Darwinian Intuitions and the Moral Status of Death

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, wrote evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. And given that our moral psychology is, at least in large part, the product of our biology, one can reasonably make a similar claim about our moral intuitions: that we should seek to understand these intuitions in light of the evolutionary history of our species. This also seems important for our thinking about normative ethics, since such an understanding seems likely to help inform our ethical judgments, by helping us better understand the origin of our intuitive moral judgments, and how they might be biased in various ways.

An Example: “Julie and Mark”

A commonly cited example that seems to demonstrate how evolution has firmly instilled certain moral intuitions into us is the following thought experiment, first appearing in a paper by Jonathan Haidt:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it OK for them to make love?

According to Haidt: “Most people who hear the above story immediately say that it was wrong for the siblings to make love […]”. Yet most people also have a hard time explaining this wrongness, given that the risks of inbreeding are rendered moot in the thought experiment. But they still insist it is wrong. An obvious interpretation to make, then, is that evolution has hammered the lesson “sex between close relatives is wrong” into the core of our moral judgments. And given the maladaptive outcomes of human inbreeding, such an intuition would indeed make a lot of evolutionary sense. Indeed, in that context, given the high risk of harm, it even makes ethical sense. Yet in a modern context in which birth control has been invented and is employed, the intuition suddenly seems on less firm ground, at least ethically.

(It should be noted that the deeper point of Haidt’s paper cited above is to argue that “[…] moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.” And while it seems difficult to deny that there is a significant grain of truth to this, Haidt’s thesis has also been met with criticism.)

Moral Intuitions About Death: Biologically Contingent

With this idea in the back of our heads — that evolution has most likely shaped our moral intuitions significantly, and that we should perhaps not be that surprised if these intuitions are often difficult to defend within the realm of normative ethics — let us now proceed to look at the concrete issue of death. Yet before we look at the notional “human view of death”, it is perhaps worth first surveying some other species whose members are unlikely to view death in remotely the same way as we do, to see just how biologically contingent our view of death probably is.

For example, individuals belonging to species that practice sexual cannibalism — i.e. where the female eats the male prior to, during, or after copulation — seem most unlikely to view dying in this manner in remotely the same way as we humans would. Indeed, they might even find pleasure in it, both male and female (although in many cases, the male probably does not, especially when he is eaten prior to copulation, since it is not in his reproductive interest, which likely renders it yet another instance of the horrors of nature).

The same can likely be said of species that practice so-called matriphagy, i.e. where the offspring eat their own mother, sometimes while she is still alive. This behavior is also, at least in many cases, evolutionarily adaptive, and hence seems unlikely to be viewed as harmful by the mother (or at least the analogue of “viewed as harmful” found in the minds of these creatures). There may, of course, be many exceptions — cases in which the mother does indeed find herself harmed by, and disapproving of, the act. Yet it nonetheless seems clear that the beings who have evolved to practice this behavior do not view such a death in remotely the same way as a human mother would if her children suddenly started eating her alive.

The final example I wish to consider here is the practice of so-called filial cannibalism: when parents eat their own offspring. This practice is much more common, in terms of the number of species that practice it, compared to the other forms of cannibalism mentioned above, and also a clearer case of convergent evolution, as the species that practice it range from insects to mammals, including some cats, primates, birds, amphibians, fish (where it is especially prevalent), snails, and spiders. Again, we should expect individuals belonging to these species to view deaths of this kind very differently from the way we humans would view such, by any human standard, bizarre deaths. This is not to say that the younglings who are eaten do not suffer a great deal in these cases. They likely often do, as being eaten is often not in their reproductive interests (in terms of propagating their genes), although it may be in the case of some species: if it increases the reproductive success of their parents and/or siblings to a sufficient degree.

The deeper point, again, is that beings who belong to these species are unlikely to feel remotely the same way about these deaths as we humans would if such deaths were to occur within the human realm — i.e. if human parents ate their own children. And more generally: that the evolutionary history of a species greatly influences how it feels about deaths of various kinds, as well as how it views death in general.

Naturally, Most Beings Care Little About Most Deaths

It seems plausible to say that, in most animal species, individuals do not care the least about the death of unrelated individuals within their own species. And we should not be too starry-eyed about humans in this regard either, as it is not clear that we humans, historically, have cared much for people whom we did not view as belonging to our in-group, as the cruelties of history, as well as modern-day tribalism, testify. Only in recent times, it seems, have we in some parts of the world made all of humanity our in-group. Not all sentient beings, sadly, but not merely our own family or ethnic group either, fortunately.

So, both looking at other species, as well as across human history, we see that there appears to be a wide variety of views and intuitions about different kinds of deaths, and how “problematic” or harmful they are. Yet one regard in which there is much less disagreement is when it comes to “the human view of death”. Or more precisely: the natural moral intuitions humans have with respect to the death of someone in the in-group. And I would suspect this particular view to strongly influence — and indeed be the main template for — any human attempt to carve out a well-reasoned and general view of the moral status of death (of any morally relevant being). If this is true, it would seem relevant to zoom in on how we humans naturally view such an in-group death, and why.

The Human View of an In-group Death

So what is the human view of the death of someone belonging to our own group? In short: that it is tragic and something worth avoiding at great costs. And if we take our evolutionary glasses on, it seems easy to make sense of why we would be naturally inclined to think this: for most of our evolutionary history, we humans have lived in groups in which individuals collaborated in ways that benefitted the entire group.

In other words, the ability of any given human individual to survive and reproduce has depended significantly on the efforts of fellow group members, which means that the death of such a fellow group member would be very costly, in biological terms, to other individuals in that group. Something that is worth investing a lot to prevent for these other individuals. Something evolution would not allow them to be indifferent about in the least, much less happy about.

This may help resolve some puzzles. For example, many of us claim to hold a purely sentiocentric ethical view according to which consciousness is the sole currency of moral value: the presence and absence of consciousness, as well as its character, is what matters. Yet most people who claim to hold such a view, including myself, nonetheless tend to view dreamless sleep and death very differently, although both ultimately amount to an absence of conscious experience just the same. If the duration of the conscious experience of someone we care about is reduced by an early death, we consider this tragic. Yet if the duration of their conscious experience is instead reduced by dreamless sleep, we do not, for the most part, consider this tragic at all. On the contrary, we might even be quite pleased about it. We wish sound, deep sleep for our friends and family, and often view such sleep as something that is well-deserved and of great value.

On the view that the presence and absence of consciousness, as well as the quality of this consciousness, is all that matters, this evaluation makes little sense (provided we keep other things equal in our thought experiment: the quality of the conscious life is, when it is present, the same whether its duration is reduced by sleep or early death). Yet from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense why we would not only evaluate these two things differently, but indeed in completely opposite ways. For if a fellow group member is sleeping, then this is good for the rest of the group, as sleep is generally an investment that improves a person’s contribution to the group. Yet if the person is dead, they will no longer be able to contribute to the group. And if they are family, they will no longer be able to propagate the genes of the family. From a biological perspective, this is very sad.

(The hypothesis sketched out above — that our finding the death of an in-group member sad and worth avoiding at great costs is in large part due to their contribution to the success of our group, and ultimately our genes — would seem to yield a prediction: we should find the death of a young person who is able to contribute a lot to the group significantly more sad and worth avoiding compared to the death of an old person who is not able to contribute. And this is even more true if the person is also a relative, since the young person would have the potential to spread family genes, whereas a sufficiently old person would not.)


So what follows in light of these considerations about our “natural” view of the death of an in-group member? I would be hesitant to draw strong conclusions from such considerations alone. Yet it seems to me that they do, at the very least, give us reason to be skeptical with respect to our immediate moral intuitions about death (indeed, I would argue that we should be skeptical of our immediate moral intuitions in general). With respect to the great asymmetry in our evaluation of the ethical status of dreamless sleep versus death, two main responses seem available if one is seeking to make a pure sentiocentric position consistent (to take that fairly popular ethical view as an example).

Either one can view conscious life reduced by sleep as being significantly more bad, intrinsically, than what we intuitively evaluate it to be (classical utilitarians may choose to adopt this view, which could, in practice, imply that one should work on a cure for sleep, or at least to reduce sleep in a way that keeps quality of life intact). Or, one can view conscious life reduced by an early death as being significantly less bad, again intrinsically, than our moral intuitions hold. (One can, of course, also opt for a middleroad that maintains that we both intuitively underestimate the intrinsic badness of sleep while overestimating the intrinsic badness of death, and that we should bring our respective evaluations of these two together to meet somewhere in the middle.)

I favor the latter view: that we strongly overestimate the intrinsic badness of death, which is, of course, an extremely unpalatable view to our natural intuitions, including my own. Yet it must also be emphasized that the word “intrinsically” is extremely important here. For I would indeed argue that death is bad, and that we should generally view it as such. But I believe this badness is extrinsic rather than intrinsic: because death generally has bad consequences for sentient beings, including that the process of dying itself tends to involve a lot of suffering (where I would view this suffering as intrinsically bad, yet not the end of the life per se). And furthermore, I would argue that we should consider death a bad and harmful thing (as I indeed do) not just because this belief is accurate, but also because not doing so has bad consequences as well.

An Ethic of Survival

With respect to ethics and death, I recently encountered an interesting perspective in an exchange with Robert Daoust. He suggested, as I understood him, that the fundamental debate in ethics is ultimately one between an ethic of survival on the one hand, and an ethic of concern for sentience on the other. And he further noted that, even when we sincerely believe that we subscribe to the latter, we often in fact do support the survivalist ethic, for strong evolutionary reasons. A view according to which, even if life is significantly dominated by suffering, survival should still be our highest goal.

I find this view of Daoust’s interesting, and I certainly recognize strong survivalist intuitions in myself, even as I claim to hold, and publicly defend, values focused primarily on the reduction of suffering. And one can reasonably wonder what the considerations surveyed above, as well as similar considerations about the priorities and motives that evolution has naturally instilled in us, imply for our evaluation of such a (perhaps tacitly shared) survivalist ethic?

I would tentatively suggest that they imply we should view this survivalist ethic with skepticism. We should expect evolution to have given us a strong urge for survival at virtually any cost, and to view survival, if not of our own individual bodies then at least of our own group and bloodline, as being intrinsically important; arguably even the most important thing of all. Yet I would argue that this is an implausible ethical view. Specifically, to accept continued survival at virtually any cost, including the cost of increasing the net amount of extreme suffering in the world, is, I would argue, highly implausible. Beyond that, one can argue that we, for evolutionary reasons, also wildly overestimate the ethical badness of an empty world, and grossly misjudge the value of the absence of sentience. Indeed, on a pure sentiocentric view, such an absence is just as good as deep, dreamless sleep. And what is so bad about that?

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