Sunday, July 21, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (8): The Evolution of Morality

The afternoon of June 25th at the MPS conference was devoted to lectures on the evolution of morality by David Rose, John Tooby, and Gerald Gaus.  Since I have already commented on the paper by Cosmides and Tooby, here I will only comment on Rose and Gaus.

Rose spoke on "Evolving Around the Empathy Problem".  He is an economist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.  His lecture seemed to be based on an argument that he has elaborated in a book--The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior (Oxford University Press, 2011).  Since I have not read that book, I am not confident about my interpretation and assessment of his lecture.  The questions I have about the lecture might be answered in the book.

Rose agrees that empathy is important for morality, but he thinks empathy is not enough, particularly in providing a moral foundation for modern market economies.  Empathy is not enough because it works better in small groups than it does in the large groups that constitute modern societies.  In large groups, the harm caused by an opportunistic act can be spread out over so many people that no one individual suffers any great harm, and thus there is no specific individual suffering to evoke empathy and elicit guilt in the mind of the person acting opportunistically.

So, for example, Rose explained, old people can use their political influence to take resources from their children and grandchildren through deficit spending.  The old people love their children and grandchildren, but the harm to their offspring from deficit spending is spread out in such a way that the old people don't feel guilty about it because they don't imagine the individual harm being very great.

This is Rose's version of the Cosmides/Tooby/Dunbar theory of "mismatch"--our moral psychology as evolved for life in small groups does not provide the moral restraint that we need in the large groups of modern society.

Rose's answer to this problem is to argue that our genetic nature had to be overcome through cultural evolution that would provide the moral restraint necessary for the economic life of a modern society.  We needed parents to teach their children what Rose calls "principled moral restraint," which is the idea that some actions are inherently wrong, and thus not to be done, regardless of the effects on others.  So if something is wrong--like stealing from your children--it is wrong, and you should feel guilty for it, even when you can't see any clear harm for specific individuals.

Rose's argument, then, is that the success of modern free market activity in creating a growth in prosperity that is unprecedented in human history occurred because parents in some societies started to teach their children principled moral restraint.  These societies prospered because economic transactions could be based on the trustworthy behavior of people who would feel guilty for opportunistic behavior even when there were no circumstance to elicit empathy.  Other societies without such a culture of principled moral restraint would be less prosperous, and thus they would be less successful in cultural evolution.  Rose suggests that something like this is similar to Hayek's theory of cultural evolution as supporting the emergence of modern free societies.

My first reaction is that this is philosophically and historically implausible.  It's philosophically implausible because it assumes a Kantian conception of duty for duty's sake with no regard for consequences or moral emotions that seems implausible.

It's historically implausible, because it's hard to see how Rose could prove that the Industrial Revolution occurred when parents decided to teach Kantian morality to their children, and ever since then, the only prosperous societies have been those where the parents taught this to their children.  Where's the evidence for this?

Moreover, since the rate of growth in prosperity has been increasing around the world for the past two centuries, Rose would have to show that this is because more parents are teaching Kantian morality to their children.  But it that's so, how does he explain his example of old people in the developed world who are harming their children through deficit spending?  Does that mean that parents have stopped teaching Kantian morality to their children?

Again, however, I fear that I might be missing answers that Rose has provided in his book.

Jerry Gaus spoke about "The Evolution, Evaluation, and Reform of Social Morality: A Hayekian Analysis".  Gaus is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona.

He began his lecture by warning that, like many contemporary philosophers, he would be speaking at a very abstract level of conceptual analysis that many in the audience might find difficult to handle at the end of a long day.  He then demonstrated that his warning was justified.

Nevertheless, despite the difficult abstractness of his speech, he did point to some fundamental questions for any evolutionary study of morality.  For most of his fellow philosophers, he argued, the question is: How is the evolution of morality related to morality?

Gauss explained that rather than being concerned with what people think morality is--perhaps as a result of human evolutionary history--most moral philosophers are concerned with what morality really is.  For these philosophers, this separates science from philosophy.  Evolutionary scientists might explain to us how the common human understanding of morality has developed.  But this science of the origins of moral beliefs and practices tells us nothing about what is really right or wrong: it tells us about the empirical world of moral life but not about the normative world of what truly is right or wrong.  Determining the normativity of the intrinsically right or wrong is the job of normative moral philosophy.

This is an important observation, because it explains why so many moral philosophers have rejected any evolutionary science of morality as irrelevant to the philosophic study of normative standards.  It also explains why some moral philosophers have concluded that if evolutionary science really can explain morality completely as nothing more than an evolutionary adaptation, this would be nihilism.  Another way of putting this point, as I have in some previous posts, is that most moral philosophers today are Platonists in assuming that if morality has any objective reality, it must be rooted in cosmic standards--a cosmic God, cosmic Reason, or cosmic Nature.  Some of these philosophers are disappointed Platonists--who wish for a Platonic Idea of the Good that they decide doesn't exist--who conclude that morality must be an illusion, perhaps an illusion foisted on us by our evolutionary nature.

Gaus rejected this orthodox view of the moral philosophers, and I agree with him.  We can rightly understand morality as a product not of moral cosmology but of moral anthropology--as rooted in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  As Gaus indicated, this is a tradition of moral philosophy as an empirical science that stretches from David Hume and Adam Smith to Ken Binmore and Philip Kitcher.

Gaus then developed his own version of this position through an explication of Hayek on moral order as an evolutionary order, in which we start with existing rules and make them more coherent.

As an abstract argument, Gaus's lecture was persuasive to me.  But I would like to have seen some illustrative studies of moral history.  In his paper, there is one sentence about the debate over homosexuality and homosexual parenting (18); and there are a few sentences on J. S. Mill's analysis of capitalism and socialism (28).  Beyond those few sentences, he never takes up any concrete cases of moral debate in human history.  But if morality really is a product of human history, as he argues it is, then he would have to take up that moral history stretching back to our earliest human ancestors.

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