Saturday, February 10, 2007

by John Mizzoni, from here

I. Introduction

With the human genome project compelling us to come to grips with our biology, the attempt to explain the nature of morality in biological terms becomes all the more tempting. Nowadays there are many moral theorists who are thinking about the relationships between the nature and origin of ethics and human biological evolution. In the light of human biological evolution what (if anything?) can we say about the ultimate nature of ethics?

There are some moral philosophers (e.g., Thomas Nagel) who believe that evolutionary considerations are irrelevant to a full understanding of the foundations of ethics.[1] Other moral philosophers (e.g., J.L. Mackie) tell quite a different story.[2] They hold that the admission of the evolutionary origins of human beings compels us to concede that there are no foundations for ethics. But the philosopher that I will focus on in this paper is Michael Ruse, whom Holmes Rolston III calls, "the most celebrated philosopher in the world for his untiring effort to join biology and ethics".[3] Ruse has published widely on the topic of evolutionary ethics and what it entails about the foundations of ethics.[4]

According to Ruse, evolutionary ethics is "the project which argues that for a full understanding of the nature and grounds of morality one must turn to the process and theories of the evolutionist".[5]

It is Michael Ruse who has been especially active in promoting the abandonment of the traditional understanding of evolutionary ethics as a competitive ethic to evolutionary ethics as a cooperative ethic. To mark the distinction between these two approaches Ruse refers to the traditional account as "evolutionary ethics" and his newer account as "Darwinian ethics".[6]

I agree with Ruse that evolutionary considerations should be looked at when thinking about the nature and origin of morality. But I think Ruse goes awry with his account of Darwinian ethics when he alleges that an evolutionary understanding of ethics and morality discredits the objectivity and foundations of ethics. In metaethical terms, Ruse maintains that an evolutionary understanding of ethics leads us to metaethical skepticism and metaethical subjectivism. But I will argue that he has not successfully made his case that Darwinian ethics is most consistent with skepticism and subjectivism. I will argue that the Darwinian ethics that Ruse defines and argues for is in fact most consistent with a metaethical view known as moral realism, and further, that Ruse's efforts to defend Darwinian ethics actually help to support and give empirical evidence for moral realism.

II. Moral Realism

In this section I'll briefly describe moral realism as a metaethical theory and how it differs from moral skepticism and moral subjectivism. Here I'll draw on David O. Brink's work on moral realism. Brink has offered a helpful characterization of moral realism. First he defines realism as a view that holds

"(a) there are facts of kind x, and (b) these facts are logically independent of our evidence, i.e. those beliefs which are our evidence, for them."[7]

In my view, these two claims capture what realists have in mind. Take an example of scientific realism: there are facts concerning our genetic make-up, and these facts are logically independent of our evidence, opinions, and beliefs. A century ago we didn't have knowledge of genes because we didn't have enough evidence to posit the existence of genes. Yet there were still facts obtaining concerning our genes. They were still passing from one generation to the next even though we as human cognizers were not aware of their existence. As we have accumulated evidence concerning genes we have discovered facts about them. Now to talk of moral realism is to say

"(a) there are moral facts, and (b) these facts are logically independent of our evidence, i.e. those beliefs which are our evidence, for them."[8]

Just as we can accumulate evidence to make scientific discoveries, moral realists believe that we can accumulate evidence to make moral discoveries. The upshot of moral realism is that there are objective moral facts; as a metaethical theory it is the view that at bottom ethics is objective, factual, and discoverable. Moral realism is thus opposed to the view that ethics at bottom is subjective, conventional, illusory, affective and constructed.

To say that ethics is ultimately subjective, illusory, and affective is to say that it is dependent upon individual subjects or agents. To say that ethics is ultimately conventional and constructed is to say that it is dependent upon social groups. Although moral realists can grant that ethics does contain a subjective, conventional, constructed, affective, and sometimes illusory character, yet they will assert that beneath all of the diversity surrounding human behavior there are moral facts and objectivities that are factual and discoverable. These moral facts and truths are ultimately independent of the subjective, conventional, affective, etc.; they are not ultimately dependent on the beliefs and opinions of subjects or social groups.

III. Ruse's Darwinian Metaethics, (Contingent) Human Nature, and Relativism

Ruse's Darwinian account of the nature and origins of ethics is what he calls a Darwinian metaethics.

Ethics is part of our human nature, says Ruse. "Humans share a common moral understanding. This universality is guaranteed by the shared genetic background of every member of Homo sapiens. The differences between us are far outweighed by the similarities...There is, therefore, absolutely nothing arbitrary about morality, considered from the human perspective."[9]

Because there is an objective human nature there can be objective moral facts. To claim there are objective moral facts and to claim that these facts obtain whether or not we believe them or currently have evidence for them is the view otherwise known as moral realism.

Ruse's Darwinian ethics, it seems, would qualify as moral realism. What Ruse adds to the traditional strategy of rooting ethics in human nature are the concepts of genes, epigenetic rules, innate dispositions, and capacities.

"Once we grasp the full import of the epigenetic rules-innate constraints rooted in the genes and put in place by natural selection-powerful light is thrown on human knowledge and morality."[10]

"Once it is granted that innate constraints rooted in human nature have been put in place by natural selection, an element of contingency is brought in. After all, morality is only an effective adaptation. The Darwinian...ties morality tightly to contingent human nature."[11]

"Had evolution taken us down another path, we might well think moral that which we now find horrific, and conversely. This is not a conclusion acceptable to the traditional objectivist."[12]

Ruse seems to think that this admission of the contingency of human nature (thereby human morality) will strike traditional moral philosophers with horror. If we understand Aristotle and Aquinas as traditional objectivists (which I think we should), would they find the contingency of human nature and human morality horrific? I don't see why they would. Aristotle says to understand ethics as rooted in human nature; if human nature were different then the shape of Aristotle's virtue ethics would be different. And Aquinas, as two commentators have noted, concedes that if our nature were different then our duties would be different.

In order to hold moral realism (or objectivism as Ruse calls it) one need not assume that human nature necessarily had to be what it currently is. All that is required is that human nature is universal species-wide, and this is exactly what Ruse's Darwinian ethics provides for moral realists.

If human nature is universal then there would presumably be moral facts about human nature and with their research into innate moral dispositions and capacities Ruse and other Darwinians can help to fill out more precisely what those moral facts are. That moral facts are contingent because human nature is contingent is not at variance with moral realism. As David Brink succinctly puts it, "The truth of moral realism turns on the existence of moral facts, not their modal status".[13]

Ruse states clearly that the contingent status of human nature and morality does not consequently align Darwinian ethics with metaethical relativism

"...note that the Darwinian's position does not plunge him/her into wholesale ethical relativism...Against this, the Darwinian recognizes that there are indeed differences from society to society, and also within societies, particularly across time. However, these are readily (and surely properly) explained in the way that most moral theorists would explain them, as secondary, modified consequences of shared primary moral imperatives."[14]

"The differences between us are far outweighed by the similarities...I did not choose my moral code. For the Darwinian, the very essence of morality is that it is shared and not relative. It does not work as a biological adaptation, unless we all join in."[15]

Because Darwinian ethics denies that ethics is ultimately grounded in one's culture, Darwinian metaethics is not relativistic.

Metaethically speaking, Darwinian ethics seems to be in keeping with moral realism.

IV. Darwinian Metaethics and Moral Realism: Objectivity, Independence, and Redundancy

Given the aspects of Ruse's Darwinian ethics that I've sketched, why would Ruse claim that "we must conclude that not only is Darwinian ethics a subjectivist ethics, it is one which positively excludes the objectivist approach"?[16]

The answer lies in Ruse's understanding of the objectivity of ethics. In his discussion of metaethics Ruse makes two related assumptions. He assumes that anyone who claims that ethics is objective and anyone who maintains moral realism is

(i) thereby committed to non-naturalism, and (ii) thereby committed to viewing ethics as fixed and eternal.

But both assumptions are unwarranted. We can think of the example of Aristotelian ethics. It makes perfect sense to say that Aristotle approached ethics naturalistically but we could also interpret Aristotle as having recognized objective moral facts. As Ruse himself admits, morality is grounded in human nature and so if there are objective facts about human nature then presumably there are objective facts about morality. If human nature is contingent, i.e., could have been different, then ethics is contingent, i.e., could have been different. The upshot is that moral realism is workable as a naturalistic metaethic and that moral realism is sanguine about moral contingency. Here is how Ruse sees things, however:

"We must ask whether, to the Darwinian, morality is--because of the science, must be taken as-something objective, in the sense of having an authority and existence of its own, independent of human beings? Or whether morality is--because of the science, must be taken as--subjective, being a function of human nature, and reducing ultimately to feelings and sentiments--feelings and sentiments of a type different from wishes and desires, but ultimately emotions of some kind?"[17]

"Nor can one readily see how the objectivist might patch up the situation, making his/her position compatible with evolutionism. At least, this seems impossible, so long as one locates the foundation of morality in some sort of extra-human existence, like God's will or non-natural properties."[18]

"But what this all means is that there is not and cannot be any objective, extra-human morality."[19]

Notice how he assumes that something objective is something that exists independent of human beings and something that is subjective is a function of human nature.

The other unwarranted metaethical assumption Ruse makes is the supposition that those who maintain an objective ethics thereby maintain that ethics is eternal, cosmically fixed, necessary, and non-contingent. He alleges that "...the "objectivist" tends to think of such [moral] norms as fixed and eternal," as "eternal verities perceptible thought intuition" and "morality as a set of objective, eternal verities".[20] If the moral realist is concurring with Ruse that ethics is grounded in human nature then a moral realist does not need to make such extravagant assumptions. There is no reason to assume that belief in the objectivity of ethics and belief in objective moral facts grounded in human nature entails non-naturalism or eternal moral norms. To build these elements into moral realism and then to knock it down because of these elements amounts to attacking a straw man.

Ruse's two unwarranted assumptions about moral objectivity are also apparent in the one main argument that Ruse makes against the moral realist (whom he calls the objectivist). Michael Bradie calls it the "redundancy argument against objective values".[21] Here is Ruse's first formulation of the argument:

"At the least, the objectivist must agree that his/her ultimate principles are (given Darwinism) redundant. You would believe what you do about right and wrong, irrespective of whether or not a "true" right and wrong existed! The Darwinian claims that his/her theory gives an entire analysis of our moral sentiments. Nothing more is needed. Given two worlds, identical except that one has an objective morality and the other does not, the humans therein would think and act in exactly the same ways. Hence the objective foundation for morality is redundant."[22]

This formulation of the redundancy argument makes the assumption that objectivists must construe ethics as non-natural or extra-human. From the perspective of someone who holds that objective morality is grounded in objective human nature this argument misses its mark. From a naturalistic perspective, what could it possibly mean to have two worlds that are identical yet one has an objective morality and the other does not?

An objective morality understood naturalistically is one that is rooted in human nature. Would the two worlds have identical human natures? If they do have identical human natures then on this naturalistic account it's impossible for one world to have an objective morality and the other world not to. On the other hand, if the two worlds have two different human natures then the two worlds are not identical! In neither case is objective morality shown to be redundant, it is always rooted to the human nature contingently obtaining in the world in which it is found.

The redundancy argument only works and makes clear sense if you construe objective morality as hovering outside the natural order of things like a third wheel just waiting for Ockham's razor to come along. The trouble that Ruse is having in fairly characterizing and fairly critiquing moral objectivity stems from a mistaken assumption concerning the independence criterion of objectivism. When a Platonic moral realist says that moral facts are independent from human beliefs and evidence, this is (on a traditional reading of Plato) a metaphysical claim. But when a naturalistic moral realist says that moral facts are independent from human beliefs and evidence, this is only a logical claim. This distinction should not be foreign or unfamiliar to Ruse. Look at how he uses the independence criterion when he describes the common (modern) way of distinguishing facts and values, and simultaneously reveals his commitment to a scientific realism. He says that:

"Facts are statements about the way things are: they are objective, independent of human experience. Science aims to be about facts: descriptions and understandings. This applies to Darwinian evolutionary theory. Values are about the way things ought to be: they are more subjective, they refer to human feelings and senses of obligation or judgment."[23]

When he says that scientific facts are "objective, independent of human experience" does he mean extra-human in the sense that these facts are non-natural entities hovering outside the natural realm independently existing apart from human experience? No, not at all. He means that scientific facts obtain whether individuals believe in them or not. He himself in this context understands the independence criterion as making a logical distinction between what exists and our beliefs about what exists.

Ruse is trying to use Ockham's razor to cut out objective values, but with a naturalistic objective morality there's nothing for him to cut out. The only thing that he could cut out is his contention that there are "innate constraints rooted in the genes and put in place by natural selection".[24] No doubt there are theorists who are skeptical about these innate moral constraints, but Ruse and E.O. Wilson believe that there is growing empirical evidence for these genetically based dispositions and constraints on morality.

Before I leave the redundancy argument I'd like to consider a different and more colorful version of it, one that works against objectivism if and only if we accept Ruse's unwarranted supposition that objectivists comprehend ethics as a set of eternal, non-contingent, fixed verities.

"Suppose we had evolved in a rather different way. Suppose, to take an extreme example, we had evolved from termite-like creatures, rather than from savanna-dwelling primates. Termites need to eat each others' faeces, in order to regain certain parasites used in digestion, which are lost during the termites' periodic moults. With such a background as this, our highest ethical imperatives might be very strange indeed. We would live our lives in blissful ignorance of what God or objective morality truly willed."[25]

This is a version of the redundancy argument because he is claiming that if we had evolved differently then it is possible that our morality would now be different and hence appeals to an "objective morality" would be beside the point, i.e., redundant. But if we purge the assumption of eternal, non-contingent, fixed verities from our understanding of objectivism, and interpret objective ethics as simply ethics as rooted in universal human nature, here is what we are left with: Under Ruse's hypothetical scenario our human nature would be different, so our morality would be different.

It does not at all follow that we would live in ignorance of what objective morality required. Our objective morality, i.e., morality grounded in our universal human nature, would involve those behaviors that would contribute to our well-being as termite-like beings. There is no redundancy of objective morality if we understand objective morality as referring to and rooted in our contingent, yet innate, dispositions and capacities. Once we purge objectivism of metaphysical extravagances then the redundancy argument turns out to be attacking a straw man.

V. Objectivity, Error, and Illusion

There is one other key element of Ruse's Darwinian ethics. Ruse believes that it is acceptable to talk about morality as if it is objective and he acknowledges that moral discourse has an objective feel to it. Yet he cannot accept that morality is indeed objective because in his mind that would commit him to a non-naturalistic and non-contingent account of ethics. Ruse thus feels compelled to reject objectivism in favor of (not relativism of course, but) subjectivism.

If subjectivism is true, however, then how could the Darwinian explain the surface appearance of objectivity? Following J.L. Mackie, Ruse adopts what is called in metaethics, an error theory. Yes, morality seems to be about objective moral facts and truths but the objectivity and truth in morality is illusory, it is an error to take the prescriptive, categorical, and objective feel of morality as face value reflections of what morality actually is. According to Ruse,

"The Darwinian argues that morality simply does not work (from a biological perspective), unless we believe that it is objective. Darwinian theory shows that, in fact, morality is a function of (subjective) feelings; but it shows also that we have (and must have) the illusion of objectivity."[26]

"We may have choice about whether to do right or wrong, but we have no choice about right and wrong themselves. If morality did not have this air of externality or objectivity, it would not be morality and (from a biological perspective) would fail to do what it is intended to do...In a sense, therefore, morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes."[27]

The way that Ruse (following Mackie) maintains that ethics is full of error and illusion and yet still manages to take ethics seriously is to distinguish metaethics from substantive (normative) ethics. They allege that one can hold a metaethical skepticism while accepting a normative approach such as utilitarianism or deontology.

But given what Ruse has said about innate moral dispositions hard-wired into human nature I don't think it is fitting for him to call himself a metaethical subjectivist or a metaethical skeptic. As in the quotation above, an error theorist must hold that morality merely has an "air of objectivity" while deep down it is illusory or subjective. With Ruse's insistence that morality is grounded in human genetic nature one must strain to imagine why he would regard morality as having merely an air of objectivity-he says morality is rooted in the genes of all human beings, how much more objective do we have to get?

VI. Conclusion

Darwinian ethics emphasizes that ethics is a cooperative strategy that is deeply rooted in the contingent nature of the human species. Darwinian ethics vindicates common sense morality by saying it is rooted in our genes, innate dispositions and capacities, and that there are innate constraints on our human behavior. Darwinian ethics is fully naturalistic and incompatible with relativism. When taken together, these features of Darwinian ethics do not comport with error theory, subjectivism, or relativism. These elements comport most agreeably with a naturalistic moral realism. Ruse and Wilson are doing important work by bringing empirical findings to light that are relevant to moral philosophy. I just wish that they would realize that in so doing, they are advancing the position of naturalistic moral realism not metaethical skepticism. When I reflect on their work in developing a Darwinian perspective on ethics and their insistence that "the differences between us are far outweighed by the similarities"[28] I don't have reason to be skeptical about the ultimate foundations of morality, on the contrary, I have reason to be optimistic that there is indeed a shared universal human nature and therefore a shared deep structure to morality. [29]


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