Scientism, Evolution and the Basis for Morality
Cut, jab, thrust, confusion! That seems to be the spirit of an ongoing exchange between Michael Ruse and Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog. It started with scientism, the term (often used in the pejorative) applied to the notion that science is the best/only way of knowing the world. It then shifts to a somewhat complex (but useful) discussion of moral knowledge, moral absolutism and the slippery slope into moral subjectivism.
The discussion is useful precisely because it’s complex and irresolute – and that’s precisely where the debate lies at the heart of naturalistic ethics today. In delving to this depth – a more arcane depth than most public commentators would delve – we can get to some of the most pressing and important questions in ethics.
First, a word on scientism: I do firmly believe that science is the best tool in our kit for understanding the natural world. But it’s a limited tool. As they say, science is a wonderful tool, but a terrible master. Let’s not wander into the fallacy of assuming because it can’t do something then therefore that thing doesn’t exist.
Ultimately, I take a pragmatic stance on knowledge, and on the utility of science. We’re confronted with phenomena, we organise and structure that phenomena and posit theories to explain it and make predictions about future phenomena. Science has been very carefully developed and refined to be exceptionally good at this task – and if you care about explaining and predicting phenomena, then science beats all comers, especially any brand of revelation.
But that’s not all there is to knowledge. As Ruse points out, there are questions about this method itself, or about how the world can be such that science even works. Science can’t answer those. And that shouldn’t worry us a jot. That’s what philosophy is for.
On morality, and the concern expressed by Rosenhouse over the slip towards subjectivism: there are two brands of moral subjectivism, and his conflation of the two is, I believe, the source of his concern.
The first brand of subjectivism is at the level of moral norms. A norm subjectivist will look at a particular moral norm – “murder is wrong” – and take it or leave it according to his or her subjective whim. That’s an unsettling notion. But, thankfully, almost no-one holds this brand of mad-dog subjectivism to be true.
Instead, we want to say that moral norms are binding in some important way precisely because we don’t want people presuming they’re justified in abandoning a norm just because they haven’t yet had their morning coffee and they’re not in the mood. But attempting to secure that binding force is a tremendous challenge, and it’s that endeavour that Ruse and Rosenhouse (and legions of moral philosophers) spend a great deal of words trying to solve.
The problem is no matter how deep you delve, it appears there isn’t a rock solid ‘real’ foundation to morality in absolute terms. It can’t be found in God (for a bunch of reasons, oft discussed); it can’t be found in descriptive or empirical facts alone (for reasons Hume points out); it can’t be found in non-natural facts (because they’re ontologically dubious and have a queer relationship to the real world, as Mackie states); it can’t be found in evolution (because we’ve evolved tendencies that are generally agreed to be good and bad).
So some have taken to abandoning the rock solid foundation. As Ruse states, there are several arguments in this tradition, one being a social contract theory, another being a kind of psychological sentimentalism. The latter says that morality isn’t rooted in objective moral facts but in deeply held sentiments of right and wrong, sentiments Ruse things are effectively universal thanks to evolution.
This approach does effectively constitute a kind of evolutionary ethics, but it’s not as bad as Rosenhouse thinks when he says this:
Ruse just got through telling us that you cannot derive ought from is, but isn’t he doing precisely that in these final paragraphs? It looks to me like he is pointing in some way to the facts of human psychology and to the vagaries of our natural history as the justifications for our moral beliefs.
This is because Ruse is a ‘non-realist’ (or an ‘anti-realist’) and has given up seeking a rock solid ‘real’ foundation to morality. There’s no is-ought problem for anti-realists, because they’re not even seeking to build a solid bridge between is and ought. Folk like Ruse (and Hume) take the sentiments as being the foundation of morality and note, with interest, that these sentiments come from evolution – but they don’t claim that their evolutionary source justifies their moral force. That would be making the is-ought fallacy.
This is where the second brand of subjectivism comes in. Instead of being a norm subjectivist, you can be a moral subjectivist. You can acknowledge that there is no binding, logically necessary or factually obligatory reason to be moral, but you can choose to be moral. And there are plenty of good non-moral or prudential reasons for doing so, such as that social living benefits us, and it’s a darn sight easier to live socially when there are rules of conduct. So you be moral.
It’s a subjective choice – made implicitly by almost everyone – and it’s pretty hard to choose not to be moral because all those other people who have (implicitly) chosen to be moral will probably not like your amoral behaviour and will try to persuade you in the strongest possible terms to be moral.
And once you’ve chosen to be moral, that binds you to playing by the rules of the moral system you’re in. Like when you agree to play a game of cricket, you can’t just go around breaking or conforming to particular rules, or making up new ones, willy nilly. If you did that, in some important sense you wouldn’t be playing cricket. And the other cricketers would certainly look upon you with great scorn and disapprobation.
So once that core subjectivism is out of the way, then moral discourse can kick on arguing whether murder really is right or wrong, with the implicit addendum “in this moral system to which we’ve agreed to adhere”.
OK, sure. Say you’re with my until now. The question becomes: how do you argue about whether murder really is right or wrong if there is no really is to the matter? What criteria do we apply to judge its rightness or wrongness?
This is where there social contract comes in. The (implicit) contract is ultimately entered in to for our own self-interest. We want to live socially and benefit from social interaction, and that’s why it’s a good idea to make that prudential decision to play the moral game. If that’s the case, then we can evaluate particular moral norms according to how well they make that social interaction possible, maintain social stability, prevent cheating and disruption, and how well that benefits us. Sometimes we have to sacrifice some interests – such as the interest to murder people we don’t like – in order to serve others – such as our interest in not being murdered by people who don’t like us.
It’s subjectivist, it avoids the problem of finding a rock solid core to morality, but it’s practically binding in the way that Rosenhouse wants when he says:
In my day-to-day life I am an unabashed moral absolutist. Some things are just right and others are just wrong, and if you disagree with my judgments than I will unleash upon you a barrage of stern looks and disapprobation. I simply regard it as obvious that people have certain obligations to one another, and I really have no desire to debate the matter.
And, while it’s slightly different from Ruse’s rendering, it’s not that far off. Evolution also comes in because evolution has shaped our interests (biological, psychological, social etc) that underpin our reasons for being moral, and evolution has also pre-equipped us with a bunch of emotions and cognitive faculties that work towards making social life possible.
These faculties aren’t foolproof nor all we need in order to be moral. The cultural innovations of creating behavioural norms, morality, laws etc are far more effective at maintaining social behaviour and serving our interests than our evolved heuristics and proclivities alone. But, you know what? Evolution provided us with the plastic, conditional and rational faculties that enable cultural innovations as well. Evolution has its mits all over this story, at least in terms of providing the building blocks, but it’s up to us to build the moral house.
So there you have it: an anti-realist subjectivist evolutionary ethics that avoids the curly problems of finding the non-existent rock solid foundations of morality yet allows for ‘binding’ norms that we can’t subjectively escape. I don’t doubt many will disagree with plenty of details, but I do believe it goes some way to resolving the confusion between Ruse and Rosenhouse, at the very least.