196 days until the start of class.
In my continuing work in the one class I am "auditing", I have continued reservations about the idea that neuroscience or evolutionary theory can debunk moral claims in the ways in which some people claim. I am still looking at Joshua Greene's work, “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul,” and responses to it.
I find a frequent frustration in philosophy to occur in cases in which philosophers are involved in a dispute focused on some specific premise or conclusion, where, at least, the people seem to agree on the truth of one of the relevant premises. Then somebody comes along and questions that mutually agreed upon premise, throwing the whole discussion into chaos. It is enough to drive a person to scream and run from the room.
Yet, that is what I am going to do here.
In discussing trolley cases, researchers seem to agree that whether a person harms another in an “up close and personal” way (e.g., by physically pushing that person onto the tracks in front of an oncoming trolley), or remotely (by pulling a switch that opens a trap door that drops the person onto the tracks) is morally irrelevant. This does not represent a morally significant difference. However, there seems to be a number of people who would not push an individual in front of a runaway trolley to prevent it from running over five others but who would drop that person onto the tracks through a remotely operated trap door.
Honestly, I do not think that this is a morally relevant difference, and those who see it as a difference are making a mistake. However, the way that Greene handles this mistake does not seem to work.
Greene explains the difference between the two in terms of an emotional reaction that, itself, has an evolutionary source.
The rationale for distinguishing between personal and impersonal forms of harm is largely evolutionary. “Up close and personal” violence has been around for a very long time, reaching far back into our primate lineage (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996). Given that personal violence is evolutionarily ancient, predating our recently evolved human capacities for complex abstract reasoning, it should come as no surprise if we have innate responses to personal violence that are powerful but rather primitive.
However, we can say the same thing about our aversion to individual pain. I tend to pay far more attention to my own pain – finding it much more important to avoid or to relieve my own pain than an equal pain suffered by any other person. This stronger reaction to my own pain than that of any other person is “evolutionarily ancient” and “predating our recently evolved human capacities for abstract reasoning.” Yet, I am permitted to treat this as morally relevant. I have a moral permission to give my own pain a priority over the pain of any other person.
Similarly, a parent’s interest in the well-being of their child – or our general interest in the well-being of children generally – probably has an evolutionary component. The physical features of children (and puppies, and kittens) likely arouse in most people protective sentiments that urge us to put the interests of children above those of adults. Yet, we are comfortable with the idea of arguing that whether the interests in question are those of children – and, in particular, one’s own children – is morally relevant.
If this evolutionary account is at all relevant, it seems that we should dismiss the distinction between our own pain and the pain of others, and the distinction between the well-being of children (and, in particular, of our own children) over the well-being of others as well. On the other hand, if our own pain and the well-being of (our own) children retains its moral relevance in spite of this evolutionary explanation, then providing an evolutionary account of the distinction between up-close and personal harm versus remote harm should not debunk that moral sentiment either.
There are consequentialist who would, in fact, argue that we should treat all three of these cases the same. A person ought not to consider their pain more important than anybody else’s claim and ought not to put the interests of children (even their own) above those of any other person. This is the type of consequentialism I wrote about in my previous communication – the type that implies that any interest other than an interest in general utility is a temptation to do evil.
At the same time, we cannot argue that all interests where we can provide an evolutionary account must be respected. Perhaps we can give an evolutionary explanation for a disposition to favor those who “look like us” (for example, with respect to skin color) since they are likely to share more of our genes, or a genetic disposition for males to be less concerned about consent in seeking sex. This would not argue for the moral permissibility of racism or rape. If there is a moral difference to be found here, the fact that we can tell an evolutionary story about a sentiment neither supports nor debunks the moral relevance of that sentiment.
I tend to think that the secret formula concerns the tendency of an interest to fulfill or thwart other interests. But that's just me.