Friday, January 20, 2017

Moral Judgments vs. Attitudes of Cooperation

219 days until classes start.

The reading assignment for PHIL 5110: Contemporary Moral Theory was Richard Joyce, "The evolutionary debunking of morality", appearing in J. Feinberg & R. Shafer-Landau (eds.), Reason and Responsibility (15th edition, Cengage, 2013).

As I see it, the morality that evolutionary theory is supposed to be debunking isn't really morality, so its debunking does not actually turn out to be a debunking of morality.

I have a problem with that which Richard Joyce calls "moral nativism" - the idea that we evolved dispositions to make certain moral judgments.

If I understand it correctly, the idea is that evolution disposed us to make certain moral judgments such as "adultery is wrong". (NOTE: Joyce points out that 'a capacity to make moral judgments' is not to be confused with a disposition to make any specific moral judgment. This is merely an example.)

The claim is that such a feature enabled those ancestors who had it to "make more babies" compared to those who did not. Thus, it was inherited and refined over time.

For example, a maternal disposition to care for one's children. This may well be an inheritable trait. Those ancestors who had it took care of their children, more of their children grew to maturity and, in turn, had more children.

One problem that I have had with the readings so far is that the "morality" that these evolutionary theories are supposed to be debunking is not morality at all. People are going hunting for elk and bringing back a dairy cow instead and are merely calling it an elk.

More specifically, the authors seem to be concerned with an evolved disposition to make certain moral judgments. However, in order to adequately judge whether this is the case, we need an account of what a "moral judgment" is. We cannot, after all, discuss the moral evolution of the spleen until we know what the spleen is.

In the writings so far, the authors have not made any effort to distinguish between a moral judgment and a desire.

Nature shows us a great many examples in which nature motivates living things to cooperate with others. But evolved dispositions to cooperate do not require "moral judgments." When ants or bees take care of the eggs in their colonies or hives, we have no reason to suspect that they are doing so based on a judgment that taking care of the eggs is good. In fact, bees and flowers have a cooperative arrangement even though one of them does not even have mental states, let alone the capacity to make moral judgments.

Of course, evolution allows for the possibility of things that are not necessary.

However, when we have two phenomenon that are quite similar in appearance, it gives us reason to wonder which one we are observing in a particular instance. We may think that we are observing an elk when, in fact, we are observing a dairy cow.

What we may be observing, when evolutionary psychologists and philosophers are claiming that we are looking at "moral judgments" may well be nothing more than an appetite for cooperation. Caring for young family members might well be quite similar to eating, quenching one's thirst, having sex, and avoiding pain. These are simply things that creatures have evolved a disposition to do without a thought to duty or obligation. They simply count among a creature's likes and dislikes.

Having sex is a particularly apt comparison since it involves more than one participant and can be seen as a cooperative venture to create offspring. However, it is is hardly driven by any type of judgment that it is good. We may judge it to be good, but the judgment is not the source of the motivation to engage in sex, and one can have the motivation even while judging it to be bad.

This certainly seems to be a better account of what we observe in nature. The seahorse father who takes care of its young is not making a judgment about the merits of this activity, he is simply doing what he wants to do - just as when he eats or runs away from a potential predator.

The rules of evolution suggest that what humans inherited from animals with regard to this type of behavior is the same amoral "appetite for cooperation". It is a mere like or dislike for certain types of activities, no more involving a moral judgment than the similar behavior of the sea horse.

This raises the question of whether evolutionary psychologists are discovering evidence for an evolutionary account of moral judgment, or just an evolutionary account of an appetite for cooperation.

Take, for example, Joyce's claims concerning the evolutionary advantages that an evolved moral judgment could provide. He says that a declaration that one finds cheating to be morally bad may signal others to engage with that person in cooperative behavior.

Nothing he mentions requires a moral judgment. One can gain the same advantages by signalling that one hates cheating. In fact, a statement of personal dislike would, in some important ways, be preferable. A belief can vanish in an instant when one gets (what one takes to be) evidence that it is false. However, affections or appetites do not change so quickly or easily. The aversion to pain or desire for chocolate cake, by comparison, cannot be so easily turned off.

Furthermore, appetites, though they have a significant roll to play in evolutionary success, are not truth tracking. They are not supposed to be.

To answer the question of whether the they are studying appetites or moral judgments, evolutionary psychologists must provide an account of what distinguishes an appetite for cooperation from a moral judgment. Furthermore, these distinguishing characteristics must be things that they can identify in experiments.

I suspect that, if they were to do this, they will discover that moral judgments are not what they think they are. They claim to be studying moral judgments (and acquiring evidence for an evolutionary debunking of moral judgments). What they are looking at are, instead, appetites of cooperation. And what they are discovering is that appetites of cooperation are not moral judgments.

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