ethics are an incredibly straightforward biological phenomenon. and yet, virtually no one understands what “ethics” means. this includes the vast majority of so-called moral philosophers. i want to take particular aim here at the effective altruism community (one of the worst offenders being william macaskill), specifically their arguments in favor of charitable giving.

when i say that ethics is a biological phenomenon, i mean that it is simply the study of how biological organisms behave. we should add the provisio that ethics is about behavior specifically with regard to the impacts on others. (virtually no one thinks your decision to inflict pain on yourself is an ethical issue.)

why does a bird choose to sit on its egg? why do many organisms such as stags and rams engage in dominance contests rather than fighting to the death? why do we instinctively launch forward to help someone having a medical emergency? these are simply biological phenomena, which we seek to understand in the same way we’d seek to understand why moths are attracted to light, or why birds instinctively migrate, or why we like sugar.

the “is-ought fallacy” fallacy

a common response to this framing, by adherents of normative ethics, is that it exemplifies the is-ought fallacy; it describes how organisms—generally humans—do behave, not how they ought to behave. i will assert the view of ethical naturalists that the term “ought” is simply a shorthand for an equivalent goal-based statement, which may be objectively verified or refuted: “in order for agent a to achieve goal b, a reasonably ought to do c.” or put more simply, “doing c is an effective strategy to achieve b”.

for example, alice tells bob that she wants to get into princeton. bob tells her that she ought to hire a tutor to get her GPA up and help her study for her SAT. while it may be hard to predict whether hiring a tutor will actually help alice get into princeton, this assertion is objectively either true or false. the tutor will either help or it won’t. likewise, when one asserts that murderers ought to get the death penalty, this is effectively just a shorthand for a factual statement, such as: “i would be happier if murderers were to receive the death penalty”, or, “murder rates would decrease if we sentenced all convicted murderers to death”.

every “ought” statement fundamentally relies on a subjective preference, or goal statement.

selfish genes

having inoculated us from a tangent into the zany world of normative ethics, let’s return to the biological phenomenon at hand.

around four billion years ago, there emerged replicators. we don’t know their exact chemical makeup, but these structures made copies of themselves. over time, through the process of random mutation, the structures evolved incredible diversity, stored in genetic segments we casually refer to as genes. (a more precise description would differentiate genes from alleles but this isn’t central to the argument.)

as the biologist richard dawkins brilliantly articulated in his book the selfish gene, all genes exist in proportion to their propensity to get themselves copied. thus genes behave as if their goal were to maximize the expected number of copies of themselves in existence.

a gene for poor eyesight or a bad heart tends to be weeded out of the gene pool. a gene which tells its avian host to sit on an egg which happens to be in its nest will tend to increase its own number, by helping a copy of itself within said egg. while such behavior might appear to be altruistic when viewed from the point of view of the parent—who is devoting valuable time and resources to his offspring rather to to himself—it is imminently selfish when viewed from the perspective of the gene. the gene isn’t helping someone else—it’s helping itself. after all, another copy of that same gene is chemically indistinguishable.

it’s worth noting that organisms develop a reputation with others they repeatedly come in contact with, and thus another form of “pseudo-altruism” comes about from what is known as reciprocal altruism. this is merely to say that you generally won’t want to steal from a merchant you’re like to come in contact with again, as he’ll stop dealing with you. likewise, if we don’t steal from our employer if we’d like to show up to work tomorrow and continue to collect a paycheck. this has the superficial appearance of ethical behavior, but it is fundamentally selfish.

so why then do we so often help people with whom we’ll never again come into contact? consider this account of the common cuckoo bird.

The common cuckoo is an obligate brood parasite; it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. Hatched cuckoo chicks may push out host eggs out of the nest or be raised alongside the host’s chicks. A female may visit up to 50 nests during a breeding season.

this is a form of exploitation. the victim is a bird which contains a gene that says, “if there is an egg in your nest, lay on it and protect it”. this gene is positively selected for, because it usually helps another copy of itself within that egg being cared for. but should that egg actually come from a different species—such as a cuckoo—it might not even contain that egg caring gene (albeit it likely contains different genes which have the same general effect, for obvious reasons).

likewise, the gene pool contains many genes which were historically selected for due to their facilitating reciprocal altruism within the small groups our ancestors inhabited, in which we’d typically come into contact with the same people over and over again. thus we may feel irrationally drawn to help someone stranded on the side of the road with car trouble, even though we’ll likely never see that person again. this is ephemeral. modern large scale society is a very new thing, biologically speaking, and we should expect this kind of altruism to be strongly selected against over time.

maximizing expected utility

the interesting thing about natural selection is that it causes genes to act so as to maximize the expected number of copies of themselves they leave behind. this produces a behavior known as utilitarianism. organisms generally act in a probabilistic way.

we see this when people typically choose a guarantee of receiving 1 million dollars over a 50/50 shot at winning 3 million dollars. while the latter has a much higher expected value—1.5 million vs 1 million—the former has a must higher expected utility, due to the decreasing marginal utility of wealth. put simply, a woman cannot have a baby in 4.5 months by eating twice as much food. (we often see this phenomenon discussed in the literature under a rather confused framing of “risk aversion”.)

repugnant utility monsters

two of the classic arguments against utilitarianism are the utility monster and repugnant conclusion (aka “mere addition paradox”). the utility monster thought experiment applies to the maximization of average utility. the idea is that if we succumb to a policy paradigm of maximizing average utility, then we would effectively make a dictator out of a theoretical “utility monster” whose utility for his ideal outcome is so large as to trump an arbitrarily negative outcome for the rest of society. whereas the repugnant conclusion says that if try to maximize total rather than average utility, that forces us to want to fill the universe up with as many people as possible, even if they have only a minimally positive utility.

avoiding paradoxes

the selfish-gene-centered view of utilitarianism avoids any such paradoxes. any particular gene rationally “prefers” to optimize the welfare of the smallest possible set of entities—ideally having itself as a dictator. a utilitarian democracy comprised of humans is thus the game theoretical equilibrium: the smallest set of entities who can optimize the state of the world to their advantage, primarily via laws.

the utility monster isn’t a problem in this context, because for a given gene, it may be the utility monster, given it is behind a veil of ignorance. the repugnant conclusion is avoided, because there’s nothing inexplicable about a group of genes (“people”) wanting to maximize the number of copies of themselves in existence—so long as none of them are getting any relative disadvantage vs any others.


given all this, it might sound like i’m advocating a world of psychopaths who run around slaughtering each other in the streets. but of course that’s wrong, for the same reason we see non-lethal dominance contests in the animal kingdom. a prohibition on murder may benefit the other humans i’m in competition with, but it also helps me and all the genes i contain. we exist behind a veil of ignorance because we don’t know a priori which of us might be the victim of crime, or to develop cancer, etc. we have a selfish interest in a safe well functioning society.

hot button issues

this “selfish group” utilitarianism can be useful in evaluating ethical quandaries like animal welfare and abortion. since animals and children (especially those not born yet) can’t overpower us, we don’t have to take their interests into account. thus we rationally don’t want laws against animal cruelty or abortion.

i say this as an ethical vegan who cares deeply about animal welfare, due to the irrational activity of genes for altruism, that cause me to bristle at the thought of animals being needlessly abused, or children in faraway countries being killed via starvation, disease, or warfare. nevertheless, i’m a hypocrite, because i’m not advocating for the universe to be filled up with animals or children. i’m an advocate for spaying an neutering pets, and for widely available contraceptives. therefore i cannot rationally argue against living organisms being vaporized. evolution has endowed us with ethical instincts which produce inconsistent and contradictory behaviors. but in order to optimize our laws, we must strive to make them internally consistent.


altruism isn’t about “doing good”. it’s about selfish genes getting themselves copied. so while it is perfectly rational for most people to vote in support of a social safety net (for those of us who will be net beneficiaries of it), it is irrational for us to donate money to charities that don’t directly benefit us. we only want to be generous with other people’s money.

while the effective altruism movement is right that what money we give ought to be targeted for efficiency, they’re wrong to support the idea of charity in the first place. and this is especially true of “longtermist” charities which explicitly don’t benefit people alive today.



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Clay Shentrup

advocate of score voting and approval voting. software engineer.