Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sociobiology and Ethics - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2
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Sociobiology and Ethics - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Sociobiology and Ethics
“Evolution and Ethics.” The Personalist 59 (1978): 58–69.
Reflecting on the relationship between evolutionary biology and moral philosophy, Oldenquist confronts the position that “Rightly or wrongly, it is difficult to resist thinking that while the hypotheses of social scientists might be useful to educators, social revolutionaries and others who are in the business of altering moral beliefs, the causal explanations proposed by evolutionary biologists are the deeper and more ultimate ones.”
First, the author explores the straightforward idea of whether altruism (or helping behavior) or egoism (crude selfishness) is more functional. He argues that “The selective superiority of reciprocal altruism over both promiscuous altruism and total selfishness presupposes that the animals involved are intelligent enough to remember who helped them and who didn't. And it requires that the group be small enough for individuals to meet each other again fairly often.”
Second, the program of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson is appealing because it rejects T. H. Huxley's dichotomization of the selfishness of our biological nature and the altruism of our nobler human nature. Wilson's program rightly proceeds on “a conviction that Man is part of nature.” Wilson claims that “we are conscious and our genes make us value the behavior they make us emit.” Not only do our genes explain our behavior, but our genes also account for our reflection and our behavior. Thus, if “altruism was selected for in humans,” then we will be inclined toward an altruistic ethical theory.
Also, this view would seem to favor the ethical theory of Charles Stevenson, that is, emotivism, in which “moral beliefs are not propositional items but instead are identical with supportive dispositions. . . .” A close bond may link “the causes of behavior and the causes of our feelings and attitudes.”
Thirdly, we may dismiss the nature/nurture dichotomy as too simplistic. By Wilson's account “ultimate moral attitudes are the joint product of genes and environment.” Of course, “this determinism. . . invites the usual arguments for ethical relativism; for whenever one claims that some set of causes external to our thoughts produces our basic values the reasons and justifications we give for them look like mere rationalizations.” What upsets political thinkers about sociobiology is that a biological account for values leaves the social engineer with little to manipulate. “Social reformers can tinker with society and thus change people's values, but they cannot (now) change people's values by tinkering with their genes.”
Fourth, evolution itself is not strictly a biological notion, so contrary to wide-spread belief, sociobiology may leave more room for play and diversity and lifestyles. It seems that “selection and evolution which is cultural or ‘Spencerian’ does not fit into the sociobiologist's program because it is not biological. Once acquired traits get transmitted, it would appear that genes and the population biology based on the study of genes can no longer explain what happens.”
Sociobiology and Edward O. Wilson, proclaim bold things at first but then retreat. It seems much of what is normatively relevant is not “innate” and has “wholly non-genetic causal differentia.” So, “if some behaviors expressive of values were selected for in a way that involves only cultural, nongenetic evolution, the task of tracing their origin will belong more to the intellectual historian than to the Darwinian geneticist: here we shall do better reading William Lecky than reading Wilson.”