Friday, May 27, 2016

Evolution and Ethics: The Humean Sentimentalists Are Right. The Kantian Rationalists Are Wrong

As a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, I began to think about how a Darwinian science of human nature could be applied to the study of moral and political philosophy.  I was writing a dissertation on Aristotle's Rhetoric, and I was interested in how Aristotle's biological works might illuminate his Rhetoric, Nicomachean Ethics, and Politics.  After reading a paper by Roger Masters in 1978 on sociobiology and political philosophy, I decided that a Darwinian biology could support Aristotle's moral and political philosophy.  That thinking was elaborated in 1998 in Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature.  A few years later, Frans de Waal identified me as the discoverer of "Darwistotle."

In Darwinian Natural Right, one can see some movement towards David Hume's sentimentalist morality, based on the idea that moral judgment is an expression of moral sentiments or emotions.  I continued to move in that direction in 1998 when I lectured at a conference on Edward Westermarck at the University of Helsinki, Finland.  Westermarck helped me to see how a Darwinian science of evolution really does confirm the moral sentimentalism of Hume and Adam Smith, while refuting the moral rationalism of Immanuel Kant.  The empirical testing of Westermarck's theory of the incest taboo seemed to show how a Darwinian moral sentimentalism could become an empirical science.

Over the past twenty years, this empirical moral science has been deepened by research in evolutionary psychology (people life Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene), experimental philosophy (people like Shaun Nichols and Joshua Knobe), and evolutionary anthropology (people like Robert Boyd and Joseph Henrich).  The general conclusion that seems to emerge from this research is that the Humean sentimentalists are right, and the Kantian rationalists are wrong.

Recently, I have been thinking more about this while reading a book manuscript for Lexington Books entitled Evolution and the Foundations of Ethics.  The author's project is to apply four different models of evolution to four metaethical theories and six normative ethical theories.  The four models of evolution are those of Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Haugh.  The four metaethical theories are Error Theory, Expressivism, Moral Relativism, and Moral Realism.  The six normative theories are Virtue Ethics, Natural Law Ethics, Social Contract Ethics, Utilitarian Ethics, Deontological Ethics, and the Ethics of Care.  I appear in the chapter on Natural Law Ethics as someone who argues for a Darwinian theory of Thomistic natural law.

Although there has been a lot of writing about applying evolutionary reasoning to contemporary moral philosophy, this book is, I believe, the only comprehensive study of all the various moral theories in the light of evolutionary science.  I was disappointed, however, that the author never mentions Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, the writings of Westermarck, or the evolutionary moral anthropology of Henrich.  The author mentions the experimental moral psychology of Greene only briefly in a few notes.

While I learned a lot from reading this book, the general conclusions that I draw from it are not the conclusions that the author wants to advance.  The author argues that all of the moral theories considered in the book--the four metaethical theories and the six normative theories--can be seen as compatible with evolutionary science.  I find that implausible, and most implausible of all is the author's claim that evolutionary reasoning about ethics can support Kantian deontological ethics.  The author gives me no good reasons to doubt my previous conclusion that an evolutionary science of ethics proves that Humean sentimentalism is right, and Kantian rationalism is wrong.

The author points to the passage in The Descent of Man where Darwin quotes from Kant—“Duty! Wondrous thought . . . whence thy original?”  Darwin promises to take up this question “exclusively from the side of natural history.”  The quotation from Kant is from The Critique of Practical Reason (AA, p. 86).  Immediately after this passage, Kant says that the rational grasp of the ought of pure duty shows us “man as belonging to two worlds”—the phenomenal world of natural causes and the noumenal world of human freedom transcending nature.  Contrary to Kant, Darwin identifies the moral ought as a moral feeling: “Any instinct, permanently stronger or more enduring than another, gives rise to the feeling which we express by saying that it ought to be obeyed” (1871, vol. 2, p. 392). So Darwin’s study of morality “exclusively from the side of natural history” denies Kant’s “two worlds” view.  Frances Cobbe saw this, and she denounced Darwin for rejecting Kant’s ethical theory.  The author doesn’t explain how this can be compatible with the claim that Darwinian science supports Kant.

The author quotes a passage from Descent in which Darwin concludes: “I am the supreme judge of my own conduct, and in the words of Kant, I will not in my own person violate the dignity of humanity” (1871, vol. 1, p. 86).  The author says that this affirms Kantian moral theory, because Darwin says that we can “use the categorical imperative as a normative principle.” 

But this passage from Descent is all about “feelings” and “social instincts.”  Darwin asks: “Why should a man feel that he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”  Darwin’s answer is that “the more enduring social instincts conquer the less persistent instincts.”

 In Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he declares: "reason of itself, independent of all experience, commands what ought to be done." Thus, "all moral precepts have their seat and origin entirely a priori in reason." Consequently, "the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed, but sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason." Moral duty, then, must be derived by pure logic from a moral law that is stated as a rule of purely formal self-consistency. Moreover, this a priori reasoning of morality belongs to a realm of freedom that is outside the laws of nature.  This is as far away from Darwin’s natural history of morality as one can go.

The author writes: “Darwin seems to concur with Hume that ethics is ultimately based on feelings.”  I agree.  But if this is true, then we must also say that Darwin does not concur with Kant that ethics is ultimately based on pure a priori reasoning alone.

The author quotes a remark from Gould about rejecting the “Kantian categorical imperative” in favor of “the messier ‘hypothetical imperatives’ that invoke desire, negotiation, and reciprocity.”  But the author never considers the possibility that an evolutionary science of ethics might in fact support a view of morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives, which might find support in Philippa Foot’s famous argument on this point.

The author quotes Michael Ruse as concluding that the "spirit of Kantianism is antithetical to the spirit of Darwinism."  In the endnote or this sentence, the author writes a long note on Joshua Greene’s argument that experimental neuroscience refutes Kant.

Greene presents evidence from brain scanning of people making moral judgments about the trolley dilemma to show that moral judgments are always emotionally grounded, and he argues that this refutes Kant’s deontological claim that moral judgment is a dictate of pure reason without emotion or desire.  In defense of Kant, the author appeals to Mark Timmons’ argument that a Kantian deontological moral theory can be defended against Greene’s empirical research by reformulating Kant’s moral theory as an emotionally grounded deontology.

The problem with this, as Greene points out in his response to Timmons, is that an emotionally grounded deontology contradicts Kant’s rationalist denial of emotionally grounded morality.  Timmons saves Kantian ethics by destroying it!  The author doesn’t explain how this can be defensible.

The author concludes the book here by affirming Jonathan Haidt’s evolutionary theory of morality as rooted in a moral sense or sense of taste as the comprehensive theory that embraces all the other theories.  But Haidt is very clear that his theory comes out of the sentimentalist tradition of Hume and Smith.  Hume and Smith “got it right” (The Righteous Mind, p. 116).  And this means that Kant got it wrong (pp. 119-21, 340, n. 23).  Haidt thinks Kant suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, and that he might have suffered a brain tumor at age 47 that damaged emotional processing in the left prefrontal cortex.  This would explain why Kant’s early writing defended a sentimentalist ethic like that of Hume and Smith, but after age 47 he turned to a purely rationalist ethic that denied the moral emotions.
The author's unreasonable Kantianism is implicit even in the use of the term “normative.”  The contrast between “normative” and “empirical” seems to assume the fact/value—is/ought—dichotomy first put forth by Kant, and thus assumes the truth of Kantian dualism.  If one accepts this dualism, then biology has nothing to say about normative ethics.
 Natural law reasoning in general is often criticized for ignoring the is/ought dichotomy and committing the naturalistic fallacy in assuming that a description of what is natural for us can support a prescription of what is good for us.  But there is no such fallacy in natural law reasoning if we see it as reasoning through a hypothetical imperative. 

As I have often argued, we could say that all natural law reasoning depends on hypothetical imperatives that have a "given/if/then" structure: Given what we know about the nature of human beings and the world in which they live, if we want to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then we ought to adopt a social structure that conforms to human nature in promoting human happiness in society. 
So, for example, given what we know about human vulnerability and human propensities to violent aggression, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in our society, then we ought to have laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft.  Consequently, the laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft are natural laws.

Natural law reasoning does not prohibit us from punishing any expression of a natural behavioral propensity.  For example, pure psychopaths are probably expressing their biologically natural propensities.  But given what we know about the harmful propensities of psychopaths, if we want to protect our society from harm, then we ought to punish psychopaths to protect ourselves from their harmful behavior.

Consider how this would apply, for example, to the moral and legal debate over homosexuality and gay marriage.  Given what we know about the animal nature of homosexuality, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in societies with both heterosexual and homosexual individuals, then we ought to protect the liberty of homosexuals to live their lives as they wish, as long as they do not harm others.  Consequently, the liberty of homosexuals would include the right to same-sex marriage, as long as we know that this is not harmful to others.  That is the argument of Justice Kennedy's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

If one believes, however, as some of the opponents of same-sex marriage believe, that the governmental licensing of same-sex marriage will harm the children of same-sex parents, then natural law reasoning would condemn the legalization of same-sex marriage. 

The debate here becomes an empirical question that will be settled by our reasoning about our experience: Is there any evidence that same-sex marriages harm children?


Ken Blanchard said...

Larry: I certainly agree with you that Hume's understanding of morality is closer to the truth than Kant's understanding. I submit that Kant nonetheless gets something very right about morality. I recall the old joke. A man says to his date "would you make love to me for a million dollars?" The date says yes. "Okay, would you make love to me for one dollar?" His date, indignant, says "What do you think I am?" He replies "We've established that. Now we are talking about price." Kantian morality may be summed up by saying that a whore is a whore, no matter the price. Maybe that's too strenuous, but who would you rather have as a neighbor, a good Kantian or a Humean who can make all sorts of excuses.

In context, I am in favor of legal same sex marriage, for reasons you suggest. On the other hand, I don't think that the 14th amendment requires "marriage equality" for the simple reason that confining marriage to heterosexual couples doesn't treat people unequally. In South Dakota, until recently, a homosexual man could not marry another man; but neither could a heterosexual man marry another man. That's equality.

Yes, the natural foundation of morality is moral emotions. Those emotions lead us to seek general principles on which we can base our moral claims. Kant understood that part of the equation pretty well.

Larry Arnhart said...

All right, I can agree that Kant was at least partly right in recognizing the importance of general principles in moral judgment. Of course, the Humean and Smithian sentimentalists also recognize this: they have defended a natural morality of informed desire, in that the good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires in the most harmonious way over a whole life. What Kant says about the universalizability of moral reasoning is close to what Smith says about the reasoning of the impartial spectator.