Wednesday, February 06, 2008

More on Is/Ought

There continues to be discussion of whether a Darwinian ethical naturalism fails to overcome the is/ought gap. Rob Schebel assumes that G. E. Moore's "naturalistic fallacy" argument is an insuperable objection to any naturalistic ethics.

In Chapter 4 of DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, I have argued for a Humean naturalism that is compatible with Aristotelian and Darwinian views of morality. Far from denying that moral judgments are judgments of fact, Hume shows that moral judgments are accurate when they correctly report what our moral sentiments would be in a given set of circumstances. Moral judgments do not have cosmic objectivity in the sense of conforming to structures that exist totally independently of human beings. Yet neither do moral judgments have only emotive subjectivity in the sense of expressing purely personal feelings. Moral judgments for Hume have intersubjective objectivity in that they are factual judgments about the species-typical pattern of moral sentiments in specified circumstances.

Hume compares moral judgments to judgments of secondary qualities such as colors. My judgment that this tomato is read is true if the object is so constituted as to induce the impression of red in human beings with a normal visual system viewing it under standard conditions. Similarly, my judgment that this person is morally praiseworthy is true if the person's conduct is such as to induce the sentiment of approbation in normal human beings under standard conditions. Just as an object can appear red to me when in fact it is not, so a person can appear praiseworthy to me when in fact he is not. The moral judgment whether some conduct would give to a normal spectator under standard conditions a moral sentiment of approbation is, Hume insists, "a plain matter of fact." The moral sentiment itself, however, is a feeling or passion rooted in human nature that cannot be produced by reason alone.

The importance of the moral sentiments becomes clear as soon as one considers those who have no moral sentiments--pure psychopaths. As I have indicated in Chapter 8 of DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, we must treat psychopaths as moral strangers who are incapable of responding to moral appeals because they lack that moral sense that makes morality possible for normal people.

Darwin's contribution to this tradition of naturalistic morality rooted in natural moral sentiments was to show how the human nature of such morality could have evolved.

This Humean and Darwinian naturalism seems more reasonable to me than G. E. Moore's claim that "good" belongs to some transcendental realm of non-natural objects. I cannot see how moral standards could exist independently of the facts of human nature.

In my Darwinian account of morality, moral values are rooted in moral facts--the psychological facts of the human species, such as our disposition to sympathize with our fellow human beings and feel resentment against those who harm others without justification.

Although his terminology differs somewhat from mine, I largely agree with Alex Walter's elaboration of these points in his article "The Anti-naturalistic Fallacy: Evolutionary Moral Psychology and the Insistence of Brute Facts," which can be found


Anonymous said...

Walter's observations make sense to me, and I like this piece.

So only one question remains for me. I don't fully understand how your theory decides which desires should be pursued, and which should not.

To use one real-life example, how do you determine whether individuals should be allowed to pursue their natural desires for multiple sex partners?

Virtually every society in history has been polygynous, which would evidence that males desire multiple partners. However, there is also recent evidence in evolutionary psych that women desire multiple partners, especially during certain times in their menstrual cycles.

How would a Darwinian conservative determine whether men and women should follow or supress these desires? How would a Darwinian conservative determine whether a political regime should allow or disallow polygamy?

More abstractly, by what standard does one determine which desires are "good" and "bad?" It would seem that one could not appeal to desires to determine which desires are allowable. It would seem that some other standard would have to be used. I don't think you could use "prudence" in this instance, because prudence seems only to assist the desires not to contradict one another by your account.

This is where I'm guessing ethical naturalism becomes problematic and ethical objectivism (like that of G.E. Moore) is truer to our real ethical judgements.

-Rob Schebel

Anonymous said...

I think a naturalist could say that multiple sexual partners, or other "bad" desires, are bad because they conflict with other desires of ours. Many partners might satisfy some short-term desire. But it would also affect negatively our long-term desires to have stable families and societies. If we reflected about it, most of us would find these long-term desires more worthy than the sort-term desire of pleasure. I have not completely made up my mind on metaethical issues, but It seems like this answer is as good as "Moorean" appeals to some quasi-mystical metaphysical realm. One could ask the similar question to the Moorean: Which primitive ethical properties exists? How do we know what these command us?

Anonymous said...

Polygynous societies have existed throughout human history, and some even argue that the U.S. is partly polygynous. So polygyny, or even polygamy, are not incompatible with stable families and societies. But they are both incompatible with conservatism. So I would be interested to hear what exactly a Darwinian conservative would say about this.

More importantly, however, I'm still interested in what standard we use to judge which desires are to be followed, and which are to be supressed.

-Rob Schebel

Larry Arnhart said...

The widespread practice of polygyny--multiple wives--shows that this is compatible with our sexual, conjugal, and parental desires.

But one can also see that polygyny has at least two major problems. First, there is often intense sexual jealousy among the co-wives. That's why polygynous marriages have to have elaborate rules for dividing the husband's time and resources among the wives, and why the wives often are ranked, with the oldest wife acting as the dominant wife over the others, while the younger wives are more sexually attractive to the husband. One way to mitigate the sexual jealousy is to have sororal polygyny--sisters sharing a husband.

The second problem is that polygyny allows wealthy and powerful men to accummulate so many wives that many men are left without mates. Monogamy is attractive because it equalizes the competition among men for mates, and in that respect is more compatible with democracy.

By contrast, polyandry--multiple husbands--is so rare that there are few historical examples, because the sexual jealousy among the co-husbands is too deep. It's easier for women to share a husband than for men to share a wife.

Monogamy escapes many of these problems. That's why it's universal--even in societies with polygyny, monogamy is open to most people.

There is a clear pattern here that reflects the character of human desires. Monogamy is universal. Polygyny is common. Polyandry almost never works. And although promiscuity is common, no society fails to establish some form of marriage to regulate sexual competition, sexual jealousy, conjugal bonding, and parental care.

Deciding what's best in particular circumstances--as in the 19th century American debate over whether the Mormons should be permitted to practice polygyny--is a matter of prudence.

Anonymous said...

You present a reasonable analysis of the monogomy/polygamy problem.

I think you've answerred all of my main contentions more than adequately. Thank you.

-Rob Schebel