What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?
One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?
But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?
And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?
So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?
My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.
The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.
The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?
Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.
A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.
Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.
Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.
As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.
After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).
I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…