Darwinian Ethics
January 8, 2012

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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Why is Susan Blackmore Writing for The Stone?
August 22, 2010

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I guess we can blame Simon Critchley’s discerning taste again. But this is just silly. Where once we had philosophers writing about things that had nothing to do with philosophy, we have now devolved to work by non-philosophers about non-philosophy.

To be fair, I do think there is some food for thought in Blackmore’s work about the relation between memetic development and human evolution. And certainly the idea of memes being living, replicating, evolving organism carries a certain amount of metaphorical appeal. But to take this stuff seriously and worry about memes as some sort of predatory, parasitic threat is waaaay off the deep end. Certainly, it has no place on a blog ostensibly dedicated to philosophy.

For those who detect the faint but unmistakable reek of pseudoscience in Blackmore’s essay, it should come as no surprise that before she started in with all of this vaguely mystical sounding stuff about memes, the bulk of her scholarship was on the overtly mystical: i.e., psychic powers, near death experiences, so on. She’s since seen the, um, light on ESP and NDEs, but all this talk about “temes” is only one or two degrees removed.

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