Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Evolution of morality

An explanation of a true proposition essentially involving an objectively normative term uses a normative term. That people tend to get basic moral beliefs right essentially involves the objectively normative term "moral". Scientific explanations do not involve normative terms. Therefore there is no scientific, and hence no evolutionary, explanation of why people get basic moral beliefs right.


Derrick said...

"An explanation of a true proposition essentially involving an objectively normative term uses a normative term."

Could you please explain this in a little more detail? I'm not sure that I understand what you're trying to get across here.

Dale said...

Put aside evolution and go ahead and assume there is a god who created humans. Or an advanced alien species from far, far away. Or a number of gods with varying agendas who made humans from a collaborative effort. Or a massively complex laboratory somewhere out of which everything we know, humans included, is an accidental byproduct whose specific features were not foreseen, desired, etc. Or assume, for that matter, that the origins of humans is entirely unknown.

Whatever its origins, there exists a human nature. We are not blank slates. We have certain strong physical, psychological, and social tendencies -- we are protective of our children, we care about others perceived as kin, we use language in specific ways, we are attuned to emotions, we find certain things beautiful and certain things ugly, we respond to and locate human-like faces in ways we don't respond to any given pattern of lines. Etc.

Are such facts about human nature (or facts you'd prefer) entirely irrelevant to the morals we have? Really?

I would say that part of our nature -- part of our natural endowment, from whatever source -- is a collection of 'oughts' and 'ought nots.' Perhaps contra Hume, it's not easy, and perhaps not possible, to disentangle 'ought' from 'is' when it comes to the border case of human nature and its relationship with human morality.

That doesn't prove them right -- I'll agree with that. And maybe that's your whole point.

In any case, it's not true to say that evolution is value-free. It systematically preserves and perpetuates that which causes organisms to survive. In that sense, the value judgments "it is better to live than to die" and "it is better to pass on genes than not to" (etc.) belong to evolution.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, survival and reproduction have value. But the fact that they have value is not relevant to evolution, it seems.

Anonymous said...

Evolution is not a god passing judgment on creatures, which will evolve and which won't, which adaptations are good and which are not.

Some creatures reproduced, some didn't. That's it.

We write a pretty story, after the fact, to "explain" this. But there is no "law of evolution" directing the process, there is no goal, there is no purpose. It is just what happened.

Lopeztj said...

Good point, Alex.

In fact, I've come to find myself in more and more debates regarding naturalistic approaches to ethics and moral norms, all of which, in my experience, pretty much involve the same kind of evolution narrative.

No doubt, there is a logical discontinuity (which I think you've just highlighted here) between the non-normative evolutionary processes that are alleged to give rise to moral norms and the kind and degree of normativity we actually find in moral norms themselves. As far as I'm concerned, a naturalistic, evolutionary approach to moral norms (a) gives way to the reduction of ethics to but a kind of hedonistic utilitarianism of sorts, or (b) reduces ethics to nothing more than talk of psychological dispositions and instrumental, prudential rationality. Suffice it to say, I'm not exactly optimistic about the whole naturalist project in ethics.

Also, I'm glad to see that this topic has come up among your thoughts. In fact, I'm curious to see if this becomes a more explored topic of yours sometime in the future.