A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy

Michael Ruse is someone whose name is often mentioned and he presents this ‘Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy’ at the ‘ Talking Philosophy’ blog as a summary of his apparently sometimes controversial views. So I think I’ll read it fairly carefully…

My first problem is in his second paragraph with

 I come away with the belief that ethics – meaning by this substantive or normative ethics (“What should I do?”) – is a product of natural selection (on individuals) to further reproductive success

Here my problem is with the idea that individual reproductive success is the driving selector behind the evolution of morality.  That may or may not be current gospel among biologists, but I suspect that it is wrong – and that the relevant selective force is increase of whatever gene complex causes the behaviour. Although this can be achieved via individual reproduction, it could also be achieved by giving the gene’s host a capacity to recognize and favour other carriers of the gene (with the understanding, here and henceforth, that by “gene” I really mean something more complex than the coding for a single protein).

I have yet to see if this difference will undermine my agreement with anything else he says. So let’s read on…

My next uneasy feeling comes with the “empirical claim” that

 ethical claims have the appearance and meaning of being objective claims, in the sense of not just subjective emotions but about external standards.

I certainly go with the “appearance” part but am not so sure about actual “meaning”. He’s right to say next that “If we thought it was all a matter of liking and disliking, ethics would break down rapidly” but our strong feeling that there’s something more objective doesn’t make it so – and the fact that that feeling is a requirement of the phenomenon should help us to recognize that it may be there for its own self-serving reasons. Moral behaviour may often conflict with what we would “like” to do (and we may be tempted avoid it if sure of not getting caught), but that doesn’t make it any less a “feeling”. Of course, at this point I may be misreading a bit. The “meaning” of  a “claim” may refer just to the intent of the claimant rather than anything more objective.

And just two lines further on I find that I was indeed misreading as Ruse says that “the belief about objectivity is erroneous” and “ ethics (meaning substantive ethics) is an illusion put in place by our genes to make us social cooperators“. So we are back pretty much in agreement on that score. Although  it’s not the ethical feelings or principles I’d call an illusion – just the sense that they have some context-independent source. But if I could read more than one line at a time I’d see that in the next sentence he says “But notice I am not saying that ethics as such is an illusion – I very much don’t think this – rather I am saying that the belief that ethics is objective is an illusion. ” (Is it unfair to complain when someone says “X. But notice I am not saying X”?)

Something similar happens in the next paragraph since after having admitted that the sense of objectivity is an illusion he asserts that “ “I like spinach” is subjective, but “Murder is wrong” is absolute or objective or binding or whatever.” I know what he means, but he seems bound by the philosopher’s typical faith in language and dichotomy. Maybe he’ll sort this out later in the piece, but it seems reasonable to have pointed out at this point that there’s a big space between “subjective” (meaning dependent on the point of view of an individual)  and “objective” (meaning in some sense completely independent of any body of  opinion). Moral precepts are non-subjective and universal in the sense of being common to all “moral” people (and considered binding on all people), but are still a function of the human context and so not objective in any absolute sense.

Actually, he does seem to get this even though he can’t quite bring himself to say it, and he does place morality as universal among humans though not necessarily beyond that. But his fear of moral relativism still makes him overly optimistic. The belief that “all humans share the same basic moral sense” may be true in a sense but is not necessarily true in the sense that he would like. What I mean here (as I elaborated earlier in my thinking about the failings of Sam Harris’ enterprise) is that even with the same basic tendencies there is no guarantee of the existence (let alone the discovery) of any universally correct answers to moral questions. We may be driven to strive for many different and potentially conflicting values with no guarantee of any relative priority between them and both our behaviour and our judgement of it may be inherently unstable. It is possible that even with the same basic drives different societies can settle on different and incompatible choices of what to optimize – with no commonly agreeable way of seeing which is better. Although I think Darwin’s use of “reared” in the alien bee-people example was really intended with the sense of “evolved” I do think it is possible that here on Earth identical twins reared in the hills of Afghanistan and those of San Fransisco may end up with equally internally consistent but mutually incompatible moral systems and no way of getting from one to the other by a process of successive improvement of self-judged value – and no real way of saying which is better.

But all-in-all, despite the excess of optimism, he seems pretty clear headed by comparison to others, and there is nothing up to this point that I can imagine making people angry.

However, in the last paragraph he alludes to a possible source of hostility from some, and it seems a bit disingenuous because it is essentially unrelated to the rest of the content. Without knowing more of the details  (eg who “struck” first, and about what,  etc) I  feel pulled into a family squabble that I want no part of.


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