Sunday, March 3, 2013
The Evolution of Virtue 1
What follows is the beginning of a paper that I will present at the end of the month at the meeting of the Southwestern Political Science Association in New Orleans.
Morality is inescapable. The existential space that defines the human being extends along a number of dimensions. Easiest to describe are the three dimensions of space. Every human being exists at some point in space and can move to another point only by moving through all the points in between. Time is often described as a fourth dimension, though it is radically different from the spatial dimensions. We move through time in one direction, leaving behind a past we more or less remember and moving into a future that is more or less predictable but nonetheless invisible. These dimensions fix us in the world of physical objects.
We are fixed in the world of organic objects by a number of dimensions including flourishing and decay (the end point of the latter being death), pain and pleasure, wretchedness and happiness. Along with the physical dimensions described above, the organic dimensions comprise the map wherewith we act. The moral dimension, extending between what is right and what is wrong, is another fundamental extension of that map. To be sure, someone can act with disregard for morality just as he can act with a disregard for the future. To do either, however, amounts to a self-imposed blindness. Ignoring morality doesn’t make for escape from the moral dimension any more than ignoring the future makes for an escape from time.
It might be tempting to suppose that these existential dimensions are merely elements of human psychology and not descriptive of the larger Kosmos in which human beings exist. They are, however, our only access to any truth about that larger Kosmos. All science and philosophy presuppose that the microcosm is a more or less accurate reflection of the macrocosm. The world is intelligible precisely to the degree that the reflection is more rather than less.
Human beings are moral animals. We readily pass judgment on others as they deal with us and on ourselves as we deal with others. These judgments are enabled by a wide pallet of moral emotions: anger, gratitude, guilt, and shame, among others. This capacity for judgment is not merely self-interested. Our moral emotions interest us in dramas that we have no part in, as is evident from our inexhaustible taste for storytelling. When we come to understand how our moral sense is rooted in our biological history, we come to understand ourselves. Likewise, as we come to understand ourselves, we better understand organic world out of which we emerged.
This essay will attempt to build a dialogue between evolutionary accounts of moral emotions and the theory of virtue presented by Plato and Aristotle. I will show that the two are not only compatible but that each sheds light upon and deepens the other.