Evolutionary Ethics has been a topic of discussion ever since there has been discussion about evolution. In the early 20th century Eugenics was seriously studied at universities. Eugenics is the practice of controlled human breeding for evolutionary purposes. It was believed that if you took the most successful, intelligent and affluent people and coupled them, their children would have their positive characteristics. Some believed that it would take only a few generations to breed a perfected human race. The dark side of this involved forced sterility on criminals and poverty stricken individuals so that their inferior traits would not be passed on.
This type of thinking in regards to creating a perfect human race took its most despicable form in the Third Reich of World War II. After the horror of the Nazi war crimes became common knowledge Eugenics research was quietly shut down in any respectable university. Carnegie Mellon was one large American University that had a fully funded Eugenics Department. This is perhaps of little surprise as Eugenics was very popular among the socially and financial elite of America in the early 20th century. Presumably they could afford to be, as they were likely to be those whose genes were considered worthy of preservation and would probably also be the ones making that decision.
So Evolutionary Ethics has a bad reputation, but does that mean that there isn’t an evolutionarily based ethics that is needed now? I would say that the reality of the evolutionary nature of our universe is a discovery of such mammoth proportion that it demands a redefinition of ethics. Ethics after all is the philosophy of how to live and the transition from a static universe to an evolutionary universe must necessitate a new way of life.
One way I can see that this needs to happen is in regard to our conditioned relationship to feeling. How do we tell what is right and wrong, good or bad. Don’t we more often than not judge these things based on how we feel? Sure, we can logically try to figure out what is right or wrong, we can deduce good and bad, but in the end we more often than not “go with our gut.” And I would postulate that our gut has been largely conditioned by a static conception of the universe. In other words the way we “feel” about what is right and what is wrong is based on a static model of reality.
If we live in a static universe then “change” feels “bad.” If things are supposed to remain fixed then any time we feel things changing we instinctively feel fear. Isn’t that what happens? When things start to change don’t you get uneasy, don’t your alarm bells start to ring? We are conditioned to fear change because as far as human beings knew for tens of thousands of years the universe was fundamentally static and unchanging and so when change happened it felt like the ground was shaking under your feet.
Now in an evolutionary universe things are supposed to change. Think of it like traveling in a train, if it comes to a halt in the middle of the tracks you start to get uneasy because something must be wrong, because the train is “supposed” to be moving. An evolutionary universe is also supposed to be moving. Maybe we need to develop this kind of sensibility to our own experience of change. Perhaps when our own attitudes start to change, or the people around us start to change, or things in the world start to change, rather than experiencing that as fearful, we need to relate to it as the thrilling experience of evolution. Evolving “feels” like something, and we need to learn to enjoy that feeling so that we won’t automatically recoil from the possibility for evolution and change in our own lives.