Friday, February 13, 2009

Descriptive Evolutionary Ethics

/p>In my recent blog entries I have been raising objections to some of the things that atheists say when they enter into a debate with theists about the relationship between morality and God.

I have been criticizing the evolutionary ethicists who claim that we have evolved a disposition to view certain things as moral or immoral by confronting them with a pair of questions.

(1) Is something good because it is loved by our genes, or is it loved by our genes because it is good?

This is simply the classing argument against divine command theories of morality applied to evolutionary morality.

(2) What are we to do about all of the evil that is still within our evolved capacity to perform?

Obviously, we have not evolved such a moral sense that we do not engage in moral crimes of all sizes.

A member of the studio audience, Steelman, suggests that evolutionary ethics can avoid these objections because it is purely descriptive, not prescriptive.

if no one is saying that evolutionary psychology is in any way prescriptive of moral actions, but rather descriptive of the development for moral capacity, how are they on the horns of a dilemma?

Okay, if evolutionary ethics is entirely descriptive rather than prescriptive, than it says absolutely nothing about what we ought to do. And if it says nothing about what we ought to do, then how can it possibly be used to answer the question of the possibiity of morality (a set of things that we should or should not do) without God?

Evolutionary ethics would, in this sense, be as divorced from morality as chemistry, capable of telling us how to make a bomb, but able to say nothing about whether we should or should not use it.

Another member of the studio audiene put the objection this way:

In general they may be careful to make the descriptive/prescriptive distinction but when a theist challenges an atheist the challenge is about prescriptions and not descriptions and would you therefore agree that if they do respond with evolutionary ethics arguments they are not answering the challenge?

Steelman also wrote:

It seems to me that the theory of an evolved moral sense (kin altruism, reciprocity, the rewarding of cooperation and the punishing of cheaters) is an explanation of why we have the sentiments that Hume regarded as the impetus for moral decision making, not an argument for what actions we should take when experiencing these feelings.

Again, if it is not an argument for what actions we should take then it has nothing to do with morality - because morality is concerned with arguments about what actions we should take.

If this is what is involved, then the theist can take everything that the evolutionary atheist says and still answer, "Okay, evolution gave us a 'sense' of right and wrong. However, it cannot tell us anything about what is right or wrong in fact. Only God can do that."

If the evolutionary atheist is not talking about things being right or wrong in fact, then they have not answered the objection that god is necessary for the understanding of things being right or wrong as a matter of fact.

Now, I do not dispute that our desires have been under the influence of evolutionary forces. Nor do I dispute that there is reason to believe that have some disposition towards desires that count as "kin altruism", "reciprocity" and the like. Yet, I count these as simple desires.

However, these are just desires - like our taste for certain types of food and our desire for sex. There is no more of a "moral sense" in a mother's desire to feed her child then there was in the mother's desire to have sex to start with, or to eat the ice cream she ate when she was pregnant.

Furthermore, we do not need a "moral sense" to get us to perform these actions. Following the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, all nature needs to give us is a set of desires to engage in this type of behavior. Putting those desires in the form of a "moral sense" is a lot of extra work for nothing.

What is a "moral sense" anyway? How is it different from a simple desire, and what types of evidence do we have that we are dealing with a "moral sense" instead of a set of simple desires? The descriptive evolutionary ethicist needs to explain these to us before he can justify his claim that he has found a way to account for a "moral sense". He needs to define what it is he is accounting for.

The habit of claiming that our desires represent some sort of "moral sense" is a piece of ancient rhetoric used to give one's preferences more weight than they deserve. It provides a way of making an entirely unjustified leap of logic from "I like" and "I do not like" to "You should" and "You should not."

The way we make this leap is by taking the objects of our desires and claiming that what is really going on is that we are perceiving a property that is built into the object of evaluation. This property takes the form of an intrinsic "ought-to-be-ness" or "ought-not-to-be-ness" From here we can jump straight to the conclusion that those who do not see the value that we do.

In this, it works just like the God argument works. With the God argument, a "priest" takes his or her own preferences and assigns them to God. He then asserts, "It is not the case that I am inferring from what I like and what I do not like to what you should and should not do. Actually, I am making an inference from what God likes and does not like to what you should or should not do." Ignoring the fact, of course, that the priest assigned his or her own preferences to God.

So, accounting for a "moral sense" is like accounting for ghosts. The best account we have is that there is no such thing. Thus, there is nothing for the evolutionary ethicist to account for.

Thus, the original problem still remains. When the theist challenges the ethicist to come up with an account of moral value in the absence of God, the atheist's job must be to come up with an account of things that we ought and ought not to do in the absence of a God. If evolutionary ethics is not telling us what we should and should not do in the absence of a God explanation, then it is not answering the question. Then it is not the type of thing the atheist should bring forth in this type of debate.

7 comments:

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo,

I have read a good amount in evolutionary ethics, and as such, I think you are trying to get evolutionary ethics to do more than it has ever claimed it could do.

You write: "Again, if it is not an argument for what actions we should take then it has nothing to do with morality - because morality is concerned with arguments about what actions we should take."

I agree completely, as would every writer I have ever read on the subject of evolutionary ethics.

I think you are confusing "ethics" and "morality." (It is not called "evolutionary morality," but "evolutionary ethics."

Morality, as you say, concerns itself with what we should do. The study of ethics, as it is generally concieved in philosophy, is the study of the nature of morality. Not, "What should we do?" but "how do we come to know what we should do?" To illustrate, "virtue ethics" is the study of what virtue is. It is only when applied to "moral philosophy" that virtue ethics gets into discussing prescriptive moral "oughts."

So, I agree with you that evolutioanry ethics - as ethics - does not have a thing to do with moral prescriptions. SAying that it did would lead to the question begging conversation:

"Why should we give money to the beggar rather than buy ourselves a latte?"

"Because evolution programmed this into our phenotype."



You also write: "The habit of claiming that our desires represent some sort of "moral sense" is a piece of ancient rhetoric used to give one's preferences more weight than they deserve."

As a devoted emotivist and believer that Hume and Smith got a lot right in their ethical ruminations, I think you are dead nuts wrong here.

It is true that a "moral sense" and moral feelings are desires (we desire to do x for others), it is a certain kind of desire. When Hume and Smith spoke of a "moral sense," they usually were referring to those symapthies we have for others that are not reducible to self-interest, but arise from our ability to symaphtize with others.

Yes, "moral sense" is vague, ambiguous, and hard to define, so are any basic moral terms like, "good," "just" and most any other moral term (even the notion of "utilitarianism" is frought with subjectivity and ambiguity.)

It is not a problem with the words "moral sense" so much as a problem endemic to moral and ethical philosophy. YEs, "moral sense" is "rhetoric used to give one's preferences more weight than they deserve." But so is saying that a particlar action is "good," "utilitarian," or "pragmatically effective." ALL moral terms are terms of rhetoric used to justify the speaker's preferenfces as something more than preferences.

David said...

Your message is very relevant to some group of people, let's call them "evolutionary prescriptivists", who hold up evolution as the answer to the question "what ought to be done?". But most people talking about evolution and ethics together are never talking about that question. They're answering the question "why do we have a sense of what ought to be done?", or refuting the idea that morality is self-evident because "why else would we have that sense?".

When the theist challenges the ethicist to come up with an account of moral value in the absence of God, the atheist's job must be to come up with an account of things that we ought and ought not to do in the absence of a God.
Why do we need a moral code? We need a system of justice, but we only need an account of moral values to answer moral questions, and I contend that pure moral questions are meaningless. The search for a moral code is a search for something more than what we already have, and I say what we already have is enough.

Steelman said...

Hello, Alonzo. Thanks for commenting on my comments.

You said:"Okay, if evolutionary ethics is entirely descriptive rather than prescriptive, than it says absolutely nothing about what we ought to do. And if it says nothing about what we ought to do, then how can it possibly be used to answer the question of the possibility of morality (a set of things that we should or should not do) without God?"

I think you are correct here. Except that kin altruism, reciprocity, etc., have allowed us to propagate the species, and if the survival of mankind is something we care about, then it behooves us to consider and encourage those evolved traits that will allow the species to continue, while controlling those that may be detrimental to that goal. Part of the question is, "Where does morality come from." So part of the answer has to involve an explanation of where all of our decision making abilities originate.

"However, these are just desires - like our taste for certain types of food and our desire for sex. There is no more of a "moral sense" in a mother's desire to feed her child then there was in the mother's desire to have sex to start with, or to eat the ice cream she ate when she was pregnant."

Uncritically accepting an evolutionary explanation of what we ought to do is just as useless as uncritically accepting the words of a holy book. For example: Human ancestors with an evolved tendency to prefer sweet foods, and who tended to gorge themselves when food was plentiful, were able to live through periods when less food was available and to produce more offspring. Now, since these genetically ingrained behaviors were successful due to natural selection, should modern humans follow suit? Unfortunately, the environment we live in is markedly different from our ancestors', so a "good" adaptation is now causing obesity and heart disease.

I believe you've said previously that "ought" implies "can", therefore I see an understanding of our evolved moral capacities, and how and why they operate as they do, as a necessary component of a discussion about morality. I would add an understanding of human psychology (present, testable knowledge, not just the speculation of "evolutionary psychology"), and the fruits of research in neuroscience, as also being necessary.

"What is a "moral sense" anyway? How is it different from a simple desire, and what types of evidence do we have that we are dealing with a "moral sense" instead of a set of simple desires?"

What is a "novel" or a "dictionary" anyway? How are they different from a simple book? As I've said earlier, "moral sense" is shorthand for those evolved attributes and capacities that can be classified as having a bearing on how we treat others. It's a convention of language that allows us to discuss a group of types of desires within a moral framework.

"When the theist challenges the ethicist to come up with an account of moral value in the absence of God, the atheist's job must be to come up with an account of things that we ought and ought not to do in the absence of a God."

That's when you ask the theist to enumerate the positive effects of following God's commands. They'll tend to talk about the pragmatic good of Christian ethics in everyday life, rather than the commanded atrocities of the Old Testament. The atheist can then say those are the very things that he would also call good, but doesn't need a god to tell him they are good ideas; they just make sense. Morality is about doing what is best when it comes to how we treat others, and if the religions of man were anything more than people figuring things out for themselves, and then claiming their rules came from God, then surely we wouldn't have so many versions of the "one true religion" battling one another over moral truth.

The atheist should also say that evolved gut feelings about right and wrong, along with the evolved mental ability to consider the consequences of acting on those feelings, doesn't disprove there being some kind of god out there somewhere. However, the confused muddle of various religious moral rules, sometimes even within the same holy book, doesn't help the believer's case! And, even if there is a god, such confusion definitely does nothing to show that their particular religion is correct.

By the way, Alonzo, no matter what an atheist says about the basis for moral decision making, the theist can always counter that God gave us the capacity to know right from wrong, whether by special creation or by dabbling in the process of evolution. I think that the most that can ever be achieved in such debates is the demonstration that atheist and theist moral decision making is compatible in many respects, so we really can "all just get along."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

david

You wrote: But most people talking about evolution and ethics [are] answering the question "why do we have a sense of what ought to be done?"

My answer: we have no such sense.

Trying to answer this question is like trying to answer the question, "Do you still beat your wife?" It contains assumptions that are simply not true.

If we had such a sense, slavery would have never existed, there would have been no crusades or jihads, the Holocaust would never have happened.

The people who did these things "sensed" that they were perfectly legitimate.

If we had a sense of right and wrong then, it seems, this would at least imply that we had the capacity to sense right and wrong.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Steelman

"moral sense" is shorthand for those evolved attributes and capacities that can be classified as having a bearing on how we treat others.

Well, how we treat others includes genocide, slavery, rape, torture, and the like. It is strange to call this a "moral sense".

Typically, a "moral sense" implies that there is a moral property in the universe, and a sense organ in the human body that can somehow sense this entity called morality.

No such sense exists.

Attempting to explain a non-existent entity is a waste of time.

That's when you ask the theist to enumerate the positive effects of following God's commands. They'll tend to talk about the pragmatic good of Christian ethics in everyday life, rather than the commanded atrocities of the Old Testament. The atheist can then say those are the very things that he would also call good, but doesn't need a god to tell him they are good ideas; they just make sense.

First, the phrase "they just make sense" is not an answer. It's the same as shrugging one's shoulders.

Second, this assumes that there is going to be agreement between the theist and the atheist (or between two different theists, and two different atheists, for that matter). Part of what I am talking about is that there is a huge amount of disagreement in what counts as moral or immoral.

We just went through a huge episode of this . . . torture, extraordinary rendition, imprisonment without trials, a war of aggression, government secrecy, widespread government spying. People disagree as to the right answers.

What does this "moral sense" theory tell us about what the right answer is?

Morality is about doing what is best when it comes to how we treat others, and if the religions of man were anything more than people figuring things out for themselves, and then claiming their rules came from God, then surely we wouldn't have so many versions of the "one true religion" battling one another over moral truth.

You write quite often as if you take me to be somebody who defends a divine command theory of ethics. I do not need to be informed about the flaws with religious ethics.

I do have an alternative view of ethics - one that simply has no need for a "moral sense" to be explained through evolution or any other mechanism. It is not a religious system. It is a system that allows moral concepts to make sense in any population that has maleable desires (desires that can be influenced through environmental factors).

Because I have no need for a "moral sense", by Occam's Razor, I dismiss it - and I dismiss any theory that tries to account for it. I dismiss it the same way that I dismiss any theory that tries to account for ghosts under the assumption that ghosts really exist.

The whole enterprise is flawed from the start.

The points that I have been making in this series of posts are simply attempts to illustrate the nonsense that comes from the false assumptions of assuming that we have a "moral sense" that needs to be explained.

David said...

...answering the question "why do we have a sense of what ought to be done?"
My answer: we have no such sense.


I fully agree. At least, I agree that what we sense has no real correspondence to a "perfect moral right & wrong". It's hard to deny that almost everyone has some kind of internal sense that they claim has special moral significance.

What I don't understand is why you take the theist's challenge so seriously. If you don't put any significance in a so-called moral sense, what reason do you have to claim that morality must exist? It sounds like you demand the question must have an answer only because you have an answer.

Put another way, what's the danger of having no system of morality? If it's a survival danger, then I don't see how you've gone beyond evolutionary ethics.

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo wrote:

"Typically, a "moral sense" implies that there is a moral property in the universe, and a sense organ in the human body that can somehow sense this entity called morality.

No such sense exists."


First, I am not sure why you suggest that "moral sense" connotes that morals are a property in the universe. The way I have always seen it (read Hume and Smith) it is a purely psychologicla term. Gilbert Harman, actually, uses it in a way completely compatible with a subjectivist/emotivist account of morality. (So did Smith and Hume.)

Second, I am not sure that we can say that no such sense exists. Unless you are a sociopath or possibly autistic, you likely have feelings of sympathy and empathy, and very likely have feelings in many moral situations of what the 'right' thing to do is.

Are you confusing the issue of whether we have a moral sense at all with whether everyone has the same moral sense as everyone else?

(We can say that everyone has noses while admitting that not everyone has the same nose. We can also say that everyone has a "moral sense" or "sense of right and wrong," while admitting that there exists substantial variety in this "trait.")

"If we had such a sense, slavery would have never existed, there would have been no crusades or jihads, the Holocaust would never have happened."

Not true at all! To say that we have a moral sense does not say that this sense is absolute, that we all have the same moral sense, or that our moral intuitions cannot be affected by contexts.

I see this as an anologous to our sense of art or beauty. We all recognize that certain things have beauty, but this is not to say that we all have the same sense of beauty, or that our sense of the beautiful is not significantly affected by context.

Also, I can turn your statement on its head by saying that if we did NOT have a moral sense - your position - than slavery, rape, or anything else would never have been outlawed - there would have been no reason for it to, if we did not have symapthies or any moral feeling whatsoever.