Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Street 01: Starting Over - Evolution and Desires-as-Ends

I am starting over.

I found my attempts to present Sharon Street's arguments in, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value" to be confusing.

Consequently, I devoted some time to coming up with a way to do a better job of presenting my position on her argument. This post is the first post in this starting-over series.

First, the major thesis:

Facts about the theory of evolution imply that there are no intrinsic values.

Street did not express her thesis this way. She expressed her argument as an objection to realism about values. Equating value realism with intrinsic value realism requires the false assumption that values must be intrinsic properties to be real. I don't think that this is right. There are a lot of properties in the real world that are not intrinsic properties and, I would argue, value is one of them. Street provides a strong argument against intrinsic value realism. However, her argument does not actually show that realist theories of value are mistaken simply because real values are not intrinsic values.

However, that is a debate for another time and place. Here, it is sufficient to note that I am applying Street's argument to the more limited subject of intrinsic value realism. You can find a more detailed writeup of my objections to Street's terminology in Moral Objectivity and Moral Realism.

Street's argument against intrinsic value realism is that evolutionary forces have shaped our evaluative attitudes. Intrinsic values, if they exist, must either be related to what produces evolutionary fitness in humans, or unrelated. The thesis that they are related to evolutionary fitness fails because scientists have been able to advance the theory of evolution quite well without adding “intrinsic value properties" to the explanation. The thesis that they are unrelated implies an unreasonable coincidence between what we have evolved to like and dislike and what has intrinsic value. Either way, there is no reason to believe that there are intrinsic value properties.

The first point where I want to add some refinements to Street’s thesis is to this concept of “evaluative attitudes” that Street says is under the influence of evolutionary pressure. She wrote:

Evaluative attitudes I understand to include states such as desires, attitudes of approval and disapproval, unreflective evaluative tendencies such as the tendency to experience X as counting in favor of or demanding Y, and consciously or unconsciously held evaluative judgements, such as judgements about what is a reason for what, about what one should or ought to do, about what is good, valuable, or worthwhile, about what is morally right or wrong, and so on.

I want to take “desires” out of this list and set the others aside and deal with them later. The thesis that I want to look at states that desires have been subjected to evolutionary pressure and, as a result, it is unreasonable to believe that what we want has intrinsic value.

The term “desires “ is ambiguous. We use it to refer to both that which we value as an end or for its own sake and what we value as a means to that end. We want a hammer so that we can use it to pound nails. We wish to pound nails because we wish to build a shelter. We wish to build a shelter so that we can stay warm in the winter. We wish to stay warm in the winter because . . . well, we just do.

The first three desires (wants, wishes) for the hammer, to pound nails, and the shelter are desires-as-means - we want something for the sake of something else. The last item on the list is a desires-as-ends. We want it for its own sake, and not for the sake of something else. The desire-as-end (comfort in winter) provides the motivation for all of the other actions. Take away the desire for comfort in winter, and you take away the reason to buy a hammer and use it to pound nails to build a shelter.

When I claim that desires are subject to evolutionary forces, I am interested only in desires-as-ends. I would like to separate these from desires-as-means and leave the latter type of desire in the same bin with the other "evaluative attitudes" discussed above. I will argue that they actually belong together.

In the mean time, the thesis that I want to defend using Street's argument is the thesis that desires-as-ends have been subject to evolutionary pressure and, consequently, are unlikely to be desires-as-ends for something that also, at the same time, has an intrinsic quality of ought-to-be-desired-ness.

Desires-as-ends include the aversion to pain, desire for sex, hunger, thirst, our preferences for particular foods, comfort (in terms of not too hot or not too cold), friendships, and the well-being of one's offspring.

However, it is not the case that all of our desires-as-ends have a genetic basis. Humans have a "plastic" mind - meaning that our interactions with our environment work to shape our beliefs and desires-as-ends, to change them. Yet, even this mechanism for acquiring new desires-as-ends and reshaping or refining existing desires-as-ends went through evolutionary refinement. Nature has built us to learn to want that which contributed to the genetic replication of our ancestors and to learn to want to avoid that which threatened their genetic replication.

So, the first part of this argument is to specify that I am only concerned with desires-as-ends and wanting to show that they are under evolutionary pressure.

The second step in my argument - tune in tomorrow - will be to specify more precisely what I mean by "desires-as-ends". On that account, desires-as-ends are incapable of being "true" or "correct" in the way that beliefs can be. In the posts that follow, Street's argument will provide a defense of that provision. Come back tomorrow for that part.

The third step in my argument - for those who like to think ahead - will be to show that Street is not adverse to a distinction like the one I am making. She recognizes the need to distinguish between complex evaluative judgments and the simpler "proto-judgments" that evolution could have acted upon. I am simply specifying that her "proto-judgments" are desires. But there are important differences between desires-as-ends and Street's proto-judgments, and we will need to look at those.

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