Sunday, January 07, 2018

Critique of Sharon Street's "Darwinian Dilemma for Moral Realism" - Part 01

I intended to examine the difference between my thesis:

The right act is the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done in the circumstances:

And Rosalind Hursthouse's thesis:

An act is right iff a virtuous person would have characteristically (acting in character) done in the circumstances.

I found that Hursthouse "virtuous person" is a person who rationally pursues certain "naturalistic ends" - these being (1) survival of the individual, (2) survival of the species, (3) experiences of pleasure, pain, and emotions characteristic of the species, and (4) actions characteristic of the species.

I, on the other hand, believe that there are no "naturalistic ends" - that there are no ends but that desire makes them so. "Good motives" are motives that tend to fulfill (other) desires, and "bad motives" tend to thwart other motives. This fulfillment or thwarting of other motives is what provides people with reasons to promote or demote other motives.

I intended to use Sharon Street's 2006 article, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” to argue against Hursthouse's "naturalistic ends" (Street, Sharon. (2006). "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value". Philosophical Studies. 127. 109-166.). However, I discovered that, before I could use Street's argument, I needed to make some adjustments.

Specifically, Street's first premise is that our evaluative judgments are subject to evolutionary pressure. The realist about value either needs to assume an unrealistic coincidence between what evolution has caused us to value and what has intrinsic value properties, or make a scientifically unsound claim that these intrinsic value properties actually help to explain and predict the course of evolution. Neither option seems reasonable. The reasonable conclusion is that what we value does not actually have anything to do with real value properties.

On the surface, I agree with Street's argument, which is why I sought to use it against Rosalind Hursthouse. However, when I looked at the argument in detail, I noticed some problems that I need to take care of before I actually use it.

Specifically, when Street argues that evolutionary pressures have shaped our "evaluative judgments," I find that the concept of "evaluative judgments" she uses is far too broad. She includes things in this definition that are not, actually, best understood as being under evolutionary pressure.

Terminological Dispute

To complicate matters, I also have to dispute Street's use of terminology. In "Moral Objectivity and Moral Realism" I express my objections to her terminology. Street provides an argument against theories of value as intrinsic properties. However, this is an argument against realist theories of value only if we equate realist theories with intrinsic value theories. I deny this assumption. Relational properties are real, desires are real, and relationships between states of affairs and desires are real. Propositions describing those relationships are as real as any property discussed in physics and chemistry - which often deals with relational properties. For these reasons, I reject the idea that Street provides an argument against realist theories of value.

However, what matters here is her argument against the existence of intrinsic value properties. I agree with Street, they do not exist. However, I think that Street makes some mistakes in establishing that conclusion.

Street's first expression of her premise is:

the forces of natural selection have had a tremendous influence on the content of human evaluative judgements.

In defense of this, she notes how unlikely it is that a creature that acquired a dispositon to judge that it ought to kill its offspring will have Darwinian fitness, compared to an alternative creature with a disposition to judge that it ought to care for and protect its offspring.

Having said this, Street points out that she is aware of some of the complexities in this account.


(1) Her presentation suggests that evaluative judgments came first, and then evolution acted on those judgments to select those for evolutionary fitness.

This is not accurate. As Street admits:

the capacity for full-fledged evaluative judgement was a relatively late evolutionary add-on, superimposed on top of much more basic behavioral and motivational tendencies.

(2) The next problem is that, for evolutionary pressures to act on a judgment, they must be genetically inheritable. Yet, it is unlikely that a full-fledged evaluative judgment has this quality. Instead, she argues that these evolutionary forces have acted on:

unreflective, non-linguistic, motivational tendency to experience something as ‘‘called for’’ or ‘‘demanded’’ in itself, or to experience one thing as ‘‘calling for’’ or ‘‘counting in favor of’’ something else.

I would like to argue that the "basic behavioral and motivational tendencies" and the "unreflective, non-linquistic motivational tendencies" that evolution works on are basic desires. When one gets to more complex judgments, the idea that evolutionary pressures have influenced them becomes less plausible. However, this does not change the basic fact that our evaluative judgments are based on desires subject to evolutionary influence, and it is implausible to believe that those basic desires pick out some type of desire-independent reason for action.

Street includes in this set of evaluative judgments that are subject to evolutionary influence moral judgments. She includes the following items as examples:

  1. The fact that something would promote one’s survival is a reason against it.
  2. The fact that something would promote the interests of a family member is a reason not to do it.
  3. We have greater obligations to help complete strangers than we do to help our own children.
  4. The fact that someone has treated one well is a reason to do that individual harm in return.
  5. The fact that someone is altruistic is a reason to dislike, condemn, and punish him or her.
  6. The fact that someone has done one deliberate harm is a reason to seek out that person’s company and reward him or her.

My alternative thesis is this:

These "more basic behavioral and motivational tendencies" that evolution has worked on . . . these genetically inheritable "unreflective, non-linguistic, motivational tendency," are basic desires or the mechanisms by which basic desires are learned. That is all. Evolution has shaped our likes and dislikes, and the likes and dislikes we are disposed to acquire through interaction with our environment. Other evaluative judgments - particularly moral judgments - are not on this list.

It is going to take a few posts to lay out this argument.

Please bear with me.

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