Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reporting "morals"

*sigh*. Not this old equivocation again:
Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.

It seems to be the great new trope for ignorant reporters. Conflate descriptive inquiry into sociological norms with normative inquiry proper, and then marvel at how scientists are breaking new ground in contrast to those doddery old philosophers and theologians and whatnot. Please stop.


  1. ha, I just started writing a post on that article; you beat me to the punch.

  2. Well, except that by finding more and more evidence of how and why evolution has created our moral instincts, biologists are inadvertently providing evidence that there are no moral rules outside of those created by our own minds. And in that way, they kind of are showing that moral rules, as far as they exist, come from evolution.

    Not sure how that's really ignorant...

  3. evolutionary evidence presumably just undermins the intuition argument (where the two overlap). Philosophy that relies heavily on intuition might be in danger.


  4. Not sure whether you'd prefer this comment on your linked post to go there or here, but I'll go with this:

    "Evolution has equipped us with reliable general faculties of sense and reason. This means that the specific conclusions we reach are better explained by what's justified than by what's adaptive."

    Sure, our rational faculties often mean that you can dig down beneath our surface moral views, but eventually they get down to axioms we cannot rationally justify beyond our particular feelings.

    Compare: Our rational faculty may deduce that hunger is a product of desire to survive, but it cannot explain why we have that desire to survive without recourse to something like evolution. Equally, it may deduce that specific moral opinions come down to something like empathy, but it might be unable to go further than this without looking at evolution.

    "Whatever caused our beliefs, it presumably isn't the abstract moral facts themselves!"

    Look at it this way: If we can come up with a convincing evolutionary explanation for why we have base instincts like self-preservation and empathy, then we really don't need abstract moral facts to back that up. In fact, it would be incredibly convenient if evolution happened to condition us towards any abstract facts which did exist!

    "It's also suspicious that only moral philosophy is singled out here. Logic is no less abstract, after all. Not to mention the belief in skepticism itself."

    Hang on, hang on. Logic and scepticism are toold which get us where we want to go. Experience teaches us that by accepting these things as true, we can achieve our goals. Morality is different because it attempts to set our goals for us, and as such experience cannot show one or other option to be superior in the same way.

    "...the skeptic needs to show that no moral views are more reasonable than their competition"

    What is reasonable here? Again, you can show logic to be more reasonable because it helps us achieve our aims. But all that you can show is that certain moral systems better embody our base moral instincts. You can only evaluate differing base moral instincts according to things like self-interest, which does not seem like a good way to establish objective morality!

    Really, for me it boils down to this: We tend to have an intrinsic desire for their to be objective moral facts, leading people to try to justify this through their own pet method (God, Kantian absurdity etc). Evolution might explain why we have this desire but even if it doesn't, the fact that it exists gives no evidence for there actually being objective moral facts. In fact, it makes it more likely that the arguments in favour of them are tainted. We don't need objective moral facts to explain anything. Anything at all. Therefore we should require a damn good reason to believe that they exist.

    There, tirade done. I think that the journalist is expressing a legitimate point of view.

  5. First note that the journalist is not making anything like this sophisticated argument. Rather, they are making a basic conflation (just look at that quoted sentence about how philosophers and scientists are allegedly both asking where morals "come from". It displays a total lack of awareness that there are two questions here, even if you think they ultimately have the same answer).

    On your broader point, my suggestion was that such considerations are only an argument against Platonism. Since I don't think that philosophical truths are additional entities that "exist" in the world, Occam's Razor does not apply. The only question is whether some conclusions are more reasonable than others (to which the answer "no" is not obviously more parsimonious than "yes"), and evolution has nothing to say about this.


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