Thursday, December 29, 2011

Termite Morality and Pinker's Platonic Longings

Like Peter Singer, Steve Pinker struggles with his Platonic longings for a moral cosmology.

Pinker shows this in the final pages of Better Angels (694-96).  The evidence for declining violence throughout history suggests that history has some cosmic purpose.  James Payne wonders whether this indicates "a higher power at work."  Robert Wright wonders whether history is a story with a "cosmic author."  Although Pinker resists the temptation to see a divine purpose at work in history, he does see some vindication for "moral realism--that moral truths are out there somewhere for us to discover, just as we discover the truths of science and mathematics."

But like Singer, Pinker is ambivalent about whether his belief in moral truths that are "out there somewhere for us to discover" can be justified by a moral cosmology.  He writes:
Only an inflated sense of our own importance could turn our desire to escape the Pacifist's Dilemma into a grand purpose of the cosmos.  But the desire does seem to tap into contingencies of the world that are not exactly physical, and so it is different from the desires that were the mothers of other inventions such as refined sugar or central heating.  The maddening structure of a Pacifist's Dilemma is an abstract feature of reality.  So is its most comprehensive solution, the interchangeability of perspectives, which is the principle behind the Golden Rule and its equivalents that have been rediscovered in so many moral traditions.  Our cognitive processes have been struggling with these aspects of reality over the course of our history, just as they have struggled with the laws of logic and geometry.
Though our escape from destructive contests is not a cosmic purpose, it is a human purpose.  Defenders of religion have long claimed that in the absence of divine edicts, morality can never be grounded outside ourselves.  People can pursue only selfish interests, perhaps tweaked by taste or fashion, and are sentenced to lives of relativism and nihilism.  We can now appreciate why this line of argument is mistaken.  Discovering earthly ways in which human beings can flourish, including stratagems to overcome the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression, should be purpose enough for anyone.  It is a goal that is nobler than joining a celestial choir, melting into a cosmic spirit, or being reincarnated into a higher life-form, because the goal can be justified to any fellow thinker rather than being inculcated to arbitrary factions by charisma, tradition, or force.
So, on the one hand, the human good of reducing violence is not a cosmic purpose, but only a human purpose.  And yet, on the other hand, this goal reflects "an abstract feature of reality," and it can be "justified to any fellow thinker."  What does Pinker mean by "any fellow thinker"?  His reference to the laws of logic and geometry suggests that he means that any rational being would have to agree on the morality of reducing violence, which suggests a Kantian moral imperative of pure reason that does not depend on the natural inclinations of the human animal.  That's what I see as Pinker's Platonic longing.

Would "any fellow thinker" include a rational termite?  Edward O. Wilson has quoted the following excerpt from a commencement address by the dean of the faculty at the International Termite University (In Search of Nature, 1996, pp. 97-99):
On one thing we can surely agree!  We are the pinnacle of 3 billion years of evolution, unique by virtue of our high intelligence, employment of symbolic language, and diversity of cultures evolved over hundreds of generations.  Our species alone has sufficient self-awareness to perceive history and the meaning of personal mortality.  Having largely escaped the sovereignty of our genes, we now base social organization mostly or entirely upon culture.  Our universities disseminate knowledge from the three great branches of learning: the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the termitities.  Since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved 10-kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the later Tertiary period and learned to write with pheromone script, termitistic scholarship has refined ethical philosophy.  It is now possible to express the deontological imperatives of moral behavior with precision.  These imperatives are mostly self-evident and universal.  They are the very essence of termitity.  They include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic penetralia of the soil; the centrality of colony life amidst a richness of war and trade among colonies; the sanctity of the physiological caste system; the evil of personal reproduction by worker castes; the mystery of deep love for reproductive siblings, which turns to hatred the instant they mate; rejection of the evil of personal rights; the infinite aesthetic pleasures of pheromonal song; the aesthetic pleasure eating from nestmates' anuses after the shedding of the skin; the joy of cannibalism and surrender of the body for consumption when sick or injured (it is more blessed to be eaten than to eat); and much more . . .
Some termitistically inclined scientists, particularly the ethologists and sociobiologists, argue that our social organization is shaped by our genes and that our ethical precepts simply reflect the peculiarities of termite evolution.  They assert that ethical philosophy must take into account the structure of the termite brain and the evolutionary history of the species.  Socialization is genetically channelled, and some forms of it all but inevitable.
This proposal has created a major academic controversy.  Many scholars in the social sciences and termitities, refusing to believe that termite nature can be better understood by a study of fishes and baboons, have withdrawn behind the moat of philosophical dualism and reinforced the crenellated parapets of the formal refutation of the naturalistic fallacy.  They consider the mind to be beyond the reach of materialistic biological research.  A few take the extreme view that conditioning can alter termite culture and ethics in almost any direction desired.  But the biologists respond that termite behavior can never be altered so far as to resemble that of, say, human beings.  There is such a thing as a biologically based termite nature . . .
Wilson explains: "I have concocted this termitocentric fantasy to illustrate a generalization strangely difficult to explain by conventional means: that human beings possess a species-specific nature and morality, which occupy only a tiny section in the space of all possible social and moral conditions."

Contrary to what is suggested by Pinker and Singer, there are no moral truths written into the order of the cosmos that are justifiable to any thinking being.  "Human beings possess a species-specific nature and morality."  And, similarly, any nonhuman animal with cognitive capacities for moral reasoning would arrive at whatever moral imperatives were suited for its species-specific nature.  So, for example, rational termites would reject "the evil of personal rights."

In imagining how termite morality would differ from human morality, Wilson is following the lead of Darwin, who indicated in The Descent of Man that, if bees were capable of moral reasoning, they would develop a moral sense very different from that of human beings.  In her review of Darwin's book, Frances Cobbe was deeply disturbed by this thought, because it denied her belief that moral imperatives were universal and axiomatic truths of the universe that could be discovered by pure reason alone just as we discover the truths of mathematics.

Pinker and Singer often seem to be on the side of Cobbe against Darwin.  And yet they are ambivalent about this, because they recognize that an evolutionary morality must be adapted for the natural inclinations of the species, and thus it has no cosmic truth.  The human good is a discoverable truth about the human species only as long as the human species exists in its present form.  Many contemporary moral philosophers worry that such a species-specific morality that has no foundation in moral cosmology must be purely "fictional."

Some of my blog posts on the Darwin-Cobbe debate can be found here.

1 comment:

Empedocles said...

If "any nonhuman animal with cognitive capacities for moral reasoning would arrive at whatever moral imperatives were suited for its species-specific nature" couldn't the same thing be said about culture? That there is no way to rationally criticize the caste system, or sexist cultures, or slavery? These systems are based on moral claims, and if morality is not applicable to all rational agents, what grounds are there to criticize these systems? Doesn't it fall into relativism? You will probably respond that these are still human beings and morality is equally applicable to all members of the human species. But why? Humans are perfectly capable of living under these systems for centuries and millenia. I suppose the response would be that these systems don't treat everyone's desires as equally worthy. So now we have a universal principle: treat every human's desires as equally worthy. But if the termite people come to earth, does this principle apply to them as well? Could they claim discrimination in that their desires are not being treated as equally worthy? So does the principle apply to them on their own planet before they came to earth?