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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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.


Pragmatism and Scientific Realism: Two Great Tastes!
April 26, 2011

“This right here is some @resnikoff linkbait,” tweets young Dylan Matthews, and he is not wrong. The linkbait he refers to is a post over at his own (all too infrequently updated) blog arguing that Sam Harris is trying to have it both ways with his insistence that science can answer basic moral questions.

Dylan writes:

While there are a number of different philosophies of science and epistemologies that can accommodate the scientific method, Harris is certainly correct that you have to accept one of them for the whole thing to work. Harris’ choice appears to be scientific realism, which, in short, is the view that science describes a world that is really “out there”, and that a scientific observation is true when it corresponds to this real world.

Which is funny to me, because Harris is a utilitarian. At least that’s what I and Orr make of his conclusion that the good is the “well-being of conscious creatures”. A quick scan of the book shows that Harris explicitly identifies identifies as a consequentialist (see page 62; sadly there’s no Google Books preview I can link to). Consequentialism + a hedonic conception of the good = good old fashioned utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, unlike some other ethical theories, has philosophical implications outside of ethics. In particular, I think it commits you to some form of pragmatism. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.


So Harris has a problem. He can be a scientific realist, which rules out both pragmatism (which rejects the idea that there needs to be a real world “out there” which true statements reflect) and utilitarianism (because it implies pragmatism). Or he can be a utilitarian, and a pragmatist, and acknowledge that religion is often a source for good in the world and a source of joy for many privately. But you can’t be a utilitarian and a scientific realist, and you certainly can’t try to get to utilitarianism through scientific realism, which is what he’s trying to do now.

I’m not sure that’s exactly right. I get the sense that philosopher Neil Sinhababu’s pleasure-based hedonic utilitarianism is consistent with scientific realism, at least if you think Sinhababu’s claims about the objective goodness of hedonic pleasure hold up. (Incidentally, Neil, if you’re reading this I’d love to get your take.)

But while I don’t believe Dylan has scored a hit, I think y’all already know I find Harris’ theory to be deeply ill-conceived. I encourage you to read the excellent essay that inspired Dylan’s post to find out why.

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Why Sam Harris’ Ethical Empiricism Is Wrong
January 12, 2011

Sam Harris
Image via Wikipedia

I an earlier post about the holes in empirical atheism, I briefly mentioned Sam Harris’ argument that science can answer moral questions. Since the post was already running sort of long, I dismissed Harris (pictured) rather quickly by linking to what I thought was a good takedown by philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci. Commenter Josef Johann replied:

Dissenter warning!

Harris only commits a category error if you think there is a divide between what science is about and what morality is about in the first place. Claiming there is a category error is just a repackaging of one’s first-order disagreement with Harris. It doesn’t contain the why.

Yes, you did link to Massimo at the end, and that would be fine if the issue weren’t contentious, but being that it is contentious I think that’s a rather weak way of backing up your post’s fundamental premise.

I’m not trying to be uncivil but I’m flabbergasted by this type of assertion-by-fiat argument, as if dogmatic repetition of the very position Harris is arguing against is sufficient to rebut him. It isn’t. The trick is to reply to Harris in a way that isn’tquestion begging.

Resorting to empiricism to resolve questions may appear to you to be “cheap and intellectually lazy.” But someone from my side could just as well say that this viewpoint reflects a lack of imagination with respect to the explanatory scope of empiricism. And it surely wouldn’t be the first time- history is replete with confident declarations that X is outside the scope of science (e.g. Newton’s claim that there may from time to time be divine intervention to stabilize the orbit of the planets, the belief the human brain couldn’t be produced by natural selection or any other evolutionary mechanism, a belief that was argued for in respected circles in the 20th century).

So we return to the question of whether Harris’ definition, or any other, captures all the different ways we use the word morality. If it can’t even be done inprinciple, well, that requires argument just like everything else. I argue in the affirmative, you argue in the negative, and we explain why. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but at least in the context of rebuttals to Sam Harris, all I see are assertions-by-fiat masquerading as arguments.

Also, a recent PhilPapers Poll shows most analytic philosophers are moral realists. It can mean many different things, but one of its meanings is that moral issues can be decided by factual matters, which the Cornell Realists certain seem to have thought. So Harris’ view isn’t as completely out of the mainstream as is, I think, commonly believed.

Maybe my dismissal was overly glib, but I don’t think I was arguing by “dogmatic fiat” or “assertion-by-fiat.” I was letting Professor Pigliucci do the arguing for me. But in the interest of trying to put Harris’ deeply flawed argument behind us once and for all, I’m happy to expand on why on the professor’s argument a bit.

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