Moral Evolution / Identity Politics

Howie Chodos howie at
Thu Aug 10 10:00:19 MDT 1995

This is a post which straddles two threads, hence the new, and possibly
incoherent, subject line. I wanted to respond to one aspect of Lisa's most
recent installment of our discussion of evolutionary theory. In thinking
about my reply it occurred to me that there was a way to link it up to the
thread on identity politics. I hope this makes sense.

First to Lisa's post. The issue I want to deal with is that of how to pose
the question of the relationship between human evolution and moral concerns.
At one point in her post Lisa suggests (wrongly, I think) that I posed the
question of human evolution badly. She wrote:

>I'm sure that many people, think of hominid evolution in terms of
>"when and how did our ancestors become human", but it's a bad
>question; one of the problems with that is that it presumes to
>already have a definition of "human" in mind.

In a previous post, I had written that answering the question of "when and
how did our ancestors become human" would tell us something about what it
means to be human. In other words, a scientific investigation of the
processes by which hominids evolved over a very long period of time into
humans will help us understand those special features which distringuish us
from our ancestors. All I am assuming is that there is *something* that so
distinguishes us, not what that something might be. I think this is just the
opposite approach to the one of assuming what is to be proved that Lisa
(rightly) rejects.

But I fear that Lisa herself has not avoided the pitfall that she suggests I
have fallen into. At the end of her post she writes:

>If I were to speculate on origins of morality/moral capacity in light
>of evolution, I would probably ask questions like: how could one's
>fitness benefit from one making moral claims or holding beliefs about
>morality or promoting notions of morality?  because that is how
>Darwinian selection works.

Basically she is asking "how does morality affect fitness"? This, to me,
places the category of "fitness" in a pre-eminent position. It accords it
primacy, and seeks to explain moral concerns as a function of their ability
to promote fitness. To do this is to assume that morality is somehow less
important than fitness in explaining human social evolution. The point that
I have been struggling to make is precisely that this is an erroneous
assumption. Moral questions have sufficient weight (are therefore
sufficiently material) in human societies that they can decide questions of
individual or group survival on their own.

People are willing to die for causes that they deem moral. This is
independent of the content of any particular moral code. We can agree or
disagree with a religious fundamentalism that encourages martyrdom but it is
clear that it selects for types of behaviour according to its own criteria.
It is this selective property of social structures of all kinds that
establishes a useful ground for analogies with Darwinian selection. That is
why I think it is important to pursue these issues, while noting that there
are elements which enter into processes of social and cultural selection
which are different from natural selection.

Marxism, as I understand it, seeks to explain these moral codes (in part at
least) in terms of their (complex) relationship to class divisions in
society, so that the selection of which moral codes predominate in any given
society is seen to be influenced by struggles over the distribution of
wealth and power within those societies. People live their lives according
to some moral code, but this moral code is not an abstraction cut of from
the other aspects of social relations.

Now, to make a tentative leap over to the question of identity politics. The
issue tying the two threads together is the question of assigning inherent
(a priori) primacy to one factor over all others in some decisive aspect of
one's analysis. I think that it is fair to say that the dominant tradition
within Marxism has always accorded primacy to class. This is not a straw
argument. It is not to say that because they defended the notion of class
primacy Marxists have completely ignored or even totally subordinated all
other issues. That is in itself a straw response. For example, though, no
matter what one thinks of their respective views, Lenin and Rosa Luxemberg
have to be ranked as key figures in the Marxist tradition. And, despite
their many disagreements, they were both committed to a strong notion of the
primacy of class (chapter and verse available on request). In fact, the
predominance of class primacy within the Marxist tradition is highlighted by
the fact that they could agree on it, despite disagreeing on other crucial
issues such as party democracy and the right of nations to self-determination.

Any argument which sees class as *necessarily* more important in an
analytical, explanatory or causal sense, is an argument for class primacy.
To *assume* such a primacy is to commit the same error that both Lisa and I
are concerned to avoid (though we differ on which of us is actually guilty
if commiting it), namely assuming what is to be proved. I think that many
Marxist analyses of class and of capitalism in general retain their vitality
because they illuminate the workings of societies where class is an
important, and often the pre-eminent, variable. I do not think, however that
the validity of these insights warrants their being cast as eternal and
immutable truths. If class is predominant it must be shown to be so, and it
must be demonstrated under what conditions it is primary. Basically, I would
argue that, even under capitalism, this is a function of circumstances in
which contingent and historical factors have an important role to play.

Howie Chodos

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