Is Kant Compatible With Evolution?

9 01 2009

I don’t reckon it is. Specifically, his moral theory and the infamous categorical imperative. Here’s why.

Any individual who strictly adheres to Kant’s moral theory would be at a selective disadvantage to one who didn’t. Or, if you’re fond of group selection (or multi-level selection, or whatever supra-individual selection), any group that strictly adheres to Kant’s moral theory would be at a selective disadvantage to a group that didn’t.

This means that over multiple generations, Kant’s moral theory – regardless of whether it’s inherited via genes or memes – would eventually give way to another moral system that lent a greater selective advantage.

Game theory can be used to demonstrate this point. The only way to apply the categorical imperative to a game like the prisoner’s dilemma is think of the imperative as a general strategy, such as:

Choose only a strategy which, if you could will it to be chosen by all the players, would yield a better outcome from your point of view than any other.

This would result in you always choosing to cooperate. And as we know from the many iterated prisoner’s dilemma experiments, a Nice strategy like this gets thoroughly trounced by Nasty, or even more balanced strategies like Tit for Tat. So, should the Prisoner’s Dilemma (or other games) reflect reality and your chances of survival, then choosing a Kantian morality puts you at a significant selective disadvantage.

This can also be called the Fallacy of Enlightenment – a fallacy that I reckon riddles much of moral philosophy from the last two and half thousand years. It goes a little something like this: ‘if everyone was just nice to each other, we wouldn’t need laws.’

While this statement is true, it’s a terrible basis for a moral system. For such a system would be vulnerable to those individuals who weren’t nice, who could exploit the nice ones for their own advantage. And the world is a Nasty place; give an inch, and natural selection will make it a mile. So, no moral system that can be paraphrased as the Fallacy of Enlightenment – such as Kant’s – is compatible with evolution.

So let’s stop talking about moral theories that would be eliminated by natural selection in a handful of generations as if they were fair game. From here on in, if a moral system lends a selective disadvantage, let’s treat it as a test tube case, not as a viable real world option.




One response

12 04 2018
Nicholas Dunbar

Amazingly straightforward. Bravo! So simply put, I have a hard time believing it. Yet I find it very compelling. It gets at why it is so hard to find a local optimum. We optimize for survival and reduction of suffering in the group and we end up with tyrannical utilitarianism and organ lotteries. We optimize for the individual and we end up with some sort of runaway neoliberalism.

In the interest of crawling all over this question here is another less simple way to make the point. I would love to hear if you find any errors in the reasoning below:

Is Kant’s categorical imperative akin to a Platonic ideal?
It is my understanding that Kant believes that through reason we can find moral absolutes but we cannot prove things like the existence of God. The story is that he “awakens from his dogmatic slumber” and rejects rationalism but then goes and invents another rationalist system in his ethics. Where the good comes from the will and by reason discovers these categorical imperatives from which one can do ethical reasoning to “prove” something is good or bad. Isn’t that ultimately a rationalist stance that relies on the idea of some sort of set of moral platonic objects? i.e. through the mind and only the mind can one access the ideal.

Is Darwinian evolution incompatible with Platonism?
As I understand it Darwinian evolution is based on the concept of fitness which is based on the environment the organism is living. That this makes such a system a dancing landscape with no optimal ideal upon which it will converge. More procreation doesn’t necessarily mean more fitness nor does more ability to kill your enemies because you can whip out your food supply. Even not immortality can be considered to be an optimal ability because then you don’t get evolution at all and you loose adaptation. There are evolutionary stable traits but within a fixed context.

Is Kant’s categorical imperative incompatible with Darwinian evolution?
Though Kant would have probably found deriving morality from evolution as distasteful for what it yields we could apply his theory to evolution. The will tells us fitness in such a situation is good and it does indeed appear that this thing would be good in all situation because it allows you to survive and be fit in an evolutionarily stable way. But we know by the modern formulation of evolution that if the environment changes then that thing isn’t universally good for the organism. If Kant is using some sort of ideal form for the good and Darwinian evolution does not have such a stable ideal form then wouldn’t that make the two ideas incompatible?

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