In a different question I asked, Chris Johns' answer pinpointed exactly why all of the answers didn't satisfy me, so I'd like to ask a follow-up question which will further focus my question - would you consider bees moral?

All the answers in my first question were not about actual morality in my opinion, but of the group effort to stay alive. This isn't morality. Morality, to my opinion, is the goal-less (there's probably a better term) care for the other. It's not even selflessness (even though this is the closest one and the best answer so far), because even selflessness, in the evolutionary mindset, comes from the need to live, not from true selfless-needing.

For example, a parent will die for its child, in order to preserve its gene, and you might call it morality. But what I call morality is the soldier that jumps on a grenade in order to save his fellow soldier/s (or civilians, or even in the extreme case of saving soldiers from the enemy side). That solider doesn't sacrifice himself for the greater good, his genes aren't inferior to the other human being, so, in the evolution mind - he shouldn't (or better said - wouldn't) sacrifice himself. Doing so isn't evolutionary right.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

  • Please tell me if the title doesn't suit the question, I wasn't exactly sure what title to put. I'll change it immediately. Jan 9, 2018 at 15:02
  • Goal-less care for the other. The non-instrumental. This is an excellent insight. It goes back to Kant. In modern terms you will find such strange things in this regard as Adorno and late Heidegger ending up on the same page. Negative dialectics/ only a God can save us [but we can't will the God].
    – Gordon
    Jan 9, 2018 at 16:02
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    Your first mistake is to think that morality is subejective or opion based. This would be useless. Morality by definition implies universal application to have value and be worthy of study. Acts are not moral based on popular vote. Likewise you can't vote something immoral. You are confusing psychology with philosophy
    – Logikal
    Jan 9, 2018 at 18:06
  • @Logikal have I ever said anything about subjectiveness in these questions? And even though I agree with your statement to some extent, saying "morality by definition" is confusing philosophy with dictionary. You can't say "by definition" when there are so many definitions to such a heated topic as morality. Jan 9, 2018 at 18:38
  • The error you make now is you think a dictionary is the way out. The term originates in philosophy. There are other definitions. The fact you know this is true and you did not specify which definition you meant is a set up for failure question to whoever answers. You are using a slang of the term not a philosophical term. Universal context is the correct definition of the term. Agreement has nothing to do with morality.
    – Logikal
    Jan 9, 2018 at 18:50

3 Answers 3


First off, evolution is a process that is always ongoing. One cannot chose to act "evolutionary right" or "evolutionary wrong". Also, evolution has no goal. It is simply the observation and theory that stronger species tend to survive over weaker species. Finally, evolution is a process that is much broader and takes much longer than a parent dying for his child or other specific events. So you would not be able to use an evolution-based argument to argue that the morality of the generation n is stronger than that of generation n – 1.

When somebody dies for others that is not a standalone decision. I'm not an expert, but in the decision-making process in the brain many similar situations that you have encountered or thought about are weighed and considered to make a decision for the particular situation you are in - and all that happens more or less unconsciously.

A moral framework helps to make sense of all these experiences; it helps to make sense of the world. Otherwise, how would you understand why somebody behaves the way he does? It also works the other way around: by experiencing behaviour, you inductively build an understanding of the moral framework of others. And you use that understanding to develop your own moral framework, based on your esteem of the others.

A moral framework can be based on care for others but can also be based on egocentrism, care for the climate or the fact that you always want to see as much green as possible. Care for others is just one possible objective. However, it is one that is taught to children in many cultures.

The proponents of an evolutionary morality would argue that that is because caring for others is evolutionary stronger than other moral frameworks. Thus, the fact that you consider selflessly sacrificing yourself for others a moral and goal-less act is, according to them, the result of the evolutionary process. The species that thinks caring for others is good and selfless was stronger than the species that thought otherwise, or the species that did not think about morality at all.

  • So, if I understand it correctly, evolution can't really tell us anything about morality, only that moral societies were inherently stronger than others so they survived? Jan 9, 2018 at 15:59
  • @YechiamWeiss yes. The claim is that the concept of morality itself is the result of the evolutionary process.
    – user2953
    Jan 9, 2018 at 16:02
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    but not exactly, as the claim is that the concept of morality was what proven to be effective in order to survive. The evolutionary process didn't "make" morality, but rather "chose" it as (part of) what defines stronger species. Jan 9, 2018 at 16:18
  • @YechiamWeiss indeed, evolution is not volitional. It does not make or choose things, for that matter. I used "result" only in the sense of a consequence.
    – user2953
    Jan 9, 2018 at 20:10
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    I write "to that extent" because we are still in this process. You cannot say of everything people do nowadays that it has proven useful because otherwise it wouldn't happen according to ET. On the contrary, ET assumes that more or less random mutations (physically and mentally, morally, etc.) occur but that over long periods of time the strongest survive. That's what I meant when I wrote that you cannot use this argument to claim the young generation's morality is better than the old generation's morality.
    – user2953
    Jan 9, 2018 at 22:27

You presented a specific set of claims of contemporary evolutionary moral theory, but I think there are different set of claims you don't acknowledge. It is not that the soldier sacrifices himself because someone else in the group has genes are better, nor is it the narrow case of the parent sacrificing himself for the close genetic relative, the child. Rather, the claim is that everyone in the group has a certain inclination towards (occasional) self-sacrifice for the larger good, because groups with that quality do better over the long term than groups without it. Morals, so the theory goes, do not always help us personally, but they do always help the larger groups of which we are a part.

It is important to note that accepting this does entail a significant, and not uncontroversial shift away from the selfish-gene model of evolution acting solely (or at least primarily) on individual agents (most closely associated with science popularist Richard Dawkins). In terms of the conversation around evolution, it represents a pendulum shift back towards an endorsement of large-group dynamics as playing a legitimate role in evolutionary processes. In some ways, however, the two points of view are not as opposed as they may seem. After all, all human beings are 99.9% genetically identical, so even helping a completely unrelated stranger is in the interest of the vast majority of your genes.

As far as your other question, I'd personally be happy to accept an argument that bees are moral. For me, however, the paradigmatic example of a moral, non-human agent is the mitochondria. Generous, enabling all higher life through their abundant production of energy; humble, doing their ceaseless work quietly and unobtrusively; and with unparalleled integrity, maintaining their own independent existence despite millions of years of coevolution; if any creature deserves the title "moral" it is the mitochondria. Unlike many, however, I don't see this, however, as reducing human morality to biological processes, but rather as revealing morality as a fundamental feature of our universe, towards which all things apparently incline.

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    I gotta say, I really like your answers :) I really like this interpretation of evolution theory, but it doesn't seem (and you've also noted that) like the major player in the game. One thing I do want to note though: "... Has a certain inclination towards self-sacrifice for the larger good" - but what larger good is there in this kind of self-sacrifice? It's a life for life, nothing "greater", logically speaking, seems to come out of that. Jan 9, 2018 at 17:45
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    It's definitely the minority position today, but I think it has momentum on its side. The heyday of the "selfish gene" orientation has come and gone. // One thing about morals is they are never guaranteed to produce the best possible outcome in all situations, just to be oriented towards the interests in the larger good in the big picture.// Thanks for the compliment! Feel free to use your upvote. :) Jan 9, 2018 at 17:55
  • so you're saying in such an example as I've suggested, the moral is "wrong"? I don't think I fully understand what you mean. Jan 9, 2018 at 17:58
  • Would you like to chat about this? Longer discussion are discouraged in comments. Jan 9, 2018 at 18:03

As was pointed out yesterday, in the extreme situation, there is no time to reflect. Hence, we must be programmed (instinct, non-reflective) to act "as if" ALL others are valuable for species survival. We see that in calm times, the surgeon may be more valuable than the ditch-digger (that is, in the calculating, reflective, instrumental, immoral world). But in extreme situations we must act as if all are equally valuable because there is no time to reflect.

In the extreme moment, we must save all in order to save the potential one who will advance the species.

Objection: not all soldiers jump on the grenade, so it can't be instinct. Answer: They have, in their spare time, in preparation for battle etc., taken the time to calculate. They anticipate the emergency situation, and engage the everyday, instrumental thinking. The neo-cortex overcomes the instinct to save the other in extremis.

Now what about this instrumental, "goal-for", world of everydayness?

In this world not only other men but nature itself (and this is key) we see as mere instruments to be used for self-survival. Now let's trace the moves: Freud, "Civilization and its Discontents"; Marcuse answers many years later: "Eros and Civilization" and "One-Dimensional Man". The solution, advanced by Marcuse, to pacify but satisfy man in his relation to nature is probably no longer possible for external reasons due to unanticipated changes in nature itself. This era of possibility may have closed, we don't know yet, but it may have closed.

Hence some say man must continue to take an instrumental approach towards other men and towards nature for his own survival, which ironically may hasten his demise. (Self-preservation = self-destruction).

While Marcuse proposed solutions, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Heidegger said merely "stop", "halt" (an over-simplification but a warranted over-simplification I think).

We may in some sense be "back to Kant" (again), and the hope for a morality of ends.

  • I won't comment on all of the points you've made just yet (mainly because I'm tired), but I will ask this: "we must act as if all are equally valuable" - then why would the instinct will be self-sacrifice, if the soldier's life worth as much as his friend's? If it is equal - would he naturally select the other instead of himself? Why would that happen? Jan 9, 2018 at 18:46
  • let me eliminate all possible answers then :) Assume the case to be a soldier taking a bullet for another. Now he is a) not closer b) won't save many and c) arguably the self-sacrificing soldier is the "superior" one, as he was so morally superior to sacrifice himself in order to save the other. You can feel the nastiness right? ;) Jan 9, 2018 at 19:30
  • @yechiamweiss I don't know, so I will speculate. :) Nature is not kind. Mainly because the the person closest to the grenade (or such situation) will on average, be average. It is likely that one, or a few will die to save relatively many, and many has more chance of one superior person to advance the species. (I suspect somehow I may be begging the question, not sure!). This is gross (unpleasant, nasty) talk, but nature can be gross in its bluntness.
    – Gordon
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:30
  • did you delete and repost the comment? Lol Jan 9, 2018 at 19:32
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    more coffee indeed :) I'm trying to focus on my study but keep going back here to comment to answers and although I like it very much (and I think I fell in love with this site, using it for under a week and gain so much knowledge and respect to people here), it's exhausting :) Jan 9, 2018 at 19:38

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