Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Moral Intuitions

In the view of evolutionary psychology, moral intuitions are simply the result of evolutionary adaptations to group-existence. No group can stay together for long that has members all of which behave badly towards one another, and so selection is against such behaviour and for co-operation. In first flush, then, goodness is taken to exist not in any objective moral sense but rather in the evolutionary-pragmatic sense: as a function of group-cooperation. But evolutionary psychologists sometimes go further and use equivocation of these two senses to try and establish that evolutionary psychology does not undermine the idea of moral objectivity. Yet, quite simply, if evolutionary psychology is true in this regard to the exclusion of all other possible factors, then nothing is moral in the sense in which it is interesting to propose its existence. Everything “moral”, in other words, is but another aspect of the struggle for existence — which is naturally and unremittingly amoral.


Malcolm Pollack said...

I do believe, D., that you have got this quite right. Evolutionary psychologists do seem a bit reluctant to grasp this particular nettle; perhaps they fear an adverse reaction if they do. But there are two things we must bear in mind, the first being that our discomfort with the truth about the source of our moral intuitions doesn't make it any less true.

The second is that even once we accept the origin of our moral architecture in biological and cultural evolution, there is still no reason to reject the guidance of our consciences, any more than we should cease to enjoy the pleasures of the bed or the table, or of music or art, simply because we are set up to enjoy them for adaptive reasons. Indeed, our ancient adaptive hungers and predilections often act to our detriment in our modern environment, and we have done well to review many of them - in the same way that much of our built-in moral instinct has been subject to cultural and intellectual revision since Biblical times.

Malcolm Pollack said...

To finish the thought, the point is: shall we not understand what we are? It is clear enough anyway that our morality is not "objective" in any permanent or exterior sense, as is obvious from our changing attitudes about slavery, etc.; by understanding how we got where we are, we may be able to make wiser choices about where we'd like to go, and how we might get there.

On the other hand, of course, I realize that may all be far too optimistic. Perhaps we are more like Dumbo, who needed his magic feather to fly.

Paul Cossins said...

I do not see what is your objection to the idea that a moral sense is part of human nature. Humans have a natural moral sense (and the reason they do so is that it evolved). Humans also have lots of other natural propensities -- eg an aesthetic sense -- because they evolved by adaptation and selection.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Paul, I don't think D. is objecting; I think he wishes only to point out that evolutionary psychologists are less than frank about the philosophical implications of their findings.

Deogolwulf said...

Good points, Mr Pollack. Actually, this post was written some time ago spurred by one of yours written some time ago. (I hadn't got round to posting it.)

Mr Cossins, yes, my objection was to the way some evolutionary psychologists shy away from the implications of their own propositions.