Saturday, March 21, 2009

More Thoughts on the Argument from "Moral Disagreement," Part II

This is a belated follow-up to the earlier post addressing an excellent set of questions and challenges raised by Justin Clarke-Doane (NYU) (hereafter JCD) to my claim that Nietzsche argues for moral skepticism by appeal to the phenomenon of moral disagreement. JCD's first set of objections (discussed earlier, with replies by JCD in the comments) raised worries about the extent to which disagreement in ethics was different from disagreement in mathematics--which might warrant anti-realism about the latter or be thought a reductio of the former strategy of argument (assuming that realism about mathematics seems irresistible). In his second set of comments, JCD raises some more general reductio style challenges to the strategy of argument from disagreement. He raises, it seems to me, two very interesting issues:

1. First, JCD points out that philosophers have had significant disagreements about a range of issues, from common-sense claims about the reality of midsize physical objects, to claims about the structure of spacetime, to meta-philosophical claims about philosophy itself. Should we infer skepticism about the subjects in question from these facts about disagreement? Of course, the argument I am concerned with holds that the best explanation of persistent and intractable disagreement is skepticism that there is any fact of the matter about the subject of disagreement. JCD's examples warrant different treatments depending on the facts of each case.

For example, there was not persistent and intractable disagreement about the non-Euclidean character of spacetime: Kant thought it obviously false, and now everyone realizes that Kant was wrong. Disagreement about (as JCD calls them) "first-order intuitively metaphysical claims" (e.g., the existence of properties or possible worlds) probably does warrant the skeptical inference, so there I am happy to "bite the bullett" (and to do so in Nietzschean terms, e.g., I assume philosophers' metaphysical sympathies track underlying moral commitments, which are themselves explicable psychologically). Disagreement about "intuitively common-sense claims" (e.g., about the existence of table and chairs) does not strike me as either persistent or intractable: skepticism about tables and chairs is now a decidely minority viewpoint (I think I can count the philosophical skeptics on one hand!), and the minority's existence seems more easily explicable sociologically (e.g., there are professional rewards for staking out crackpot positions) than by genuine epistemic uncertainties.

Now JCD acknowledges that there are differing degrees of disagreements about his examples (I have not mentioned all of them, just what I hope is a representative sample). But he makes two points that deserve response. First, JCD notes that "the mere possibility that philosophers have held conflicting views with respect to a given claim in the absence of a cognitive shortcoming seems to me to be just as worrisome as the actuality of this." But this can't be right, since it is central to the argument for moral skepticism that disgareements be persistent and intractable, characteristics that are highly probative of as to what explains the disagreement (e.g., a cognitive shortcoming or the absence of any fact of the matter). Second, JCD notes, fairly enough, that "there has been less disagreement among philosophers with respect to some moral claims" than some of the issues noted above (e.g., the metaphysical and common-sense claims); he gives, though, as an example of a moral claim which has generated less disagreement the following: "the claim that one ought not cause needless harm." This, it seems to me, just obscures the fact that the disagreement here concerns the notion of which harms are "needless," a disagreement which is surely a moral one.

JCD raises a second general issue: namely, whether disagreement among philosophers is really relevant to an explanatory argument for skepticism. As he notes, one might think the "virtual unamity among *physicists* with respect to the claim that spacetime is non-Euclidean" is far more important than disagreement among philosophers about the same subject-matter. Of course, it was precisely developments in physics that put an end to the disagreement among philosophers. But putting that to one side, one might worry that philosophical disagreements about subject-matter X are particularly amenable to non-realist explanations, even when X itself is the object of considerable agreement among non-philosophers. (In any case, that is how I understand JCD's interesting challenge.) As JCD notes, even I concede that philosophical disagreements about morality "often fail to translate into disagreements over what is right or wrong in concrete cases" which might suggest that the philosophical disagreement is "at far remove from the day to day moral discussion." If the "folk" (or the scientific folk) can agree about X, why think philosophical disagreement counts against realism about X? That, I take it, is JCD's worry.

So framed, I think JCD's point is correct: it is part of the reason I do not think skepticism about the non-Euclidean structure of spacetime is warranted. Kant's intuitions about spacetime yielded before work in mathematical physics, as it should. (Mathematical physics has more cognitive content than philosophy, one might suppose.) But does the same general point tell against moral skepticism? Here, I think, the matter is more complex. First, it is not like the 'folk' have the kind of convergence in moral opinion that the physicists have in opinion about the non-Euclidean structure of spacetime. Second, the existence of diagreement among the 'folk' about moral matters is precisely what pushes the issues back one level, to the philosophical realm: the philosophical disagreement tracks, at a more abstract level to be sure, the folk disagreement. And yet the philosophers, despite all their 'advantages' (of time, education, insulation from external pressure etc. etc.), still fail to resolve the foundational issues. To be sure, if there were a "moral physics" converging around certain propositions, then the skeptical argument would face a problem: but the only candidate for the "moral physics" is the work of the moral philosophers, and that is precisely the data on which the skeptical argument from disagreement relies!

11 comments:

justin clarke-doane said...

Hi, Brian. Thanks so much for your additional stimulating thoughts.

In response to my claim that there has been persistent and intractable philosophical disagreement over practically every matter of interest, you claim that this is not so. In particular, you claim that disagreement over the likes of intuitively common sense matters has not been persistent and intractable. Similarly, you claim that disagreement over the geometry of space has not been persistent and intractable. You appear to understand the claim that a disagreement is persistent and intractable as being true only if that disagreement is still widespread.

I think that it is very hard to gauge how much actual disagreement there is over the relevant issues. Presumably the relevant sense of “A disagrees with B with respect to proposition, p” is such that it is true just in case A believes p and B believes not-p, or vice versa. If that’s right, then the vast majority of philosophical disagreements are implicit. Metaphysicians, for example, may limit their explicit discussions to topics like whether there are universals. But, given standard semantic assumptions, such discussions translate into a wide array of additional disagreements that are not often pursued. For instance, if you and I disagree explicitly over whether there are universals then we will also normally disagree implicitly over the intuitively common-sense matters of whether there are colors lighter than black but darker than white, whether there are any works of Beethoven, whether the letter ‘O’ is oval in shape, whether The Lion has four legs, whether there are tones consonant with C, whether The Triangle has three sides, and so on. But, then, if disagreements over whether there are universals is widespread enough to warrant an antirealist response, then so, it seems, will at least certain disagreements over intuitively common-sense matters. Similar points could be made regarding the intuitively common-sense matters of whether there are tables and chairs with reference to disagreements over vagueness and indeterminacy, the connection between fundamentality and existence, and the persistence-conditions of material things.

You go on to write,

“Now JCD acknowledges that there are differing degrees of disagreements about his examples….But he…. [claims] that "the mere possibility that philosophers have held conflicting views with respect to a given claim in the absence of a cognitive shortcoming seems to me to be just as worrisome as the actuality of this." But this can't be right, since it is central to the argument for moral skepticism that disgareements be persistent and intractable, characteristics that are highly probative of as to what explains the disagreement (e.g., a cognitive shortcoming or the absence of any fact of the matter).”

I don’t think that I understand this passage. Are you arguing against my suggestion that it may only be possible disagreement of a certain sort that is relevant to realism on the grounds that it would make a mockery of standard arguments against moral realism from empirical premises about the nature and extent of actual moral disagreement? If so, then I agree with the premise (but not the conclusion!). I think that it is a very important open question in metaethics how the actuality of disagreement of a certain sort might call moral realism into question in a way that the mere possibility of such disagreement would not. One answer might be that actual disagreement bears on our reliability as moral inquirers in a way that merely possible disagreement doesn’t (compare a situation in which you have good evidence that you’re in a demon world to your present situation in which you have no such evidence, though it’s possible that you are). We might then argue from lack of reliability to not facts, a la Benacerraf and Field.

“Second, JCD notes, fairly enough, that "there has been less disagreement among philosophers with respect to some moral claims" than some of the issues noted above (e.g., the metaphysical and common-sense claims); he gives, though, as an example of a moral claim which has generated less disagreement the following: "the claim that one ought not cause needless harm." This, it seems to me, just obscures the fact that the disagreement here concerns the notion of which harms are "needless," a disagreement which is surely a moral one.”

You may be right about my example. But, given that you grant that there has been less disagreement among philosophers with respect to some moral claims (whatever they may be), how do you reconcile what I take your global moral anti-realism with your apparent view that we should only be antirealists with respect to some claims if there is still widespread disagreement over them? Why not take a piecemeal attitude toward morality itself – being antirealists with respect to its most contentious portions, and realists with respect to its least contentious ones -- corresponding to the attitude that you suggest that we take toward philosophy?

Perhaps the idea is the following. If disagreement over a given set of atomic claims calls realism about anything into question it calls realism about the existence the properties predicated in those claims into question. But then sufficient disagreement with respect to certain atomic moral claims will suffice to purge all others of non-vacuous truth or falsity – since all moral predicates are plausibly definable in terms of those that show up in atomic claims over which there is sufficient disagreement. However, sufficient disagreement with respect to certain atomic philosophical claims will not suffice to purge all others of non-vacuous truth or falsity, since all philosophical predicates (“is a material object”, “is a universal”, “is vague”, “is knowledge”, etc.) are not plausibly definable in terms of those that show up in atomic claims over which there is sufficient disagreement.
Hence, the existence of sufficiently contentious portions of moral discourse suffices to undermine realism about moral properties quite generally, while the existence of sufficiently contentious portions of philosophical discourse does not suffice to undermine realism with respect to philosophical properties quite generally. (The restriction to atomic claims is needed in order to avoid the result that antirealism with respect to all properties whatever follows from sufficient disagreement over moral claims of a certain sort. By conjoining any sufficiently contentious moral claim to any other claim at all, we may obtain a new claim that will be at least contentious. But the new claim may contain new, non-moral, logical predicates, corresponding to the claim’s second conjunct.)

Brian Leiter said...

Selective moral skepticism might, indeed, be the route to go based on the argument from disagreement, I'll have to think about that. Regarding my (unclear) objection to your point about the significance of *possible* disagreement among philosophers: the "persistence" and "intractability" of a disagreement has an important evidential status as to whether the disagreement is to be explained in terms of a "cognitive shortcoming" or something else (e.g., the nonfactual character of its subject-matter). So the fact that we can imagine a possible disagreement is not very probative; but the fact that such a disagreement persists among cognitively well-situated disputants (like philosophers) does, I contend, invite the skeptical inference.

More thoughts to come.

Angus said...

Brian:

I'm inclined to think - perhaps with Justin Clarke-Doane - that the mere possibility of persistent and intractable disagreements (among cognitively well-situated disputants) about some subject-matter calls the factual nature of that subject-matter into doubt (at least if actual persistent and intractable disagreements over the subject matter do too).

Imagine that twenty years from now a philosopher generates some moral theory that every ethicist finds persuasive; all putatively persistent and intractable moral disagreements therefore evaporate overnight. Let's say, further, that we accept that had this moral theory not been universally accepted - had persistent and intractable moral disagreements actually continued - then we would take that as evidence of the nonfactual character of morality.

Now imagine that God comes down and tells us that were we to turn back the clock and run this episode (the philosopher generating the moral theory and publicizing it) over again, it would not have persuaded every ethicist. Instead, moral disagreement would have persisted, intractable as ever.

It seems to me that if we accept that the moral theory's actually not persuading all ethicists evidences nonfactualism, then we should also accept that the possibility of the moral theory's not persuading all ethicists (or, if you prefer, their equally epistemically well-situated counterparts) evidences that moral properties aren't real, as well. Ex hypothesi, it is arbitrary that philosophers in the actual world were persuaded by the ethicist; do it over again (in the exact same way) and the exact same people remain unpersuaded. Why should a disagreement's arbitrarily ending have any bearing on the merits of the disagreement (or, a fortiori, the reality of its subject-matter)?

Brad C said...

Hi Brian,

Interesting stuff.

I have two comments. One is about your second point in this post and the other is a fairly obvious question - you might have answered it in the paper. If so, just let me know....

(1) I have not read the previous posts, but wonder if there is not a response open to virtue ethical realists which would develop the worry that disagreement among philosophers might not be pertinent to the issue at hand - a different one you do not mention in this post.

Let's grant your point that disagreement among the hoi polloi gives us a reason to turn to those with more acute epistemic capacities in order to figure out whether convergence is a reasonable hope. But as that way of putting it suggests, the virtue ethicist could maintain that it would be a gross error to think that academic philosophers are the relevant group to which we should turn - Aristotle, Plato, etc would doubt that academic philosophers, raised in democratic capitalist (marketing-saturated) cultures, can be counted on to have apt epistemic access to moral truths.

Now if you found some well raised children in a kalon polis and they became philosophers and still disagreed about moral matters, then that would indeed be worrying for virtue ethical (response enabled) realism.

A side question: Isn't this line of response something for which Nietzsche himself would have some sympathy?


(2) How about some good old self-refutation.

It is a fact that there is persistent and intractable disagreement about (i) whether there has been PI disagreement of the sort anti-realists claim and (ii) whether PI of the sort anti-realists claim threatens realism.

Doesn't this (& other premises you accept) entail that you should be skeptical about your own argument from disagreement?

I guess you do not want to follow Niezsche and say "so much the better" in this case, but wonder what you think!

Timothy McWhirter said...

Growth and Moral Disagreement

I have had a chance to look into your argument from moral disagreement and this discussion in a bit more detail. I believe you have identified a powerful argumentative strategy in Nietzsche’s work that can be used effectively to defend his position.

In an effort to be helpful, I have also identified an area where, I believe, the argument can be strengthened. It concerns Nietzsche’s central objection to morality in the pejorative sense. You describe it as being “that its cultural prevalence is inhospitable to the flourishing of the highest types of human beings, namely, creative geniuses like Goethe, Beethoven and Nietzsche himself”(2). This, of course, is correct. But I would argue this objection is part of a larger concern with the growth of power in general. Taking this larger concern into account can strengthen the metaphysical argument against the existence of an objective morality.

In the AntiChrist Nietzsche writes, “life itself appears to me as an instinct for growth, for survival, for the accumulation of forces, for power: whenever the will to power fails there is disaster. My contention is that all the highest values of humanity have been emptied of this will—that the values of d├ęcadence, of nihilism, now prevail under the holiest names.”(A 6) Here we can see his concern that the highest values undermine the growth of life.

Nietzsche believed that the highest types of human beings like Goethe and Beethoven represented the class “of the greatest insight, which is to say, the greatest hindsight and foresight” (A 57) that establishes the values and goals of a society and thereby overcomes the threat of nihilism and affirms the growth of life. They restore humanity’s emptied will (A 6). They are opposed by the Christian and the anarchist: “both are d├ęcadents; both are incapable of any act that is not disintegrating, poisonous, degenerating, blood-sucking; both have an instinct of mortal hatred of everything that stands up, and is great, and has durability, and promises life a future....” (A 58) Christianity and anarchism are criticized for being degenerative.

The dynamic nature of “growth” itself is inconsistent with the acceptance of a single objective code of conduct: growth entails change and is relational. As you note, Railton (1986a) suggests that we “think of [non-moral or prudential] goodness as akin to nutritiveness” that is relational. “A cow’s milk is prudentially good for calves, but not for human babies” (3). Nietzsche clearly adopts this prudential perspective when he writes, to “be the doctors here, to be unmerciful here, to wield the knife here—all this is our business, all this is our sort of humanity, by this sign we are philosophers” (A 7). He describes his project cutting away that which is degenerative: that which undermines growth.

When values are viewed “prudentially” in terms of their contributions to the growth of life, one thing that becomes clear since Darwin is that if the human species adopted one “objective” code of conduct and never changed it, we would not be here today. What is prudential for human babies now was not even possible for babies born in antiquity, to say nothing of those in our distant evolutionary past. The methods used to produce food by the ancient Egyptians would destroy our societies if they were employed today. The methods that are considered “prudential” for treating illnesses have changed dramatically over the centuries.

We exist today because our predecessors employed an evolving, prudential and relational moral standard in the service of the growth of life within the context of the biological processes that make life possible, no matter how they justified it to themselves: they found ways to nourish themselves and procreate within their changing environment. They affirmed the recurrence of life. Nietzsche describes the process of production becoming more efficient and powerful in the modern era. It allows human beings more freedom to do other things besides work to support their own sustenance (BGE 242). It allows them time, for example, to consider the possibility of an objective morality and to disagree about its foundational principles. But this freedom is parasitic on the process of production and the evolving prudential values that make it possible.

In Ecce Homo Nietzsche writes that ”all the concepts, "God," "soul," "virtue," "sin," "Beyond," "truth," "eternal life." ...And yet man sought in them for the greatness of human nature, its "divinity." ...AlI questions of politics, of the social order, of education, have been falsified from top to bottom, because the most harmful men have been taken for great men, and because people were taught to despise the "details," more properly, the fundamentals of life”(EH, “Why I am so Clever, 10). People were taught to believe in an objective morality and in the process they failed to learn the fundamental role of the prudential morality we must employ in the service of the growth of life.

Nietzsche understood the evolutionary nature of life itself and he argued that its growth and existence is undermined by traditional moralities that prevent the periodic revaluation of values. On this reading, the mere existence of moral disagreement would represent one component of Nietzsche’s argument against objective morality. The fact that this disagreement is necessary for the growth and existence of life would be another component. This latter component adds force to your “best explanation” argument: the existence of an objective morality can never be used as a “best explanation” for moral disagreement when the rejection of such a morality is presupposed by our own existence.

I agree with you that there does seem to be a difference in the nature of disagreement in moral philosophy relative to other areas of inquiry. But I also agree with JCD that there are differing levels of disagreement about a number of things. And as Brad notes, there is disagreement about nature of these levels of disagreement. Consequently the rhetorical force of the argument from moral disagreement is muted. If we include the evolutionary nature of life along with the empirical fact of moral disagreement in the set of evidence we seek to explain, then the force of your argument against the existence of an objective morality is strengthened.

Brian Leiter said...

Many thanks for all these helpful comments, I will return to them, probably in a separate post.

Justin Clarke-Doane said...

Hi, Brian. Thanks so much for the response.

You write,

“Regarding my (unclear) objection to your point about the significance of *possible* disagreement among philosophers: the "persistence" and "intractability" of a disagreement has an important evidential status as to whether the disagreement is to be explained in terms of a "cognitive shortcoming" or something else (e.g., the nonfactual character of its subject-matter).”

I am still not sure that I understand. Here are two things that you might be saying.

First, you might be taking it for granted that whether there is actual, as opposed to merely possible, cognitively flawless disagreement is what is relevant to realism, and be pointing out that the mere fact that something is possible is no evidence that it is actual. In that case, I do not see how what you are saying constitutes an argument against the view that the mere possibility of cognitively flawless disagreement is relevant to realism, since it assumes the opposite.

Second, you might be taking it for granted that whether cognitively flawless disagreement is merely possible, rather than possible and actual, is relevant to realism and be pointing out that a good reason to think that it is possible is that it is actual. In this case again, I do not see how what you are saying constitutes an argument against the view that the mere possibility of cognitively flawless disagreement is relevant to realism, since it is consistent with our having good evidence for that view which does not amount to knowledge that cognitively flawless disagreement is actual (perhaps we are able to conceive of cognitively flawless disagreement, and perhaps this is good evidence for the view that such disagreement is possible).

I'm sure that I'm missing something. What is it?

Timothy McWhirter said...

Moral Psychology, Moral Disagreement and Growth

I was thinking about your moral disagreement paper and it struck me that the additional component to your argument I suggested above is supported by the argument you and Knobe make in “The Case for Nietzschean Moral Psychology” (CNMP). If the differences in human behavior can be more effectively explained in terms of heritable differences, then this behavior will be influenced by the evolutionary processes that give rise to these heritable differences. These heritable differences evolve like other aspects of life and this provides further evidence for moral skepticism.

In Philosophy and Phenomenological Research last summer (Volume 77, Issue 1)there was a symposium on Richard Joyce’s The Evolution of Morality that I am sure you would find interesting. In his review, Steven Stich at one point puts the discussion in a larger context: “I suspect that the practice of making moral judgments of the sort that Joyce describes is a culturally and temporally local one restricted to Western (and Western-influenced) cultural groups in relatively recent times”(Pages 228-236).

CNMP helps us better understand the limited influence that “moral judgments” have had on human behavior. It forces us to see our behavior as a product of the vast human history leading up to the emergence of moral philosophy which is marked by an evolution in the structure of human bodies, societies, cultures, and modes of living. The evolution in human behavior that led to the development of contemporary moral philosophy required that human beings were able to interpret the moral value of actions differently at different times. In order to leave hunting and gathering societies, human beings had to be able to reinterpret the value of the practices associated with that way of life—they had to be able to revaluate their values.

Nietzsche was aware of this evolutionary aspect of life. In the often discussed GM II 12 he writes in a discussion of the origin and meaning of punishment that, “Form is fluid—the “meaning,” however, is even more so . . . Even within each individual organism things are no different: with every essential growth in the totality, the “meaning” of an individual organ also shifts—in certain circumstances its partial destruction, a reduction of its numbers (for example, through the destruction of intermediate structures) can be a sign of growing power and perfection.” The ability to reinterpret the moral properties of an action is one of the fundamental components of the human evolutionary process: whether these changes were made consciously or through the evolution of heritable differences. If there were objective moral properties and Homo erectus acted in accordance with them, the evolutionary development that gave rise to Homo sapiens and moral philosophy would have been arrested. The fact that we are here now demonstrates that our evolutionary predecessors rejected moral realism and periodically revaluated their values.

It seems like we should be able to construct an indispensibility argument for moral skepticism based on human evolution. CNMP would serve to dispel any attempt to suggest that human behavior is no longer affected by evolutionary processes.

So in the abductive argument you could include: 1) the Persistent and apparently intractable disagreement on foundational questions in moral philosophy; 2) the human evolutionary history that led to the development of moral philosophy; 3) the fact that human behavior today can be effectively explained in terms of heritable differences that were produced through this evolutionary history.

For Nietzsche, the best explanation of this evidence is that moral realism is wrong. Language and thought do not give us an objective view of moral truth, nor do our moral intuitions or predispositions, to work as a team or be reliable traders. These are all tools that emerged in the evolutionary process. Because of the instrumental nature of thought and language, fostering the growth of life can only be justified aesthetically (B 5). Any attempt to do so metaphysically will lead to the disagreement we find. Any attempt to impose a moral property on actions eternally, will undermine the evolutionary development of life.

Generally, the idea is that the moral disagreement you describe is consistent with moral skepticism. The evolutionary development of human life is also dependent on moral skepticism. CNMP forces us to acknowledge that our behavior now is still a product of evolutionary processes and therefore it provides us more empirical evidence to accept moral skepticism.

Timothy McWhirter said...

Moral Skepticism and Quine-Putnam Indispensability

I just wanted to flesh out the indispensability argument I mentioned above:

(P1) We ought to have ontological commitments to all and only the entities that are indispensable to our best scientific theories.

(P2) Moral skepticism is indispensable to our best scientific theory of human development--Evolution.

(C) We ought to have an ontological commitment to moral skepticism.

We can get an idea of the potential of the argument and (P2) in Gemes and Janaway’s review of your Nietzsche on Morality (“Naturalism and Value in Nietzsche,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXI, No. 3, November 2005). In their criticism of your suggestion that morality is a stable object (168) they describe human behavior changing throughout the evolutionary development of human beings: “it could be that a genealogy of morality starts with something that is not identifiable as morality but nevertheless evolves into morality by a series of transformations” (736).

This indispensability argument begins by assuming their point as a fundamental component of evolutionary theory and using it as an argument for moral skepticism with respect to objective morality: the series of transformations in human behavior they describe are in fact necessary for present day human beings to have evolved. This evolution is dependent upon the use of a prudential morality that affirms the recurrence of life through the biological modes that make it possible. This prudential morality must be relational as Railton describes and therefore it implies the rejection of any objective nonrelational morality.

One of the places this argument emerges most clearly is in the AntiChrist. “Life itself appears to me as an instinct for growth” (A 6). “To think that no one has thought of Kant’s categorical imperative as dangerous to life!....” (A 11).

This discussion of the evolutionary nature of life and Nietzsche’s affirmation of it will also speak to the concern Gemes and Janaway raise about the affirmation of life and its role in Nietzsche’s thought (739).

P.S. Given the concerns they raise about the will to power (733), I would be interested in what they think about the empirical argument I make for the concept in "Nietzsche's Physics" (International Studies in Philosophy XXXI/3 (1999): 5-17.).

Timothy McWhirter said...

Evolutionary Arguments

I found two evolutionary arguments relating to naturalism. Both are different from the one I describe above. Michael Ruse makes an evolutionary argument for moral skepticism that Joyce discusses in his recent book The Myth of Morality. Ruse argues that our beliefs in moral propositions have served to enhance reproductive fitness, but they can do this even if they are false. Thus, our moral beliefs are unresponsive to evidence.

Plantinga offers an evolutionary argument against naturalism. He argues that if naturalism and evolution are both true, then there is a very low probability that our cognitive faculties of understanding are reliable. And this, in his view, undermines our belief in naturalism.

The argument I have outlined above is different from both these arguments. This argument begins by acknowledging a fundamental component of evolutionary theory: the function of traits within the evolutionary process evolves over time. Traits, for example, can be co-opted for different uses: what Gould and Vrba (1982) refer to as exaptation. This applies to physical traits as well as behavioral traits.

This “reinterpreting” of the function of traits is fundamental to evolution. When genetic mutations are realized as a phenotype initially, they have no function. The evolutionary process co-opts the mutations that can be used to serve reproductive fitness—it revaluates their value within a changing environment, e.g., the opposing thumb. Moral realism is inconsistent with this fundamentally evolutionary component of evolutionary theory: it seeks to arrest the revaluing of values by imposing one eternal moral value on actions. It would be akin to imposing one biological function on all traits.

If moral realism were true and our evolutionary predecessors acted in accordance with it, the evolution of human behavior would have been arrested. The next change in the environment would probably have brought about extinction. Moral philosophy would not exist, because it is the product of millions of years of evolution in the behavior of human beings. Put simply: evolution demonstrates that human existence is dependent upon the practice of moral skepticism.

I was shocked to see how much attention Plantinga has been able to attract on the basis of his evolutionary argument against naturalism. Ruse’s argument obviously makes more sense. But I believe the argument I make above is stronger. Ruse’s argument, if it is successful implies an agnostic attitude with respect to moral realism. The argument above goes further to imply moral skepticism is indispensible to our best explanation of the origin of the human species.

Timothy McWhirter said...

I have a correction. GM II 12 is one of the places where Nietzsche describes the “evolutionary argument” for moral skepticism I have outlined above. Growth is described there as requiring “re-interpretation” whether we are considering the function or value of a “physiological organ” “(or a legal institution, a social custom, a political practice, some style in art or in religious cults).” In the passages in the AntiChrist that I cited earlier, he is actually making a different argument. My apologies.

Also, this evolutionary argument for moral skepticism appears to be implicit in Kitcher’s recent efforts to explain the evolution of morality (2006ab). He describes the "transformations" to which Gemes and Janaway refer in terms of a three stage process. One must see many different iterations of human activity within any one phase, but the three phases by themselves imply that human beings have come to view their practices in each of these phases differently at different times. To evolve through these phases, human beings had to revaluate the value of their moral practices—either consciously or unconsciously—and this ability is itself part of the evolutionary process. The practice of moral skepticism is thus necessary for human beings to evolve to the point that they are able to conceive of moral realism.

Kitcher, 2006a, “Biology and Ethics,” in Copp, D. ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 163-85.

–––, 2006b, “Between Fragile Altruism and Morality: Evolution and the Emergence of Normative Guidance,” in Boniolo, G. and De Anna, G., Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology, pp. 159-77.