Suppose some analog of Commander Data of Star Trek fame were sent out alone on an interstellar voyage of discovery and encountered our species for the first time. What would he conclude about the phenomenon of human morality? No doubt he would be aware that biological life forms exist by virtue of natural selection, and that characteristics of these life forms that significantly influence the odds of individual survival almost certainly exist by virtue of that natural phenomenon. Noting that the emotional traits responsible for the existence of morality in our species meet this criterion, he would conclude that they evolved in the same way as many of our other significant features. Lacking emotions himself, it would never occur to him that the moral beliefs spawned by these emotions have anything to do with “objective moral truth.” He would not imagine that some things are “really good” and other things are “really bad” because he “felt it in his bones.” Instead, he would correctly conclude that our morality exists as an artifact of emotional traits that exist because they promoted survival.
Obviously, our species lacks the emotional detachment of Commander Data. Unlike him, we experience the powerful emotions responsible for portraying good and evil to us as real things, and most of us firmly believe in these illusions without further ado. The philosophers among us are hardly inclined to dispel the illusions. Jobs in the field are rare outside of the publish or perish world of academia, and the chances that papers stating something as obvious as the above would be accepted in the most prestigious journals are vanishingly small. No, to survive professionally, one must excel at obscuring the truth with an impenetrable fog of academic jargon. There are certainly many philosophers who accept the fact that natural selection has had a profound influence on morality, and some even accept the fact that nothing beyond this natural process is required to account for it. However, as far as I can tell without exception, they then go on to tell us what we “ought” to do as if their personal preferences possessed some magical authority or legitimacy.
In this whimsical atmosphere, philosophers on both sides of the issue have embraced the term “evolutionary debunking” to describe theories that marshal evolutionary arguments to attack systems that either dismiss or qualify the influence of natural selection on morality. It’s an unfortunate choice of words, as it tends to reduce a natural fact of profound importance to the level of a toy that philosophers play with in their academic sandboxes. In fact, experts in evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and related fields are far more likely to make useful contributions to our understanding of the subject than the tribe of professional philosophers. The philosophers’ attacks and counterattacks on each other, couched in the usual obscure jargon, have done more to obfuscate than illuminate the subject.
When we reduce the academic word salad to more comprehensible terms, we often find that the arguments used in these philosophical jousts are surprisingly naïve. Consider, for example, a paper by Katia Vavova entitled “The limits of rational belief revision: A dilemma for the Darwinian debunker,” that appeared in a recent issue of the philosophical journal Nous. In the author’s words,
The dilemma, briefly, is this. Either moral assumptions are legitimate in response to the debunker or they are not. If they are, then learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs may give us good reason to think that our moral beliefs are mistaken. But if moral assumptions really are legitimate, then there are moral claims wee can take for granted and therefore use to self-correct. In this way we may stagger, but needn’t fall from the debunker’s hit. On this horn, we can self-correct and thus alleviate the debunker’s worries.
If, instead, moral assumptions are not legitimate, then we have no moral claims we can use to self-correct. But then, learning about the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs cannot give us reason to think we are mistaken about morality. This is because we cannot get evidence to think that we are mistaken about something that we can make no assumptions about. Evidence is evidence only against a background of beliefs we take for granted, and if no moral assumptions are allowed, then we do not have enough such background. So, we cannot get evidence of our error.
A seemingly obvious weakness of this gambit is that it assumes the existence of that which is to be debunked. It could just as well be used against the debunkers of fairies, hobgoblins, and unicorns. Beliefs about these things can be neither mistaken nor not mistaken, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. As Westermarck pointed out long ago, if Darwin was right about morality, then moral claims are based on an illusion. One can be mistaken or not mistaken about what an illusion looks like to the delusional, but not about what it actually is.
This problem seems so obvious that we are inclined to give Prof. Vavova the benefit of the doubt, and consider the possibility that we are being obtuse, and have missed the point. With that in mind, let us read on to a more precise statement of what she imagines the debunker’s argument to be. Again, in her words,
This, then, is the debunker’s argument:
1. Influence. Evolutionary forces have influenced our moral beliefs.
2. Off-track. Evolutionary forces aim at fitness, not moral truth.
3. Off-track influence. A process that aims at fitness, not moral truth, influenced our moral beliefs.
4. Gap. The true moral beliefs and the adaptive moral beliefs come apart.
5. Bad influence. Our moral beliefs reflect the influence of an epistemically bad process.
6. Plausible Principle. If a belief reflects the influence of an epistemically bad process, then that belief is likely to be mistaken.
7. Mistaken. Our moral beliefs are likely to be mistaken.
Again, this “debunker’s argument” appears to assume the existence of moral truth. However, to the extent that they make any useful point at all, “evolutionary debunking” arguments deny the existence of moral truth. It is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about the nature of things that don’t exist. But wait! Following these seven points we find the remarkable passage:
Notice that this formulation doesn’t assume moral realism: the view that the moral facts are attitude-independent. This is unusual and important. It’s unusual because evolutionary debunking arguments are often run as reductios of realism. It’s important because it shows that one needn’t be a moral realist to be vulnerable to this attack.
Here I can but scratch my head. Again, it is not possible to be mistaken or not mistaken about nothing. If, on the other hand, Vavova’s formulation doesn’t assume moral realism, then it cannot possibly be an accurate statement of “evolutionary debunking” arguments. If one is not a moral realist, then one is not only not vulnerable to this attack, for all practical purposes one is on the side of the debunkers. What on earth is it the debunkers are trying to debunk if not moral realism? To the extent that “evolutionary debunkers” are trying to debunk something other than that it’s a matter of complete indifference to me whether they succeed or not.
So much for Prof. Vavova’s “debunking of the debunkers.” As I’ve pointed out before, philosophers could make themselves a great deal more useful to the rest of us if, just for the sake of argument, they accepted the fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains. Starting from that axiom, they could then go on to formulate possible courses of action our species might take assuming the axiom were true. That’s basically what E. O. Wilson suggested to the philosophers long ago, and they’ve hated him for it ever since. It would seem that we must leave them in their academic redoubts, writing thick tomes about obsolete moral philosophies, befogging the subject with their jargon, and ornamenting the pages of philosophical journals with papers such as the one described above.