that led to extinctions, then those rules would necessarily die out too. But through trial and error over tens of thousands of years, we've come up with a fairly robust set of rules and norms that have led to the booming survival of our species. We have been so successful at developing rules that work for us that in fact we are now in danger of becoming victims of that success. Our continued survival and expansion now threatens the survival of many other forms of life that we depend on. And luckily, some of us have noticed. Our morals, our beliefs about what is right and wrong, are changing and expanding to include new rules about our behavior towards things like recycling, animal poaching, energy conservation, wetlands protection, national parks, etc. These beliefs, these morals, did not exist 300 years ago. What changed? How do our morals evolve?
The study of life is known as biology. Within that field, like much of the rest of the world, the areas of study have subdivided and subdivided into narrower and narrower points of view. With this division of focus, with this division of the mental labor of academics, two things arose: a great increase in the production of knowledge about life, but also a great decrease in the perspective any one person has about the entire field. This results in the same "mental mutilation" of the soul of man that Adam Smith warned about in The Wealth of Nations when he first discussed the division of labor as an economic theory. This doesn't just apply to the knowledge of pin-makers (to use Adam Smith's prime example), but even in the case at hand to knowledge of life in all of its forms. This is a great danger. In his landmark 1998 book Consilience, the entomologist / zoologist / biologist E.O. Wilson issued a clarion call to find a way to unite these biological sciences, to find a way to bring broad wisdom back into a field that like so many others had become deep and separated into narrow silos. (Really, this consilience is required across all of our human endeavors - that is what an Evolutionary Philosophy strives for - but since we're just discussing ethics and morality as rules for the survival of life, we can just focus in this essay on joining together knowledge about life.) The disparate fields were at that time generally divided into two camps: the "skin ins" and the "skin outs." The skin ins look at the biological processes that occur within a single organism - the chemistry, the molecules, and the cells that churn away below the surface. The skin outs look at individuals as a whole and the interactions between individual organisms - between societies of similar individuals, between separate species who share an ecology, and how species and ecologies adapt over evolutionary timescales. The way E.O. Wilson proposed to unite these fields of biology was simply to recognize their dependence on one another across a continuum of time and space from the smallest of those units to the largest. For me, having recognized that morals are merely rules for the survival of life, this means that when considering a philosophy of morality, you must go hand in hand across this continuum with the actual study of life. Accordingly, I wrote the following piece of philosophy about this new layer of consilience:
According to the magnitude of time and space adopted for analysis, the basic divisions of biology from bottom to top are as follows: biochemistry, molecular biology, cellular biology, organismic biology, sociobiology, ecology, and evolutionary biology. I believe that morals can also be understood on the same timeline as these biological scales. For example, no real moral judgments are made at the bottom of these timelines at biochemical, molecular, and cellular levels because our bodies just react to stimulus the way they do and there's not much we can do to control or judge reactions such as metabolism, blinking, and neuronal firing. At the scale of the organism though, we have not only instantaneous reactions, but also actions separated by a lifetime, and everything in between. With free will over this time horizon, organisms can act in ways that are dangerous or harmful to themselves. To compensate, we have also developed emotional responses and morals to guide our actions along healthier paths. Some of those responses are immediate and innate - fear of heights, the thrill of the chase, disgust over rotten food, the sadness of loss, the joy of gain. These are understood by simply studying morals at the biological level of the survival of the organism. Some emotional responses take time to develop though and guide actions focused on the longer term, such as empathy, altruism, and justice. These longer-term morals can be seen to come into play over the time horizon of sociobiology. Social species have learned the power of group cooperation to beat out even the best individuals, and how creation of a society requires its own set of emotions - some innate, some taught through culture - and the enforcement of short-term individual sacrifices for the long-term benefit of the group. Animals have developed emotions, morals, hierarchies, and institutions to help reinforce these long-term focused behaviors, but they still face occasional conflict with their short-term desires that were developed earlier in the evolution of the species. How an animal handles that conflict can be said to determine its character and wisdom. While genes and environment combine to mold the personality of any animal, humans have also developed reason, which gives us another way to control our emotions and define our personality. Reason gives us a higher level of free will to choose which emotions guide our moral choices. Because of this, humans are now uniquely in the process of evolving morals for the next steps on the biological scale - the ones of ecology and evolutionary biology. Through the success of our species, we now have unprecedented ability to impact the ecosystems around us and the genes within us. We can also use our scientific tools and historical records to see and understand those impacts over timelines that are far longer than generations can remember. We must cement our sociobiological morals, but the evolution of our morals to understand right and wrong behavior over longer timescales is exactly what is necessary for the species to survive over those timescales. We must learn to keep thinking in the longest of long-terms or face extinction over the short to medium term. As morality evolves, this is where new rules will develop.
This brings us back to the story of the kangaroos and the development of new morals over the last 300 years. We are growing more and more aware of our need to look after and cooperate with all of life for longer and longer timelines if we are to have any hope of survival for ourselves as a species in general or for our successive generations as individuals. The more we can learn from the sciences that fall within the realms of biology, sociology, ecology, and evolution, the more we can inform the norms and rules of society that make up our morality and ethical systems. We will still require great wisdom to learn how to balance the competing needs of individuals, societies, species, and ecosystems over the short term of individual lives and the long term of species evolution. We will still make mistakes balancing these hard choices. But the sooner we recognize that the survival of life is the goal of morality and the life sciences can give us more information about what actions promote that survival, the less mistakes we will make and the more our morals will actually work. This is the answer to how science can, does, and will continue to play a role in morality.