21st Century Moral Philosophy Advances Boldly into the 19th Century

The 19th century?  I might just as well have said the 18th century.  Today’s moral philosophers, gazing timidly about amidst the rubble of the Blank Slate, have only recently realized that one is not rendered grossly and hopelessly immoral by virtue of merely suggesting the possibility that there is such a thing as human nature.  Indeed, some of them have even been daring enough to admit that there might be something to what the evolutionary psychologists have been telling them after all.  In terms of their own specialty, that means they have boldly advanced to the point that they can dare to acknowledge the existence of the “moral sense” that was proposed quite convincingly by Shaftesbury more than 300 years ago, and demonstrated logically by Hutcheson a bit later in a form that no one has come close to refuting to this day.  True, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson thought that God had concocted this “moral sense.”  We didn’t know where it really came from until Darwin came along and gently alluded to it in the context of his great theory, and that was in the 19th century.  One might even labor the point and say that we had to wait until the dawn of the 20th century before Westermarck came along and bluntly pointed out, for the benefit of those too dense to put two and two together,

…there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

Shortly thereafter, of course, the “men of science” concocted the Blank Slate debacle, and the darkness fell.  What we are witnessing today is the desultory attempts of moral philosophers, or at least a few of them, to pick up the pieces.  I recently ran across a link to an example that appeared shortly after the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy at 3 Quarks Daily in an article on moral realism by Mike Lopresto.  Entitled A Darwinian Dilemma for the Realist Theories of Value, by Sharon Street, it appeared in the journal Philosophical Studies back in 2006.  Street opens with the following:

Contemporary realist theories of value claim to be compatible with natural science. In this paper, I call this claim into question by arguing that Darwinian considerations pose a dilemma for these theories.  The main thrust of my argument is this. Evolutionary forces have played a tremendous role in shaping the content of human evaluative attitudes. The challenge for realist theories of value is to explain the relation between these evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes, on the one hand, and the independent evaluative truths that realism posits, on the other. Realism, I argue, can give no satisfactory account of this relation.

A bit later, Street gets around to explaining exactly what she means by “evolutionary forces:”

In his 1990 book Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, Allan Gibbard notes that his arguments “should be read as having a conditional form: If the psychological facts are roughly as I speculate, here is what might be said philosophically.”  I attach a similar caveat to my argument in this paper: If the evolutionary facts are roughly as I speculate, here is what might be said philosophically.  I try to rest my arguments on the least controversial, most well-founded evolutionary speculations possible.  But they are speculations nonetheless, and they, like some of Gibbard’s theorizing in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, fall within a difficult and relatively new subfield of evolutionary biology known as evolutionary psychology.

Obviously, Street still had a lively fear of the anathemas of the Blank Slate priesthood, carefully referring to evolutionary psychology as “mere speculation.”  One can place the collapse of the Blank Slate, at least as far as the popular media are concerned, at around the turn of the century, give or take a few years.  I doubt that she would have dared to write such heresies ten years earlier.  I certainly know of nothing similar that appeared in any of the philosophy rags prior to say, 1995.  Street continues,

According to this subfield, human cognitive traits are (in some cases) just as susceptible to Darwinian explanation as human physical traits are (in some cases). For example, a cognitive trait such as the widespread human tendency to value the survival of one’s offspring may, according to evolutionary psychology, be just as susceptible to evolutionary explanation as physical traits such as our bipedalism or our having opposable thumbs.

Having thus invited the lightening bolts, she then hurries to placate the offended gods of the Blank Slate, citing the familiar flim flam of two of its high priests, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin:

There are many pitfalls that such evolutionary theorizing must avoid, the most important of which is the mistake of assuming that every observable trait (whether cognitive or physical) is an adaptation resulting from natural selection, as opposed to the result of any number of other complex (non-selective or only partially selective) processes that could have produced it.  It is more than I can do here to describe such pitfalls in depth or to defend at length the evolutionary claims that my argument will be based on. Instead, it must suffice to emphasize the hypothetical nature of my arguments, and to say that while I am skeptical of the details of the evolutionary picture I offer, I think its outlines are certain enough to make it well worth exploring the philosophical implications.

To make a long story short, having thus established her own moral purity, Street feels safe enough to follow her “mere speculation” to its logical conclusions.  Noting that there are two “flavors” of moral realists, including the “naturalist” kind, who claim that, while value judgments may have evolutionary roots, natural selection favors “true morality,” and the “non-naturalists,” who deny any such connection, she proceeds to debunk both versions.  Noting the “striking continuity” between the more basic evaluative tendencies in other animals and our own evaluative judgments, she makes short work of the “non-naturalists.”  Somewhat more sophisticated arguments are demanded to deal with the “naturists,” who insist that our evolved natural predispositions “track” actual moral truths.  Street provides them, in very convincing form, in Section 6 of her paper, and I encourage readers who are daunted at the prospect of wading through the entire 48 pages to at least have a look at it.

Now, however, as Alex might have put it in “A Clockwork Orange,” comes the weepy part of the story.  Just as Nietzsche predicted in his Human, All Too Human, having climbed up her philosophical ladder to get a glance at the truth, Street shrinks back from what she sees.  What she sees is that evolved human behavioral predispositions are the root cause of what we refer to as morality, and, as a result, Westermarck was right when he pointed out that moral judgments “fall entirely outside the category of truth.”  In the end, she can’t face the full implications of this truth.  Instead, she temporizes.  In her conclusion she writes,

Now that there are creatures like us with marvelously complicated systems of valuings up and running, it is quite possible to come to value something because one recognizes that it has a value independent of oneself—not in the realist’s sense, but in an antirealist’s more modest sense.  Thus, although valuing ultimately came first, value grew to be able to stand partly on its own.  It grew to achieve its own, limited sort of priority over valuing—a priority that we can understand while at the same time being fully conscious of great biddings from the outside.

Hurrah!  The poor, wooden puppet Pinocchio becomes a real boy after all!  The oppressive and ludicrous piety that prevails in modern academia is vindicated, and philosophers can continue to write blather about how moral emotions can acquire the magical power to jump out of mammal A’s skull, hop onto mammal B’s back, and prescribe to mammal B what he ought and ought not do.  Well, dear reader, we can forgive such regrettable weakness.  After all, many choice jobs in academia would be rendered absurd, and many frail and pious egos would be rendered laughable by a straight up dose of reality.  What of it?  At least we can now utter the phrase “human nature” without fear of being doused with ice water.  At least the philosophers have struggled back into the 19th century, and are almost on the same page with Darwin again.  Better to rejoice in the progress we have made than grieve over the imbecilities we must still endure.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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