Thursday, February 14, 2013

Evolution and "Descriptive Morality"

Before we get lost, let's go back to where this series began.

It began with yet another example of an error that permeates the atheist community in which the evolutionary account of what David Pinsof in previous comments has called "descriptive morality" is proof against the theist claim that evolution cannot account of objective prescriptive morality.

This is an equivocation - one that evolutionary psychologists seem to invite - or at best to have little interest in confronting. I suspect it is because of the disappointment of having much of their fan club - made up of those hungry for an atheist answer to religious arguments about the source of objective morality - disappear that they eagerly blind themselves to this equivocation.

The fact that so many atheists rush to commit this fallacy to defend a cherished belief also stands as proof that they are not as disposed to embrace logic and shun unreasoned support for cherished beliefs as they claim to be.

In my last post I recommended that evolutionary psychologists combat this misunderstanding by adopting another term for descriptive morality. Another possibility is for them to actually use the phrase "descriptive morality" - clarifying at least once in each article that "by this I mean the study of moral judgements regardless of whether they are correct or incorrect, potentially including such things as a moral objection to interracial marriage and to questioning religion, and the moral approval of genocide, slavery, and conquest."

That would help.

In comments to my last post I came to realize that what Pinsof has called "descriptive morality" is what I have long called "sociological 'morality'" - with the term 'morality' in scare quotes to indicate that this term being mentioned is not being endorsed or used.

A couple of decades ago, sociology was dominated by extreme forms of subjectivism (e.g., post-modernism) that took morality to be nothing more than the opinions of a person or culture. They built this philosophy into their use of moral terms, asserting that the term "morality" itself meant nothing more than the opinions of a person or culture.

At that time, people argued, "You can't actually argue against the holocaust or slavery. You can't say they are wrong in any objective sense. All you can do is express your disapproval. But your disapproval is objectively equal to the approval of the Nazi or slave owner."

We still see these arguments today, and ideas such as this do not die easily and become almost like a secular religion in some circles, where it will always be embraced regardless of any evidence brought against it.

Of course, religious groups at the time took this extreme subjectivism as proof that the academic community had lost its collective mind. Which, indeed, it had. Liberal academics lost a great deal of credibility. It grew worse as this extreme subjectivism found its way into history, literature, psychology, and anthropology.

It even started to challenge the objectivity of science and logic - claiming that scientific views and logical proofs were also mere opinions - objectively equal to all other mere opinions or ways of thinking.

(Ironically, many religious organizations embraced this branch of subjectivism because it allowed them to argue that creationism and other religious beliefs were just as valid as any claim made by scientists.)

Moral philosophers had a great many arguments showing that this view was incoherent. Moral philosophers were, in fact, coming out of a subjectivist phase where they were rejecting the claims of emotivism and non-cognitivism.

Pinsof's "descriptive morality" is - unfortunately - a continuation of the use of this sociologist's 'morality'. As such, I cannot argue that it is not used - or even that it is not widely used.

I can and do continue to argue that this use of the term is responsible for a great deal of misery and suffering. It gave a moral permission for any evil one can imagine - allowing the perpetrator to rationalize, "Your objections are no more valid than my desire." It continues to haunt public discussion where we hear that views on evolution, climate change, and the age of earth are all grounded on equally valid opinions that have a right to equality in schools, courts, and law. My objections to its use and my invitation to people (such as evolutionary psychologists) to invent a better language is not affected by how widely the term is actually used - only by its ill effects.

However, the religious community (and many moral philosophers) never embraced this extremely subjective account of morality. When they (we - meaning those who object to using the term 'morality' in this extremely subjective sense) complain that evolution cannot account for morality, the complaint is not that evolution cannot account for mere moral opinion. Indeed, if an evolutionary account of morality showed that there were no conditions under which humans could wipe out whole populations - men, women, and children, enslave others, rape and murder, kill people who hold opinions other than their own, and the like, then that account would have to be considered a failure because these types of events do exist.

The religious community (and many moral philosophers) are challenging evolution's ability to account for the fact that some of these things are wrong regardless of the moral opinions people are able to form.

Indeed, evolution cannot account for this. It is no myth. It is a fact. It is only argued to be a myth about evolution by people who equivocate between sociologist's 'morality' and morality.

I also hold that religion also fails to answer the challenge of accounting for objective morality.
However, atheists are mistaken to think that the answer is found in the evolutionary psychologist's account of "descriptive morality". The evolutionary psychologists has answers, but those answers belong to an entirely different set of questions. It is easy to confuse the questions the evolutionary psychologists are answering with the questions the religious community is asking because evolutionary psychologists have embraced a confusing terminology (itself having its source in a philosophy of extreme subjectivism).

But it is a mistake nonetheless. It commits the fallacy of equivocation - a logical mistake - a type of mistake that many atheists claim that people have a moral obligation to avoid making. They should practice what they preach.


David Pinsof said...

OK, I will try to use the term "descriptive morality" henceforth to avoid this kind of confusion.

Though many theists believe that evolution cannot account for objective morality, I think there are also many theists who think it cannot account for descriptive morality. In a debate with Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza, I remember D'Souza making a very peculiar argument for the existence of god. He said that, while on the bus to the debate, he felt the urge to give up his seat to an old lady, and so he gave up his seat. His argument was that evolution could not explain this urge, because he would never run into the old woman again, he wasn't around anyone he knew, and the old woman wasn't genetically related to him. Note that his argument was not that evolution couldn't account for the rightness of giving up his seat; rather, his argument was that it couldn't account for his urge to give up his seat. Here, he is wrong for a number of reasons, but I've witnessed theists make similar kinds of arguments. Perhaps the initial "top 10 myths" writer had something like this kind of argument in mind when he was writing "evolution accounts for morality." Or, perhaps he was equivocating. But the point is that "evolution cannot account for descriptive morality" may actually be a myth that is worth dispelling.

Anonymous said...

Descriptive morality or not, I find that we have an evolved moral sense, the backdrop whence we have to get others to fathom better as to let men know that ti's not a woman's looks or dress that counts in rape, but the evil of rape itself. Pathological persons just don't have this sense- empathy.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

David Pinsof

I would not say that theists are entirely immune from using sociologist 'morality'. I would also suggest that D'Souza might have been setting up a trap - because as soon as he can get his opponent to confuse "descriptive morality" with "prescriptive morality" he can control the debate.

However, either way, the best answer is not to appeal to evolutionary psychology to explain the impulse.

My answer would go like this:

"Look, people attribute their perceived rightness of a wide number of actions to god. No doubt the 9/11 hijackers thought the rightness of their actions could be found in the will of God. The same is true of the Christians who risked life and limb to besiege Jerusalem in the Crusades to slaughter every man, woman, and child in the city. Many Confederate soldiers thought that took up arms to either kill or be killed in defense of what they thought was a god-given right to own slaves. And many others took up arms to kill and be killed to defend what they thought was the god-given right to be free.

The question is not really, "Where do these impulses come from" - because clearly they cannot all, in fact, come from God. The real question is, how do you tell which motivations are good and which are bad.

We can clearly see that people's claims that they are motivated by god - including your claim today, Mr. D'Souza - are not very reliable. Religion cannot answer this question.

However, evolutionary psychology cannot answer it either.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Addendum: Of course, if the debate topic was, "Can evolution account for morality?" D'Souza and I would be on the same team. While I reject his arguments, I accept his conclusion. The answer is, "No."

Unknown said...

Another book on science and morality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The link provides an excellent example of Michael Shermer making the mistakes that I have objected to here - somebody who cannot tell the difference between "descriptive morality" and "prescriptive morality" and who thinks that we can get the latter out of evolutionary theory.

Massimo Pigliucci's response to an earlier attempt by Shermer is still valid against this attempt.

The flaw can still be adequately exposed by noting, "I have evolved a disposition to kill people like you and feel justified in doing so" does not imply "You deserve to die."

Shermer, for all practical purposes, makes up his morality out of whole cloth, then turns to evolutionary theory to find the bits that he likes and ignore the bits that he does not like.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

On a relevant point:

One of Michael Shermer's points is that morality cannot be supernatural. Therefore, it must be natural.

This point - I agree with.

As I have expressed it:

There is no gap between what "is" and what "ought". There is only a gap between what "is" and "is not"
So if morality cannot find a home in what is. Then we should place it in the realm of that which "is not".