Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Naturalistic vs. Manufactured Ends

It turns out that, in the last chapter of her book, On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse responded to the Darwinian objection to her theory.

In her response, she seems to see only three options:

(1) Darwinian theory underwrites the idea of a characteristic human nature that is the foundation of Aristotelian virtues.

(2) Darwinian theory provides a different set of naturalistic ends.

(3) Moral nihilism - humans evolved into an incoherent mess for whom flourishing is impossible since the different parts of our that which is characteristically human are in perpetual conflict.

In other words, either there is something in being “characteristically human” that provides the ends that we need to flourish, or we are doomed to the type of misery and suffering that has dominated human history.

This is a false dichotomy.

Our brains are “plastic” – meaning that we have the capacity to manufacture ends. Because of this, we do not need to depend on nature to provide us with harmonious ends, we can manufacture them. Of course, we have reason to manufacture ends that tend towards a harmonious whole. We certainly have no reason to create in others ends that conflict with our own. Insofar as we have an end – e.g., an aversion to pain – we have reason to manufacture in other people ends that are compatible with these natural ends – e.g., an aversion to causing pain to others.

What Darwinism gives us is not a set of naturalistic Darwinian ends. It gives us reason to believe that there are no ends but that desiring makes them so. There is reason for the belief-forming systems of our brain to aim for truth and, of these, more useful truths over those that are useless. False beliefs – e.g., that one can float when jumping off a cliff – can get one killed.

However, belief alone will not tell us what to do. To turn beliefs into actions we need desires. And there is no “truth” to desires – no natural ends to perceive. There are only desires that lead to genetic replication and those that do not. Yet, even genetic replication is not an end. It is an unintended side effect. Of course, only those whose desires produced this unintended side effect are with us today (with, perhaps, a few individual exceptions). But this fact does not make genetic replication an end.

Hursthouse does not deny this claim of plasticity in our ends. In fact, she argues for it. It plays a major role in her discussion of the moral education of children. You cannot train a child to be virtuous (or vicious, as depicted in her discussion of racism) unless there is a plasticity to the brain. She also points to cultural variation as proof of the placticity of ends. What she has apparently failed to recognize is that this plasticity of ends allows us to have a robust moral realism without the naturalistic ends of Aristotelianism or Darwinism. The plasticity itself is enough to give us morality.

The fact of plasticity, combined with our ability to determine how to use this to mold the ends of others, gives us reason to ask, “What ends should we mold?” Even accepting as true that there are no ends but that desiring makes them so, we still get the conclusion that the ends we have reason to manufacture universally are those that, when manufactured universally, tend to fulfill (rather than thwart) the desires of others. We have desire-based reasons to manufacture a harmony of ends.

It would be irrational to manufacture conflict, in the same way that it would be irrational for a person with an aversion to pain to put his hand in a hot fire.

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