Grant that Darwinian evolutionary biology is a causal factor in our thinking morally – not just getting along, but thinking that we ought to do certain things. (There is a difference here. I might not steal because I am scared of the consequences. I am not being moral. I might not steal because I do not think I should. I am being moral.) Grant also that the morality of evolutionary biology is really no big surprise. We think we should be kind to others, keep our promises, above all be fair, and so forth. (I am going to qualify this somewhat, probably next time.)
What about foundations? Why should I treat my students equally and not favor the pretty girls in the class? Why should I acknowledge the extent to which I draw on the ideas of others and not pretend that the work is my own? (At the risk of yet again being accused of promoting my own books, if you look at my Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy or the edited collection Philosophy After Darwin, you will see that I am very careful to acknowledge predecessors and influences. This is not just being nice. As an evolutionist, I am firmly of the opinion that everything – certainly everything worthwhile – comes out of the past and shows the influences.)
For the evolutionary ethicist like me the answer is perhaps surprising and possibly exhilarating but (as I know from experience) more likely disappointing. Perhaps there are no foundations! Perhaps, to use the lingo of the trade, evolutionary ethics points to “moral non-realism” of the ilk known as “ethical skepticism.” (Note that the skepticism occurs at what we call the “metaethical” level. It is skepticism about foundations, not about holding moral norms, things that occur at what we call the “normative” or “substantive” ethical level.)
So the position is that morality just is. It is an adaptation to get us to be sophisticated social animals. Why have morality rather than just bargaining? Why think you should give something to someone rather than calculate whether it is in your interest to give something to someone? Well, one of the big reasons is that time is money; or rather time is reproductive opportunities. Calculating may work, although it requires maxi brain power – something that must be provided – but it takes time and often what you need is a quick and dirty solution and to move on. Sometimes morality breaks down. The forgiven student goes on cheating. But overall, it works.
But am I simply assuming that there are no foundations? Surely evolutionary biology as such doesn’t deny foundations? Spotting the speeding train requires evolutionarily acquired adaptations, but that doesn’t mean that the train doesn’t really exist. Thinking that I ought to be fair to my students requires evolutionary acquired adaptations, but that doesn’t mean that an objective phenomenon demanding fairness doesn’t exist.
Agreed. But ask now if the analogy is strong. What exactly could objective foundations look like? They cannot be natural, like the progress of evolution. We have ruled that out as a violation of Hume’s law – you cannot deduce “ought” from “is.” So they must be non-natural, either secular like Platonic Forms or spiritual like God’s will. You might say that as a naturalist you have ruled these out, but I am not quite sure that this is fair. You might say that natural explanations fail but that they point to something else. William Whewell used to say about the origins of species that “science is silent but it points upwards.”
Well, perhaps they do exist, but my worry is that they are redundant. I think that evolutionary biology shows that we would have morality even if objective foundations did not exist. This is the difference with the speeding train. If it didn’t exist, there is no reason to think that evolution would make us think it exists. (I know. Evolution can deceive us. In fact, in the case of morality as I will explain next time I think it does deceive us. But there has to be a good reason, and in the train case there isn’t one.)
So there are objective foundations to morality making us think that we should be moral, but they are irrelevant. If that isn’t a contradiction, it is pretty close to being one. Consider. I think that the square on the hypotenuse in a right-angled triangle is equal to the sums of the squares on the other two sides. As a Platonist, I think that this is a truth in some eternal non-natural world. But the truth in the non-natural world has no bearing on what happens in this world. News to Plato, I might say, who spoke of the things of this world being as they are because they “participate” in the Forms.
It is even worse than this. If evolution is non-progressive, then it seems possible to me that we might have evolved in different ways to be social. We might have evolved what I like to call the John Foster Dulles system of morality, based on Eisenhower’s Secretary of State’s attitude to the Ruskies. I hate them, they hate me, we feel we should hate each other, but we therefore realize that we should get along.
In other words, in the world of non-progressive Darwinian evolution, objective morality might not only be redundant, but very much other than we think it is. And that does seem to me to be a problem.
So my position as an evolutionary ethicist is that we have morality but that it is an adaptation and, as such, has no foundation. It just is.
Lots of loose ends, obviously. I will get to them next time, assuming that riots don’t put me off track.