Evolutionary Ethics: "Are They True?"
I've been commenting on a posting by PZ Myers in Pharyngula that summarized an article on evolutionary ethics. Myers' summary included the quote:
For instance, he summarized three principles that seem to be general rules in moral judgments.
• Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect.
• Harm caused by action is morally worse than harm caused by omission.
• Harm caused by contact is morally worse than equivalent harm caused by non-contact
(See: Pharyngula: Marc hauser - Where Do Morals Come From?)
This is actually the quote that a member of the studio audience sent to me in asking me to comment on this posting.
The first question that popped up in my mind was, "Are they true?"
Here, the author states that people generally tend to adopt the principle, "Harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harms seen as a side-effect."
Okay, people tend to make this judgment.
Are they right, or are they wrong?
The standard analysis of truth states that, for example, "Snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white. Okay, fine. Then it must be the case that "Harm intended as a means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect," is true if and only if harm intended as a means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side effect.
So, tell me, is it the case that harm intended as the means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side effect, or is it the case that we simply evolved to see it this way.
If it is a mere evolved perception without a corresponding reality, then it is the moral equivalent of an optical illusion. We (or many of us) evolved a disposition to believe that harm intended as a means to a goal is worse than harm seen as a side-effect. However, as far as independent reality goes, this is false, and we are caught in a moral delusion.
So, once more, I would like to ask those evolutionary ethicists who have determined that we evolved a disposition to make these moral judgments.
Are . . . they . . . true?
Is there an external reality that corresponds to these judgments, or are they cognitive illusions?
If they are cognitive illusions then, even though we have this evolved disposition to treat them as true, anybody interested in living in the real world as opposed to a world of fiction and make-believe should treat them as false. Because they ARE false.
PZ Myers describes another part of Here's another quote from the summary.
One example he gave that I found a bit dubious is the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to shut down regions of brain, in particular the right temporal/parietal junction (which seems to be a locus of intent judgment). In subjects that have that region zapped (a temporary effect!) all that matters is outcome.
Is this an example of impairing a person’s moral sense? Or is it the case that these people acquire a better ability to perceive moral truth than the rest of us?
Perhaps those parts of the brain that are shut off by Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation actually get in the way of our ability to see the moral truth of the matter. Perhaps they cloud judgments with irrelevant and corrupting thoughts and emotions. Or perhaps those parts of the brain actually aid us in obtaining moral truth - they process relevant bits of information without which an agent finds it much more difficult to reach the correct moral conclusion.
Is there anything at all in this line of study that tells us which method of reaching moral conclusions is more accurate than the other?
The problem is that the evolutionary ethicist cannot answer these types of questions. These questions require an understanding of what is true about morality – which the evolutionary ethicist is not studying. This is a different field of study - a field of study that these evolutionary ethicists are keen to ignore.
The claim to be studying "the origins of morality". In fact, it is the person who is studying morality as it exists (if it exists) independent of these perceptions who are looking at the origins of morality. These evolutionary ethicists are not studying morality at all.
Quite often when I read about an evolutionary ethicist speak about this moral sense, they claim that they are uncovering a biological root to our moral judgments. They note that there is this amazing degree of correspondence between this biological disposition to judge certain things, and whether the thing judged is moral or immoral.
However, when asked what it takes for something to be moral or immoral, they answer that this depends on whether people tend to judge it that way.
So their conclusion ends up being, "There is a great deal of coincidence between what people judge to be moral or immoral and what they judge to be moral or immoral."
The fact that a judgment has a biological underpinning says absolutely nothing about its justification. Sound reasoning and sophistry both have a biological underpinning. Finding a biological underpinning of the straw man argument will not, in any way, shape, or form, change the fact that this is an informal fallacy. Finding any biological underpinnings to moral judgments also says absolutely nothing about their legitimacy either.
Which might well amaze and startle the evolutionary ethicist, but falls a bit below my threshold of amazement.
Perhaps there is no morality for us to study. Perhaps all we have are cognitive illusions. My argument here does not depend on the assumption that an independent moral reality actually exists. My argument here is that the study of morality is the study of that independent moral reality and, if it does not exist, then the study of morality is much like the study of God or ghosts. It's something that would have to be removed from the realm of serious research.
If there is no independent moral reality then it is still not the case that these evolutionary ethicists are studying morality. They are not telling us the origins of morality or its make up. They are studying the biological underpinnings of the cognitive delusion of morality - which might be a very interesting field of study, as long as one recognizes it for what it is and does not confuse it with the study of morality itself.