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Good for the Individual

What characteristics promote individual well-being? There is a vast ethical and empirical literature on this question, which we shall not attempt to review here. For our purposes, it will suffice to list (Table 1) some candidate characteristics, ones which may with some plausibility be taken to be among those that contribute to individual well-being in a wide range of circumstances. This list is for illustration only. Other lists could be substituted without affecting the structure of our argument.[1]

To illustrate the idea, take mathematical ability. Suppose that we believe that having greater mathematical ability would tend to make our lives go better—per- haps because it would give us competitive advantages in the job market, perhaps because appreciating mathematical beauty is a value in itself, or perhaps because we believe that mathematical ability is linked to other abilities that would increase our well-being. We then pose the EOC: why has evolution not already endowed us with more mathematical ability than we have?

It is possible that answers to this EOC may be found in the other categories we discuss in this chapter (changed tradeoffs or evolutionary restrictions). Yet suppose that is not so. We may then appeal to an answer in the value discordance category. Even if greater mathematical capacity would have been maladaptive in the EEA and even if it would still be maladaptive today, it may nevertheless be good for us, because the good for humans is different from what maximizes our fitness.

But we are not yet done. What the evolution heuristic teaches us in this case is that we must expect that the intervention will have some effect that reduces fitness. If we cannot form any plausible idea of what sort of effect the intervention might produce that would reduce fitness, then we must suspect that the intervention will have important effects that we have not understood. That should give us pause. A fitness-reducing effect that we have not anticipated might be something very bad, such as a serious medical side effect. The EOC hoists a warning flag. If, however, we can give a plausible account of why the proposed intervention to increase mathematical ability would reduce fitness, and yet we judge this fitness-reducing effect as desirable or at least worth enduring for the sake of the benefit, then we have met the EOC.

This does not guarantee that the enhancement will succeed. It is still possible that the intervention will fail to produce the desired result or that it would have some unforeseen side effect. There might be more than one sufficient reason why evolution did not already make this intervention to enhance mathematical ability. But once we have identified at least one sufficient reason, the warning flag raised by the EOC comes down. We have shown that one potential reason for thinking that the enhancement will fail (the “wisdom of nature” reason) does not apply to the present case.

As an example, evolution has not optimized us for happiness and has instead led to a number of adaptations that cause psychological distress and frustration (Buss 2000). The “hedonic treadmill” causes us quickly to adapt to positive experiences and to seek more, as goods we have gained become taken for granted as a new

Table 2 Some traits that may promote the social good

Extended altruism

Conscientiousness and honesty

Modesty and self-deprecation

Originality, inventiveness, and independent thinking

Civil courage

Knowledge and good judgment about public affairs

Empathy and compassion

Nurturing emotions and caring behavior

Just admiration and appreciation

Self-control, ability to control violent impulses

Strong sense of fairness

Lack of racial prejudice

Lack of tendency to abuse drugs

Taking joy in others’ successes and flourishing

Useful forms of economic productivity

Healthy longevity

status quo (Diener et al. 1999). Sexual jealousy, romantic heartaches, status envy, competitiveness, anxiety, boredom, sadness, and despair may have been essential for survival and reproductive success in the EEA, but they take a toll in terms of human suffering and may substantially reduce our well-being. An intervention that caused an upward shift in hedonic set point, or that downregulated some of these negative emotions, would hence meet the EOC: we can see why the effect would have been maladaptive in the EEA and yet believe that we would benefit from these effects because of a discordance between inclusive fitness and individual well-being.

  • [1] The items in the list need not be final goods. Characteristics that are mere means to more fundamental goods can be included. For example, even if one thinks that musicality or musical appreciation is not intrinsically good, one can still include them in the list if one believes that they tend—asa matter of empirical fact—to promote well-being (e.g., by creating opportunities for enjoyment).
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