Thursday, May 21, 2015
It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that human morality is entirely the product of culture. Christopher Boehm presents a very strong case in his two books Hierarchy in the Forest and Moral Origins that morality emerged as a product of social selection. Human groups imposed strong pressure on their individual members to suppress selfish and especially bullying behavior. Over periods of evolutionary adaptation, individuals who better internalized the moral rules of their groups and groups that contained more honest cooperators were more successful than those that did not do so. Frans de Waal and Michael Tomasello have shown that human morality builds on cooperative behaviors observed in other primates and the latter has shown that moral instincts emerge in children reliably at a young age.
Those who hold that morality is entirely artificial, the product of learning and culture, haven’t yet given up the game. Francisco J. Ayala contributes a chapter in a book he co-edited with Robert Arp (Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology) that makes just that case. Ayala argues that the capacity for ethics is indeed part of human nature. It is grounded in three products of natural selection: the ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions; the ability to make value judgments, and the ability to choose between courses of action. All moral norms are the consequence of the application of these basic human capacities to recurrent problems. If some moral norms seem to be universal (e.g. return favors) that is only because the problems are universal. All moral behaviors are, however, exaptations rather than adaptations: they emerge in the course of human evolution not because they were selected for but because they are secondary consequences of traits that were selected for.
I have to say that this smacks of an almost Cartesian view of human beings. Descartes famously believed that animals were mere biological machines, whereas human beings alone, having souls, possessed the metaphysical capacity for consciousness and freedom. If Ayala is right, human beings alone achieved by hard work alone what the other social primates were granted by way of instincts: altruistic norms promoting cooperative behaviors.
Whether such a dualism is tenable is not worth discussing. I would point out here that it neglects the distinction between moral reasoning and moral emotions, about which we now know a lot. Consider the two basic versions of the infamous trolley problem. In the “trolley problem”, a trolley is headed toward a switch. As the switch is set, the trolley will move onto a track and kill five innocent people. If you throw the switch it will divert the trolley, saving those people. However, it will kill one innocent person on the other track. In the “footbridge problem,” you can save the five people only by pushing one innocent person off a bridge, thus stopping the trolley.
I have frequently presented these two dilemmas to my philosophy classes and asked for a vote. My results always conform more or less exactly to the general statistics. Most of my students (but not all of them) throw the switch in the first case but refuse to push the fellow off in the second. The most fascinating thing about these two scenarios is that the two popular results‑throw the switch but don’t push the fellow off the bridge‑can each be easily explained by two mutually exclusive theories of ethics. Utilitarians (or consequentialists) argue that an action is just if it secures the most good for the most people. Throwing the switch in the first case is an easy utilitarian calculus and most people make it. Deontologists (or Kantians) argue that if something is wrong then you just shouldn’t do it, regardless of the consequences. Most people confronted with the second scenario come to precisely that conclusion. Yet the body count is the same in either case.
The key to understanding why the jury splits here is to consider the roles of moral reasoning and moral emotions. This has been done in a remarkably precise way by Joshua D. Greene et al. in “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment” (Science vol. 293 14 September 2001). The result was that the two problems engage different parts of the brain. The reason that people react different to footbridge problem than to the trolley problem is that the former engages moral emotions whereas the latter does not.
Human beings are clearly capable of exercising abstract moral reasoning. That’s a good thing. It allows us to make impartial judgments and to arbitrate in controversies where we have no interests. It makes it possible for us to respond with flexibility to unexpected circumstances. It makes it possible to legislate. If Ayala were right, that is all there is to morality.
Of course, he is wrong. We also have strong moral emotions that, when engaged, channel our moral reasoning and place limits on our choices. That’s a good thing too. In the absence of moral instincts we would not be impartial judges all the time. We are also subject to selfish instincts and conflicts of interests. Moral emotions make us better partners, friends, and citizens by making it uncomfortable for us to bend our moral reasoning to selfish ends. It is difficult if not impossible to explain our moral emotions except as evolved dispositions in a social primate species.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
At this blog I have argued persistently and I hope convincingly that Darwinian thought can be neither reductionist nor materialist. The same is true, I suppose, for specifically biosocial thought. One of the advantages of the latter, especCritics of biosocial explanations on both the left and the right deploy the reductionist and materialist interpretations of Darwinism in order to make the latter appear as ugly as possible. It is this claim, that Darwinian social/political thought is ugly, that I intend to explore and refute here.
Before we can decide whether Darwinism is ugly or why reductionism and materialism are ugly, we need to have an account of beauty and ugliness. These concepts are frequently assumed to be entirely cultural in origin or socially constructed, which assumption turns out to be self-contradictory. For example, if my people say that dark eyes are beautiful and your people say that blue eyes are beautiful, this would count as a distinction between our two cultures only if we have some common notion of beauty to disagree about. To employ an analogy, we can whether it is right to feed a cold and starve a fever or vice verse only if we agree that the point is to relieve the one and the other.
Disagreements about where beauty and ugliness are found, like disagreements over medical cures, take place in the context of universal agreements about what we are looking for. As is usually the case, the Socratic philosophers laid out the basic logical structure of the business with both precision and depth. In Plato’s Gorgias, the orator Polus concedes that getting away with murder is an ugly thing (or shameful in the context) but insists, nonetheless, that it is a very good thing. Socrates points out that something that is ugly is so for one of two reasons. Either it is unpleasant or it is harmful. Since getting away with murder is not unpleasant, it therefore must be harmful.
Socrates’ distinction seems to me to be both accurate and exhaustive. According to his students Plato and Xenophon, Socrates was rather ugly in one sense but not the other. He was painful to look at, but did you a lot of good if you hung around him long enough. Other lovers, by contrast, can be very pleasing to eye but ruinous to the heart. Perhaps a better example, and one beloved by evolutionary psychologists, is the black widow spider. This creature can be intensely ugly, I can attest, if you find one crawling on your arm. Yet it is not painful to look at. On the contrary, it is a shiny jet black, with a beautiful red hour glass on its tear-shaped abdomen. There is nothing ugly about any of that. Its ugliness, when it does emerge, is a result of our inherited recognition. We recognize it as venomous.
This kind of ugliness holds for a wide range of creatures, from yellow jackets to rattlesnakes, which display warning colors. These creatures are the opposite of unpleasant to look at if you can view them in safety. In other contexts they are intensely ugly, so much so that human beings develop phobias about such things. It is one of the remarkable observations of evolutionary psychology that we have phobias about spiders and snakes but not about automobiles or tobacco. The reason is that the former killed our ancestors over very long periods of time whereas the latter kill us, but only very recently.
Our capacity for distinguishing the beautiful from the ugly and the two senses of each from one another, depends on a set of evolved psychological mechanisms. The same orange that is alarming on a snake is inviting on the skin of a piece of fruit, even the one held by the child in Van Gogh’s painting.
Just as beautiful colors can be transformed into ugly warnings, they can also be employed as lures. One kind of firefly uses its fire to attract males of another species looking for mates. The unlucky suitors are devoured. Likewise, human cooperators looking for honest partners can be fooled by conmen who have the knack of appearing honest. Most human beings are bad liars. We give ourselves away all too easily. That makes us good cooperators. Some human beings are very good liars. Accordingly, most of us have built in bullshit detectors. We instinctively look for signs of genuine virtue and deceit. We esteem those who help without demanding a reward over those who always look for a payoff.
I submit that the interpretation of Darwinian Theory (and especially Darwinian biosocial theory) as reductionist and materialist is rhetorically powerful because it arouses our fraud detection mechanisms. If a woman nurtures her infant because such behavior was selected for over evolutionary history, that looks to a lot of us like an ulterior motive. She doesn’t really love her baby; she really loves her selfish genes. Reductionism and materialism arouse our suspicion all the apparently beautiful sentiments are mere pretenses. My parents were only serving their genetic interests. Darwinism is ugly because it paints all of us as devious con artists, painting ourselves in morally fraudulent colors.
The interpretation of Darwinian moral/political thought as ugly gets the cart before the horse. Conmen are effective because most of us are basically honest and that can only be because honesty was selected for. Cooperation is beautiful because it is good. It makes for a better life for all of us. The fact that effective cooperative communities flourished whereas less effective cooperators did not underwrites the evolution of human language, morality, and indeed all higher culture. Those who are good fathers, mothers, friends and citizens, out of genuine inclination made better cooperators than those who merely pretended to be so. Indeed, the conmen could only come later, as parasites on the successful superorganism. Before you can have free riders, you have to have something to free ride upon.
What is ugly is either unpleasant to look at and/or harmful. What is beautiful is either pleasant to look at and/or beneficial. Darwinian Theory recognizes these distinctions. It is therefore Socratic in its logical structure. It is not ugly, unless it is wrong.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
There are two versions of the “is/ought fallacy,” one of which is a genuine fallacy and relatively rare and the other of which is not a fallacy at all and ubiquitous. The first goes like this: that fact that things are a certain way provides no evidence that they should be that way. For example, evolutionary theory holds that males in most species are more aggressive than females. It might occur to someone that this excuses male aggression in human beings. I note that this thought is entertained almost exclusively by persons who wish to discredit Darwinian Theory but rarely if ever by persons who subscribe to that theory.
The most frequent form of this fallacy involves the equation of the natural with the good, a sin committed by nearly every firm whose wares are sold in health food stores. If “natural” simply means “naturally occurring”, the equation is obviously false. Cancer occurs naturally and so do earthquakes and typhoons. Rape may be natural in this sense, since it happens among a range of animals; however, it is very, very terrible, at least when it happens among human beings.
The more famous and basic of the two versions belongs to David Hume. Here is a famous quote from his Treatise on Human Nature:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
This is frequently interpreted to imply that moral conclusions can only be derived from moral premises and never from matters of fact. From the fact that a terrorist planted a bomb that killed innocent people one can derive no moral conclusion. From the premise that killing the innocent is bad one can derive the conclusion that the terrorist did a bad thing.
I don’t doubt that Hume believed that, as is suggested by the title of Book 3, Part 3, Section 1 where it occurs: “Moral Premises Not Derived From Reason”. It is not, however, what he says here. He only says that many authors fail to derive moral premises from observations and reasoning but instead jump from one to the other.
The claim that one cannot derive an ought from an is always struck me as manifestly false. From the fact that household electrical currents are dangerous one can easily derive the conclusion that one ought not to stick one’s tongue in a light socket. If you wish to object that my use of the word ought here is not a moral ought but an amoral ought, implying only that it is not in my interest to do this stupid thing, I will agree. However, I do not thereby agree to the premise that self-interest and moral weight are mutually exclusive.
That premise was accepted by Hume, who smuggled it into this moral theory. Its origins lie in Christian thought; specifically in the idea that all genuinely moral action involves self-sacrifice. If you add to this the egoistic premise that the only rational reason for doing anything is a self-interested reason, as I think Hume did, then you get the conclusion that moral premises cannot be derived from reason. If, finally, you are not a Christian, as Hume was not, morality is reduced to an irrational if socially useful emotion.
I think that biosocial philosophy reveals this to be altogether wrong. It also shows the way to a much more useful approach to moral analysis. Human passions, as opposed to mere appetites, always involve judgments. An itch has merely a location. Fear has an object: the thing that is dangerous. Fear is thus a judgment that I am or we are in peril. Anger is anger at someone about something. Such judgments can be correct or incorrect depending on what is true. The thing that I fear may or may not be a real threat. The anger I feel may or may not be based on an accurate interpretation of what another person said or did.
Moral emotions always involve a distinction between what I ought to do and what I want to do. “Don’t stick your tongue in a light socket” is not a moral ought because I am not the least bit tempted to do that. On the other hand, I might be tempted to take another drink when I know that I ought not because I have to drive home. That is a moral ought. It is moral not just because it involves other people on the road. It also involves me. A man looking at an alarming X-Ray of his lungs may well feel guilty and ashamed because he has smoked cigarettes for thirty years, despite knowing all the while that he ought not to. Guilt and shame are emphatically moral emotions.
Whenever we are tempted to do what we know we ought not to do, the ought involves an element of fear. We fear that we will be sorry. That judgement is part of our evolutionary heritage. To be sure, our moral emotions are finely tuned to our concerns for and fears of other people. I suspect that Christopher Boehm is right. Our moral emotions evolved under the pressure of selection for social cooperation. Small bands of hunters could be effective only if meat was shared and the lazy and the bully were brought under social control. As human beings began to internalize the rules of the tribe, we became moral creatures. Only much later did human beings begin to apply moral rules to themselves, asking what kind of person do I want to be? Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the most perfect example of that kind of reflection. It’s not far from there to the fellow who feels guilty because he ate a piece of cheese cake and missed a trip to the gym.
Because moral emotions are judgements, they depend on accurate assessments of matters of fact. If exercise and a good diet are good for me, then I ought to keep going to the gym and eating right. If keeping my promises and offering help to the needy is good for the community that I care about, then I ought to be a good fellow. It is the fact that honesty in exchange makes me a good partner and makes me the kind of person I want to be. From that fact I may derive the proposition that I ought to be honest in exchanges. The ought is derived from the is. Meanwhile, I still shouldn’t stick my tongue in a light socket.