Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Plato in China

Whenever I speak with professors of philosophy, I am often surprised by how many of them embrace a Platonic rationalism in their thinking, particularly in moral philosophy. What I mean by that is that they assume that all of morality must rest on an intuition of a cosmic order of goodness or badness, right or wrong, so that moral thinking is like mathematical thinking in being concerned with grasping some eternal patterns of universal and eternal truth.

For many philosophers, this Platonic conception of morality is so strong that they cannot even comprehend how morality could be understood as rooted in the empirical reality of human nature, because for them moral philosophy is not an empirical study at all, but rather a purely normative study, and the standards of normativity transcend any empirical reality of human experience. One can see this in their method of thinking, which relies heavily on thought experiments based on purely imaginary scenarios beyond anything we could know by ordinary experience or historical study. John Rawls' conception of the "original position" is one example of this.

I saw this at the conference on "Evolution and Ethics" last week at Peking University in Beijing. The conference brought together Chinese philosophy professors and students with American philosophy professors. All of the American philosophy professors were members of the "Society of Christian Philosophers." I was the sole political scientist at the conference.

As a political scientist who studies the history of political philosophy and the application of Darwinian science to political philosophy, I tend to think of moral and political order as arising from human history, and I use Darwinian science to illuminate that history as part of human evolutionary history. This sets me against those moral philosophers who assume that moral order--the normative order--must transcend human history as being "merely empirical." I find this scorn for the empirical reality of human history and the striving for a transcendent world of utopian normativity to be strange.

I suspect that I am missing something--that I am overlooking something that would explain why this Platonic transcendentalism is so appealing to modern philosophers. I would be grateful if anyone could explain this too me.

In my keynote lecture for the conference, I spoke about "The Human Sources of Darwinism and Confucianism." As I have indicated on this blog, I see six possible sources for moral order: 1. cosmic God, 2. cosmic Nature, 3. cosmic Reason, 4. human nature, 5. human culture, 6. human individuals. The Platonic philosophers assume that moral order must be grounded in the cosmic sources, so that moral standards are somehow written into the structure of the universe, and human morality is judged by how well it imitates the moral cosmos.

Against this moral cosmology, I argued for a moral biology that sees moral order as rooted in the human sources--human natural desires, human cultural traditions, and human prudential judgments. I indicated how this moral biology could be seen in both Darwinian ethics and Confucian ethics. I used some historical examples--such as the debate over slavery and the Asian debate over filial piety--to illustrate my points.

I anticipated that this argument would be rejected by almost everyone in the audience, and that's what happened, because almost all of the philosophers in the audience were so dominated by Platonic rationalism that the thought of studying morality empirically, scientifically, and historically, was incomprehensible to them.

Platonic philosophers want a morality of eternal truth, absolute rules, and universal love. By contrast, a Darwinian moral biology offers not eternal truth, but historical contingency, not absolute rules, but prudential judgment, not universal love, but tragic conflicts.

Darwinian moral psychology accepts the historical contingency of morality as shaped by the genetic history of human nature, the social history of human culture, and the personal history of human individuals. The generic goods of human nature--the 20 natural desires--are stable and universal across all of human history, for as long as the human species exists. But the human species and the generic goods rooted in that species-specific nature are evolutionarily contingent. Human cultures are also contingently variable, although they are constrained by the generic propensities of human nature. Human individuals are unique, as shaped by their unique life histories, and so they must judge what is best for them as adapted to their individualized lives, but this individuality of moral judgment is constrained by human nature and human culture.

As far as my audience of philosophers was concerned, what I talked about was almost completely irrelevant to moral philosophy, because my "merely empirical" claims offered no access to the "normative" standards sought by moral philosophers.

I was encouraged, however, by the fact that the other keynote speaker--Ryan Nichols, a professor of philosophy at Cal State-Fullerton--took an empirical approach to morality that provoked the audience of philosophers almost as much as my speech. Nichols offered an empirical study of how the Confucian teaching about filial piety has shaped a disposition in many Chinese children to allow their parents to dictate to them their choice of mates for marriage. He put this in the context of parent-offspring conflict (as understood by Robert Trivers), and showed how the teaching of filial piety had become a cultural tradition used by parents to manipulate their children to serve the interests of parents. Nichols's historical study of the culture of Confucian teaching was thus put within the context of Darwinian science applied to the study of a cultural tradition.

Nichols argued that philosophers should engage in experimental and historical studies for testing scientific hypotheses about moral conduct. He recognized, however, that most philosophers today will not be inclined to do this, because their preference is for "armchair philosophizing"--that is to say, reasoning by purely a priori standards in ways that cannot be open to empirical study.

Like me, Nichols was challenging the Platonic rationalism of the philosophers. And, like me, Nichols was frustrated by an a priori rationalism that scorns science, history, and empirical studies as irrelevant to true moral philosophy.

Part of the explanation for this might be that these philosophers were all Christians, and traditionally Christian philosophers have been attracted to Plato and Platonic thinking because it seems to support the moral cosmology that many Christian philosophers think is necessary.

I am also reminded of E. O. Wilson's claim in Consilience that explaining ethics ultimately turns on the debate between empiricism and transcendentalism. Wilson sees the biological explanation of ethics as taking the side of the empiricist tradition from Aristotle to Hume. By contrast, he sees most contemporary philosophers as taking the transcendentalist side--either religious transcendentalism or secular transcendentalism.


parabarbarian said...

I don't think you are missing too much. Scientists and engineers understand that a theoretical framework must at some point to be compared to observable reality. Philosophers almost always succumb to a temptation to lie about discussing made up principles within a framework of imaginary scenarios. Perhaps that is why Robert Heinlein once described a philosopher as a scientist with no thumbs.

When I read your post I was reminded of one of the conflicts between the monks and the nuns in Ken Follet's novel World Without End. On the one hand, the University educated monks knew all about humors, bleeding and the proper use of holy relics in treating disease. The nuns, on the other hand, washed their hands before and after treating a patient and wore linen face masks.

Troy Camplin said...

How familiar are you with the work of Frederick Turner? He proposes that morality in fact makes use of all of the above. Consider is "Natural Religion" and "The Culture of Hope",