Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Evolution and Ethics" Seminar at Oxford University

Today, I will be travelling to England. Next week, I will be helping to direct a week-long seminar at Oxford University on "Evolution and Ethics." The following week, Ryan Nichols of Cal State Fullerton will direct a second week in the seminar. The participants are mostly philosophy professors and students from China. This is part of a program organized by Kelly Clark of Calvin College with the support of the John Templeton Foundation. In October, we will all meet in China for a conference to present papers coming out of the seminar.

Since this topic is intensely controversial, I think the best way to study it is to read texts that represent distinct positions in the debate. So, for each day of my seminar, I have readings that show this debate.

For the first day, I will introduce the readings and comment on how I developed my interest in this area of study. While most of the participants are philosophers, I come at this from the perspective of a political scientist who studies the history of political philosophy from antiquity to the present. Because of that, I tend to stress the historical development of the topic, and I tend to look back to classic texts.

My interest in all of this started with my earliest studies of Aristotle's political philosophy as set forth in his Nicomachean Ethics, his Politics, and his Rhetoric, which present the study of the "regime" (politeia)--the way of life of a political community--as encompassing moral character formation, political behavior and institutions, and rhetoric. I noticed that Aristotle repeatedly compares human beings with other animals, and this led me into studying his biological works, and particularly his account of the biology of political animals.

I also noticed that Aristotle's devotion to biological studies seemed to distinguish him from Plato. Aristotle's criticisms of Plato's Theory of the Ideas seemed to suggest an opposition between Aristotle's biological empiricism and Plato's transcendental idealism. As I have indicated in some posts, this contrast can be overdone if one does not see that Plato's Socrates shows some skepticism about the moral cosmology taught by Plato's Athenian stranger and by Timaeus. But even so, one can see in Aristotle's response to Plato that he saw problems with Platonic idealism, and he saw his biological studies as a turning away from such idealism. One can also see this contrast in Aristotle's defense of rhetoric and rhetorical appeals to the moral emotions, as contrasted with Plato's scorn for rhetoric as mere sophistry. The debate over evolutionary ethics shows this continuing debate between Platonic transcendentalism and Aristotelian empiricism.

I will also suggest, in the first meeting of the seminar, that the history of evolutionary ethics can be understood as showing four waves. The first wave was Darwin's classic statement of evolutionary ethics in The Descent of Man. Although there are obvious gaps in Darwin's knowledge that have been filled by later research--for example, genetics, neuroscience, and careful studies of animal behavior--all of the major insights of evolutionary ethics are already there in Darwin's book. But this first wave of Darwinian ethics came to an end when many Darwinians--particularly, Thomas Huxley--asserted a dichotomy between natural facts and moral values that denied Darwin's evolutionary ethics.

The second wave came at the beginning of the twentieth century with Edward Westermarck's revival and elaboration of Darwin's evolutionary ethics, based largely on bringing together the moral psychology of David Hume and Adam Smith and the evolutionary science of Darwin. Westermarck's work fell into neglect, however, as a consequence of the post-World-War-II revulsion against biological explanations of human nature as associated with the Nazis and Social Darwinism.

The third wave of evolutionary ethics came with the publication of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975. On the first page of that book, Wilson declared that one great achievement of sociobiology would be explaining human morality as rooted in the emotion control centers of the brain and thus rejecting the rationalist transcendentalism that had become prevalent in modern moral philosophy. This provoked a passionate outcry from those who saw this as crude biological reductionism. In fact, even the leading proponents of "evolutionary psychology" (Tooby, Cosmides, Buss, and others) rejected Wilson's Darwinian ethics as violating the fact-value distinction.

The fourth (and current) wave of evolutionary ethics came with the publication of Wilson's Consilience in 1998. This book was a masterful synthesis of the research done since 1975 supporting Wilson's project for sociobiology as the ground for a grand unification of all knowledge, including ethics. By 1998, the research in ethology, neuroscience, genetics, biological anthropology, behavioral game theory, and gene-culture coevolution confirmed Wilson's claim that the absolute separation of natural facts and moral values was a false dichotomy. Consequently, more and more scholars in psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and political science are beginning to take evolutionary ethics seriously, although the opponents are still resolute in their opposition.

For the second day of our seminar, we will read selections from Darwin's Descent and George Jackson Mivart's critical review of the book. Here we will see the fundamental debate that continues to run through all of the controversy over evolutionary ethics, a debate that can even be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Mivart is a Kantian who rejects Darwin's Humean moral psychology as failing to see that morality is autonomous--governed by its own internal, logical rules without reference to human emotions and desires. The influence of David Hume and Adam Smith on Darwin set Darwinian ethics in stark opposition to the transcendental ethics of Kant. That's why Ed Wilson in Consilience explains the ultimate debate in moral psychology as between the transcendentalists who see morality as rooted in some cosmic order outside the human mind and the empiricists who see morality as an expression of the human mind.

For the third day, we will turn to Frans de Waal and other authors in the book Primates and Philosophers. Here we will see de Waal taking the Humean position of Darwin against the Kantian position of Mivart, while de Waal's critics (particularly, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer) lean towards the Kantian side of the debate, arguing that the moral "ought" belongs to an autonomous realm outside of nature. And yet, all of these critics make concessions to de Waal's Darwinian/Westermarckian account of the moral emotions that suggests some retreat from the position of Kantian moral transcendentalism as based on pure reason.

For the fourth day of our seminar, we will turn to my Darwinian Natural Right and the criticisms of my book coming from John Hare, a philosopher at Yale. Hare is a Christian Kantian. And once again, one can see here the Hume/Kant debate continued in the debate over evolutionary ethics. (I have written some posts in response to Hare.)

For the fifth day, we will discuss Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, with me defending Darwinian ethics against my critics. And, again, I think we'll see the basic contrast between the biological empiricism of my Darwinian naturalism and the transcendental idealism of my critics. And, of course, here, as in all of our reading, we will see the dispute over whether morality is possible without some religious belief in God as the ultimate source and authority for moral law.

I might have a chance to write some posts on the course of the discussions in the seminar.


badhatharry said...

What a wonderful week the attendees have in store. And Oxford is so beautiful! I hope the weather cooperates.

Christa said...

Safe travels, Prof. Arnhart. I will be looking forward to further posts and regret that we could not in the end meet in the UK. --cjb2