Darwinian Ethics

A post by philosopher Michael Ruse called A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy has been making the rounds in the philosoblogosphere. The thing is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an executive summary:

  1. Substantive ethics is the product of natural selection.
  2. Naturalism is correct.
  3. Moral realism is wrong.
  4. However, ethical claims have the phenomenological “meaning and character” of objective facts.
  5. Therefore, relativism is also wrong.

Or to put it as Ruse does, “although philosophy may lead to skepticism, psychology makes it impossible to live that way.” The fact that ethical claims are “only” facts about our mental states doesn’t diminish their importance, because our own mental states are all we really have direct access to.

Note that while this is a Darwinian/naturalist approach to ethics, it differs significantly from the sort of reductive, pseudo-empirical claptrap espoused by New Atheists such as Sam Harris. As I’ve written before, Harris’ attempts to reconcile moral realism with reductio ad scientism is doomed to failure. However (if you’ll forgive some self-citation):

I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it. I’m trapped in the world created by language and conscious thought; there is no way for me to un-see the value I attach to things, or cause my mind to reject its own existence.

That’s more or less in agreement with what Ruse argues above, though he does some extra work to connect this position to the Darwinian tradition. He also connects it to the Humean tradition, acknowledging the importance of the is/ought distinction that reductive materialists tend to reject out of hand.

So if you are, like myself, both a non-believer and a non-reductive materialist, Ruse’s position seems pretty satisfying. Though I wonder what believers (particularly Christians) might make of his final claim:

I think the kind of position I have just sketched should be welcomed by a Christian influenced by naturalism, and I am thinking here of course of Thomas Aquinas and the influence of Aristotle. As a Darwinian, I think we should do what is natural. As an Aristotelian, the Thomist thinks we should do what is natural. I see a meeting point here. It doesn’t incline me to be a Christian but I see how a Christian could start with my position and then put it in a theological context.

Any thoughts?

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5 Responses

  1. My first thought is that you misspelled the dude’s name, which is too bad because “Ruse” is a great name for someone philosophizing about ethics. My second thought it that it’s a great topic, but I remain perplexed over the apparent lack of interest on the part even of fairly open-minded Darwinists on serious perspectives on theology, especially from among the critics and contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Heidegger. My third thought is I’ll have to get back to this, but thanks for posting on it!

    • Oops. Fixed the name — thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Believer that I am, I have some issues with the proposition that we should do what is natural: as Ruse mentions, the is-ought distinction is an important one. I’m even suspicious of the idea that because God created human nature as X, human beings ought to act in accordance with X. And I’m also on record stating that ethics need not presuppose the existence of God. Like Ruse, my positions get me in trouble in my community. Like Ruse, I’m neither a realist nor a relativist.

    I’d have to give some thought to Ruse’s particular claims before I could give a thoughtful response, but I can say as of now that I agree with his (and your ) underlying idea that the world created by language and conscious thought provides, in the real world of human action, a sufficient basis to act one way and not another. Contra the realists, we’re not doomed to an anything goes relativism if there are no absolute, eternal moral truths.

    • I think Ruse avoids is/ought by working backwards: since, in his framework, ethics is a product of natural selection, it is “natural.” He’s not deriving an is from an ought, just working through the implications of how his ought and is are connected.

  3. […] Darwinian Ethics (resnikoff.wordpress.com) […]

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