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Evolutionary Ethics?

By: for ISKCON News on July 29, 2010
Chanakya Pandit
Let’s start with where we are in agreement. I agree with the Moral Naturalists that it is possible to better understand human nature through the study of animal behavior. Beyond that our paths diverge sharply. The Moral Naturalists have chosen to recklessly cross the bridge from making scientific observations of what “is,” to making value judgments of what “ought” to be. This is an example of what British philosopher G. E. Moore termed a “naturalistic fallacy,” illogical reasoning that begins with a descriptive premise and proceeds to a value based conclusion. As is the case with the evolutionary theory, for the Moral Naturalists getting from an “is” to an “ought” requires a missing link, and I remain unconvinced by the arguments of the Moral Naturalists that they can bridge the gap.

On July 22, 2010 New York Times columnist David Brooks reported from Washington, Connecticut, “This week a group of moral naturalists gathered in Connecticut at a conference organized by the Edge Foundation. One of the participants, Marc Hauser of Harvard, began his career studying primates, and for moral naturalists the story of our morality begins back in the evolutionary past. It begins with the way insects, rats and monkeys learned to cooperate.”

Here is some more of what Hauser had to say, “Science has much to offer, not only in terms of describing the facts of human nature, but in predicting where our biology might take us. Whereas most scientists tend to shy away from using facts about human nature to make pronouncements about moral and immoral acts, I will not be so timid. I believe that science, and scientists, have an important role to play in shaping the moral agenda. We have an obligation to use facts and reason to guide what we ought to do.” The Edge Foundation website continues to describe the Moral Naturalists position, “Evil, says Harvard psychologist and evolutionary biologist Marc D. Hauser, evolved, and emerges in daily life, as an accident of our brain's engineering. Unlike any other creature, present or past, only we combine processes of the mind that have independent and highly adaptive consequences for survival to create the ingredients of evil. When our desire for personal gain combines with our capacity for denial, we turn to excessive harms, aimed at eliminating, effacing, humiliating, and obliterating those who stand in the way.” ( Edge 322 — July 19, 2010)

I disagree. Hauser makes some good observations about the workings of the human brain which are consistent with the descriptive nature of scientific research. He also makes some good observations of the social interactions that result in evil. However, I fail to see the link that justifies Hauser’s jump from “an accident of our brain’s engineering” to making moral pronouncements about good, evil, and what we ought to do about these moral issues.

The Vedic sages of old approached these moral issues in a different way. They made reference to the behavior of animals to make a distinction between human and animal life. They did not seek to prove the type of continuum the Moral Naturalists postulate, because they understood that the moral choices made by human beings do not find their origin, and are not evolved from animal behavior. Consider the following story of the Sage and the Scorpion.

Once, a sage saw a scorpion that was struggling to escape from a river. The scorpion was about to drown, when the sage reached over and saved it. The scorpion immediately stung the sage. In shock, the sage dropped the scorpion back into the waters, where it began struggling again to keep from drowning. The sage again reached over and picked up the scorpion to save it from drowning. The scorpion stung the sage once again. This happened three more times, before the sage was finally able to toss the scorpion to safety in the wooded land around the river.

A man who had been watching this whole incident walked over to the sage, and asked him, "Are you crazy?"

The sage replied, "It is the scorpion's nature to sting, and it is my nature to be helpful to all beings. If the scorpion keeps its nature even in the face of death, why should I give up my compassionate nature in the face of his sting?"

This simple story illustrates why I remain unconvinced by the Moral Naturalists. The instinct for survival, the very essence of evolutionary theory, didn’t influence the sage to give up his compassionate nature. Neither did the sense of personal gain, the urge to respond in kind, push the sage toward the evil of retaliation against the scorpion. What do the Moral Naturalists do with such examples? Based on what Hauser said at the Moral Naturalist conference last week, it’s pretty safe to say that this story would go the way of scientific evidence that contradicts the theory of evolution, i.e. into author Michael Cremo’s book, Forbidden

Archeology, which describes the denial of scientific evidence undermining the theory of evolution.

Through works such as Narayana Sharma’s Hitopadesa and Chanakya Pandit’s Niti shastra the Vedic sages sought to teach lessons that run contrary to Moral Naturalist’s ideas about the origin of human morality. That human life has a higher purpose than the conditioned responses that characterize animal life. That morality plays a key role in this distinction between human and animal life. That morality is the exclusive domain of human life.

Forgiveness and compassion are moral characteristics that have their origin in the spiritual purity of the heart. Chanakya Pandit says in his Niti-shastra, “The measure of an ascetic is his ability to forgive.” Jesus Christ also displayed the godly qualities of forgiveness and compassion despite the torture he suffered at the hands of others. This elevating spiritual purity is the original nature of all living beings, but displayed in this material world only in the human life. Animal life is a lower consciousness characterized by fear, a struggle for existence. So, rather than evolving as suggested by Hauser, human beings devolve when they give in to animalistic tendencies. Human morality is meant to lead to liberation through self realization, not the self preservation sought by animals.
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