Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Evolving Morality

When people say that if morals evolved there are no morals, what do they mean? What is bothering them about this? I, for example, believe it is wrong to do a host of things, and yet I believe that these moral judgments or principles evolved both biologically and culturally. Isn't that enough? Obviously not. Without firm principles based on something objective, say the critics, everything is permitted, as Dostoevsky didn't say.

So, this argument seems to depend on the nature of moral judgments and systems. How can I say that "X is wrong" if another moral system, equally evolved, says "X is right"? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. First, the standard argument against using evolutionary history to bolster moral judgments is that of George E. Moore, in his famous Principia Ethica (1903), Chapter II. Against Herbert Spencer's claim that some ethics were "more highly evolved" than others, a claim based more on August Comte's positivism and progressivism than on anything Darwin ever wrote, Moore pointed out that everything is equally evolved, and in any case the Good is not something that can be identified with any natural property (including, thus, evolvedness). This is, of course, the famous Naturalistic Fallacy.

The Naturalistic Fallacy is committed when something such as a species-wide behavior that is adaptive (say, in ants) is taken to be a moral reality for that species. It may be, for example, that all humans are hard-wired to behave with reciprocal altruism to other humans in certain circumstances. This does not make it right that they do so, any more than our species-wide propensity to fall when unsupported makes broken bones a right thing. Hence, it is claimed, there is no moral foundation provided by evolution.

This is true. But this is not the same as saying that moral foundations cannot evolve. I can know the history of a moral claim (say, the duty to protect children) without thereby claiming that it is an arbitrary choice on the part of my society. To argue this is to commit the fallacy known as the Genetic Fallacy - something is made right or wrong in virtue of its historical origins. It's like saying that a dollar bill that was once used to buy a slave is worth less than a dollar bill that has only ever been used to buy domestic goods. The value is independent on the past of that bill, because its worth depends on how it is appraised now in this economy.

The Genetic Fallacy (which has little to do with genetics, sensu biology) is committed by those who think that it is only right not to murder if a God or Moral Authority has so decreed. Why it is right if God says so, and not if no God was involved in how we developed it is unclear to me. Surely, if killing five year olds is wrong when God says so, it is equally wrong if God does not. This forms the foundation for an unsolved problem known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, in which the divine command theory of morality is shown to imply unwanted facts about God.

Okay, this much is the standard fare of undergraduate ethics classes. But there is something more interesting to me. That is the nature of moral justification. A little background if I may. According to Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations (1953), language is composed of language games that derive their meaning from the ways in which language is used by broader or more specialized communities. Moral justification is a kind of language game. Wittgenstein did not mean to denigrate language games - they were, he thought, the foundation for all meaning. Instead, to say that the meaning of a word (and by extension, a sentence, or a rule) is the way it is used by a community (a "language community") is just to give all the meaning it has.

Now what is going on when we say some act is wrong? We are, I think, attempting to justify our rejection of it. Likewise, or contrariwise, with praise. Acts and rules are justified, or literally, made right.

It seems to some that to justify X, you must do so in terms of Y. Y then stands in need of justification by some other claim Z. This sets up a regress that either goes to infinity (a bad thing according to some), or is circular (you end up getting back to X), or you get to a foundational claim that cannot be further challenged ("God said so" being one of them). The last two alternatives are respectively called coherentism and foundationalism.

Now circularity is only a problem when it is tautological. We commonly refer to arguments being "viciously" circular or "virtuously" circular. The former is defined, by the ancient logic texts I love, as when a definition uses the same terms in the definiens as in the definiendum. But if meaning comes from a language community as a whole, then the definitional side of the equals sign includes more than just the same terms, but the practices of a whole community. Information is added in a virtuous definition.

I want to go even further. A regress is only set up on the assumption that justification is fully transitive. If, on the other hand, justification is not fully transitive - that is, if Y justifies X and Z justifies Y but Z is not a full justification of X - then justification, as a language game, is a very localised affair. And this means that the argument from justificatory regress fails to take hold.

In short, if we justify only a few statements at a time contextually, then it is OK for someone to say "X is morally acceptable because Y" and to leave it there, or a few steps further on.

This means that if moral values (the "Y"s) evolve (including rules for moral justification), we still get fully justified claims at some point in the community's lifespan, for that is just what justification is. And so the claim that we need a moral authority, other than the evolving society, fails.