Are Sex and Morality Merely “Evolutionary Tricks”?

Francis Collins trots out a familiar old argument against atheism.  The argument is that if there is no God then our morality is an illusion.  Collins’s presentation of this argument features an unusual and suspicious spin.  Collins knows that arguments can be made from evolutionary psychology that broadly moral thinking seems to have evolved in us, rather than to have been either an invention of human societies or revealed by God to humans through religious means.  This undermines what he wants to say about our needing God to tell us about morality because otherwise we would have no reason to be moral.  He knows we have psychological motivators that lead us to be moral and to prize morality to a significant extent, regardless of whether we have any abstract, metaethical reasons to be moral.  So, he gives the following strange twist to the old “you need God to have morality” assertion:

If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?

Collins’s argument is essentially that if our morality is the product of evolution and indeed not from God then we are being “tricked” into being moral by our brains.  What’s even stranger is that this is part of his argument for why we should believe in God.  Why do I find this strange?

On the one hand he wants to appeal to our innate desire for morality and to make the metaethical charge that if there is no God, we cannot have this thing we want and believe is important.  Without God we cannot have morality and since we know we cannot live with morality, we must have God for this very practical reason.

But then when evolutionary psychologists point out that our moral ideas evolved without any reference to God he says that this would mean we would turn against our desire for morality as an evolutionary “trick.”  But if we already love morality and think it is so important that we are willing to believe in an invisible God simply so that we can feel justified in believing in morality, why would we feel tricked by evolution to find out that the psychological reason we love morality is because it is integral to our very survival and flourishing as a species?  Do we feel “tricked” by sex when we realize that our strong desire for it is the result of evolution?  What does “tricked” even mean in such a context?  What does it mean for morality to be an “illusion” if it is bequeathed to us as an integral component of our survival strategy?  I can see where some of our beliefs about morality might be revisable where we can see that our normal moral intuitions are regularly flawed in some way or ill-fit for contemporary civilization having been forged by the different needs of our ancient history but in what sense would it be a trick and illusion and in what would be so hard to live with about this?

Let’s try to answer that question in the context of sex and then see what parallels there might be for our understanding of morality.  Maybe evolution tricks us into sex by enticing us to it with the promise of satisfying a lust when “its” real design is to produce kids from the act.  When this happens, have we been “tricked” by sex?  We are having sex for one thing (the satisfaction of an intense desire), whereas our genes are “using” our desires for sex for some other thing—procreation.  This of course assumes that we do not want children.  If we do want children and we want sex because we find it delightful, then the arrangement sounds like anything but a trick about which to be upset but something of a win-win scenario.  We get to do something we love with someone we love and wind up with more people that we love.  That’s not the paradigm of a malicious trick but the result of luck that what our genes need most (quite logically) got tied evolutionarily most inextricably to our strongest pleasures and impulses so that we would be as assured as possible to eventually (and usually frequently) pursue that most necessary activity.

But then what if some of us do not want kids and our bodies, through their evolutionary conditioning, are trying to “trick” us into creating them through sex?  It seems fairly obvious to me that when those of us who do not want kids learn that sex has this consequence they can easily enough take contraceptive precautions to get what they want from sex (pleasure, intimacy, recreation) and not what they do not want (children).  And I imagine that the majority of us (at least some times during our lives) will fall somewhere in the middle—desiring sex and desiring kids but not desiring them simultaneously.  So we can have periods of contraceptive sex and periods of procreative sex.  And thanks to our knowledge of biology and brilliant modern day technologies for harnessing its nature for our purposes, we can live accordingly.  So sex serves useful functions for us and our traits.  It brings us bodily pleasure, intimacy, and/or children (which the overwhelming majority of us find we love when we get them) and it carries on our traits for another generation.  And we can control its consequences so that we don’t get tricked into anything we don’t want.

But when I realize that sex was survived and was bequeathed to us as an instinctual drive becasue of its procreative consequences does that mean that our feelings that it is about our pleasure, intimacy, or other non-procreative goods that we are therein deceived?  In other words, since it really only survived and is such a big part of us because of its reproductive function are all our other ideas about its pleasures and meanings just what we think under the spell of an illusion?

As far as I’m concerned, simply knowing the reasons that I have a strong sexual instinct and take intense pleasures from sex takes nothing away from either the immediacy of an ecstatic sexual pleasure nor from the strength of love and attachment that I feel for the one I love through the act.  Knowing the brain chemistry of the pleasures of nerve stimulation and of pair-bonding does not make their feelings any less real, nor the reinforced emotional bonds any less powerful or intrinsically desirable to us.

Thinking evolutionarily we can only postulate that beings like us, beings who feel great delight physically and emotionally in sex, exist in abundance because these traits correlate highly with the genes for these traits getting passed on.  Because sex is the primary mechanism for transmitting one’s genes to the next generation, the genes that lead to sexual inclination get passed on the most readily.  What this tells us is not that we do not really love sex, pleasure, or intimacy but instead it indicates that we are creatures well-adapted to replicate ourselves because we really love these things.  We genuinely love them for themselves and that’s why we pass on our genes.  Evolution does not tell us why beings such as we love sex, pleasure, or intimacy—we just do love them.  Evolution tells us why beings like us who do love these things replicate and how it wound up so likely that we would have these traits we have.

In other words, evolutionary explanations of sex tell us the reasons that traits evolve, but it does not tell us the “real reasons” that we act the way we do.  We act the way we do because we care about what we care about.  Evolution tells us why beings who care about what we care about replicate themselves with greater frequency.  But that does not make our caring about what we care about any less sincere.  If psychologically I care about being intimate with a beloved woman, then psychologically I care about intimacy with that woman. It’s not that I “really”, on a deeper psychological level, care about passing on my genes and I am deceiving her.  My genes and their means of replicating themselves do not have anything to do with my “real” motives, they just explain why having certain motives and interests correlates with those same motives and interests being replicated in many descendents whereas having alternative motives and interests is less likely to replicate in many descendents.

So now let’s inquire about morality.  Is it a trick?  The vast majority of us desire to live within moral relationships.  We want to be treated fairly, we do not want to be capriciously harmed, we want to treat others fairly, not harm them, have just authority figures whom we may obey, be loyal to our group and get loyalty from others in it, etc.  We admire people who act from respect for duty and who are benefactors to the greater populace, and we take particular pride in ourselves whenever we can see ourselves as people who do these things.  From the time that we are little, we like it when rules are applied consistently, when we and others are rewarded for obeying those rules and punished for not doing so.

We like the benefits that established rules, commonly obeyed, have for the larger society in community cohesion.  Even if we think it is psychologically impossible or at least extremely rare that some one have altruistic willingness to die for others, many of us value the ideal of such a person as especially devoted to morality and/or her fellow human beings and, at least in our imagination, would love to be someone esteemed as such a heroic exemplar of love of humanity and goodness.

Yes, we also lie, cheat, steal, gossip, rage, abuse, hate, betray, procrastinate, flatter, welch, shirk, philander, envy, begrudge, slander, kick, punch, bite, poison, hang, electrocute, flay, and murder each other sometimes.  No one ever said we were perfect.  But we do care about morality and we do many things motivated by a concern for moral rightness and our own moral goodness.  It matters to us—all of us.  Only the sociopaths do not understand morality but even when one listens to Charles Manson speak, his endless tedious string of rationalizations attest to a mind desperate to justify itself morally (even if he doesn’t really know how that’s done).

In fact, I will go so far as to speculate that the majority of our lies, especially the ones we tell ourselves, betray within them our genuine understanding of what we think is good and right.  Why would I lie to myself and others that I had a virtue that I did not actually have if I did not truly believe it was desirable?  For example, if genuine moral interest in being generous was impossible and my every apparent act of generosity was “really” motivated by a secret desire to seduce its recipient into liking me, then why would I also bother to deceive myself into thinking that I actually wanted to be truly generous?  If I all I really care about is others liking me and generosity is really only a tool for that and I have no interest in either generosity itself or in the well-being of others themselves, then why lie to myself about this?

Why do so many thinkers go out of their way to find a way to explain how altruism is possible if none of us really care about it?  Is it just so we can deceive others into thinking we have it so they’ll like us?  If we really within ourselves thought its unimportance was transparent, why would we think we could fool anyone else about it?   It’s one thing to concede that sometimes people put on a ruse for others in order to get something out of them indirectly which they could not get directly.  But why lie to ourselves about what we want to be?

As far as I’m concerned the tremendous effort to defend altruism as an ideal and to find ways to prove it is possible and the despairing tone most people take when they express their disbelief in its possibility prove that we really do want it to be real, we really do think it’s valuable, even where we fear that psychologically few if any of us are capable of it because of its high personal costs.

So, then evolution comes along and explains that our interests in communal virtues is the product of their social benefits and that because of some implicit dynamics that could be mapped out in game-theoretics of some sort we survived as the sorts of animals who feel deeply socially tied to each other because the math worked out that being animals who related like this led to our genes replicating more effectively.  It was a stable arrangement for our genes to keep replicating for us to be these sociable kinds of animals.

Does that mean that when we are being sociable it’s an “illusion” and we’re really, subconsciously just strategizing against each other?  While unconsciously we are transmitting our genes through processes that are described using the misleading term “strategies” there is no unconscious psychological deception at work.  We genuinely are sociable creatures invested emotionally in each other and whose thriving and individual replicating are dependent upon our socialbe engagement with one another.  While this can be formulated as evolutionary, competitive strategies, this does not mean that psychologically we really are animals that do not care about each other and are not genuinely socially interested.

Just as with sex—we are beings that are morally and socially interested and because being this kind of being has proved invaluable for our thriving, people such as we are born as the descendents of previous people with our traits.  We genuinely have these traits, it’s not an illusion, and we don’t act on them because we are consciously or unconsciously aiming at passing on our traits but because we are genuinely inclined in moral and sociable directions.  And it is because we so viscerally, authentically, and uncontrollably are obsessed by our natures with certain moral and social frameworks that our genes can replicate so effectively.  If we were to not really care but try deliberately to deceive that we did—we would be far worse off from an evolutionary psychology perspective precisely because those who really do care band together to isolate those who they sense are anti-social.

So, where is the illusoriness in this?  Are the facts that we are psychologically rigged to work out our moralities within the terms of certain broad limitations and that our moralities served integral, objectively describable functions to our healthy flourishing and propagation of descendents evidence that we do not need morality and that it’s just a trick?  If it’s how our minds work and it helps us flourish, where are we suffering?  How does this make us fools?  Because morality does not exist apart from the minds of animals like us does that make it any less real or vital to us (or to the other animals that might to some similar extent think in its terms)?

When you realize that only human beings are sexually drawn to human beings does that give you any reason to opt out of sexual attraction (or related sexual behavior) to humans because humans are not sexually interesting to dogs or lemurs? (Assuming that we’re not sexually attractive to these other species—I’m no biologist so I stand open to correction!)

Now, morality or particular diverging instantiations of morality as expressed through different practices and contrastable explicit codes, may be subject to criticism and revision.  We may look at the functions it serves and find that particular roles that it serves it can serve better if we conceive of morality in one way rather than another or if we limit our enforcement of moral concerns to certain contexts and not others.  We can asseess the ways that our instincts which lead us to morality might go overboard in advancing morality at the expense of other of our natural goods that we can recognize we should encourage if we are to flourish in all of our powers.   In other words, we can recognize that our moral and sociable instincts can, like all our other drives, be reigned in and reconceived and controlled in light of 21st Century considerations about how to deliberately maximize our abilities to achieve all our human goods and not just those that morality would give us.

This would not mean that morality would be revealed to be an illusion or that all of its pull on us would be gone because of some abstract metaethical notion that it has no “objective” independence apart from its integral role in our psychologies and our life-conditions.  It means that we can be shrewder about how we formulate our moral intuitions so that they correlate to our actual flourishing as much as possible.

For more on my thoughts on this process of locating the specifically moral interests we have and how we can assess different positive cultures’ ways of pursuing those interests in particular moral codes and how we can think about balancing moral priorities with other natural human goods (ones that Nietzsche for one feared our herd morality instincts would threaten if uncontrolled), see the following three posts:

France Considers Banning Burqas in Public and I Consider Haidt on Pluralism

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

In these posts I assume for argument’s sake that Jonathan Haidt’s description of the evolutionary origins of moral psychology is essentially correct and try to situate his account with respect to my own views on metaethics and human flourishing.  I hope in this way to model an approach to moralities (and ethics more broadly) that takes seriously their integral, undeniable, non-”illusory” value for us while also exploring the possibilities to constructively use their “non-absolute,” “non-divinely-given” character not as a source of despair but as an opportunity for developing a more constructive approach to them as tools which can be deliberately improved to serve our lives even better and in ever less illusory practical ways.

Also, for my suspicions of the arguments (and motives) of religious believers like Collins who insist that even though morality is objectively true (because of God) that it is impossible for atheists to discover this objectivity apart from faith, take a look at this post from earlier today:  For God Or Morality: On Those Who’d Hold Morality Hostage For Faith.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • peterh

    Sex is one of nature’s ways of getting things done; morality is one society’s ways of preventing things from getting done. And the two contexts are not necessarily congruent.

  • Nihilus

    …and you beg the question near the end:

    “It means that we can be shrewder about how we formulate our moral intuitions so that they correlate to our actual flourishing as much as possible.”

    Which assumes a vague hybrid of utilitarianism and rational egoism (it’s hard to tell which; depends on how you use “we”). Are you asserting that eudaimonist/utilitarian ethics are somehow self-evident? That they need no justification? That all alternatives, like Kantianism, or rule-utilitarianism, or Nietzschean master morality, are somehow self-evidently wrong? That they’re, to borrow that old saw from Reformed theology, “properly basic”?

    I thought not.

    If mysticism is as much an instinct as sex and morality, why then should we reject the belief in undefinable, immanent, transcendent Being? Because it lacks an evidential basis? So does the belief in an undefinable, immanent, transcendent force of Obligation that makes ethics more than just an arbitrary set of rules. Because morality is intrinsic to the human experience while mysticism is tacked-on? Really? Examine your life and memory, and tell me that you’ve never felt the stirrings of mystical experience. Mysticism is just as intrinsic to the human experience as sex and morality. And yet we reject the one as an illusion and accept the other two as ontologically real. Why?

    And please, choose. Either ethical systems are purposeless whim or they aren’t. Don’t try some clever little existentialist trick like “they’re whim, but all good/decent/whatever people choose morality.” That’s circular. What does “good” mean if you use “good people” to define morality? What elevates one set of values and the people who believe in it above, say, Machiavellianism and sociopaths? Surely you’re appealing to a higher standard to make the choice. Come to think of it, why couldn’t I just as easily say “belief in God is a whim, but all Godly/pious/reverential people choose to believe in God?” What’s different between those two sentences that makes morality rational and mysticism irrational?

    If you try citing Maslow and substituting in “psychologically healthy,” I could just as easily ask what defines a healthy psychology (the issue is a lot harder than a layman might think). Then you’re back to square one.

    And once we come to the realization that empathy and perspective-switching are also evolutionary wills o’ the wisp, Kant, the Golden Rule, and all other attempts to derive morality from logic fly out the window.

    In the end, as reasoning beings, we must eventually put away childish things, our quaint, compulsive fetishization of the moral instinct most prominent among them. We must embrace a radical agnostic amoralism, as we once embraced a radical agnostic atheism. It is a bitter pill, but such is intellectual growth. Such is reality.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Here you go, Nihilus. There are plenty of links within that post to other posts wherein I defend each of the premises.

  • Plato

    All the nonsense in this article revolves around semantics. What the hell does “trick” mean and who the eff cares? That is not what is important. Regardless of the source of morality, the bottom line is that it is nothing more than a label that we put on certain actions. So being “tricked” or “hoodwinked” about the source of this label is utterly irrelevant.

    What is relevant is not the source or reason we choose to label and categorize behavior as moral or otherwise, but the reason we DO behavior that is moral or otherwise. VERY VERY important distinction that is being conspicuously ignored here. Understanding morality as evolutionary LSD seems to clear up a lot of questions. Not to pound the Cultural Relatavist Bible too hard, but how else can the magnitude of variation in perceived “morality” across cultures be explained? Proposition: we learn the value of certain behaviors over time and, out of self interest, manage to program that behavior into our perception of good and bad, eventually (as a human race) forgetting the original reason we valued that behavior the way we did.


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