Saturday, July 26, 2014

Scott James Tears Me A New Exit Strategy

I delivered my paper on autonomy last week at the biannual meeting of the International Political Science Association in Montreal.  Scott James, author of An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics commented on my paper, quite critically as you will see below.  I note that Scott is a fan of jazz, so he isn’t wrong about everything. 
In fact, I think that this is the best set of comments I have ever received for a conference paper.  While I am confident that I can answer each one of his criticisms, they are well made and thought provoking.  I will answer them in the next post.  Scott is a fine fellow and you should get his book.  Below are the portions of his comments that are addressed to my paper, reproduced here with his permission.

I note that most of my paper appears in bits and pieces in previous posts, under the titles autonomy and autonomous.  
IPSA Discussion: Autonomy and Political Liberty
Scott M. James
U. of North Carolina, Wilmington
Moral psychology was once a rather navigable stream.  There were, to be sure, lively debates among sentimentalists and rationalists, pessimists and optimists about human nature, but by and large the stream was fed by two steady tributaries: conceptual analysis and routine observation.  Today that stream is a river, and it rages.  Its rapids are fed by evolutionary psychology, genetics, biological anthropology, primatology, developmental psychology, neurobiology, neurochemistry, philosophy—and the list goes on.  The speculation no doubt continues, but empirical currents now course throughout.  And the water is not likely to subside soon, for it is now beyond serious debate that homo sapiens are a product—and by no means the point—of the same biological forces that shaped all organismic life. 
While this change in weltanschauung greatly expanded our resources for explanation, it also introduced new puzzles.  For instance, most now expect that if we are to tell a story of our development (and a fortiori our moral development), we cannot rest content with a story told in non-naturalistic terms.  We must dig deeper.  But if we happen to succeed in leaving the non-naturalistic behind, in formulating hypotheses in exclusively naturalistic terms, won’t we be abandoning the very thing we sought to explain, viz., our normative nature?  After all, didn't we learn that naturalistic terms are co-extensional with non-normative terms?  And what hope is there of accounting for the normative in term of the non-normative?  One way of construing much of the recent theorizing in moral psychology is as an effort to narrow the gap between these two domains, if not close it altogether.  But there are other puzzles.  Evidence now strongly suggests that h. sapiens are and have been for many millennia deeply social creatures.  But this history would lead one to suppose that autonomy plays a limited, if not negligible, role in our normative discourse since (one might think) self-rule requires a certain independence from others.  Both papers under consideration here aim at reconciliation, at seeing clearly our moral natures through the forces of these many streams of thought.
            The subject of the present work is autonomy, a cornerstone property of moral agency.  The concept is traditionally understood to mean self-governing, but rarely do philosophers mean only that.  Ken Blanchard, Jr. seeks to close the (alleged) gap between the autonomous nature of typical adult humans and its (apparent) absence as one moves down the phylum.  Traditionally, the puzzle has been to reconstruct the origin of autonomy—a robustly normative feature—using only the resources of the empirical sciences.  Blanchard attempts to re-conceive the nature of the puzzle in such a way that its solution becomes obvious.  Andrew Sneddon seeks to make room for autonomy amid the pressures of intense sociality.  Both approaches offer critical philosophical oversight of themes that too easily get trampled by empirical observations; their respective solutions (or resolutions) are plausible and generally consistent with the empirical evidence.  Still, there are areas where I am less persuaded.  And these areas in particular are likely to attract serious concern from less sympathetic critics.  So let me make the case for them, even if I suspect that some of these complaints have ready replies.


Ken Blanchard seems to think that the so-called puzzle surrounding the origin of autonomy is of our own making.  The problem of the origins of autonomy (and perhaps, to a notable extent, the origins of morality itself) is a philosopher’s myth.  We have mistaken the logic of our problem, as Ryle would say.  The autonomous nature of typical humans begins (and other sufficiently complex organisms) did not appear, quite miraculously, at some hazy moment along our phylogenetic development, as the puzzle would have us believe.  Instead, our autonomous nature was there along: “autonomy” applies equally across the biological spectrum “whether in a single cell, resisting the influences of its environment, or in a group of hunters, resisting the influences of a bully” (3).  According to Blanchard, “autonomy is a features of all organisms” (11).   No wonder then that “biological autonomy and human moral/political autonomy” turn out to be, “in one sense, the same thing” (17).  All of this is supposedly motivated by the contention that autonomy is “best understood as a Platonic idea” (3), in the sense that the concept plays a “vital” role in both biological and political theorizing.  This is a seductive, if hazy, idea.  If it’s correct, it would be difficult to overstate its potential, for it would dissolve the traditional puzzle of the origin of autonomy in one swift stroke.  If part of what it is (and has always been) to be a biological individual is to be autonomous, then the project is no longer accounting for autonomy’s origins so much as delineating its nature.  Is this the prolegomenon of The Etiology of Morality? 
            Let me begin by sounding a cautionary note before taking on the specifics of the argument.  Even before we wade into the details, we ought to assume a kind of skeptical stance towards projects of such ambition, for they inherently risk flouting prudent advice.  Simon Blackburn, in a well-timed piece concerning the misuses of science, warns against “confusing science with…the ideology of science” where the latter involves “read[ing] ideologies into the natural record, rather than read[ing] observations out of it, or more insidiously, when metaphors and analogies are allowed to get out of hand” (2014: 233).  Constructing monolithic accounts of human nature in one set of terms or another is surely as old as the capacity for self-reflection, and the track record is spotty.  Part of the problem (to flip Blanchard’s preferred narrative) may lie in Blanchard’s unquestioned support of what appears to be a kind of Essentialism, the Aristotelian notion that everything has a Natural State.  But Essentialism remains a highly contested notion—not simply among Aristotle scholars (Balm 1987a and 1987b), but especially so among biologists (Ehrlich 2000) and philosophers (Buller 2005; Blackburn 2014).  The Human Genome, alas, is not the code for Human Nature.  Still, it may turn out, as Blanchard no doubt hopes, that the notion of autonomy is indeed indispensible at, say, the level of single-celled organisms.  But an uncharitable critic is likely to argue that what Blanchard has done is, at best, shown how it is possible to describe the activity of organismic life in terms of autonomy.  But surely this is not enough to show that autonomous nature constitutes an ontological feature of biological life “all the way down.”  After all, it’s possible to describe the behavior of entities at many levels using, say, the terms of Classical Mechanics; however, as is well known, one would be mistaken in inferring that those terms actually correspond to forces in nature.  Some good stories are just good stories.
            Blanchard shouldn’t of course have a problem with this cautionary note, for he maintains there is evidence for autonomy across the biological spectrum.  What is it?  It is essential, first, to clear up what it is we’re looking for: What does Blanchard mean by autonomy?  Throughout the paper, the definition (ahem) evolves: we begin with the literal (“self-law;” “living under [one’s] own laws”(6)), advancing to “liberty” and “self-government” (7), and, finally, “the establishment of a new set of regulations within the existing ones laid down by the environment” (10).  According to Blanchard, this implies that an autonomous agent has “an agenda of its own;” it’s “up to something,” “trying to maintain itself” (10).  Blanchard draws a line connecting Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno’s biological approach to Aristotle: we must start with the individual, for the “living organism is an individual” that, in Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno’s terms, tends toward resistance.  This is supposed to be evident at all levels of biological life, with “more complex and multidimensional forms of autonomy” (12) attending increases in biological complexity aided by natural selection. 
            It’s difficult to know what to make of this, for it’s hard to know exactly how seriously to take each step.  If we are permitted even a modicum of semantic liberty (as I think one must grant to Blanchard’s account), it’s not hard to identify an individual with an “agenda of its own”—that’s “up to something,” “trying to maintain itself”—but that fails to count as either biological or autonomous, at least in light of my own intuitions.  My refrigerator, my laptop, my car.  As complex systems, they are designed to process information in quite sophisticated ways and respond intelligently, but I suspect some will resist concluding that these systems are autonomous, let alone alive.  Thus it appears that we cannot treat these criteria as a set of sufficient conditions for autonomy (or life). 
But I would maintain that paradigmatic exercises in autonomy—in humans at least—show that these criteria are not necessary either.  For instance, bioethicists routinely invoke a patient’s autonomy in justifying the right to refuse medical assistance or even to secure assistance in dying prematurely.  We think that individuals in such cases have the right of self-rule to determine what counts as a minimally acceptable quality of life, and some will choose not to maintain themselves, not to resist dissolution.  But these decisions are plainly grounded in an individual’s autonomy.  Now it may be that at the level of self-reflective, sentient beings confronting their own mortality, we are observing “new dimensions of autonomy.”  But when “new forms” of X entail forms incompatible with X, it’s easy to suspect that the subject has indeed changed.  We are now talking about Y.  Blanchard of course anticipates these headwinds and attempts to tack into them by employing broader and broader conceptions of autonomy.  But these moves, it seems to me, come at a serious cost: We may (may) gain some low-resolution image of the entire spectrum of biological life, but we lose the critical nuances that have made (at least in the modern period) human autonomy such a freighted and provocative normative concept.  If Blanchard is correct that Amy the Amoeba is autonomous, we’re going to want a new concept (schmautonomy) to explain why it is that Amy from Amherst can choose, say, to reject her family’s rigid religious expectations and embrace a life marked by a radically different scale of values.  One might think a more interesting project is limning the contours of the structure of schmautonomy, rather than autonomy.  That there are conceptual links to Amy the Amoeba can appear to be a matter of bookkeeping. 
This point is underlined by some of the recent empirical research on human evolution.  Blanchard maintains, based on the work of the biological anthropologist Chris Boehm, that “individual human autonomy is the driver of [the evolution of human morality]” (17).  Unless I have failed to fully grasp Blanchard’s central conception of autonomy (and that is undoubtedly possible), I think Boehm’s work shows just the reverse: early hominids were driven to autonomy or self-rule by the intense moral sanctioning of conspecifics within a group.  Boehm writes:

Group sanctioning is an aggressive and deliberately manipulative way of solving social problems, and it became a potent tool in the hands of modern humans…As a result, within groups social predators were punitively reformed or eliminated while, more generally, negatively-oriented social selection became a powerful force in the biological evolution of human cooperation…I have proposed that starting about a quarter of a million years ago there may well have been a dramatic increase in the rate of evolution of our moral capacity to internalize rules and judge ourselves by them to see what we can get away with as we try to build useful social reputations. (2014: 176). 

Nothing in Boehm’s hypothesis rules out Blanchard’s contention that some form of autonomy is present “all the way down.” But the modern conception of autonomy (schmautonomy), at least from Boehm’s perspective, was a relatively recent product of punitive social selection.  We can indulge in philosophical fantasy for a moment to appreciate that our history did not have to take that path.  We can imagine environments where resources were abundant or that humans were divinely endowed with bottomless altruism.  Under these circumstances, punitive social selection would be negligible and autonomy, to the extent that it would even be recognizable, would assume a quite different character.

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