On Ethical Selection

17 Dec 2016, Posted by Alexandros in Works, Writings


Charles Darwin, in the fifth edition of his classic On the Origin of Species, introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a way to describe the mechanism of natural selection, borrowing it from Herbert Spencer who had coined it after reading Darwin’s book in an earlier edition. However, in contrast to Spencer who had misunderstood natural selection as a teleological process that facilitates some sort of progress where evolved means superior1, Darwin merely intended it to mean: “better designed for an immediate, local environment”2.

I’m introducing the concept to make an analogy between natural and ethical selection. Any behavior instantiating an ethical ideal is always exhibited in a certain context, a local environment. Depending on the reactions of that environment, some ethical behaviors and ideals have a higher probability of being selected, reproduced, and championed while others are ignored, actively persecuted and go extinct or manage to survive only in unique niches.

A local environment can have a variety of reactions to different behaviors instatiating different ethical ideals. For example, criticizing slavery today in the environment of the United States garners a different reaction than what it would garner in the same environment before the abolition of slavery.

Moral innovations can sometimes be led to extinction by internal inconsistencies and the reactions of their local environments or at times, often through sacrifice and the relentlessness of small groups of adherents, persist and eventually change their local environments and become the dominant moralities3.

Obviously, the fit between a local environment and an ethical behavior or ideal says little about the moral worth of either. A just man may find himself in a den of thieves while a criminal in a group of good samaritans. The same goes for what could be the end result of a certain point in the process. That a just man may eventually become a thief himself in a den of thieves doesn’t count as a proof of superiority for the ethical ideals of the thieves.

The interactions between the “design” (or content) of a behavior instantiating an ethical ideal and its local environment, nevertheless does affect which will survive, change or become extinct. Understanding these interactions can help us answer questions like:

    • Will the inertia of a local environment neutralize an ethical trailblazer that doesn’t fit and lead it to extinction, or would the ethical trailblazer disrupt the inertia of the local environment causing a phase transition to a new set of behaviors and ethical ideals?
    • What are some features I need to be aware of when introducing a moral innovation?
    • Would it make sense to stagger the introduction of a certain moral innovations in certain local environments?
    • In short, how easy or hard would it be for certain parts of the world to accept moral innovation, and if yes, how much and how fast, and if no, why not?4

I am not oblivious to the fact that there is an intellectually interesting tension in making an analogy with natural selection when it comes to ethics. The reason being, that when Darwin introduced natural selection, he compared it with artificial selection (selective breeding). The main difference being that the latter was guided by human choice in view of certain desirable ends. In making an analogy between ethical selection and natural selection there is a danger in implying that ethical selection doesn’t involve conscious choices in view of certain desirable ends, something which seems paradoxical and counter-intuitive. But is it? Would we feel comfortable in asserting that all people always consciously and deliberately choose their ethical ends? Are not many people merely conforming to what has been chosen for them, sometimes unwittingly, even though it goes against their own interests? I’m afraid it would be naive to believe otherwise.

Thus, what I’m proposing is that ethical selection actually contains both types of selection and understanding their interplay can provide insight into why individuals and societies have the ethics they do versus the ethics they want.

To situate what I’m suggesting in relation to the field of evolutionary ethics, my approach is more descriptive rather than normative and is different in that, though it uses the idea of natural and artificial selection, it is perhaps more related to game theory, situationism and interactionism than it is to the approach of evolutionary psychology, though it wouldn’t shy from borrowing its insights.

To develop the theory of ethical selection, I will introduce an array of concepts and distinctions that will help us analyze and interpret real and imaginary scenarios.

Moral Fit

A morality is not just an abstract set of propositions describing what is right and wrong. It is also a plan of action, and plans of action have to interact with reality if those actions are to be instantiated rather than just propounded.

This means that a morality usually entails or is accompanied by a certain view of reality. If this view fails to correspond to reality, then that very lack of correspondence sabotages the plan of action suggested by that morality. If this view corresponds more closely to current, local reality, it enables its plan of action to be carried out, one could say “reproduced”.

How often a morality is selected, reproduced and championed by moral agents determines the degree of its moral fit.

Whether a morality has more or less fit I suppose would depend on certain characteristics, three of which I surmise below.

The first is what we’ve already mentioned, the degree by which its view of reality corresponds more closely to current, local reality, enabling its plan of action to be carried out, “reproduced”, more often and with less difficulties compared to competing moralities.

The second is the ability of a morality’s very operation to continuously transform the local environment in such a way that it retains a better fit than its competitors, perhaps even making their fit worse in the process, the local conditions being kept in such a manner that competing plans of action are continuously sabotaged, thus earning the label of being “unrealistic” or “out of touch”.

The third would be the degree of a morality’s sophistication that determines the extent it can accommodate, better than its competitors, moral agents with a variety of inner, often evolving, environments. For just as there can be a lack of correspondence between the view of reality that a certain morality can have with the current and local outer reality an agent may inhabit, so can there be a lack of correspondence between the view of reality that certain morality can have with the current and personal (rather than local) inner reality an agent may be experiencing.

For example, if you discover you are a homosexual and your morality not only does not accommodate your discovery but in fact reprimands it, this creates an internal tension between your morality and your current personal inner environment. A morality that can better accommodate such a tension or in which such a tension does not even arise, will have a better probability of holding the allegiance of its moral agent.

Another example could be inhabiting a morality that extends dignity and consideration to a very limited circle of moral agents. In other words, imagine you inhabit a morality that only ascribes worth to people who share that morality or are of a specific ethnicity or race and everyone outside that circle does not deserve or enjoy such dignity and consideration. But let’s say that through your extensive travels you happen to meet a significant number of people who are of a different morality, of a different race or ethnicity and you come to appreciate them, love and be loved by them, and come to the realization that despite their differences they definitely deserve dignity and consideration. If that were to happen, your morality would produce an inner tension that would make another morality that is more inclusive and less narrow become more appealing to you.

In short, I surmise that any morality that addresses the challenges and needs of different stages of personal and social development and a greater variety of inner and outer environments better than its competitors, would more frequently enjoy a better moral fit.

Moral Glitches, Switches, Mutations, Revolutions and Transformations

Any inner or outer tension that results in a situation where your morality advises a certain course of action but your conscience another can be called a moral glitch, that produces a moral dilemma, which increases the chances of a moral switch or mutation, the former being a switching from one existing morality to another while the latter being a novel revision of your existing morality or, in rare circumstances of severe and foundational inner and outer tensions, a moral transformation or revolution.

A moral transformation would be a situation where inner and outer tensions are resolved through a new morality that achieves a synthesis that satisfies or resolves the objections raised by all sides.

A moral revolution would be a situation where, faithful to the etymology of the word revolution, there would actually be a rolling back to a previous stage of being, where the tension didn’t yet exist, through the forcible elimination of the parties and ideas that created it. Moral revolutions tend to be unable to reconcile certain truths and require violence of some sort, and can happen on both the individual and the collective levels. On the individual level it can range from simply avoiding or cutting out from one’s life the persons that make tensions emerge, repressing or suppressing different sides of oneself thereby exhibiting inconsistencies of character and typical psychological defenses such as refusing to think about certain issues (denial) to punishing oneself for having thought of them or unjustly blaming others etc. On the collective level it can range from coercion, propaganda, necessary conversion, segregation, forced migration to executions, mass denial and organized forgetfulness of the tensions through distractions and rationalizations or by keeping certain social phenomena out of sight and out of mind.

Moral transformations require reconciliation with inconvenient truths and do not turn to violence but rather to a higher degree of distributed wisdom, both theoretical and practical, distributed to all the aspects of ourselves or throughout the different segments of society.

The less recurring glitches a morality produces, the more moral fit it enjoys, and the higher the amount of loyalty it enjoys among its moral agents.

Unfortunately, very successful moralities come with downsides of their own. At times a morality becomes so adapted to its environment, an environment that it often struggles to form and maintain as a reflection of its own image, that it lacks the flexibility to adapt when that environment changes often due to the imposition of an unnecessary blindness through suppressing the moral diversity that may have allowed it to foresee and managed upcoming problems.

Moreover, the operations of a certain morality may have unforeseeable consequences on its foundational preconditions.
For example, a successful morality could inadvertently cause an environmental catastrophe that literally threatens to destroy the lives of the moral agents practicing it. The loyalty the agents have to such a morality, may make them particularly resistant to moral switching or mutation despite the ever increasing moral glitches. At some point, the amount and severity of the tensions, both internal and external, is such, that it begets either a moral transformation or revolution, it being hard to know what will happen in advance.

It could be speculated at this point that a plurality of moralities may, as long as they don’t cause excessive social discord, act beneficially on each other, by forcing each to consider how it should deal with circumstances other moralities deal more often or more successfully, in time making each more resilient, having tensions being resolved more often in advance through mutations rather than revolutions.

Perhaps biodiversity is as important in natural ecosystems as it is in moral ones. A rich moral biodiversity might not only be desirable for every morality individually but also for all moral agents collectively.

Let us now turn to an example that can illustrate how the ideas described above can be used to not only interpet the world but hopefully also provide us a few insights on how we could change it.

An example: The naive idealist and the shrewd pragmatist

Imagine a situation where two business owners in the same line of business happen to invent a similar technology that cuts the amount of human labor and time necessary to produce their service or product by 30%. At the same time, the invention of this technology effectively renders 15% of their existing workforce unnecessary.

Since we are in the realm of imagination, let’s imagine one of them being an idealist. He started his business because he wanted to find a way to become financially and temporally independent so he can devote his time to the higher things in life. Over time he realized that one of the higher things in life is sharing them with others. So he decided that whenever possible he’d expand the circle of his independence with the people that effectively helped him achieve it: the employees that worked in his business.

So when that technology was discovered he was elated. He informed that 15% that due partly to their efforts the company was able to become profitable enough to invest in research and development that eventually led to the invention of a technology that made their current work unnecessary. Given his goal of financial and temporal emancipation, he was going to keep paying them, but given the presence of the invented technology, free them from the labor they were once doing. They were free to find another way to contribute to the company or simply devote their time to the higher things in life.

Keeping them on the payroll didn’t give a lot of room to drop the price of the product or service the business was making, but let’s say the satisfaction of emancipating 15% of the workforce of the company made up for it.

Now imagine the shrewd pragmatist takes a different approach. He simply fires 15% of his workforce and drops the price of the product or service his business is offering. Let’s suppose that the two businesses, by using that technology, deliver a product or service that is of similar quality.

Customers notice the price difference and start changing their purchasing habits accordingly. The idealist goes out of business and the shrewd pragmatist takes an even larger share of the market.

The material preconditions that allowed for the emancipation of 15% of the workforce in the idealist’s business ceased. No longer financially and temporally independent, their devotion to the higher things in life was interrupted, as they had to work ordinary jobs again, some even going to the shrewd pragmatist for work.

Analysis and Commentary on the Example

The naive idealist was oblivious of the complex dynamics of moral fit. His moral experiment (or “mutation”) failed to take into consideration the fact that he existed in a competitive environment where moral agents employing different moralities would enact a plan of action that would effectively undercut the new preconditions his moral mutation depended on in order to survive.

The new preconditions themselves, inventing a technology that boosts productivity and technically makes 15% of the workforce redundant, are not necessarily moral but do affect moral fit. For they provide a new local environment that, depending on the moralities of the agents living in it, bring different tensions to the surface and affect the direction and probabilities of different moral mutations.

For the naive idealist, given the moral mutations he had undergone (e.g. one of the higher things in life being sharing those things with others), whatever tension inherent in the reflections as to what to do with the fact that he didn’t need 15% of his workforce anymore, resulted in a plan of action that did provide a better moral fit between his own morality and the new local environment, namely emancipating 15% of the workers from the need to work.

However, the naive idealist suffered from what we may call a short-sighted ethical vision. He failed to understand that a new morality is a form of life that requires certain preconditions for it to live. Its moral fit has to be extensive if it is to survive and flourish.

The presence of moral agents with different plans of action, like the shrewd pragmatist and thrifty customers, may respond to the new local environment in such a way that the moral experiment of the idealist is disrupted and eventually denied adequate moral fit making it untenable.

Alternative Scenarios

At this point it is crucial to point out how multiple factors may influence the final result. Let us imagine that the vast majority of the customers of the particular product or service are hardcore social activists of a particular political persuasion that detest mass firings and share the naive idealist’s morality of emancipating people from work to enable them to enjoy the higher things in life. Let us also imagine that the naive idealist’s moral mutation was widely circulated in the news and celebrated by the very target group that buys that product or service, while the reaction of the shrewd pragmatist was equally circulated in the news getting very negative reactions from the public to the point that a boycott against the shrewd pragmatist was organized, hurting his sales and brand.

Or imagine the 15% that was emancipated by the naive idealist, became hyper-motivated to demonstrate their gratitude by educating themselves to become useful in other aspects of the business which resulted in such increases in overall efficiency and quality that they ended up easily beating the competition despite the cuts in price the shrewd pragmatist instituted after firing 15% of his workers.

Or imagine that the technology invented actually makes 80% of the workforce redundant. Meanwhile, new technologies implemented across different industries have similar effects. The novel and unprecedented environment this will produce will necessitate a radical rethinking of our way of life. Questions like:

    • What will happen to all those people, what will they do?
    • How will customers even buy our products if most of them are unemployed and cannot generate income?
    • How do we deal with the chaos that will result with such massive unemployment?

Would have to be addressed and the resulting reflections would make the idealist’s position more tenable and a whole new class of moral mutations (e.g. universal unconditional basic income schemes) more appealing to the majority of the population.

If I may be excused a brief more personal tangent, I do think the pace of current technological progress does not make this scenario so outlandish. A video by C.G.P. Grey, aptly entitled Humans Need Not Apply, colorfully demonstrates this point:

The different initiatives of the vision of Idealism in Practice I describe in The Calling are meant to address some of the challenges associated with such a scenario. The Regenerating Freedom initiative could end up providing the tools that unemployed and unemployable humans use so that they achieve enough autarky to survive and retrain for the new world. The Philosophy Reborn initiative could help people better understand the new world and what they want their purpose and role to be in it, while the Filiki Eteria initiative aims to help them enact that purpose and role within their political communities.

Conclusions and Leaps

Under alternative scenarios like the ones mentioned above, it is safe to say that the end result would have been very different, allowing the moral mutation of the naive idealist to thrive rather than perish.

Understanding the dynamics around moral fit can potentially help in decision making by estimating the likelihood of a mutation surviving and highlighting courses of action that may aid its survival.

For example, being aware the moral fit was not extensive, the naive idealist might have launched a branding campaign to educate potential customers about the ethical uniqueness of his business. Nowadays it is not uncommon for customers to be willing to pay a premium for products that are aligned with their values. The extent of the success of the campaign would have determined how many customers would have refrained from opting for the cheaper alternative offered by the shrewd pragmatist, thereby keeping the naive idealist and his morality in business and the mutation surviving and potentially “reproducing” to other companies who wanted to mimic its success.

Ultimately the concept of ethical selection, though useful, is yet another result of philosophical cartography. As with every intellectual framework or map, it is important to remember that the map isn’t the territory, so it is meant to be used with caution and intellectual vigilance.

Interpreting moral phenomena under the framework of ethical selection can be as fruitful as it can be sobering, given the complexities and difficulties inherent in moral change. It is an exercise in modesty, as it cautions moral agents from being too impatient for radical change, given “jumps” (sudden changes) seem to be as rare in nature as they are in morality5. When they do happen, they more often end in neurosis and bloodbaths rather than enlightenment and utopias. But every now and then, for reasons many times unclear or too complex to disentangle, it may be possible to witness or experience a moral leap, what I earlier called a moral transformation. It would be a shame if our habituation combined with the rarity of the event, makes us miss the importance of such singular events, and fail to nurture or at least record them in memory if not in practice, for the benefit of mankind and future generations.

If I were to speculate, based on my limited experience, as to what increases the chances of such moral transformations taking place, I would conjecture it is this: struggling to transcend the tensions caused by the maximum amount of truth you can take. Practicing philosophy, in other words. This struggle is not without danger, for it can either drive you mad, get you killed, or, if you’re lucky and able, give you a taste of wisdom.


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  1. See Morality and Evolutionary Biology at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Remixed from the Wikipedia article on the Survival of the fittest
  3. There is some evidence for this here: “Minority rules: Scientists discover tipping point for the spread of ideas”, the summary of the article being: “Scientists have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion.”
  4. Perhaps a comparison with the work of Everett Rogers on the diffusion of innovations might be fruitful here.
  5. See the Wikipedia entry for Natura non facit saltus (Latin for “nature does not make jumps”)