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Wednesday
Jan112012

The Evolution of Morality

There are quite a few books touching upon the topic of how moral behavior might have evolved in humans (and other animals), but very few such books are written by moral philosophers. Richard Joyce’s The Evolution of Morality is explicitly written from the perspective of moral philosophy and is thus a much needed addition to the literature. I am convinced that moral philosophers need a better understanding of evolution and that evolutionary theorists equally need a better understanding of philosophy. In a way this book bridges the gap between moral philosophy and evolutionary psychology.

 

Joyce sets himself two main goals: the first is to argue that human morality is innate and the second is to draw the philosophical (particularly the meta-ethical) implications of this fact. Specifically, does the innateness of morality vindicate it in some sense, thus staving off the threat of moral skepticism and undergirding some version of moral realism? Or does it instead undermine the authority of morality? Joyce is a follower of John L. Mackie’s moral skepticism and attempts to launch an “evolutionary debunking of morality”. In several ways, Joyce’s argument enhances and reinforces that of Mackie’s Ethics – Inventing Right and Wrong by injecting it with biological insights. Mackie himself was deeply interested in the evolution of morality and he even wrote a couple of articles on these topics (The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution (1978) and Genes and Egoism (1981)). Joyce also makes heavy use of Gilbert Harman's influential argument (see his The Nature of Morality) that moral judgments might be epistemologically undermined on the grounds that they can be explained entirely without invoking their truth (just as religious beliefs can be undermined on the grounds that we can explain the fact that people have these beliefs without invoking the truth of the beliefs).

 

In the brief introduction, Joyce discusses human nature generally and defends sociobiology and evolutionary psychology from some of the misguided critique that has been directed towards it. He says that “Broadly speaking, no sensible person can object to evolutionary psychology” and that “the idea that the human mind is nothing but all-purpose flexibility is obviously wrong. In reality, the thesis of the human tabula rasa (blank slate) has never been held in pure form by any serious thinker.” He then goes on to discuss altruism and selfishness in chapter 1 and provides some much needed clarity on matters that are often misunderstood. Various forms of reciprocity are then discussed with a little help from game theory. The story is familiar, but important. At the end of chapter 4, he concludes that humans have an innate moral sense for which reciprocity is particularly important:

 

Evidence from primatology, experimental economics, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and anthropology suggests that the human mind bears the traces of a past in which reciprocity played a big role. The human interest in acquiring knowledge of others’ reputations and in broadcasting one’s own good reputation, our sensitivity to issues of distributive fairness in exchanges, our capacity to distinguish between accidental and purposeful harms (and our inclination to forgive the injuries of the former kind), our sensitivity to cheats and our antipathy toward them (and our eagerness to punish them even at material cost to ourselves), and our heightened sense of possession – all of these arguably innate tendencies suggest a mind built for reciprocation.

 

It is very important for Joyce to separate the ability and propensity to behave morally from the ability to make moral judgments. He argues that while other animals can have moral emotions and behave morally, only humans make moral judgments. He is particularly interested in explaining how natural selection might have brought about the capacity to make moral judgments: “What might have been done to our brains to get us thinking in terms of obligations, fairness, desert, property, cheating, and so on?”, he asks. His answer is that we can plausibly understand this transition in projectivist terms. He says

 

… mere aversions and inclinations will not suffice for such thinking; to dislike an outcome is very different from disapproving of it. What is needed is a movement from desiring something to finding it desirable, from feeling contempt for something to judging it contemptible, from praising something to regarding it praiseworthy, from not accepting something to considering it unacceptable, from demanding something to deeming it demanded. This is precisely the changeover that projectivism is well placed to explain.



Joyce holds that an understanding of the process of natural selection sits very comfortably with a projectivist interpretation and thus lends some prima facie support to projectivism. Adopting projectivism as a working hypothesis “may prove fruitful in our bid to understand what our ancestors’ brains started doing that allowed them to make moral judgments” and that this lends some credibility to the projectivist view.

 

The final two chapters of the book discuss the philosophical implications of the previous four chapters. Joyce here makes a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive evolutionary ethics. He takes what he has been doing in the first four chapters to be of the former kind. Another way in which a descriptive evolutionary ethics might influence moral thinking is by bringing to light empirical facts that are of importance to ethical decisions.

 

Just as ethical decisions can be influenced by facts about the consequences of certain economic policies, by facts about the degree of unhappiness that a course of action will produce, by facts about the motivations with which an action was performed, and in principle by facts of any kind at all, so too they may be influenced by facts about human evolution […] It is conceivable, for example, that the results of studying human evolution may support specific hypotheses about what kinds of things cause us happiness and unhappiness.

 

It is precisely this kind of project that, for example, Paul Rubin engages in (applied specifically to the political domain) in his Darwinian Politics. Joyce has no objections to this kind of project, but he claims to be agnostic about how much influence descriptive evolutionary ethics may have in this respect.

 

Joyce gives us a good treatment of the so-called naturalistic fallacy, something that has very often been misunderstood by both philosophers and non-philosophers. The sweeping idea that the naturalistic fallacy somehow makes any kind of prescriptive evolutionary ethics impossible is not accepted by Joyce who goes on to consider various attempts to vindicate morality on evolutionary grounds. The theories of Robert Richards, Richmond Campbell, Daniel Dennett and William Casebeer are all individually discussed and found wanting. Richards and Casebeer is claimed to locate the wrong kind of “ought” (the wrong kind of value) in evolutionary theory. This criticism is entirely successful, I think (though I have not read these authors). Campbell and Dennett, on the other hand, try to vindicate morality in instrumental terms. And this, Joyce insists, “would leave morality ‘unvindicated’ in the most important sense”.

 

For all they have said, morality might have the status of an expedient falsehood: practically useful while still being massively mistaken (as is often the atheist’s attitude toward religious discourse, and seems to be Mackie’s attitude toward moral discourse).

 

Showing that having moral beliefs is socially and individually advantageous does not, Joyce insists, amount to a justification. Nothing in such an instrumental “justification” of morality prevents the skeptic from seeing morality as a useful fiction. I think that Joyce is right to point out the important distinction between the two very different types of justification and that a justification of the one sort does not amount to a justification in the other. But I don’t agree that providing an instrumental justification of morality would be uninteresting or even less interesting. On the contrary! Indeed, once we have realized the futility of any attempted justification intended to show that there are objectively prescriptive moral facts and values, it seems reasonable to ask for an instrumental justification. Morality is, after all, ultimately about practical matters.

 

There are many more interesting points made in this book, some of which I am discussing in my work-in-progress dissertation. Overall, I think that this is a book that both moral philosophers and evolutionary theorists ought to read.

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