Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Evolution of Virtue 2

Modern philosophical ethics has been dominated by two general positions: utilitarianism and deontology (Kantian ethics).  According to the first, the just or right thing to do is the thing that is most useful to the most people.  So it is right to tell the truth most of the time because general honesty has good social consequences.  However, it might be right to lie in special circumstances.  If a suicidal young man asks where his gun is, telling him the truth might be the morally worst thing to do. 
According to deontology or duty based ethics, an act is moral only if you do it because it is the right thing to do.  Telling a lie is wrong because it manipulates another human being, thus treating him as subhuman or as a mere means to an end.  Deontologists will generally say that you must do the right thing regardless of the consequences to yourself or others.  Kant narrowed down the meaning of “the right thing to do” with his two categorical (unbending) imperatives: act so that the principle of your action can be universalized and act always to treat other human beings as person to be served and never as means to be exploited. 
Utilitarianism and deontology are usually present as mutually exclusive.  Oddly, most people switch (if unconsciously) between the two positions in different situations.  The best example of this is the infamous trolley problem.  The trolley problem comes in two versions. 
Version 1 
A trolley is headed toward a switch.  As the switch is set, the trolley will go left and as a result will kill five people who are working (or tied to) the track.  You can leave the switch as is or switch it to the right track.  In that case it will kill a single person on the track. 
Version 2
You are standing on a bridge next to an obese person, watch the train approach.  If it passes under the bridge it will kill five people on the track.  You can save them only by pushing the large guy onto the track, thus resulting in his death. 
Most people (and almost all of my students) who are presented with the first version choose to throw the switch.  They defend their decision on the grounds that it is morally better to sacrifice one person to save five.  That is textbook utilitarian thinking. 
Results tend to change dramatically when people are presented with the second version.  Most people refuse to push the fellow over on the grounds that one is deliberating killing him in order to stop a train.  That is textbook deontology. 
The key to understanding the two positions is to see that they focus on distinct aspects of a potentially moral action.  The utilitarian focuses on the consequences of the action.  The deontologist focuses on the motive of the moral actor.  What I find most interesting is that you can defend both positions using the assumptions of the other.  While deontology is much less flexible than utilitarians would like, it seems pretty clear that society would be a lot better off if everyone acted (almost) all the time from deontological principles.  There would be no crime and dilemmas which force one to choose between motives and consequences would be much rarer. 
Likewise, a Kantian might employ utilitarian principles as good candidates for universalization.  He might say that anyone in the situation of the first version problem should throw the switch, regardless of who was on the track, because saving five rather than one is the universally right thing to do.  However, it would be all but impossible to throw the fat guy over without violating the second categorical imperative. 
Virtue ethics has recently been revived as a third position.  According to this, what is important in morality is the dynamic relationship between acts and character.  By doing what is right consistently, as a matter of principle, one builds the habit of acting morally.  When one has such habits, one will of course tend to do the right thing for the right reason.  Virtues may be said to be such habits, but I think it more correct to say that virtue is precisely the dynamism involving actions and character.  Brave actions produce bravery which produces brave actions; that is what makes courage a virtue. 
It seems pretty clear that morality has deep roots in evolution.  Cooperators are frequently more successful in a Darwinian sense (reproductive success) than non-cooperators and so cooperation can be selected for.  In many cases in the history of animals, situations arise where cooperation involves the temptation to cheat.  Some mechanisms must be found for denying reproductive success to cheaters; otherwise, cooperative instincts will be selected out of the gene pool. 
To take one famous example, vampire bats frequently share blood with one another.  This provides insurance for those who have string of bad hunting days.  The bats have rather large brains, in part perhaps to remember who shares and who does not.  Cheaters are excluded from the social safety net.  It is not that the bats understand what they are doing.  It is rather that moral principles are built into their behavioral schemas. 
Human beings are consummate cooperators.  We cooperate with extended nets of partners and have natural expectations regarding their behaviors.  We are sensitive to others opinions of us, especially concerning our fitness as honest partners.  We are naturally inclined to be angry when we suppose that another is not observing his or her obligations. 
Cooperation is obviously utilitarian from a “gene’s eye” point of view.  Human societies have inherited the earth.  However, cooperative societies are also the conditions of the good human life.  Our interests are dependent upon but not at all identical with the persistence of our genes. 
It seems obvious that morality is in part utilitarian.  We need for one another to behave morally.  It seems to me just as likely that Kantian elements have been selected for in the evolution of our moral psychology.  A person who is uncomfortable with doing the wrong thing is obviously a better candidate for a cooperative partnership.  He or she makes a better business partner, friend and ally, or spouse. 
Just as morality cannot be reduced to evolutionary mechanisms (though it must be supported by them) it cannot be reduced merely to making us useful to one another.  This is where virtue ethics is most helpful.  Such Aristotelian virtues as courage, temperance, honesty, and righteous indignation are socially beneficial to be sure.  They are also beneficial to the virtuous person.  To the extent that an individual possesses virtue, he or she is more likely to take advantage of good fortune and bear up under bad fortune.  The virtuous person is most fit for the best human life. 
In the Politics Aristotle expressed his non-reductive thinking with this immortal phrase: though the polis (the political community) comes to be for the sake of mere life, it is exists for the sake of the good life.  He was distinguishing here the historical forces responsible for the emergence of political life from the value of political life for human beings. 
I suppose that while the moral dimension in human psychology came to be for the sake of mere reproductive success, it exists for the sake of our success.  Morality rests on evolutionary foundations.  It enables the formation of societies that are good to live in, in ways that utilitarianism and deontology shed light on.  It is also important to forming an individual character worth having.  The latter confirms the Platonic/Aristotelian account of the virtues. 

No comments:

Post a Comment