Jacques Monod’s Ethics of Knowledge

Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod concludes his seminal essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology, Chance and Necessity (1970), with a chapter of reflections on evolution, the place of man in nature, culture, ideas, and the nature of morality. He writes:

During entire aeons a man’s lot was identical with that of the group, of the tribe he belonged to and outside of which he could not survive. The tribe, for its part, was able to survive and defend itself only through its cohesion…This evolution most not only have facilitated acceptance of tribal law, but created the need for mythical  explanation which gave it foundation and sovereignty. We are the descendants of such man. From them we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. The same disquiet that has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself.

He then goes on to explain how religions, philosophical systems, and ideologies (such as Marxism) that see nature or history unfolding according to a higher plan can be traced back to this innate disposition to look for Meaning. And while science, and the associated postulate of objectivity, has gradually replaced those myths and beliefs, most of our contemporary thinking about values still reflects this kind of animism:

No society before ours was ever rent by contradictions so agonizing. In both primitive and classical cultures the animist tradition saw knowledge and values stemming from the same source. For the first time in history a civilization is trying to shape itself while clinging desperately to the animist tradition to justify its values, and at the same time abandoning it as the source of knowledge, of truth. For their moral bases the “liberal” societies of the West still teach – or pay lip-service to- a disgusting farrago of of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the “natural” rights of man, and utilitarian pragmatism…All the traditional systems have placed ethics and values beyond man’s reach. Values did not belong to him; he belonged to them.

Obviously, this perspective on the futile attempts to ground values in something beyond man (beyond practical reason one might say) raises the question of “who shall decide what is good and evil.” Monod clearly struggles with this question because he does not want to admit that “objective truth and the theory of values constitute eternally separate, mutually impenetrable domains.” His answer, however, may strike contemporary readers as something of a cop-out when he tries that argue that the pursuit of science itself implies an ethical postulate:

True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it cannot be grounded elsewhere than upon a value judgment, or rather upon an axiomatic value. It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at from knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. Thus, assenting to the principle of objectivity one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge. Hence it is from the ethical choice of a primary value that knowledge starts.

This attempt to derive (or distill) universal normative claims from an activity or pursuit itself is not unique in ethics. Some have tried to derive morals and rights from the nature of human agency (Alan Gewirth), the activity of argumentation (Hans-Herman Hoppe) and so forth (one might argue that there are even traces of such an approach in Jasay’s argument for the presumption of liberty). Either such attempts produce trivial conclusions or are stretched beyond credibility to make them do a lot more work than they are capable of, such as deriving specific socio-economic norms concerning welfare rights or absolute property rights. At the end of the day, these writers fail to recognize the fact that morality is an emergent property of social interaction in nature (that is to say, morality is conventional) and attempts to “justify” moral rules is as futile as trying to “justify” the laws of physics (although one might argue that certain “strategic” advantages can accrue to those who are successful in persuading others of such moral “truths”).

Monod’s ‘ethics of knowledge’ is simply “justified” by pragmatic advantages (a similar thing might be said about accepting the principle of causality – as has been proposed by the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach). Such a pragmatic explanation for the pursuit of knowledge (and the emergence of values) places morality in the realm of individual practical reason and evolution, where serious philosophers, economists, and biologist have been making efforts to understand it.

In his introduction to the 1997 Penquin edition of Chance and Necessity, the evolutionary biologist and geneticist John Maynard Smith, briefly alludes to Monod’s rather clumsy (and dated) attempt to link his ethics of knowledge to scientific socialism in the final pages of the book, which only shows how vacuous the ethics of knowledge is for deciding moral and socio-economic questions.

A more specific concern for Monod is the end of natural selection and degeneration in man:

To the extent that selection is still operative in our midst, it does not favor the “survival of the fittest” – that is to say, in more modern terms, the genetic survival of the “fittest” through a more numerous progeny. Intelligence, ambition, courage, and imagination, are still factors in modern societies, to be sure, but of personal, not genetic success, the only kind that matters for evolution. No, the situation is the reverse: statistics, as everybody knows, show a negative correlation between the intelligence quotient (or cultural level) and the average number of children per couple…A dangerous situation, this, which could gradually edge the highest genetic potential toward concentration within an elite, a shrinking elite in relative numbers.

This is not all. Until not so very long ago, even in relatively “advanced” societies, the weeding out of the physically and also mentally least fit was automatic and ruthless. Most of them did not reach the age of puberty. Today many of these genetic cripples live long enough to reproduce. Thanks to the progress of scientific knowledge and the social ethic, the mechanisms which used to protect the species from degeneration (the inevitable result when natural selection is suspended) now functions hardly at all, save where the defect is uncommonly grave.

And since Monod seems to categorically rule out gene therapy in germ cells (“the genome’s microscopic proportions today and probably forever rule out manipulation of this sort”), his only hope resides in “deliberate and severe selection.”

Notwithstanding Monod’s unduly pessimistic perspective on human genetic engineering  and the missed opportunity to recognize the evolutionary and conventional nature of morality, Chance and Necessity remains a classic, uncompromising, exposition of modern evolutionary biology and the scientific view of the world that has made this knowledge possible.

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