Saturday, September 04, 2010

PZ Myers, Moralist

This continues my thinking about PZ Myers from my previous post.

In a recent post on his blog, Myers responds to this question from "EvolutionSkeptic": "what is your motivation to live a moral, upstanding life without the guidance of the rules of God and the Bible?"

Myers answers: "I live a moral life for the simple reason that I empathize with my fellow human beings and have a desire to avoid doing them harm that's almost as strong as my desire that they avoid harming me."

This rooting of morality in "empathy" is similar to Adam Smith's account of "sympathy" or "fellow-feeling" as the ground for the "moral sentiments." Charles Darwin adopted this Smithian teaching in The Descent of Man, and he explained how it could have evolved as the natural root for the moral sense. Recent research in evolutionary moral psychology confirms this--for example, evidence from behavioral game theory and neuroscience ("mirror neurons"?).

Does Myers agree with this idea that his morality might be grounded in his evolved human nature?

If he does, would he also agree that a social order that cultivates this natural moral sense based on sympathy is superior to one that does not?

Liberals like Adam Smith believed that the natural moral sentiments were best cultivated as products of the spontaneous order of civil society working through natural and voluntary associations--families, neighborhoods, fraternal organizations, churches, schools, and so on. This was to be achieved through what Smith called a "natural system of liberty" in which individuals associated with one another freely and were only constrained when they initiated harm to others.

Is this the view of morality that Myers favors? If so, would he agree with me that a liberal social order is desirable insofar as it cultivates the moral sentiments in a free society?

A few of my related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

Is morality at base only defined by empathy and a desire not to harm or be harmed by others? I am wary of such a view, because such a view implies that philosophers, in their questioning of everything, might be moral monsters. However, if liberal society is dominated by the opinion that people be restrained from doing harm to others, doesn't that imply that real philosophers, as opposed to mere scholars of philosophy, be banned from liberal society? Yet free speech is one of the central principles of any liberal society, isn't it? So liberal morality, while taking significant direction from our natural empathy, is also rooted in other intuitions, intuitions which do come into conflict with empathy. One needs only think of groups like the KKK and Voltaire's famous quip, "I disagree with everything you say, but I'd fight to death to defend your right to say it." I guess what I am wondering is if a liberal social order cultivates the moral sentiments that Myers prefers, and if not, should society become less liberal?


Kent Guida said...

You raise interesting questions.

On the relationship between philosophy and society, I suggest The Apology as a good starting point.

Do you really think that the legal structure of liberal society, including freedom of expression, conflicts with man's evolved moral sentiments? If so, you would be disagreeing with all the originators of the moral sense theory, and, as far as I can tell, all the modern exponents such as James Q Wilson. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I am unaware of any attempt to make that case in detail. Arnhart's question to Myers is also the question to you.

Also, Volaire never said that thing often attributed to him.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that your least interesting posts seem to get the most attention? 31 comments on some hyperpole about a flatulent biologist? That must be a new record.

Larry Arnhart said...

I've learned my lesson.

Troy Camplin said...


One answer to your question is that Nietzsche wondered if he -- and all the other philosophers -- were a moral monster precisely for that reason.

Another answer: Hayek built into his theory of the spontaneous order a role for what he termed "eminent criticism." This would be the role of the moral philosophers, properly understood. To twist a phrase, the goal is to change the world by understanding it. Meanwhile, the rest of mankind is changing the world by living it. What one must never do is try to change it by imposing it. Those are the moral monsters.