July 2009 archive

Escaping Moral Relativism Through Evolution

“Without God, anything goes,” or so some say. This claim of moral relativism is often found clinging to the belly of evolutionary theories of morality, like some kind of parasitic lamprey, sucking the blood from the very body that hosts it. Yet evolutionary ethics doesn’t necessarily imply moral relativism. Here’s why:

Say we accept the evolutionary ethics picture that morality is a device used to promote pro-social behaviour and solve the problems of cooperation, because doing so lends its adherents greater reproductive success. And the way evolution promotes moral behaviour is by endowing us with a spectrum of moral sentiments that encourage pro-social behaviour – things like empathy and guilt.

But that’s not the end of morality. We also have our rational capacity, which enables us to predict future outcomes of actions, abstract moral principles away from individual actions and deliberate about the best course of action. Between these two faculties – the moral sentiments and reason – we develop normative codes that are spread amongst our community. However, other communities might settle upon different moral norms, perhaps ones that contradict our own.

Now, some claim this picture endorses moral relativism because there is nowhere a single moral authority that can arbitrate between the various moral norms held in different cultures. But this is not entirely true. For if one accepts the premise of what morality is for – i.e. promoting pro-social behaviour and cooperation – then one can review the various moral norms and assess whether they are better or worse at promoting these ends.

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Unphilosophical America (and Unphilosophical World)

America (and, I’d venture to suggest, the rest of the world) is imperilled by growing scientific illiteracy. So says science journalist Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum in their new book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. (An interesting review and commentary on the book can be found at RealClimate.) I’d tend to agree with their prognosis.

unscientific americaBut, while I’m venturing suggestions, I’d also put forward the notion that America (and the rest of the world) is also imperilled by philosophical illiteracy as well.

I’ve spoken before about the conspicuous lack of applied philosophers compared to the default pure philosophers. I’ve also spoken of the importance of philosophy in an endeavour which is yet to be invented, synthesis: the bringing together of insights from disparate disciplines.

But philosophy also has a vitally important role to play in public discourse by applying its rigorous standards to contemporary debate. I suspect you’d agree with me if I said the quality of public discourse, particularly in politics, is appaling. The sheer propensity of logical and argumentative fallacies or outright distortion of definitions or arguments is shameful. Yet most people feel no shame when they utter a banality.

So who’s to hold us all to account? Who’s to tell us that our arguments, our beliefs, our reasoning must be better. That flimsy ad hoc justifications and rampant bias just aren’t good enough? Damn relativism, a poor argument is a poor argument and should not be excused.

Seems philosophers could do this, so why don’t they? It’s simple really: there’s no incentive to. And the world isn’t just going to come knocking on the door of the ivory tower unbidden. Philosophers are going to have to open that door of their own account and get their hands dirty mingling with the masses. We need at least some philosophers who see public outreach as just as important as publishing papers, if not more so. But there are hurdles to overcome to get to this point.

One of Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s key points is that the academic community tends to be ill disposed towards scientists who make efforts at public outreach, and thus find themselves on the covers of magazines or hosting popular television programmes. Whether it’s because it’s considered unbecoming of a professional scientist to mix with the unwashed, or whether it’s plain envy, such popular figures tend to become sidelined in academia.

I’ve seen first hand a reluctance on behalf of some scientists to be quoted in the media for fear of being misrepresented in hyperbolic throes that might be poorly received by their peers.

However, at least science has a few individuals who were willing to stoop to explain some of the wondrous discoveries of that endeavour to the world. Not only polymaths like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov (whom I can almost single handedly credit with teaching me science), but popularisers like Richard Feynman, Paul Davies, Julius Sumner Miller and Karl Kruszelnicki, amongst others.

Sadly, philosophy has a pitiful honour roll in comparison. Only a few individuals would even be recognised as philosophers by the general public, perhaps Daniel Dennett, Peter Singer, AC Grayling and Alain de Botton – maybe Bertrand Russell, if memories stretch that far back. Even then, a similar resentment exists within the academy towards philosophers who busy themselves with pursuits other than churning out papers on obscure and impenetrable (and often, quite irrelevant) topics.

This cannot continue.

Come on, philosophy. You don’t have to devote all your time to writing papers and teaching other philosophers. It’s time to fling open the doors of the ivory tower and walk in the Sun.

Reconciling Continental and Analytical Philosophy

There are two types of people in this world: cat people and dog people; Beatles or Elvis; tissues or hankie. And there are analytic and continental philosophers.

Why is this? And why do continental and analytic philosophers have such foucault08difficulty understanding, let alone appreciating, each others’ work? And why the latent (and sometimes not so latent) animosity between adherents of both traditions?

I’d suggest it’s because the two approaches represent fundamentally opposite approaches to philosophy. However, when taken together, they actually turn out to be complementary, much like Niels Bohr’s motto: “Contraria non contradictoria sed complementa sunt,” (“opposites are not contradictory but complementary”).

See, the world of experience is a strange and chaotic one, and it’s the job of philosophy to make sense of it. The question is: how?

For the continental philosopher, the starting point is the world of experience itself. Continental philosophy takes as its task the mapping of the phenomenal world. It involves itself with perception, language, culture, emotion, history etc. It seeks to make sense of the phenomenal by determining its very contours.

Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, takes as its starting point the desire to describe the smallest number of moving parts – the very cogs that underlie the phenomenal world – that, when working together, produce the seemingly chaotic phenomena of every day life. The analytic philosopher is less interested in the dozens of ways a word might be used than in what all usages of the word have in common. They wish to abstract away the individual phenomena to get at the underlying eddies and currents that reinforce and annhiliate each other to produce the contours of experience.

DavidLewisYet the continental philosopher is wary of this approach, for it is suspicious of reductionism and the notion of objectivity, and is sceptical about our ability to know when we have actually discovered the underlying moving parts. The analytic philosopher, on the other hand, is irritated by the slippery nature of continental discourse; to them it’s like trying to herd cats.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most philosophers don’t strictly choose which side of the fence they’ll pitch their tent; the discover one day their tent already pitched and simply make home, realising later the fence some way distant.

Personally, I find myself firmly in the analytic camp. I’m interested in systems, although this not not so much from choice as a consequence of my psychology; I’m a high systemiser – to the point of being close to the ASD range. (In fact, I think a fascinating experiment would be to test a sample of analytic and continental philosophers to see where they fall on this scale – I predict they’ll all be higher than average on the systemising scale, but analytic philosophers will top out the systemising scale, while the continental philosophers will be higher on the empathising scale.)

The take home message from this whim and speculation? Continental and analytic philosophy are just two sides of the same coin. And the very fact that they diverged at all is perhaps a sign that both sides have taken their approach to extreme. Regular readers will remember that I’m critical of both sides. As philosophy has been shrunk and become overshadowed by its offspring, it has retreated to the extremes and become less relevant to the real world. As a matter of priority philosophy – of all persuasions – needs to make itself relevant again. And philosophers going head to head at cross purposes doesn’t do anybody any favours.