Sunday, 4 May 2014

Rawls and Evolution

If having moral value means having a vote (or "say") behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, and whether an individual in this position is given a vote is decided (at least partly) on his being an eventual human being, how does the "ideal society", envisioned behind the veil, change with evolution, as species separate from one another? Following Richard Dawkins' chapter on punctuationism in his book The Blind Watchmaker, suppose certain mice somehow cross a mountain range. The mountains then separate them from the rest of their population, causing them, eventually, to evolve into different species.
Perhaps one species will evolve superior intellects, language, the ability to use tools and machinery, and even develop science (they could also lose abilities, of course). At some point, they will be unable to mix their genetic material with the mice on the other side of the mountain range. What does the Rawlsian analysis suggest be done in this situation? Should the superior mice get more votes per individual, because they are (presumably) the better interpreters of sound moral thinking? How would the mice vote (or otherwise decide) in the last generation before separation, not knowing on which side of the mountains they would be born? Should they have ordered certain marriages to occur (commanding one group of mice to cross the mountain range to enable them) so that the species remains intact? Or should they have voted for free marriages on the proviso that the inferior species be treated well by the superior one?
In thinking along this line, it seems as though one is compelled to go back to the Ur-ancestor. Nobody knows how atoms got together to form life, but they must have done so (divine intervention is the only other explanation I can think of for the first appearance of life, but it is not a more satisfying explanation because many questions remain about the nature of God and it won't change the flavour of this blog post). For just one such life form, the problem of voting does not arise, but for the first two life forms it does.
What comes out of this reasoning, in which the Rawlsian veil of ignorance and evolutionary theory are both treated with the seriousness they deserve (which is a great deal of seriousness; I might have some problems with Rawlsian thought, but his idea is one of beauty and is extremely hard to dismiss), is that either we owe a great deal to (all) other life forms in terms of how we assign moral value, or we should mix our genetic material in ways such that the number of species on Earth and the differences between them be minimized - or that the well-being of the least well-endowed species be maximized. I would be hard-pressed to muster plausible arguments for either view. Are there any third views which are more easily defended?
Rawls has been criticized for his geographic limit on the moral population. Those within a nation get to vote on how society is to work within that nation's borders. No-one else. This is a completely arbitrary restriction (and quite reprehensible in my view; if one is to agree with very many strangers on something, why exclude some based on where they will be born?), but if one accepts it, maybe it could make his moral theory and evolution go better together?
If the only rationale for the generation of new species is geographic separation, the possibility that some members of society move away and evolve is still something that could be taken into account in the decision of which rules society should have, but given how slowly evolution moves (except in the completely discredited saltationist kind), perhaps one should not expect this concern to be significant. I am no expert on evolutionary biology, but I believe the jury is still out on whether geographic separation is the only factor which could generate new species. There could conceivably also be taste-based factors which trigger the formation of new species, but I don't know how well this view is received among biologists.

For instance, suppose half of all females have tastes such that a man with a four-inch nose is their ideal partner; the other half like a half-inch nose. Any living male with a nose of length less than two inches and a quarter will be favoured by the latter half of females. Remaining men will be favoured by the former kind (I assume here that women choose their partner, men basically just say yes). If length of nose and taste for it are both dominant genes, the resultant offspring will choose among their group of similarly-nosed individuals, and have offspring reinforcing polarizing attributes. This view of evolution is problematic. Even if intermingling of genes does not occur, the resultant two species will compete for (many of) the same resources and most biologists believe that one species will then die out (but they could of course decide to share resources behind the veil of ignorance!). However, this view is, I think, theoretically possible - and geography plays no part in it.

I don't know how evolution may progress near the point at which life first occurred, but if species separate more quickly at this time, that is an additional reason for geography to become less relevant a restriction.

The foregoing three paragraphs are mostly just unnecessary digressions. For a moral theory to claim validity (a supremely difficult thing to do), its principles must be applicable everywhere without absurdities. Getting rid of the geographic restriction seems to me to break the levee for such absurdities to come flowing in. Deciding what kind of society to live in must be affected by uncertainty about whether one is born into the donkey or the horse beeline. Compensation in the form of special rights to inferior species, or rules regarding whom one may marry, seem the natural consequences. Now I wonder the following: What reason is there to think that the Rawlsian veil of ignorance should be immune to these problems posed by evolution?

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