Saturday, February 14, 2009

Evolution, Ethics, and Philosophy

With regard to my claim that it is absurd to answer the theist challenge to come up with an account of morality by referencing evolution, a member of the studio audience had this to say:

Socrates notwithstanding, there is a lot of research in apes and humans to show Darwin had it essentially right. The "evolutionarist" position would be that we should stick with what research confirms to be accurate. Philosophy is entertaining, but it is no substitute for solid research.

This comment was made in response to the Euthyphro objection to evolutionary ethics. The person who says that what is moral is that which is loved by our genes (that we have an evolved "moral sense") needs to answer the question:

Is it moral because it is loved by our genes, or is it loved by our genes because it is moral?

The former allows anything that comes to be loved by our genes to be moral. The latter admits that the standard of morality is something other than what is loved by our genes and cannot be used to answer the question, "What is moral?"

How is it that what we "sense" really is moral?

The first thing that I want to note is that if we are going to reject the Euthyphro argument as irrelevant when it comes to evolutionary ethics, it is just as irrelevant when it comes to divine command theories of ethics.

We cannot, under pain of hypocrisy, assert that in Euthyphro we have a knock-down argument against all divine command theories of ethics. While, at the same time, when the same argument is applied to evolutionary ethics, say that it is mere entertainment and dismiss it as being irrelevant.

Under the pain of contradiction and incoherence, it must be good in both cases, or good in neither.

On the question of what research confirms, solid research requires that all of one's terms be precisely defined and, furthermore, that they be defined in natural terms.

For "solid research" to show that "morality evolved" we must have a strict definiion of what morality is and that definition must be reducable to natural terms.

Furthermore, in order to claim that Darwin "had it essentially right" we must further claim that Darwin gave us a precise definition of morality in natural terms, and that no substanstive objections have since been raised against Darwin's account of the difference between good and evil - right and wrong.

How can you tell me that your solid research demonstrates that A = B if you cannot tell me what B is? How can you tell me that we have evolved a moral sense unless you can tell me what morality is and a natural account of how it strikes our senses?

Consider a sense of direction. We know we have a sense of direction because we can point to something, independent of our sense, and know that it is North, or South.

How do we point to morality without our "moral senses"? What is it that we would be pointing at?

I also want to warn against the false dichotomy employed in the quote above. It seems to suggest that we have no choice but to accept the evolutionary ethicist's account that "morality evolved", or the divine command theorist's account that "morality came from God".

Of course morality does not come from God, since there is no God for it to come from. But neither is it the product of some evolved disposition. The "moral sense" that the evolutionary ethicist is trying to explain just does not exist. We have desires, and those desires have been under evolutionary influence, but there is no justification for claiming anything more than that.


Placebo said...

Mr Fyfe, please define what you mean by evolution .... and, desire. I've read your last few posts on this topic and I cannot see your position as being much more than an exercise in semantics.

Also, can a child stranded on an island, living in isolation, develop "morality"?

Justus said...

The former allows anything that comes to be loved by our genes to be moral.

You seem to feel that no one would ever accept, espouse, or admit this. Why do you feel that? Have you written something somewhere explaining (with sources, preferably) in more detail?

Steelman said...

Alonzo said:"We cannot, under pain of hypocrisy, assert that in Euthyphro we have a knock-down argument against all divine command theories of ethics. While, at the same time, when the same argument is applied to evolutionary ethics, say that it is mere entertainment and dismiss it as being irrelevant."

I certainly agree with this point. Of course, Christians don't necessarily have a problem with Euthyphro, since God is considered sovereign over all creation. The genocides perpetrated by the ancient Israelites, and the incredible mass killing of Noah's flood, are moral by definition; they were commanded or performed by God, in accordance with His perfect will, therefore they were "good."

I wonder though, about the nature of the conceptual football we've been kicking back and forth over the last few posts.

It seems to me that an evolved moral sense could be termed "limbic system ethics," and the prescriptive ethics, that would be part of a debate regarding morality, could be termed "cerebral cortex ethics."

Human beings are highly intelligent animals. Intelligence being just one of the many possible successful evolutionary adaptations. Our genetically closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, have their own set of cultural norms (complex social behavior). These cultures include a sense of right and wrong (territoriality, food distribution, dominance hierarchy, sexual interaction, permissibility of infanticide, etc.). These are not the same across species. The "moral sense" of chimpanzees differs from that of bonobos, as evidenced by their different group cultures. For example, the level of aggression when two bands of chimpanzees meet, versus when bonobo groups encounter each other.

Human culture, and moral sense, is similarly affected by evolved characteristics. If we weren't social animals, kin altruism wouldn't be extended to the group, and therefore social cohesion and hierarchy wouldn't matter to us. We wouldn't care much about what constituted "right" or "wrong" treatment of others; we'd be living more like tigers rather than lions (solitary vs. social groups).

So, the morality of our limbic system, our primitive hominid ethics, is in tension with the moral concepts produced by the cerebral cortex. Both of these parts of the brain are a result of evolution. I think ethical philosophy cannot adequately discuss morality unless it is informed by science (evolutionary and developmental biology, neuroscience, psychology); it's only dealing with part of the picture. Likewise, science itself must be informed by philosophical inquiry if it is to have well formed concepts with which to operate.

Generally, theists believe that a god implanted morality into human beings via an invisible soul. That, and some form of communion with the infinite and/or understanding of sacred texts, allows us to discover what is moral. Atheists must also account for the origins and methods of discovering what is moral. This doesn't preclude theists from accepting many of the same explanations and methods that atheists do, depending on the simplicity or complexity of their concepts regarding what the world is like. Biblical literalists presuppose that classical interpretations of scripture always trump any contradictory results of scientific or philosophical inquiry, while more liberal believers tend to reinterpret scriptural meaning to align with new scientific evidence and philosophical thought that were unavailable to ancient peoples (the more sensible position, I think).

Debates aren't philosophical essays or college level lectures, they're exercises in rhetoric and appealing to one's audience. An atheist probably shouldn't bring up evolution with a religious audience who thinks Charles Darwin was a tool of Satan, unless you think you have a clever way to parallel limbic system ethics with a sinful nature, and cerebral ethics with the guidance of the holy spirit. And if you're going to make that move, you'd better lay the groundwork for how, despite Proverbs 3:5, both atheists and theists are actually leaning on their own understanding to figure out how to live their lives.

Alonzo Fyfe said...



These cultures include a sense of right and wrong (territoriality, food distribution, dominance hierarchy, sexual interaction, permissibility of infanticide, etc.).

I can explain all of the phenomena you mention without making any reference to a "moral sense". Furthermore, theories that try to explain the phenomena in question with a reference to a "moral sense" are incoherent and self-contradictory.

There is no "sense of right and wrong". There are desires for states of affairs that involve territoriality, food distribution, dominance hierarcy, sexual interaction, permissibility of infanticide, etc.

People assert that their desires are, in fact, a "sense of right and wrong" in order to give their desires more weight than they are entitled. However, this assertion is false, and is not something that needs to be "explained" by reference to God or genes or any other phenomena.

If one wants to insist that there is a "sense of right and wrong" to be accounted for, then I ask such a theorist to explain what right and wrong is and how the capacity to sense it works.

We know how the sense of vision works. We know how the sense of hearing works. We even know how the sense of direction works.

How does this sense of right and wrong function? If there really is such a thing, tell me where I can find it.

Anonymous said...

Placebo -

Also, can a child stranded on an island, living in isolation, develop "morality"?

I consider this similar to asking if such a child could develop baseball (or some other team sport). It's not physically impossible, but if the child doesn't know that other people exist, how would this ever come about?

Morality is mainly about how we treat other people. Without other people around, I don't think morality would ever develop.

Just MHO tho.

Anonymous said...

Virtue ethics require a foundation of teleology. However teleology was eschewed by philosophers when the Aristotelian apparatus of functions, virtues, and ends became suspect. However, teleology is again acceptable to contemporary philosophy because it has been naturalized, i.e., explained in purely natural terms. For example, Millikan uses Darwinism to provide an account of proper function-- to have a feature as a proper function requires that the item was copied from previous ancestors (the way our genes are copied from our parents’ genes for example, or that manufactured items are copies of a prototype) and that it was selected as opposed to other things because it did this thing. And so a hammer has driving nails as a function because it was its ability of its ancestors to drive nails by possessing some particular shape and hardness that caused this hammer get its shape and hardness through our copying these features from its ancestors in manufacture. Similarly, hearts have pumping blood as their function because it is due to that fact that its ancestors pumped blood that has helped account for proliferation of the genes responsible for making hearts.

We can use Millikan's naturalistic account of function as a foundation for a neo-Aristotelian naturalized virtue ethics. Whenever something has a function it has certain properties that allow it to perform this function. These properties are the excellences or virtues of the object. It is the possession of these features that make the object a good instance of its type of thing. And so hammers for example are good if they possess the features that allow it to perform their function of driving nails: its shape, its hardness, resiliency, and so forth.

Human behavior has functions as well, and just as in the case of manufactured items or biological items, human virtue are the properties of behaviors that allow them to perform their function. For example, when people communicate facts to each other through the use of the indicative mood, the function of this behavior is to cause true beliefs in the one you are speaking to. In order for this behavior to succeed in performing its function normally requires that the speaker intend to produce true beliefs in the hearer, and the hearer to believe what is spoken to them. This is the nature of the social virtues of honesty and trust. Likewise, when someone tells another to perform some behavior by using he imperative mood, this behavior has the function of producing behavior in the listener. Normally the behavior in question benefits both the speaker and hearer (otherwise people would soon stop using the imperative mood). The attendant virtues of the indicative mood are magnanimity and obedience. These are what we might call “universal human virtues.” Vice results in the abNormal condition of intentionally spreading false beliefs contra the stabilizing proper function of the indicative mood (lying) and using the imperative mood to command someone to do what is not in their best interest (ill will). On the consumer side we have refusing to believe what is true (cynicism?), and refusing to do what is in ones best interest (spite? stubborness?).

The same applies to any case of human cooperation, regardless of culture, there will be attendant human virtues. There are other virtues that we might call "cultural virtues" which relate to a specific culture. A culture existing in an environment with scarce resources might value frugality more than one blessed with plenty, for instance. Or one with a history of being invaded by foreign powers might come to value bravery and other martial virtues over a culture that is secure in its safety.