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Mark Linville’s Argument from Evolutionary Naturalism, Part II

By David Baggett

Part I

Part III (coming soon)

Part IV (coming soon)

AEN and “greedy reductionism”

The first premise (if EN is true, then human morality is a by-product of natural selection) is widely rejected. Plenty suggest that the sociobiological assumptions of an argument such as AEN have been “widely discredited,” guilty of a “greedy reductionism.” Some ideas are just better than others. The point applies forcefully in our assessment of AEN. The argument, as stated, seems to assume that our “moral beliefs” have an evolutionary explanation. We have various moral beliefs, but it’s implausible to think that any fairly determinate belief has somehow been fashioned at the genetic level and then lodged, intact, within the human brain. Further, do all of these traits find their explanation in the selection pressures that were at work when we came down from the trees? Isn’t it possible that certain moral beliefs are widespread because they simply make sense? Our evolution may have provided us with the intellectual tools needed for building cathedrals, playing chess, and drawing up social contracts, but might not these activities be more or less autonomous as far as the genes are concerned?

Perhaps greedy reductionism is an extreme to avoid, but Linville suggests another extreme to avoid is the idea that natural selection has had nothing to do with the distribution of widespread moral beliefs. To appeal to natural selection to explain incisors and libidos but to exclude the deepest springs of human behavior from such an account would seem rather a tenuous position to hold. 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. The notion we’re born entirely a blank slate, completely malleable, seems wrong—and tantamount to denying any validity to evolutionary psychology.

If instincts refer to basic predispositions, drives, or programs, then humans have instincts, but the more interesting of these are, by and large, “open instincts” or “programs with a gap.” The gap, where it exists, leaves it to the intelligence—rational reflection and culture in general in the case of humans—of the individual or the species to fill in the details. Migratory waterfowl come equipped with a basic drive to follow the sun south in the winter, but the programming itself need not specify the details of the itinerary. The development of ethical precepts of which Kitcher speaks may well be the result of careful deliberation and rational reflection, but perhaps these are in response to proclivities that come with our programming.

Sharon Street distinguishes between basic evaluative tendencies and full-fledged evaluative judgments. The latter include our specific moral beliefs that might be formulated as moral principles or rules, and they may be explained by appeal to a variety of influences, cultural and otherwise. The former are “proto” forms of evaluative judgment that are unreflective and nonlinguistic impulses towards certain behaviors that seem “called for.” She argues that “relentless selection pressures” have had a direct and “tremendous” influence on our basic evaluative tendencies and these, in turn, have had a major, but not necessarily overriding, indirect effect on our actual moral beliefs or full-fledged evaluative judgments.

If such programming and predispositions provide our basic moral orientation, then it is within their scaffolds that all moral reflection takes place. Our reflective beliefs about the duties of parenthood or of friendship, for instance, arise from more basic parental and altruistic drives that predate and are presupposed by all such reflection. While this evolutionary account provides a role for reason, that reason is in effect, to borrow from Hume, the slave of the passions. Those passions, Street’s basic evaluative tendencies, are almost certainly not cultural artifacts.

Human culture is responsible for great accomplishments that assuredly are not the direct product of our evolution. And these may well include complex systems of moral precepts. Perhaps human social contracts are good tricks in that they solve problems posed by some combination of genetics plus environment plus intelligence. Rationality is employed, but it is an instrumental rationality.

Linville is now in a position to revise his claim in the first premise. Human morality is a product of natural selection in that a fundamental moral orientation—Street’s basic evaluative tendencies and Midgley’s “programming”—is in place because it was adaptive for our ancestors given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape. The program provides general directives or tendencies. The gap allows room for rational reflection regarding our moral beliefs, but their very rationality is conditional or hypothetical: given the program that has been bequeathed to us by our genes, some policies are better than others. The program itself is precisely as it is due to its adaptive value given the contingencies of the evolutionary landscape. However big the gap, it’s found within the scope of our programming that is directly explained by appeal to natural selection. Moral reasoning would then appear to be means-end reasoning, where the ends have been laid down for us by natural selection.

So, counterfactually, had the programming been relevantly different, so would the range of intelligent choices. There may be some forced moves through evolutionary design space, but Darwin did not think that any determinate set of moral precepts or dictates of conscience was among them. Darwin says, for example, if we’d been raised in the same conditions as hive bees, our unmarried females would think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and nobody would think of interfering. Here we’re being asked to imagine a world in which our fundamental moral orientation (Midgley’s open instincts) is different. Darwin appears to countenance the possibility of a species that is prompted, even on reflection, to behave in ways that are inequitable and, from our standpoint, unjust. If rational and moral reflection takes its cue from a more primitive predisposition, then have we any reason for supposing that such reflection, the product of culture, would inevitably settle on equitable treatment?

If humans as a species have come to regard equitable arrangements as fair or just, then perhaps this is only because their initial programming was wired as it was given the circumstances of human evolution. We have the actual moral orientation that we do because it was adaptive. Had the circumstances been different, some other set would have conferred fitness. Is there any plausible reason to suppose that such a moral orientation is adaptive because its resultant moral beliefs are true?

Of course, Linville writes, one might reply to this line of argument by insisting that a wedge be driven between Street’s “basic evaluative tendencies” and her “full-fledged moral judgments.” Following Dennett and others, might we not suggest that, with the advent of culture it became possible for us to “snap” Wilson’s “genetic leash” and strike out on our own? Perhaps, then, morality is autonomous, engaging in reflection that is independent of the drives of human nature.

Linville thinks such a reply implausible. Our considered judgments regarding various duties and the like find their wellspring in our psychology, which appears to be what it is because of the circumstances of evolution in each case. So Linville thinks there’s reason to accept the first premise of AEN. This leaves us with whether or not there’s any reason to suppose that there is a relevant dependence relation between the processes of belief formation and the would-be truth makers for such beliefs. To sharpen the question: Is there reason to suppose that the belief-producing mechanisms of our moral beliefs are truth-aimed? Is there a plausible defense of the Dependence Thesis available to the naturalist?

Photo: “Charles Darwin bicentennial” by C. Roffey. CC License. 

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