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John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.3, “Sharon Street”

 summary by David Baggett

In 2006 Sharon Street published an article, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” which has been the subject of a considerable literature in reply. Her argument relies on the primary claim that our normative dispositions—that is, our dispositions to form certain normative beliefs rather than others—are (largely) selected because they have some natural property. For example, perhaps they contribute to reproductive success by promoting certain kinds of cooperation. But from the perspective of realism, accepting this claim defeats our epistemic entitlement to our normative beliefs, because we will come to be aware of the unlikely reliability of the processes that shaped those beliefs.

This is the Darwinian dilemma: the realist has either to deny the primary claim or to concede that her “normative judgments are, by her own lights, irrational.” She’s not arguing for skepticism or for the impossibility of ethical knowledge. Rather, she is trying to show that, if there is to be ethical knowledge, it has to be understood on an anti-realist model. Her point is that all that natural selection needs is our beliefs in the normative facts, not the normative facts themselves. If our normative and theological beliefs are largely the product of our evolutionary history, fitness-enhancing beliefs about morality and gods will be adopted, regardless of whether they are, in the realist sense, true or false. Even if a particular belief is false, it may promote genetic propagation.

This is the challenge. But there is a good response to it. Even if we grant that natural selection has given us normative belief-forming dispositions that are not truth-tracking, and that have in fact given us a mixture of “nasty” belief-forming dispositions and corresponding behaviors alongside other “nicer” ones, and even if we grant that therefore our normative beliefs are unreliable to the extent that they are given to us by natural selection, nothing follows about how many of our normative beliefs are formed in this way.

Consider the analogy with mathematical beliefs. To what extent do we have the ability to track truths about non-linear algebra? The point is that, even if we get our cognitive equipment from evolution, we can use that equipment to reach beliefs that are independent of adaptive value. It remains possible that cultural evolution has been operating to refine our normative stance in a truth-tracking way. If we use the phrase “cultural evolution” loosely, we can make the point that admitting a significant initial effect of biological evolution on belief formation does not license the conclusion that natural selection is the sole force in all our belief formation thereafter.

The initial effect of natural selection is still relevant, because, if we were given cognitive equipment that was hopelessly and permanently vitiated, then we could not hope to use this equipment to discriminate subsequently between the beliefs in the initial mixture that we should endorse and the ones we should reject. We would be, so to speak, fatally handicapped. But there is no reason to think our situation is hopeless in this way.

Are our current normative disposition all simply products of natural selection and not (partly or wholly) products of experience, reflection, and reasoning guided by moral reality as such? This is a metaphysical question, not one proper to science in its own domain. Ruse’s recognition of this separates him from Mackie. We need to distinguish the claims of science and the claims of “scientism,” which is the attempt, as Ruse puts it, to make science say everything. Metaphysical naturalism claims baldly that there is nothing beyond physical reality, but this is a claim that requires philosophical justification and is not within the proper sphere of science. Street’s argument does not give us any reason to believe that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Image: Australopithecus Afarensis, Lucy. C. Lorenzo. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.2, “Michael Ruse”

summary by David Baggett

Michael Ruse is an anti-realist, in some ways like Mackie, but in other ways different. He thinks ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators. Ruse is a moral skeptic. He does not think the sense of right and wrong has a justification at all. It’s an illusion foisted on us by our genes, like a mirage in the desert.

Yet Ruse is quite optimistic that our moral lives will not be affected by the kind of skepticism he endorses. Hare is skeptical of this, thinking we surely need some kind of justification for morality to answer the “normative question” of the first chapter. Not everybody is consistently moved by the forces of natural selection to cooperate in the way morality requires. Moral obedience is fragile. We do find precursors of the moral sentiments in our non-human ancestors, but we also find defection, and we have inherited both of these tendencies. We are by nature, in this sense, a mixture. But this means we need support from our cultural sources not only for our beliefs about what morality requires, but for our beliefs about why we should comply with it, or endorse it, why it’s valid as a demand on us. There’s evidence in the psychological literature that the force of the moral demand can be undermined by teaching, as Ruse does, that objective morality is an illusion. Saying that ethics is an illusion put in place by natural selection to make us good cooperators is likely to have the same undercutting effect as an egoist ethical theory has on economics students, particularly when morality might call for a sacrifice.

But is it just an unfortunate truth that morality is an illusion? What arguments does Ruse have for his skepticism? He has basically two, and they are versions of the same arguments we saw in Mackie. But here is the irony. Ruse ought not to accept either of them any longer because of differences from his mentor that he has come to have in other parts of his theory.

First, the argument from relativity. Ruse’s form of the argument makes a significant shift from the factual to the counterfactual. Ruse embodies a pendulum swing away from Mackie back to human universals, encoded in our genes (with environmental triggers). He appeals to what he calls “our shared psychological nature,” which includes a sense of right and wrong. So his argument from relativity is counterfactual. We could have had a quite different morality if our evolutionary history had been different. Since evolution could have taken a different path, there can’t be an objective set of values that lies behind our moral practice.

But for a divine command theorist this is not a successful objection. God could use evolution to produce the kind of creatures God wants to have, and this does not deny “random” mutation of the kind that Darwinian evolution proposes. Ruse concedes this, and agrees that a Christian can, consistently with science, “be committed to a form of what is known as the ‘divine command theory’ of metaethics.” But then the fact that humans could have evolved differently does not give us reason to think there is no objective value. Perhaps God willed us to evolve to recognize the values there actually are, and gave us commands to supplement the limits of this evolutionary history.

Ruse’s version of the argument from queerness is similarly undercut by his later concessions. He doesn’t use the term ‘queer’ but he does insist that it’s biological theory that requires us to take the skeptical position about justification. At the causal level, he thinks what’s going on is probably individual selection maximizing our own reproductive ends, and there’s no room here for objective rightness and wrongness. But Mackie was an atheist who thought theism was a “miracle.” Ruse, on the other hand, aims to expose the over-reaching character of some contemporary militant Darwinism that wants to turn science into metaphysics and to make science the arbiter of all truth. Darwinism, he holds, should not try to say everything. Whether there is or is not a God Ruse says he does not know, and science doesn’t tell him. Such claims go beyond science. He says in light of modern science someone can be a Christian and that he sees no arguments to the contrary.

To be consistent, though, Ruse should say the same of objective morality. Mackie’s argument from queerness required the premise that anything that has causal relations with the world must be accessible to science. Ruse at least sometimes now wants to deny this, and if he denies it then the foundation of the argument from queerness disappears. There’s a tension in Ruse’s thought that can be resolved by rejecting the skeptical hold-over from the less generous views of his mentor.

Here is a general principle worth emphasizing. Antagonism to realist claims in ethics or theology that made sense against the background of a thoroughgoing reductive empiricism makes no sense once that kind of empiricism is rejected.

 

Image: “Australopithecus sediba” by B. Eloff. Courtesy Profberger and Wits University who release it under the terms below. – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10094681

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.4, “Paul Bloom”

summary by David Baggett

This subsection is about a different kind of anti-realism, namely, anti-realism about God. It examines the question whether evolutionary psychology gives us any reason to doubt the existence of God. Since the claim that it’s irrational to believe in God is a presupposition of much of the literature Hare’s been considering, he thinks it’s worth discussing.

Bloom says that religion emerges as a by-product of certain highly structured systems that have evolved for understanding the social world. Another term sometimes used here is that religion is a “spandrel effect,” where the spandrel is the space (sometimes decorated) between the outer curve of an arch and the angle formed by the moldings enclosing it, so that the spandrel does not itself bear weight. Religion would be like the ability to understand calculus, not itself emerging because of adaptive claims, but made possible by faculties that did emerge in this way. Bloom says he’s trying to explain universal religious belief here, not those that vary from one culture to another, and not religious rituals.

There are two tendencies with which humans have evolved that are relevant here. The first is what Justin Barrett calls a “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD). Our tendency to find agency around us has no doubt arisen for survival reasons: “Better to guess that the sound in the bushes is an agent (such as a person or tiger) than assume it isn’t and become lunch.” The second tendency, less firmly established, is that we implicitly endorse a strong substance dualism of soul and body, of the kind defended by Plato and Descartes, and that this endorsement is a by-product of our possession of two distinct cognitive systems—one for dealing with material objects, the other for social entities. These tendencies might produce a belief that there is a supernatural agent behind natural phenomena and that this agent like our own souls is spiritual and not bodily.

Hare considers what the theological implications would be of Bloom being right about these two side effects. We can generally explore why people form the beliefs they do without that settling the question whether the beliefs are true. But in this case, the origins of the belief would cast its truth into question. Not unlike Freud’s argument that it would be irrational to believe in something just because one desperately wanted for it to be true.

So what is the bearing on the rationality of religious belief of the claim that there is an explanation of such belief from the two side effects? We should ask what kind of psychological explanation would resist being incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive supernaturalistic explanation, and whether the present explanation is one of these. It’s hard to give a general account, but perhaps this much is true. A psychological explanation of some phenomenon would resist such incorporation if it postulated a kind of causation of that phenomenon that would be inappropriate for God to employ. But there is no reason to think that it is inappropriate for God to use randomness, in the sense in which this is part of evolutionary theory. There is no reason to think that God would not allow us to acquire our basic cognitive capacities by random mutation plus natural selection.

So far this is a merely defensive maneuver. But perhaps more can be said. Following Justin Barrett’s work, we might suggest that the hypersensitive agency detection device is a form of access to religious belief that fits our nature well. In this book Hare has been arguing that the moral law, though it can’t be deduced from our nature, fits that nature well. Now we can suggest the same about our theistic belief acquisition. Barrett links the agency detection device with a set of subsystems designed to carry out particular tasks important for our survival. Concepts that are “minimally counter-intuitive” given the operation of these subsystems will seem plausible, and will be easily remembered and transmitted. This does not mean that these subsystems always yield true beliefs. We can’t deduce the truth of a belief from its deliverance by one of these subsystems. But these beliefs fit our nature, as constituted by these systems, exceedingly well.

For example, belief in a super-knowing god may be natural, helping account for children being “intuitive theists.” Barrett also suggests plausibly that the connection between God and moral concerns is intuitive as well. In other words, the theist can legitimately hold that God chooses means for our access to divine command that are not inappropriate but entirely fitting to our nature, the kind of means that we would expect creatures with cognitive subsystems like ours to use. Hare says we should conclude that at least from the evidence marshalled in the present section, there’s no demonstration that belief in God is irrational.

Image: “Neurons” by Penn State. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.3.1, “Evolution and Anti-Realism”

summary by David Baggett

This section explores whether evolutionary psychology gives us a reason to be anti-realists, either about value or about God. The first of these forms of anti-realism rejects the view described earlier as “prescriptive realism.” According to prescriptive realism, when we make moral judgments we are both expressing some attitude of the will or desire and claiming that evaluative reality is a certain way independently of our judgment, so that our judgment is appropriate to it. The second part of this, the realism, is at stake in the present context. Mackie, Ruse, and Street will be covered. The second form of anti-realism is about God, and the fourth part of this section, concerning Paul Bloom, will focus specifically on this.

8.3.1 “John Mackie”

We begin with John Mackie’s argument in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. His first sentence is, “There are no objective values.” He was Humean (like Haidt), and thought our tendency to believe in objective value results from what Hume called the mind’s “propensity to spread itself on external objects” together with the pressure of our sociality. He proposed an error theory, “that although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false.” In other words, Mackie conceded that realists are right about what moral language means, but he held that nonetheless what people mean when they make moral judgments is always false.

He conceded if DCT were true then moral judgments that claim objective prescriptivity would also be true, but he was an atheist and thought DCT false. He was also opposed to Kant’s universalism, and behind this to the biblical commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is simply impracticable, and inconsistent with human nature, he thought, because “a large element of selfishness—or, in an older terminology, self-love—is a quite ineradicable part of human nature,” and it’s doubtful any agency could effect the fundamental changes that would be needed to make practicable a morality of universal concern.

Mackie offered two arguments against realism, which he called the “argument from relativity” and the “argument from queerness.” The first says moral views are too diverse for us to suppose plausibly that we are all receptors of the same objectively prescriptive values beaming down to us. They rather seem to reflect participation in different ways of life.

But in reply, Hare says on DCT it’s unsurprising to find substantial variation in the reception of divine commands. First, in Kant’s language, we are born under the evil maxim, so that we have, in addition to the predisposition to good, the propensity to evil. The closer a faculty is to our heart or will, the more likely the faculty is to be distorted in its perceptions by the preference for our own happiness over what is good in itself, independently of its relation to ourselves. There are manifold ways in which it’s possible to get value perceptions wrong, and so there is manifold variety in moral views.

The contrast with color perception is interesting here. Though there are marginal differences in how different people split up the spectrum, there’s large-scale agreement.

Second, what God commands one set of people, or one person within a group, may be different from what God commands another.

A third important point is that Mackie may have been wrong about the amount of variety. The pendulum seems to have swung back within evolutionary psychology to the acknowledgment of human universals. It’s surprising in fact how much agreement there seems to be on basic principles between cultures, though the details and application of these principles vary substantially.

The argument from queerness is that the objectively prescriptive values that realism proposes and their effects on us are very strange things, not easily related to any kind of causation we know about within science. The simpler explanation is a subjectivist one. The notion of something objective in the world like rightness and wrongness is, in Mackie’s terms, “queer,” by which he meant inexplicable by scientific theory. He accepted that it might make sense if we believed in a God who was prescribing, but science acknowledges, in his view, no such thing.

Hare adds that Mackie was right to point out that a theist has less reason than an atheist to be an anti-realist about value. A divine command theorist already believes in a divine spiritual person outside normal science. She will still have valid questions about how a spiritual being communicates with material beings like us, but she will be less inclined to think such communication is impossible.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.2, “Evolution and Reducing the Moral Demand”

summary by David Baggett

The first way of thinking about the relation between evolution and morality is that evolution shows the idea of impartial benevolence to be utopian. 8.2.1 covers the views of Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart.

8.2.1 “Herbert Spencer and Larry Arnhart”

Here Hare looks at two attempts to oppose a Kantian or universal morality on the basis that it is unrealistic for our present condition, given our evolutionary endowment. Herbert Spencer is now deeply unpopular because of the use that was made of his eugenic ideas in the twentieth century. For Spencer, as Michael Ruse puts it, what holds as a matter of fact among organisms holds as a matter of obligation among humans. The relevant fact about organisms is the struggle for existence, and the consequent weeding out of the less fit, Spencer says.

He disparages efforts of those who advocated in the name of a universal humanitarianism for intervention by the state to counteract the effects of the unregulated market in 19th century Britain. In Germany this idea of the law of struggle was taken up, notoriously by Hitler in Mein Kampf. National Socialism took up also the idea of encouraging the natural order by which imbecile and unfit parts of the population are eliminated, and the highest form of life flourishes. Spencer didn’t think this natural order of struggle was permanent. He was a Lamarckian, not a Darwinian, and he thought that there would be human progress through the inheritance of acquired characteristics, so that the lower forms of human life most given to violence would decline, and we would end with universal peace. Still, in our current situation, he thought that we should let the order of nature weed out the unfit also in human society, since we are part of nature.

The particular application to eugenics and laissez-faire economics is not the important thing for our present purposes, but the general principle that we should follow our biological nature. Chapter 4 argued against what it called “deductivism,” the principle that we can deduce our moral obligations from human nature. The present principle is a species of deductivism, telling us that we can tell how we ought to live by looking at the nature of organisms in general, since we are organisms. The trouble with this principle is that the nature of organisms in general, and human nature in particular, contains characteristics that, when promoted in human society, produce evil as well as good by Kantian and utilitarian standards. To say this is not so much to argue against Spencer as to display some of the consequences of his view, and the same is true of Larry Arnhart. (Both thinkers seem to be aware of this.)

This deductivism is clearly displayed in Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, a work Hare earlier compared with Foot’s Natural Goodness. The governing principle of Arnhart’s book is that the definition of the good as the desirable (as in Aquinas) means that the good is what is generally desired, or what most people in every society throughout our time on earth have in fact desired. Arnhart claims that evolution has given us these desires because of their adaptive value, and he lists twenty of them. The claim is not that these desires are universal, because there can be defective individuals who lack them. But the principle of his book is that only if a desire is general in the above sense, or is a specification or application of such a desire, is its fulfillment good. The normative theory that results is one, he claims, that enables us to understand human nature within the natural order of the whole. He intends a contrast here with Christianity, which invokes the supernatural in explaining how we should live. And he faults Darwin for having been misled by the prevailing universal humanitarianism of his time into a utopian yearning for an ideal moral realm that transcends nature, a yearning that contradicts Darwin’s general claim that human beings are fully contained within the natural order. Arnhart doesn’t deny that humans have a natural sympathy for others, but, though sympathy can expand to embrace ever-larger groups based on some sense of shared interests, this will always rest on loving one’s own group as opposed to other groups. Arnhartian morality will always be, in the language of Chapter 3, self-indexed.

The important point for present purposes is that the list of twenty natural desires doesn’t include disinterested benevolence or the love of the enemy, and therefore the theory can’t say that the fulfillment of such desires or preferences is good. It’s significant that Aristotle is Arnhart’s philosophical hero, to whom he continually appeals. Aristotle thinks an admirable human life usually requires wealth and power and high status, and he may be right about the desires we’re born with, but it doesn’t follow that he’s right in his inference that the fulfillment of this ranking is good. The thesis of Hare’s book has been that “following nature” in this way is not a good alternative to following Kantian or Christian morality.

Wielenberg on Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

By Mark Linville

[Excerpt from a larger essay–my side of a printed debate on God and morality with Louise Antony–forthcoming in a new edition of Michael Peterson and Ray VanArragon, eds., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell). –MDL]
As a part of a larger project of defending an atheistic accounting of “robust ethics,” Erik Wielenberg has recently taken on such arguments and suggested a model for reconciling an evolutionary account of morality with his view that morality is objective (even “robust”).  One assumption of my argument so far has been that unless there is a direct connection between the reproductive advantage of our moral beliefs and their truth–so that their being true is responsible for their being fitness conferring–then we’ve no reason to assume their truth.  But as Nagel says, “value realism” is like an unattached spinning wheel.  It does no such explanatory work, and so we are left merely with the view that we have the moral beliefs we do because of their reproductive advantage–they have been fobbed off on us by our genes, as Ruse says.  Wielenberg instead posits an indirect connection that is routed through a “third factor”[1]— a set of evolved human cognitive faculties (e.g., reason).  It is plausible that certain cognitive faculties have evolved because they confer fitness upon their possessors.  Further, there is “wide agreement” that “if rights exist at all, their presence is guaranteed by certain cognitive faculties.”[2]  Suppose, then, that there are rights and that such rights are based upon those cognitive faculties.  It will follow that any creature with such cognitive faculties possesses rights, and any such creature who exercises those faculties to believe There are rights believes truly.  This, of course, is because having the cognitive faculties is both necessary for having the belief and sufficient for having the rights.

This is a neat way of explaining how evolution might ultimately be responsible for our having true moral beliefs, even if those beliefs are about non-natural truths.  Does it succeed?

Wielenberg is entitled to the assumption of rights due to the rhetorical context of his argument.  After all, I and others have argued that there would not be moral knowledge even if there were moral truths, and so his strategy–positing some moral truth and determining whether it could be known given the conditions laid down–is the natural way to proceed.  And his proposed model is, so far as I can tell, internally consistent.  After all, if our cognitive faculties are a product of our evolution, and if having such faculties is sufficient for having rights, then anyone capable of believing that there are rights is in possession of both the faculties and the rights.

But one wonders whether the assumption is safely lifted from the paper and transferred to the world itself.  Indeed, there are two assumptions at work: there are rights, and rights are based upon the possession of certain cognitive faculties.  Wielenberg cites “wide agreement” regarding the connection between those faculties and the possession of rights.  But the entrenched evolutionary skeptic might suggest that our belief in rights is just a part of that fobbed-off illusion.  When Bertrand Russell appealed to “wide agreement” regarding certain moral beliefs, George Santayana replied–no doubt with Darwin in mind–that such appeals are little better than “the inevitable and hygienic bias of one race of animals.”[4]  Further, given the background assumption of evolutionary naturalism, we might expect that such faculties themselves emerged as an evolutionary solution to the problem of survival and reproduction.  As such, they are of instrumental value as a means to such ends, much like opposable thumbs.  Can we rest the case for the intrinsic value of persons upon their possession of extrinsically valuable properties?  Human rationality is certainly good for humans just as arboreal acrobatic skills are good for rhesus monkeys, but beyond bald assumptions, does Wielenberg’s view provide the conceptual resources for thinking that it is a good in itself as would seem to be required for it to do the work assigned to it?

Wielenberg’s strategy may go some distance towards reducing the improbability of our possessing moral knowledge given the emergence of rational and moral agents who have both rights and a tendency to believe that they do.  But the model in itself fails to address a more astonishing cosmic coincidence to which Santayana pointed in his critique of Russell.  As an atheist and naturalist, Russell famously said, “Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving.”[5]   The forces of nature are not goal-oriented, and we should not think of the emergence of homo sapiens as the achievement of cosmic purposes.  We are here because nature “in her secular hurryings”[6] happened in at least one corner of the universe to throw spinning matter into the right recipe for things such as ourselves to form. But at the same time, Russell defended a view of morality that includes objective and intrinsic values–a form of Platonism not far from Wielenberg’s robust ethics. Santayana argued that these two commitments are mutually at odds.  As he saw, Russell’s moral philosophy implied that “In the realm of essences, before anything exists, there are certain essences that have this remarkable property, that they ought to exist, or at least, that, if anything exists, it ought to conform to them.”[7]  But Russell’s naturalism–and rejection of cosmic purpose–implies, “What exists…is deaf to this moral emphasis in the eternal; nature exists for no reason.”[8]   It would be marvelous indeed if, in the accidental world that Russell described, the very things that ought to exist should have come to be.  It would be as though among the eternal verities a special premium had forever been placed upon, say, conscious moral agents, and, despite the countless possibilities, and because of sheer dumb luck, the same had been fashioned and formed of Big Bang debris.  Presumably, Beings with cognitive faculties have rights is a necessary truth–if a truth at all–and, as such, it was inscribed in the Platonic empyrean long before the Big Bang.  How astonishing it seems that such things with that “remarkable property” of being such that they ought to exist–should have appeared at all when the things responsible for their emergence had no prevision of such an end.  Did we win the cosmic lottery?  Santayana observed that at least Plato had an explanation for such things because the Good that he conceived was a “power,” influencing the world of people and things so that the course that nature has in fact taken is determined at least in part by moral values.[9] It is for such reasons that Thomas Nagel has posited the idea that “value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.”[10]  Nagel’s good is a power, unlike Russell’s, and as such it plays a role in explaining the moral shape that the world has taken.  But presumably no such moral guidance was at work in Wielenberg’s universe, seeing to it that portions of the material world should be fashioned and formed into moral agents.  Yet here we are!

I think this point remains despite Wielenberg’s further ruminations on whether Darwinian Counterfactuals are, in fact, likely or even possible.  He suggests that if physical law does not strictly require that emergent moral agents should have developed moral sensibilities something like our own, so that evolution would naturally narrow the range of possible outcomes, it is highly likely–at least “for all we know.”  Daniel Dennett has suggested that there may be certain “forced moves” in evolutionary design space.  For instance, given locomotion, stereoscopic vision is predictable.[11]  Wielenberg seems to be suggesting a forced move of his own.  But both moves are forced–if at all–only once certain conditions are in place.  Nagel has a relevant observation here on precisely the example Dennett cites.


Even if we think it likely that the evolution of moral agents such as ourselves should drop into a predictable groove, we are still left to explain why the natural world should be deeply structured in such a way that its natural processes and algorithms should produce such agents at all.  The whole thing is quite wonderful, and without the guidance of God, a Platonic demiurge, or Nagel’s guiding values, it seems an astonishing bit of luck.  It adds an additional epicycle of coincidence to the so-called “anthropic coincidences” in that not only have we beat astonishing odds simply by arriving on the scene–because of the mind-boggling improbability that the universe should have permitted and sustained life of any kind–but that it is also the achievement of ends eternally declared to be good and morally desirable by necessarily true but causally impotent moral standards. It is a called shot, but without a Babe Ruth to place it.  To base one’s argument on an assumption that defies such odds seems a bit like planning one’s retirement on the assumption that one will win the lottery.  One might suggest that Wielenberg help himself to the additional unjustified assumption of Nagel’s causally effective guiding values, for this would fill a void in his view, and anyone with the liberality to grant the one (i.e., rights) is likely to grant the other.

 

Notes:

[1] To illustrate, suppose we notice a strong–even exceptionless–correlation between chilly weather and the turning of fall leaves.  But suppose we are told that the chill in the air is not the cause of the colorful leaves.  But then we consider a third factor–the earth’s tilt from the sun resulting in both less light and colder weather–which is responsible for both the color (due to the light) and the chill.

[2] Wielenberg, p. 145.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 274.

[5] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 107.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine and Platonism and the Spiritual Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 153.

[8] Ibid., p. 153.

[9] “Plato attributes a single vital direction and a single narrow source to the cosmos. This is what determines and narrows the source of the true good; for the true good is that relevant to nature. Plato would not have been a dogmatic moralist had he not been a theist.” Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, p. 143.

[10] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Consciousness, p. 116.

[11] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

[12] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 60.

 

Image: “Evolution” by M. Bruneke. CC. License.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Section 4.4.2, “Good Roots and Good Wolves”

summary by David Baggett

Hare admits that we should accept at least one central point from Foot and Hursthouse: there is a natural goodness that is conducive to the good life, or simply the good for both animals and plants. The roots of an oak tree are an example, which play a part in the life of the tree: they obtain nourishment. It matters in the life of the organism, and its absence would be a defect. This is an example of an Aristotelian categorical. Goodness in the roots is their ability to carry out this contribution to the life of the organism. We can deduce this goodness from this ability. Hare says this is an acceptable form of deductivism. This is not yet moral goodness, however.

RMH resisted any sort of deduction like this. But if we were to accept the notion of a primary goodness for, say, a tree, what would it mean to say a tree is good? We could say that something is good means one is drawn by it and to endorse the claim that the thing deserves to draw one in that way. Aquinas said goodness belongs to everything that is, and degrees of being and degrees of goodness are coextensive. So here would be a way to think of a tree as good: a tree is good because goodness belongs to everything that is. Another picture of goodness involves every kind of life created by God being good. Yet another, less theist, account of the goodness of, say, an oak tree says goodness consists in the range of features possessed by mature oaks that are flourishing, and this goodness is what the oak is aiming towards. (But this language of “aiming towards” is the language of final causation, and, while it is true that we make use of it continually for organisms, in both lay and professional talk, it is not clear whether it can be validated within the strict terms of the biological sciences.)

Can we make sense of the idea that animals have more value than plants in general, though this may not be true in all cases? Yes, Hare thinks, if there is value in the things animals can do that plants can’t. There are of course dangers with such a hierarchy, but Aristotle could be right about plants and animals and wrong to deny that all humans have the same basic value. On Hare’s view, all humans have the same basic value because they equally receive God’s call, not because they are now equally capable of valuable activities.

Even if we can give an account of the goodness of a tree, though, this is not what Foot was talking about when she said that the roots have a “function.” Foot tried to tie function to features that have to do, directly or indirectly, with self-maintenance or reproduction. Even so, the plants are in competition with each other, and not only with other species; there are strong specimens and weak, and just as many weak as strong. There is no deduction from a particular plant’s typical performance to its doing well or from the typical performance at a time for the set of members of a species to the species doing well.

Hursthouse has a corrective to this, conceding that on occasion it’s indeterminate whether an individual x is overall a good x, and that even an individual perfectly endowed in every relevant respect may still not live well given its circumstances. Survival, reproduction, pleasure or absence of pain, and the well-being of our social group are the natural ends against which we can measure whether some human life is a naturally good life, she claims. Hursthouse and Foot admit that these are value-laden and not simply statistical. But the picture leaves us without a way to say why some dispositions to pursue these four ends are good and some dispositions to pursue these same four ends are not. Even with plants, the result of Hursthouse’s corrective is to make the primary good of the oak frustratingly indeterminate.

Now we move to non-human animals. Foot characterizes a free-riding wolf as defective. RMH had resisted such deductions. What’s at issue here is the distinction between what Foot called “primary” and “secondary” goodness. A particular kind of pig or horse is useful to humans, for eating or riding, and this is secondary goodness. But the question is whether there is a kind of goodness for the pig or the horse in itself. RHM denies that ‘horse’ is a functional word like ‘screwdriver’ is. But Hare says this doesn’t show that there isn’t a primary goodness of horses. So far, Foot’s right.

A complication, though, is that RMH’s examples were of domesticated animals, which have been bred so as to serve human uses. Foot’s examples were of wild animals, the wolf and not the dog. For Foot, defect or natural goodness in an individual is relative not to the actual environment of the individual (like a zoo), but to the normal habitat of the species. Hare sees many difficulties here.

But the main case for the present chapter is the free-rider wolf. Is it defective? One reason this is important is that the cooperation of wolves is the kind of thing de Waal suggests is a precursor or requisite of human cooperation. On Hare’s view, in light of the contingency of the adaptiveness of a trait, there’s no determinate answer to the question of what the good incidence of the trait is within a species. The basic problem here, as Hare sees it, is that what Foot called Aristotelian categoricals work much better with an essentialist conception of species, like one Aristotle operated with.

Hare concludes that, in light of all this, we again need modesty about whether there are determinate answers in many cases to questions about whether an x is a good x, and indeed about the very notion of a species, since the different modes of classification are in part determined by different interests of ours. None of this bodes well for deductivism.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.3, Prescriptivism

Summary by David Baggett 

The third and fourth sections of this chapter are about a debate between RMH’s views about the objectivity of moral judgment and the contrasting attempt by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness and Rosalind Hursthouse in On Virtue Ethics to deduce conclusions about moral goodness by what Foot called a “natural-history story” from the characteristic form of life of the human species. Foot scholars divide up her career, like Plato’s, into three periods: an early Foot, a middle Foot, and a late Foot. Natural Goodness was late Foot. Hursthouse has added significant structure to Foot’s account. There are some ways that late Foot is more like RMH than early or middle Foot. But there still differences, and one of them is that Foot affirmed and RMH denied the deducibility of conclusions about moral goodness from facts about human nature. Hare will argue that we should accept some of the positions of each side in this dispute, but that form-of-life deductivism should be rejected.

One theme in this discussion of Foot will be that we need to disentangle her deductivism from her attack on what she calls “subjectivism.” Hare will argue we can be opposed to both subjectivism of various kinds and to deductivism. What is subjectivism? RMH didn’t like being dubbed either a subjectivist or non-cognitivist, though Foot called him this. The central error she was concerned with was the error of thinking that value is desire-based, rather than being (“objectively”) there whether it is desired or not. But there are at least three things this might mean, and they can be distinguished under three headings: “motivation,” “moral properties,” and “ideals.” RMH’s views can be helpfully separated under these headings.

 

4.3.1 Motivation

RMH held that when we make a moral or evaluative judgment we are expressing a pro-attitude toward, or an endorsement of, some prescription. The position Foot was attacking was what we might call “judgment internalism,” the view that motivation is internal to moral and evaluative judgment. Why did RMH care about this? He thought it was a true analysis of the logic or grammar of evaluative language. But something else needs emphasis. RMH, through his life, was concerned for the possibility of communication about moral matters between different cultures and different generations within the same culture. He thought that his account of the difference between the meaning of evaluative terms such as “good” and “wrong” and the criteria for the use of such terms in evaluative and moral judgment was important for the preservation of this possibility. He thought we were more likely to be capable of genuine dialogue over moral issues if we shared the meaning of these basic terms, and could then talk together about what criteria to employ for their use.

Whare god's commandhat did he think was the difference between meaning and criteria? He thought that it was given in the meaning of evaluative terms that, when we use them sincerely in an evaluative judgment, we commit ourselves to an imperative. If the judgment is a moral judgment about action, the imperative is a command to act a certain way. For RMH, the criteria for an evaluative judgment were the descriptive facts about the world that we use in our evaluations. An endorsement of the goodness of something is called “a decision of principle.” The principle here is that, say, knives are good when they are sharp, and my decision is to endorse this principle in commending the knife.

Here is one place the early Foot and RMH disagreed. She held that we can’t simply decide what criteria to apply; some are internal to the moral point of view. RMH didn’t think a claim that it’s wrong to run around a tree right-handed was unintelligible (the way Foot did), but of course he did think it wrong. He agreed to this point: we have the pro-attitudes that we have, and therefore call the things good which we do call good, because of their relevance to certain ends which are sometimes called “fundamental human needs.” This passage is remarkable because of its similarity to many things in late Foot. The difference is just that these considerations about the human form of life and its evolutionary history were located by RMH as constraints on criteria, whereas Foot did not admit the meaning/criteria distinction.

There is a second, more significant, place that RMH and Foot disagreed, and this gives one reason for Foot’s rejection of judgment internalism. Foot referred to the category of shamelessness. She thought it showed that a person may make a full-fledged moral judgment without endorsing the norms he is referring to in the judgment. RMH’s response to this was that shamelessness is most probably a rejection of conventional morality, thinking there’s something nonstandard or defective about such a case.

We could put this in terms of a natural-history story. The human form of life needs not only norms—for example, norms of justice—to hold us together, but also ways to express to each other that we are committed to such norms. We need a form of expression that conveys, across a huge range of evaluations, “if I were you, I would.” We need this function because we can’t carry out our characteristic human projects without it. Being social animals is a feature of our thought life as much as our action. Moral language is plausibly construed as having this social function. But as with all functions, misuse or defective use is possible. It’s like not being able to use a chisel except as a screwdriver.

This point about the function of evaluative language is what is essentially right about judgment internalism. It’s true that each side in the dispute can explain the same phenomena. For Foot, shamelessness is making a full-fledged moral judgment but one that can’t be lived by; for RMH, it is not making a full-fledged, but rather a defective moral judgment. But the internalist account preserves one central contribution that evaluative language makes to our form of life. The key is the implication of this disagreement for deductivism. RMH thought that this internalism about judgment meant that no deduction of evaluative judgment from descriptive facts was legitimate. But surprisingly, even if they were to agree that a full-fledged evaluative judgment is an expression of some state of desire or emotion or will, they could still disagree about whether the state of the world being commended in such a judgment is a state of the world with natural properties and evaluative properties that have some kind of mutually implicative relation.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism

By Mark D. Linville

Darwin’s account of the origins of human morality is at once elegant, ingenious, and, I shall argue, woefully inadequate.  In particular, that account, on its standard interpretation, does not explain morality, but, rather, explains it away.  We learn from Darwin not how there could be objective moral facts, but how we could have come to believe—perhaps erroneously—that there are.

Further, the naturalist, who does not believe that there is such a personal being as God, is in principle committed to Darwinism, including a Darwinian account of the basic contours of human moral psychology.   I’ll use the term evolutionary naturalism to refer to this combination of naturalism and Darwinism.  And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away.  Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false.  I conclude the essay with a brief account of a theistic conception of morality, and argue that the theist is in a better position to affirm the objectivity of morality.

A Darwinian Genealogy of Morals

According to the Darwinian account, given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape—i.e., the circumstances of survival—certain behaviors are adaptive.  And so, any propensity for such behaviors will also be adaptive.  Such explains the flight instinct in the pronghorn, the spawning instinct in the cutthroat salmon and my instinctual aversion to insulting Harley riders in biker bars.  Insofar as such propensities are genetic (at least the first two examples would seem to qualify here), they are heritable and thus likely to be passed down to offspring.

Imagine, for example, a time in the early history of hominids when the circumstances of survival prompted an early patriot (and kite-flying inventor, perhaps) to advise, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all be torn apart by ravenous wolves.”  Insofar as such cooperation depends upon heritable dispositions of group members, those dispositions will confer fitness.

Darwin speaks of “social instincts” that are at the root of our moral behavior.

These include a desire for the approbation of our fellow humans and a fear of censure. They also include a general sympathy for others.  He explains,

In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities  which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.[1]

A favored “complex manner” of the origin of such feelings involves an appeal to two varieties of altruism: kin altruism is directed at family members—chiefly one’s offspring—and reciprocal altruism is directed at non-family members and even to strangers.  The former is an other-regarding attitude and behavior—particularly concerning one’s own children, but extending in descending degrees to other family members—that does not seek any returns.  The advantage, of course, is in the reproductive success.  The sense of parental duty that is possessed by, say, a female sea turtle ensures only that she lay her eggs somewhere above the high tide mark.  From there, her relatively self-sufficient offspring are quite on their own against daunting odds —something like a one in ten thousand chance of reaching maturity.  Those odds are offset by the sheer numbers of hatchlings so that a fraction manage to survive the elements and elude myriads of predators.

Such a numbers strategy would hardly work for the human species, given the utter helplessness of the human infant.  Babies tend to suffer an inelegant fate if left untended.  The probability that a human infant will die if left to its own resources at, say, just above the high tide mark, is a perfect 1.  And those same odds would prevail for each of ten thousand similarly abandoned babies.  (Word would spread quickly in the wild: “Hey, free babies!”)  Human parents possessed of no more parental instinct than sea turtles would find that their line came to an abrupt end.  Thus, a strong sense of love and concern is adaptive and heritable, and has the same function—a means to reproductive success—among humans that hatchling self-sufficiency and sheer numbers have among turtles.

Reciprocal altruism, on the other hand, is rooted in a tit-for-tat arrangement that ultimately confers greater reproductive fitness on all parties involved.  Consider, for instance, the symbiotic relationship that exists between grouper and cleaner shrimp.  Though the shrimp would certainly make a nice snack for a hungry grouper and is busily flossing the fish’s teeth from the inside, the benefit of long-term hygiene (Whiter teeth! Fresher breath!) outweighs that of short-term nourishment, and so the fish is programmed to pass on the prawn. The shrimp, of course, benefits from a delectable meal of the gunk otherwise responsible for halitosis in grouper.

Similarly, there is benefit to be gained from cooperative and altruistic behavior among humans.  For example, Darwin observes,

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.[2]

And membership in such a victorious tribe has its advantages.  To attempt a metaphor, when a baseball team functions like a well-oiled machine, say, with a Tinker, Evers and Chance infield, the likelihood that all of the members will sport World Series rings is increased.

Thus, the human moral sense—conscience—is rooted in a set of social instincts that were adaptive given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape.  Of course, there is more to the moral sense than the instincts that Darwin had in mind.  All social animals are possessed of such instincts, but not all are plausibly thought of as moral agents.[3]  According to Darwin, conscience emerges out of a sort of “recipe.”  It is the result of the social instincts being overlain with a certain degree of rationality.  He writes,

The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.[4]

Wolves in a pack know their place in the social hierarchy.  A lower ranked wolf feels compelled to give way to the alpha male.  Were he endowed with the intellectual powers that Darwin had in mind, then, presumably his “moral sense” would tell him that obeisance is his moral duty.  He would regard it as a moral fact that, like it or not, alpha interests trump beta or omega interests.  And our grouper, if graced with rational and moral autonomy, might reason, “It would be wicked of me to bite down on my little buddy here after all he has done for me!”

Of course, such a “recipe” is precisely what we find in the human species, according to Darwin.  We experience a strong pre-reflective pull in the direction of certain behaviors, such as the care for our children or the returning of kindness for kindness, and, on reflection, we conclude that these are our moral duties.

Evolutionary Naturalism and Moral Knowledge

It is not clear that the resulting account of the origin and nature of human morality does full justice to its subject.  For one thing, it is hard to see why anyone who accepts it is warranted in accepting moral realism—the view that there are objective, mind-independent moral facts that we sometimes get right in our moral beliefs.  For it would appear that the human moral sense and the moral beliefs that arise from it  are ultimately the result of natural selection, and their value is thus found in the adaptive behavior that they encourage.  But then it seems that the processes responsible for our having the moral beliefs that we do are ultimately fitness-aimed rather than truth-aimed.   This is to say that, in such a case, the best explanation for our having the moral beliefs that we do makes no essential reference to their being true.

If we have the moral beliefs we do because of the fitness conferred by the resulting behavior, then it appears that we would have had those beliefs whether or not they were true.  Some writers have taken this to imply that ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes in order to get us to cooperate.”[5]  This is to suggest that there are no objective moral facts, though we have been programmed to believe in them.  A more modest conclusion might be that we are not in a position to know whether there are such facts because our moral beliefs are undercut by the Darwinian story of their genesis.  This is because that story makes no essential reference to any such alleged facts.   Thus, our moral beliefs are without warrant.  But if our moral beliefs are unwarranted, then there can be no such thing as moral knowledge.  And this amounts to moral skepticism.

If the argument developed here succeeds, its significance is in its implications for the naturalist, who maintains that reality is exhausted by the kinds of things that may, in principle, be the study of the empirical sciences.  For the naturalist’s wagon is hitched to the Darwinian star.  Richard Dawkins was recently seen sporting a T-shirt that read, “Evolution: The Greatest Show on Earth, The Only Game in Town.”  Perhaps Dawkins’ shirt reflects his more careful comment elsewhere that, “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[6]  Before Darwin, the inference to Paley’s Watchmaker seemed natural, if not inevitable, given a world filled with things “that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”[7] Naturalism without Darwinism is a worldview at a loss for explanation.  Further, to appeal to natural selection to explain libidos and incisors, but to withhold such an explanation for human moral psychology is an untenable position.  Moral behavior is not the sort of thing likely to be overlooked by natural selection because of the important role that it plays in survival and reproductive success.[8]   But if naturalism is committed to Darwinism, and Darwinism implies moral skepticism, then naturalism is committed to moral skepticism.

Darwinism and Normativity

In The Descent of Man, Darwin asks, “Why should a man feel that he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”[9]  His subsequent answer is that the stronger of two conflicting impulses wins out.  Thus, the otherwise timid mother will, without hesitation, run the greatest risks to save her child from danger because the maternal instinct trumps the instinct for self-preservation.  And the timid man, who stands on the shore wringing his hands while allowing even his own child to drown out of fear for his own life, heeds the instinct for self-preservation.[10]

What Darwin never asks—and thus never answers—is why a man ought, in fact, to obey the one rather than the other.  The best that he offers here is the observation that if instinct A is stronger than B, then one will obey A.  What he does not and, I suggest, cannot say is that one ought to obey A, or that one ought to feel the force of A over B.  That is, whereas Darwin may be able to answer the factual question that he does ask— why people believe and behave as they do—this does nothing to answer the normative question of how one ought to behave or of what sets of instincts and feelings one ought to cultivate in order to be virtuous.  It is, of course, one thing to explain why people believe and behave as they do; it is quite another to say whether their beliefs are true (or at least warranted) and their behaviors right.  As it stands, it appears that Darwin has precious little of moral import to say to the timid man.

One could, I suppose, reply on Darwinian grounds that the father who lacks a strong paternal instinct is abnormal, lacking traits that are almost universally distributed throughout the species and are, perhaps, even kind-defining.[11]  Darwin refers to the man who is utterly bereft of the social instincts as an “unnatural monster.”  Doesn’t this observation lend itself to a normative evaluation of behaviors?  Who wants to be a monster, after all?  But it is not at all clear that this can give us what is needed.  After all, departure from a statistical average is not necessarily a bad thing.  If the average adult’s IQ is around 100, Stephen Hawking is something of a freak.  And, presumably, the first hominids to use tools (Hawking’s direct ancestors, perhaps?) or to express themselves in propositions were unique in their day.[12]   Indeed, the Gandhis and Mother Theresas of the world are certainly abnormal—enough that one evolutionary naturalist refers to them as “variations”—yet we tend to like having them around.

I suppose that the evolutionary naturalist could go on to observe that, not only do we notice that the timid father is different in that his parental instinct was not sufficient to prompt him to rescue his child, but it is a difference that naturally elicits negative moral emotions.  We disapprove of him and think him blameworthy.  Indeed, perhaps the man later experiences some negative moral emotions himself, such as   “remorse, repentance, regret, or shame.”[13]  According to Darwin, the sense of guilt is the natural experience of anyone who spurns the prompting of any of the more enduring social instincts, and it bears some similarity to the physical or mental suffering that results from the frustration of any instinct of any creature.  Darwin considers the suffering of the caged migratory bird that will bloody itself against the wires of the cage when the migratory instinct is at its height.  Indeed, he considers that conflict between the migratory and maternal instincts in the swallow, which gives in to the former and abandons her young in the nest.  He speculates,

When arrived at the end of her long journey, and the migratory instinct has ceased to act, what an agony of remorse the bird would feel, if, from being endowed with great mental activity, she could not prevent the image constantly passing through her mind, of her young ones perishing in the bleak north from cold and hunger.[14]

Like the moral sense in general, guilt is the yield of a sort of recipe: one part spurned instinct to one part “great mental activity” that permits remembrance and remorse.  And so, when our timid man’s own personal danger and fear is past so that the strength of his selfish instinct has receded, the scorned paternal instinct will have its revenge.  Also, because we are social animals, we are endowed with sympathies that make us yearn for the approbation of our fellows and fear their censure.  The cowardly father is thus likely in for a long bout of insomnia.  Further, Darwin may explain that the experience of remorse may result in a resolve for the future, with the further result that the paternal instinct is bolstered and stands a greater chance of being the dominant of two conflicting instincts.  Thus, “Conscience looks backwards, and serves as a guide for the future.”[15]

But even if we are assured that a “normal” person will be prompted by the social instincts and that those instincts are typically flanked and reinforced by a set of moral emotions, we still do not have a truly normative account of moral obligation.  There is nothing in Darwin’s own account to indicate that the ensuing sense of guilt—a guilty feeling—is indicative of actual moral guilt resulting from the violation of an objective moral law.  The revenge taken by one’s own conscience amounts to a sort of secondorder propensity to feel a certain way given one’s past relation to conflicting first-order propensities (e.g., the father’s impulse to save his child versus his impulse to save himself).  Unless we import normative considerations from some other source, it seems that, whether it is a first or second-order inclination,16one’s being prompted by it is more readily understood as a descriptive feature of one’s own psychology than material for a normative assessment of one’s behavior or character.  And, assuming that there is [16]anything to this observation, an ascent into even higher levels of propensities (“I feel guilty for not having felt guilty for not being remorseful over not obeying my social instincts…”) introduces nothing of normative import.  Suppose you encounter a man who neither feels the pull of social, paternal or familial instincts nor is in the least bit concerned over his apparent lack of conscience.  What, from a strictly Darwinian perspective, can one say to him that is of any serious moral import?  “You are not moved to action by the impulses that move most of us.”  Right. So?

The problem afflicts contemporary construals of an evolutionary account of human morality.  Consider Michael Shermer’s explanation for the evolution of a moral sense—the “science of good and evil.”  He explains,

By a moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions.  For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing “good.”  These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or for the group.[17]

Shermer goes on to compare such moral emotions to other emotions and sensations that are universally experienced, such as hunger and the sexual urge.  He then addresses the question of moral motivation.

In this evolutionary theory of morality, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry?” or “Why should we be horny?”  For that matter, we could ask, “Why should we be jealous?” or “Why should we fall in love?”  The answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.[18]

Thus, according to Shermer, given an evolutionary account, such a question is simply a non-starter.  Moral motivation is a given as it is wired in as one of our basic drives.  Of course, one might point out that Shermer’s “moral emotions” often do need encouragement in a way that, say, “horniness,” does not.  More importantly, Shermer apparently fails to notice that if asking “Why should I be moral?” is like asking, “Why should I be horny?” then asserting, “You ought to be moral” is like asserting, “You ought to be horny.”  As goes the interrogative, so goes the imperative.  But if the latter seems out of place, then, on Shermer’s view, so is the former.

One might thus observe that if morality is anything at all, it is irreducibly normative in nature.  But the Darwinian account winds up reducing morality to descriptive features of human psychology.  Like the libido, either the moral sense is present and active or it is not.  If it is, then we might expect one to behave accordingly.  If not, why, then, as a famous blues man once put it, “the boogie woogie just ain’t in me.”  And so the resulting “morality” is that in name only.

In light of such considerations, it is tempting to conclude with C. S. Lewis that, if the naturalist remembered his philosophy out of school, he would recognize that any claim to the effect that “I ought” is on a par with “I itch,” in that it is nothing more than a descriptive piece of autobiography with no essential reference to any actual obligations.

A Naturalist Rejoinder

A familiar objection to my line of argument is that it assumes what is almost certainly false: that all significant and widely observed human behavior is genetically determined as the result of natural selection.  Daniel Dennett refers to this assumption as “greedy reductionism.” Dennett observes that all tribesmen everywhere throw their spears pointy-end first, but we should not suppose that there is a “pointy-end first gene.”[19] The explanation rather resides in the “non-stupidity” of the tribesmen.  And when C.S. Lewis’s character, Ransom, was at first surprised to discover that boats on Malacandra (Mars) were very similar to earthly boats, he caught himself with the question, “What else could a boat be like?’” (The astute Lewis reader might also have noticed that Malacandran hunters throw their spears pointy-end first, despite being genetically unrelated to humans, just as Dennett might have predicted.)  Some ideas are just better than others and, assuming a minimal degree of intelligence, perhaps we have been equipped to discover and implement them.

One might thus insist that perhaps all that evolution has done for us is to equip us with the basic capacities for intelligent decision-making and problem-solving, and the enterprise that is human morality is the product of human rationality; not the mere outworking of some genetic program.  If the process that has led to our having the moral beliefs we do has involved conscious rational reflection, then we have reason for optimism regarding our facility for tracking truth.  We have no more cause for moral skepticism than we do, say, mathematical skepticism.

The same greedy reductionism might be thought to plague my argument that

Darwinian accounts of human morality are merely descriptive.  I have said above that, “unless we import normative considerations from some other source,” we are left with a merely descriptive rather than a normative account.  My critic may insist here that we do bring in normative considerations from elsewhere, namely, from moral theory.  If there are true moral principles that yield moral directives and values, then, regardless of how one does feel and behave, it will remain the case that he ought to behave in a certain way.

For example, should it prove true that humans have a natural propensity for xenophobia as a part of their evolutionary heritage, we might nevertheless conclude that, say, a respect-for-persons principle requires that they overcome such fear and potential mistreatment of strangers.  The mere fact that people have a propensity for a behavior does not entail that it is justified.

I plead not guilty to the charge of greedy reductionism.  The argument in no way supposes that well-formed moral beliefs are somehow programmed by our DNA.  Richard Joyce considers the belief, “I ought to reciprocate by picking up Mary at the airport.”[20]  He then asks, “What does natural selection know of Mary or airports?”  Or consider a mother’s belief, “I ought to ensure that my child gets plenty of fruits and vegetables.”  There is, of course, no imperative regarding the dietary needs of toddlers that may be read off of the DNA.  One might as well suppose that there is a genetically programmed human tendency directed specifically at popping bubble wrap.

But Darwin’s account certainly does imply that the basic predisposition for repaying kindness with kindness or for caring for one’s offspring is programmed, and that such programs run as they do because of the reproductive fitness that is—or was for our remote ancestors—achieved by the resulting behaviors.

Philosopher Mary Midgley speaks of instincts as “programs with a gap.”[21]  Consider, for instance, the migratory instinct of the sandhill crane.  The basic drive to follow the sun south every winter is genetically programmed.  But there is a “gap” that allows for variations in the itinerary.  Midgley notes that the more intelligent the species is the wider is the gap so that room is available for deliberation and rational reflection.  Less psychologically complex creatures may be strictly determined in their behavior by their genetic hardwiring.  As P.G. Wodehouse’s newt-loving character, Gussie Fink-Nottle explains to Bertie Wooster, “Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semicircle.”[22]  Assuming Gussie’s description is accurate, we may also safely assume that newt courting behavior, unlike that observed in aristocratic British bachelors, is genetically choreographed.   In humans, the “gap” allows for countless ideas and beliefs that clearly are the products of culture rather than biology.

Still, the basic programming itself is, on Darwin’s scheme, determined by our genetic makeup, and, therefore, so is the range of rational options in that “gap” of deliberation.  Given the perennial problem of tribal warfare, early tribesmen reasoned that thrown spears are far more effective than thrown bananas.  But had humans evolved to be non-aggressive herbivores, spears might have been, well, pointless.   Had the course of human evolution been such that human infants, like baby sea turtles, were self-reliant, the human maternal instinct might never have evolved as a means to the end of reproductive fitness.    Indeed, Darwin thought that, had the circumstances for reproductive fitness been different, then the deliverances of conscience might have been radically different.

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.[23]

As it happens, we weren’t “reared” after the manner of hive-bees, and so we have widespread and strong beliefs about the sanctity of human life and its implications for how we should treat our siblings and our offspring.

But this strongly suggests that we would have had whatever beliefs were ultimately fitness-producing given the circumstances of survival.  Given the background belief of naturalism there appears to be no plausible Darwinian reason for thinking that the fitness-producing predispositions that set the very parameters for moral reflection have anything whatsoever to do with the truth of the resulting moral beliefs.  One might be able to make a case for thinking that having true beliefs about, say, the predatory behaviors of tigers would, when combined with the an understandable desire not to be eaten, be fitness-producing.  But the account would be far from straightforward in the case of moral beliefs.[24]   And so the Darwinian explanation undercuts whatever reason the naturalist might have had for thinking that any of our moral beliefs are true.  The result is moral skepticism.

If our pre-theoretical moral convictions are largely the product of natural selection, as Darwin’s theory implies, then the moral theories that we find plausible are an indirect result of that same evolutionary process.  How, after all, do we come to settle upon a proposed moral theory and its principles as being true?  What methodology is available to us?

By way of answer, consider the following “chicken-and-egg” question.  Which do we know more certainly: the belief, It is wrong to stomp on babies just to hear them squeak, or some true moral principle that entails the wrongness of baby-stomping?  In moral reflection, do we begin with the principle, and only then, principle in hand, come to discover the wrongness of recreational baby-stomping as an inference from that principle?  Or do we begin with the belief that baby-stomping is wrong and then arrive at the principle that seems implicated by such a belief?  Pretty clearly, it is the latter.  We just find ourselves with certain beliefs of a moral nature, and actually appeal to them as touchstones when we engage in conscious moral reflection.  Indeed, if we were to conclude that some philosopher’s proposed moral principle would, if true, imply the moral correctness of recreational baby-stomping, then we might say, “So much the worse for that proposed principle.”  As philosopher Mary Midgley has put it, “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed.”[25] This methodology, which begins with deep-seated, pre-reflective moral beliefs and then moves to moral principles that are implicated by them, is sometimes called reflective equilibrium.[26]

Presumably, reflective equilibrium, employed by bee-like philosophers in those worlds envisioned by Darwin, would settle upon moral principles that implied the rightness of such things as siblicide and infanticide.  Thus, the deliverances of the moral theories endorsed in such worlds are but the byproducts of the evolved psychologies in such worlds.  But, again, this suggests that our pre-theoretical convictions are largely due to whatever selection pressures happened to be in place in our world.   If this is so, then the deliverances of those moral theories that we endorse, to which we might appeal in order to introduce normative considerations, are, in the final analysis, byproducts of our evolved psychology.  The account, as it stands, thus never takes us beyond merely descriptive human psychology.

A Theistic Alternative

The worry, then, is that our efforts at moral reflection are compromised by features of our constitution that are in place for purposes other than the acquisition of truth.  As philosopher Sharon Street puts it,

If the fund of evaluative judgments with which human reflection began was thoroughly contaminated with illegitimate influence . . . then the tools of rational reflection were equally contaminated, for the latter are always just a subset of the former.[27]

In order to inspire confidence in those initial evaluative judgments of which Street speaks, the moral realist owes us some account of their origin that would lead us to suppose that they are reliable indicators of truth.  What we need is some assurance that our original fund is not contaminated.  And so our question is, What reason have we for supposing that the mechanisms responsible for those judgments are truth-aimed?  What we seek is what Norman Daniels calls “a little story that gets told about why we should pay homage ultimately to those [considered] judgments and indirectly to the principles that systematize them.”[28]

It is just here that the theist may oblige us in a way that the naturalist may not.  Robert Adams, for example, has suggested that things bear the moral properties that they do—good or bad—insofar as they resemble or fail to resemble God.  He goes on to offer the makings of a theistic “genealogy of morals.”

If we suppose that God directly or indirectly causes human beings to regard as excellent approximately those things that are Godlike in the relevant way, it follows that there is a causal and explanatory connection between facts of excellence and beliefs that we may regard as justified about excellence, and hence it is in general no accident that such beliefs are correct when they are.[29]

The theist is thus in a position to offer Daniels’ “little story” that would explain the general reliability of those evaluative judgments from which reflective equilibrium takes its cue.  Certain of our moral beliefs—in particular, those that are presupposed in all moral reflection—are truth-aimed because human moral faculties are designed to guide human conduct in light of moral truth.[30]  The moral law is “written upon the heart,” the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome.

Conclusion

A century ago, the philosopher Hastings Rashdall observed,

So long as he is content to assume the reality and authority of the moral consciousness, the Moral Philosopher can ignore Metaphysic; but if the reality of Morals or the validity of ethical truth be once brought into question, the attack can only be met by a thorough-going enquiry into the nature of Knowledge and of Reality.[31]

We have seen that both the evolutionary naturalist and the theist may be found saying that certain of our moral beliefs are by-products of the human constitution: we think as we do largely as a result of our programming.  Whether such beliefs are warranted would seem to depend upon who or what is responsible for the program.  And this calls for some account of the metaphysical underpinnings of those beliefs and the mechanisms responsible for them.  Are those mechanisms truth-aimed?  And are they in good working order?  The sort of account available to the evolutionary naturalist ends in moral skepticism.  The theist has a more promising story to tell.[32]

Notes:

[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2004), 88.

[2] Darwin, Descent, 112.

[3] And, of course, though any two species of social animals have in common the fact that they are prompted by social instincts, the resulting behavior may vary widely.  It is not clear, for instance, which of the grazing Guernseys is the “alpha cow.” Wiener dogs seem not to come equipped with the obsessive herding instincts of border collies, and would likely endure derisive laughter from the sheep if they did.

[4] Darwin, Descent, 81.

[5] Michael Ruse and E.O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences, ed. J.E. Huchingson (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 310-11.

[6] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton & Co., 1986), 6.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life,” Biology and Philosophy 18/5 (2003): 653-88.

[9] Darwin, Descent, 91.

[10] I cannot resist including a personal anecdote here.  I once rescued a young man from drowning in the Mississippi River.  After I swam out and pulled him to shore, his mother, who had watched helplessly from the beach,  explained that she would have saved him herself but she could not go into the water because her toe was infected.  She produced the sore toe.  I had to agree that it did look very sore.

[11] The Chinese philosopher Mencius seems to have maintained that the possession of at least the rudimentary “seeds” of the virtues (e.g., the feeling of commiseration is the seed of the virtue of jen —“human-heartedness”) are essential to humanity so that anyone lacking them would not be human.

[12] Consider Gary Larson’s cartoon depicting a group of cave men.  To the left is a small group huddled around a fire, roasting drumsticks by clenching them in their fists directly over the flames.  They are all very obviously in agony.  To the right is another fire with only one cook.  He has the meat roasting on a stick, and is seated at a comfortable distance.  A member of the group to the left has noticed this, and is saying, “Look what Og do!”

[13] Darwin, Descent, 94.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 95.

[16] So if the impulse either to save the child or one’s own hide is a first-order inclination, second-order inclinations would include feelings of, say, guilt or pride regarding the first-order propensities and resulting actions.

[17] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Times Books, 2004), 56.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 486.

[20] Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 180.

[21] See Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (London: Routledge Press, 1979).

[22] Taken from P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves (New York: Penguin, 2000), ch. 2.

[23] Darwin, Descent, 82.

[24] Here’s why.  This would imply, for instance, that human mothers are possessed of a powerful maternal instinct for the prior reason that it is true that they have a moral duty to care for their children.  But, given naturalism, the simpler explanation for the maternal instinct is just that it confers reproductive fitness.  Why think that moral facts have any role to play—particularly when we observe similar instinctual behavior in animals that are not plausibly thought of as moral agents?  Further, to what mechanism could the naturalist plausibly appeal to explain how reproductive fitness “tracks” moral truth?  For more on this, see Sharon Street’s excellent paper, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127 (2006): 109-166.

 

[25] Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands,” in Christine Pierce and Donald VanDeVeer eds., People, Penguins and Plastic Trees (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1986), 157.

[26] Reflective equilibrium involves more than this one-way move from particular beliefs to general principles.  In actual practice, it begins with those pre-reflective beliefs, moves from there to systemizing principles, and then back to other particular beliefs that are entailed by the principles.  There is always a standing possibility that an entailed beliefs is incompatible with one or another of the beliefs with which one began.  In that case, adjustment and revision is called for.  The goal is to arrive at a set or system of principled beliefs that is internally consistent and plausible.

[27] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value. Philosophical Studies, 127 (2006), 125.

[28] Norman Daniels, “Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics,” Journal of Philosophy 76/5 (1979): 265.

[29] Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 70.

[30] For the purposes of this argument, the appeal to “design” leaves open the question of whether the process responsible for the appearance of moral agents was evolutionary in nature.  Daniels’ “little story” requirement is satisfied whether the tale involves special creation or directed evolution.

[31] Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1907), 192.

[32] As always, I wish to thank David Werther for his many helpful comments on and criticisms of earlier versions of this essay.

 

Photo: “Emptiness in Decay” by H. Adam. CC License. 

The Inadequacy of a Naturalistic Virtue Ethic (Part 1 of 2)

By Jonathan Pruitt 

(part 2)

In this essay, my aim is to show that naturalism does not provide an adequate ground for a virtue ethic. In order to that, I will first say what a virtue ethic is, then how a naturalist might construe a virtue ethic, and finally give some reasons to think such efforts likely fail.

The Features of a Virtue Ethic

Linda Zagzebski provides a concise definition of virtue ethics: “Traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics makes the concept of virtue dependent upon the more basic concept of eudaimonia – happiness or flourishing. Eudaimonia is in turn dependent upon the idea of human nature, understood as teleological.”[1] This definition can be broken down into three essential parts: teleology, eudaimonia, and the virtues.[2] If these parts are essential to a virtue ethic, then any theory claiming to be a virtue ethic must account for all three of these.

In order to account for the telos of human nature, a theory must say how it is that humans have genuine purpose.

When Aristotle uses eudaimonia he has in mind the ideal or best kind of life possible for a thing. Aristotle thought of eudaimonia as the chief end of man, the good under which all other goods are subsumed. Theories of virtue connect eudaimonia with the human telos so that living up to one’s telos counts as the highest good possible for a human.  Thus, an adequate virtue ethic must say how achieving the human telos, if there is one, counts as good for humans.

A virtue is a means of achieving one’s end, but it is simultaneously bound up in the end itself. By practicing a virtue, a person both helps to bring about eudaimonia and participates in it. If the ideal for humans includes compassion, then by being compassionate we ought to bring ourselves closer to the human ideal. If compassion does not have this means/ends relation to eudaimonia, it does not count as a virtuous activity.

Here is the upshot:  if virtue ethics is correct, then there are at least three facts in need of explanation: (1) that humans have a telos, (2) that achieving the telos is the highest moral good for a human, and (3) that the way to bring about that telos is through the practice of the virtues.

Naturalistic Virtue Ethics (NVE)

The next move is to consider what the naturalist has to say about these facts.

The first issue is whether naturalism allows for teleology in a human. For a thing to have a telos, it must be designed or intended for something. Typically, we think that if something is designed or intended, it was made by a person. That is because in commonsense language these terms imply someone with a mind who does the designing and intending.  This is why Richard Dawkins emphasizes that life has merely the appearance of design.[3] This fact alone might seem to prevent naturalists from assigning a telos to humans since no person designed humans. However, as Colin Allen points out, some naturalists think that Darwinian evolution provides a way for naturalists to talk about genuine “design” without reference to a personal designer.[4] The thought is that nature through the process of evolution really does design life. (Angus Ritchie refers to naturalistic evolution as “quasi-teleological.”)

Through the slow grind of evolution, nature settles (at least for a time) on certain designs or life-forms. Naturalist virtue ethicists invoke the concept of a “species” at this point.[5] A chimpanzee is a species that has a certain suite of natural abilities and characteristics endowed by eons of adaptations. These abilities, like the ability to see, are the result of a series of biological processes. When the processes operate as they should, a healthy chimp will be able to exercise all these abilities without defect. Foot puts it this way: “We start from the fact that it is the particular life form of a species of plant or animal that determines how an individual plant or animal should be.”[6] The should is defined by reference to kind or species which counts as the norm.  A hammer is a kind of thing that normally drives nails. Defective hammers break when driving a nail, or otherwise fail to perform its normative function. Defective chimps cannot see. This account takes the designation “chimpanzee” to refer to a real, in some sense normative, category; species carry with them normative constraints and implications. The result, as Thompson puts it, is that living things can be judged as “defective or sound, good or bad, well-working or ill-working, by reference to its bearer’s life-form or kind or species.”[7]

However, granting that Foot and the other proponents of a NVE are correct about teleology only gets them so far. Thompson admits that teleology by itself has no moral qualities.[8] A wrench is for turning bolts, but that does not mean when wrenches turn bolts there is any moral goodness around. So we must have a reason for thinking that the teleology in a human person actually is able to ground the good.

Foot’s first step is to point out that humans have a unique faculty that other animals do not: the will.  The will is a function of being human in the same way sight or hearing is. With a will, humans are able to act from intentions; this makes humans uniquely moral animals. This allows Foot to make evaluative judgments about the will of an individual: “Similarly, it is obvious that there are objective, factual evaluations of such things as human sight, hearing, memory, and concentration, based on the life form of our own species. Why, then, does it seem so monstrous a suggestion that the evaluation of the human will should be determined by facts about the nature of human beings and the life of our own species?”[9]A human’s choice to murder is a bad choice because it does not conform to the norm for humans. Conversely, good choices are those that correspond to the norm.

But this does not yet get us to explanation of the moral good for humans. In order to get at that explanation, Foot makes a distinction between different kinds of evaluations. There are different kinds of evaluations we can make about living things. “This kangaroo is defective because it has too few legs” is one kind of evaluation. But we can also evaluate the choices of human beings. “Harry’s choice to steal from his mom was bad” is another kind of evaluation. The reason Harry’s choice was bad was because it did not conform to the norm for a human.  Foot thinks that bad here also has a moral sense because it is an evaluation of Harry’s voluntary choice.[10] In other words, what makes the evaluation a moral one is just that it is an evaluation of Harry’s willful action.

However, we still want to know the substance of the good for humans. Foot’s first step in making the connection between bare teleology and the moral good for humans is to show that the norm for human beings includes a complex psychology and robust social interactions. Foot thinks that “human beings need the mental capacity for learning language; they also need powers of imagination that allow them to understand stories, to join in songs and dances—and to laugh at jokes. Without such things human beings may survive and reproduce themselves, but they are deprived.”[11] Foot adds that it “matters in a human community that people can trust each other, and matters even more that at some basic level humans should have mutual respect.”[12] The reason these things matter is because they contribute to the success of a human being as a human being. So the human good consists of a certain desired state of mind and community.

With the substance of the human good fleshed out, Foot can now give an account of the virtues. For Foot, an act is virtuous when it is rationally and successfully performed in light of one’s humanness. To be virtuous is to be an ideal human. So virtues like “justice” and “compassion” are morally good because they are constitutive of the natural norm for human beings. They generate the right state of mind and community.

In light of this, we can see how Foot accounts for the facts of virtue ethics. Humans have a telos because they are members of a species that has certain norms. Foot’s ethic is eudaimonist because living successfully as a human counts as the highest possible good for humans. And the virtues play the right structural role. But is this a successful account?

Tomorrow I will offer objections to a naturalistic account of virtue. (part 2)

Notes: 

[1] Linda Zagzebski, “The Incarnation of Jesus and Virtue Ethics,” in The Incarnation, ed. Davis, Kendall, and Collins (New York: Oxford, 2002), 326.

[2] Katva uses a similar taxonomy: “Virtue ethics has then a tripartite structure: (1) human-nature-as-it-exists; (2) human-nature-as-it-could-be; and (3) those habits, capacities, interests, inclinations, precepts, injunctions, and prohibitions that will move us from point one to point two.”  Kindle location 576.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker : Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: Norton, 1996). 21.

[4] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009), s.v. “Teleological Notions in Biology.”

[5]See Michael Thompson, “The Representation of Life,” in Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory : Essays in Honour of Philippa Foot, ed. Rosalind Hursthouse, Gavin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn(1998). 27. See also Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). 219. And Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). 24.

[6] Foot. 33.

[7] Thompson. 29

[8] Michael Thompson, “Three Degrees of Natural Goodness (Discussion Note) ” Iride, (2003). 2.

[9] Foot. 24.

[10] See ibid. 71.

[11] Ibid. 43.

[12] ibid. 48.

 

Photo: “Many Species. One Planet. One Future.” By N. Jois. CC License.