Innately Altruistic?

How evolutionary theory can inform our (parental) ethics

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

This Story is Part 4 in an ongoing series guided by the question: how can I be an ethical parent in an unethical world? Each Story puts this question through a different ethical framework from contemporary moral philosophy and looks to see what insights may emerge. Click here to get oriented with Part 1, or here to catch up on Part 2, or here for Part 3.

While the theories I’ve applied in the previous Stories in this series have had their problems, I’ve found they could nonetheless be useful. This week, though, I encountered a moral theory I was tempted to throw out completely.

Peter Singer’s work, at least as it manifests in The Expanding Circle, leaves a particularly bad taste in my mouth, largely for its emphasis on Reason as the salvation of humanity from its purported genetic propensity for selfishness. Reason, Singer argues, can help homo sapiens codify and extend evolutionary kin altruism (i.e. the supposed innately biological impulse to care for our kin) to widen our circle of care to include more and more seemingly distant beings. For Singer, the circle expands outward from the individual, to the family, to the community, the nation, and even to other species, assuming we use Reason to do so.

My issues with this are many, not the least of which is skepticism about the efficacy of Reason alone given the highly “rational” evils that have transpired in our history. More insidious, though, is that this case for codifying the common good does not take into account that “good” looks different for different bodies and beings. While there is evolutionary evidence to suggest that animals tend to seek to preserve their own genetic code, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is not always their primary drive, or that we cannot understand with our current tools exactly how this drive is presenting itself.

And yet, I want to believe all ethical frameworks can teach us something, and I believe Singer’s reminders of the power of evolutionary kin altruism and Reason to enact the Good can be useful tools in moving toward an ethical parenting orientation. This takes shape for me in two ways:

  1. What if it’s in our nature to care for others?
    If this is the case, we might see our own capacity for care differently, sure, but more importantly, we might see our children differently. What happens to our treatment of our children when we believe they are innately caring, instead of innately selfish? What if we thought our children were destined genetically and evolutionarily to be kind, good people? Would this not let us ease up a bit on the discipline and punishment and moral lecturing and help us just be with them? This wouldn’t mean we entirely take our hands off of the situation, but that rather than emphasizing the original sin of our children, we could shine a light on their innate goodness instead.
  2. What if Reason can help us surpass our reactivity?
    Similarly to the previous point, if it’s in our nature to have the capacity for reason, this might mean we are even more able than we think to pause before we react. It is my desire in life more generally, but especially as a parent, to occupy a state of responsiveness, rather than reactivity. Reason, or something like it, it seems, might be able to help me do that. Now, I’m still skeptical of the word “Reason” and all the connotations it brings (e.g. that Emotion is somehow less valid, that animals are less intelligent than humans, etc.), but we might find greater utility in the concept if we think of Reason more as reflection, or mindfulness. If we can slow down, pause, and reflect on what impulses are guiding us, then, perhaps, we might be able to more ethically choose which impulse to follow.

Singer’s stories can be helpful tools, but they are stories, and they don’t tell the whole story. As far as I can see, there’s always more to tell, especially when it comes to parenting.

Stay tuned for Part 5 in the series.