The Selfish Gene and Ethical Dilemmas on the Trails of the Grand Canyon

What if you’re hiking along a dry trail on a hot day and encounter another hiker who has run out of water? Do you share some of your precious supplies with this hiker? Do you risk having to turn back early? Do you even put your own health at risk? Or do you leave the hiker to fend for himself or herself, even if the hiker’s life might be in peril?

The Grand Canyon through the window of a plane

Questions like this are facing hikers in the Grand Canyon this summer, especially as the southwest suffers from record heat and drought. A recent article in the New York Times, “A Hiker’s Plight: How to Help When Water Runs Low,” raises fascinating ethical dilemmas and offers equally fascinating responses from hikers. Here’s how writer Marc Lacey sets up the problem:

With their packs full, their canteens overflowing and their reserve bottles filled to the brim, outdoorsy Arizonans set out on foot this time of year under the scorching sun. But as they navigate the state’s picturesque trails, they face not only physical challenges but ethical ones, like how much water to share with strangers who have miles to go and not a drop to drink.

The question comes up on South Mountain, an urban refuge in southern Phoenix, on the four-mile hike down into Fossil Springs a couple of hours north and, most definitely, along the steep pathways that descend into the Grand Canyon. Wherever it is, hikers regularly encounter strangers gasping trailside from the heat.

Last weekend, a hiker who ran out of water on a Grand Canyon trail died, even though some other hikers had shared their precious H2O with him.

One hiker explained her ethical perspective in evolutionary terms:

“If it came down to having enough for myself or helping someone, I’d have to drink my own water,” said Laura Craig, a Phoenix businesswoman who shared some of her extra water with distressed strangers on a recent hike at Fossil Springs. “It’s an ethical decision. You hate to think of things like survival of the fittest, but it does come down to that.”

That’s one of the clearest expositions of a “selfish gene” morality that I have ever heard. Of course evolutionary ethicists, like Richard Dawkins, who wrote the book called The Selfish Gene, have tried to find an evolutionary basis for altruism, for sacrificing your own good for the sake of others. But, even if it is possible to come up with an evolutionary basis for altruism, this won’t motivate hikers to sacrifice for others.

Those who try to find a biological basis for altruism sometimes argue that the species is better off in general if a society values sacrificing for others. Some of the hikers articulate this point of view, according to Mark Lacey:

One reason hikers say they help strangers is that they never know when they might find themselves in distress. And despite that kindness-to-strangers philosophy, there is still plenty of grumbling among veteran hikers about the novices who trek beyond their abilities, not to mention their water supplies.

So, it may be right to share your water with others in the hope that if you’re desperate for water someday, people might share with you.

Of course it doesn’t make sense for hikers with water to give away so much water that they endanger their own lives. Often, what is required of potential helpers is that they inconvenience themselves, not endanger themselves. If they give away water, then they won’t be able to complete their planned hike. Or they might need to double back to get help before pursuing their plans.

Still, what fascinates me about this Times story is the shallowness of the moral thinking, and the tendency for the interviewed hikers to speak in evolutionary terms. I think this foreshadows what a world would be like if we decided that the only basis for ethics was biological. In the end, biology might explain why we are ethical, but it provides no motivation for someone to choose to sacrifice for the sake others in any given situation.