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« Realizational Ethics | Main | An Inventory of Value Approaches re: Moral Questions »

An Evolutionary Biological Theory of Morality  

Have recently finished reading James Q. Wilson's book, The Moral Sense, which presents an anthropological/sociological account of (and case for) the role of moral judgments in human experience. He argues that morality, or moral valuing, is grounded in four basic capacities we humans have because of our natures, reflecting the kind of creatures we have evolved into over the eons. We are, he reminds us, fundamentally social creatures and this requires certain capacities which we have developed as a species. He lists these as sympathy (caring about others in some cases), fairness (preferring equitable outcomes to inequitable ones), self-control (the capacity to restrain our desires and needs in order to attain our goals) and duty (the capacity to recognize situations in which we must subordinate our needs to requirements defined by others). He argues that these four competences, which most humans share because of genetic inheritance, provide the bedrock on which our social structures are built. He then proposes that the moral claims, beliefs and judgments we make arise as a function of the various culture-specific schemas that human beings develop in the many different societal groups that humans form.

These social forms of life may all be quite different across the planet because there's lots of room for variation, both because of environmental demands and the stickiness of practices which manifest as social conventions, but, he suggests, there are also certain core similarities among most humans which form the ground on which all social phenomena and institutions stand, i.e., the four capacities/competences he identifies as the basis for social groupings.

From this, he argues that we develop a moral structure, alongside the empirical knowledge structure we amass in the course of our lives, and that this moral structure (or dimension) occupies a no less objective role than our empirical knowledge does. It's just that the moral dimension is based on our sentiments, our feelings, which are equivalent to intuitions of the sort that people like G. E. Moore once conceived ethics to be based on. On Wilson's view, we do not develop our moral beliefs by reasoned analysis of what is most utilitarian or most consistent with pure reason, nor by learning and following prescribed rules of behavior. He finds such explanations to be inadequate when it comes to explaining how we make the judgments we make, which are generally impromptu, spontaneous, expressive of our feelings of the moment. Yet, he notes we can train and nurture our feelings in different ways and that doing this is one of the primary functions of societal structures and institutions which develop as part of particular cultural groupings' behavioral practices. We learn more sophisticated sentiments in this way based on, and through, the particular cultural milieu(s) in which we operate -- these refinements being derived from, and grounded in, the four society-sustaining capacities he initially describes and which form the basis for societal interaction and which most humans have in common (and which can be discerned in various other social-oriented species which have mental capacities akin to our own).

In a way he harks back to Aristotle's notion of the virtuous man and equates the various virtues with elaborations of those four capacities. He further argues that Hume, in fact, made a mistake when he claimed that we cannot derive an "ought" claim from an "is" claim because, according to Wilson, Hume is not, himself, able to shuck the sort of talk, in his treatise, that depends on just such a derivation. That is, according to Wilson, Hume argues that while we cannot derive oughts from is's, he goes on, only a few pages later, to pronounce that the inclination to care for our own children, which is a natural sentiment we feel and cannot divest ourselves of (because it is grounded in one of the four social capacities: sympathy for others) implies that we "ought" to act in such ways as to care for our children (form family units, look out for their needs, protect them from harm, teach them what they'll need to know) if and when we have them.

Hence, according to Wilson, Hume effectively does just what he says cannot be done: derive an "ought," as in you ought to do the things necessary to nurture and protect your children, from the fact that you have children. This, Wilson points out, translates into all sorts of cultural-specific conventions about appropriate ways to live, e.g., one should marry in order to form a family unit (rather than abandon the mother -- or father -- of one's children), do the things that fathers and mothers do, when putting together and maintaining a family, like earning a living, treating one's children in ways intended to nurture (keep them fed, sheltered and healthy) and educate them to function on their own, avoid behaviors which are destructive to family life such as alcoholism, drug addiction, external sexual activity that would disrupt the family unit, etc. In this fashion, Wilson reasons that humans develop all sorts of culturally-specific practices and expectations which then define our moral universe, the moral dimension of our lives. All sorts of moral prescriptions and proscriptions thus naturally arise from this basic inclination we have to care about our children (and, on Wilson's view, various other basic inclinations along the same line).

Of course, it's not at all clear that it was this sort of "is to ought" derivation that Hume had in mind since he seems to have been addressing the notion that you cannot logically derive ought from is (as in if X is true then you must do Y) rather than a derivation such as the one Wilson is proposing which really is just to say that if you are an X with sentiment Y then you will want to act in accord with Y whenever that sentiment is triggered. In this latter case, the "ought" is of the empirical/contingent sort, i.e., the sentiment will entail certain behaviors in the organism that has it just because of the way in which sentiments work (they prompt certain behaviors in us under the right conditions). Yet another kind of "ought" is the contingent type which holds that if doing X gets you Y and you want Y then you ought to do X to get you what want (Y) and this, too, is not the "is-to-ought" entailment Hume rejected.

The "ought" in this Wilsonian case, whether of the "if you are an X, then you will want Y" or of the "if you want X, then you will also want Y" varieties, arises not as logical entailment but as a matter of one's recognition and acceptance of the various cultural practices in one's society that put meat on the underlying bones of one's core sentiments -- in this case sympathy for one's immediate kin -- along with one's inclination to recognize instances where subordination of one's own inclinations (if they run counter to the core sentiment) are in order and one's capacity for self-control to do so. (Note that the inclination to fairness, another of Wilson's core sentiments, which he invokes in some cases, would actually be secondary here, while providing a moral maxim in other cases such as when one teaches one's children to function in a more socially effective way so they may better get on in life -- i.e., inculcating in them the practice of acting fairly -- or, perhaps, when one, as a parent, is engaged in managing competing needs and desires among one's children and is thus obliged to act fairly toward them.)

Yet, if you happen to be one of those rare humans who lack the sentiment of sympathy for one's children, or in whom that sentiment is very weak there is still, as Hume proposed, no entailment in a logical sense that can change that. However, on Wilson's view, there are strong enough reasons, from a human cultural perspective, to have and cultivate the kinds of sentiment in question here, and to encourage others to have them, and punish those who lack or otherwise act to reject them (and favor institutions and cultural practices which support them) since, to disregard or reject such sentiments, is destructive of the social life which humans require and are genetically inclined to prefer. Hence, Wilson contends, we can argue for such sentiments, in an important sense, and invoke cultural factors, practices and teachings to cultivate these sentiments in society's members.

This approach suggests a promising avenue by which proponents of a naturalistic account of moral goodness can successfully achieve an is/ought derivation sufficient to enable a recognition of at least some kind of objective content in moral claims. So here, I would say, Wilson seems to me to be on the right track.

On the other hand, I think he is a little simplistic in his treatment of Kant's categorical imperative because it seems to me that he misses a key aspect of Kant's point that one can ground a moral claim in the requirement for absolute logical consistency. That is, if one wishes to be entirely rational, as all truly rational beings will wish to be (on pain of forsaking one's claim to rationality), then one cannot honestly and sincerely choose to be in contradiction with reason by failing to take account of others' interests since these are not, in principle, any more compelling than one's own. But, as Wilson points out, it is highly questionable that anyone ever thinks of being rational in this absolute sense (most of us think being rational is just to be reasonable including to be reasonable about our own needs and desires). Therefore it seems inadequate to suppose moral claims can be ultimately shown to rest on such thinking. Nor, I would add, can one expect another to be honest and sincere about his or her own rationality on the ground that being so is rationally incumbent on them, if what is rationally incumbent is entailed by already being honest and sincere in one's rationality! There is a certain circularity here that undermines all efforts at justifying such moral claims on a purely rational basis. Moreover, and I agree with Wilson on this especially, Kant's approach is simply too rigid to provide a satisfactory account of moral valuing in real life situations. His prohibition on lying, for instance, would oblige anyone following it, in the absolute sense Kant espouses, to tell the truth to killers in search of their innocent victims or honestly tell a dying man a truth which would make his last moments more painful than they might otherwise be. None of these examples could be morally avoided if one were to follow a Kantian maxim that lying is always wrong even though they run counter to our most obvious and seemingly strongest moral intuitions.

On balance, Wilson offers a good account of moral judgments and I would say his book, which is more sociological (lots of data from psychology and sociology studies to back up his claims) than philosophical in its approach is at least philosophically sophisticated. My biggest beef with him, I think, is his choice of sympathy as a core moral competency rather than empathy which, as far as I can see, must underlie instances of sympathy for sympathy to sincerely occur in individuals at all. That is, empathy seems to me a much more basic feature than sympathy whose genuine occurrence hinges on the pre-occurrence of empathy for another. And yet the question posed by his choice of sympathy raises an equivalent problem for empathy: Whether treating empathy as more basic than sympathy (as I do) avoids the issue of grounding moral judgments on innate human features which we have by virtue of our evolutionary biology (as Wilson sees it) rather than by virtue of some independent moral choice which we, as human beings with the capacity for moral judgment, may make.

If it's just biology, then there is some point beyond which our moral judgments cannot go for how can we ever blame others for lacking what biology has simply omitted to give them -- or praise them for having it? And that capacity, to praise or blame for our virtues or faults, is the core element in the moral case.

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    One purpose of The Moral Sense was, as Wilson put it, β€œto help people recover the confidence with which they once spoke about virtue and morality.” The other goal was to trace the origins of human morality. Summoning an array of anthropological evidence, Wilson elaborated on the idea that our moral sense is innate, acquired not through learning but through evolution. These sentiments do not spring to life fully formed; instead, they are cultivated within family and society.
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    Very little human activity is driven exclusively by impulses from within. A lone, sober juvenile rarely creates a threatening disturbance, but a group of juveniles often will. Many motorists drive faster than the speed limit, but few motorists will speed when they are being followed by a police car. Our natural predispositions always interact with our social environment and our systems of rules and norms.

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