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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, January 09, 2012

Michael Ruse on moral philosophy

When I posted about this the other day, it was in a very preliminary manner, since I had not even read Michael Ruse's post in response to an earlier one by me.

Ruse puts a view that seems to me to have some points in its favour, and he concedes that it may, formally, make him a moral error theorist. I can't quite see how his view allows (as he thinks it does) for absolute (in some sense) moral truths that cannot be discovered through science but only in some other way. And exactly what this way might be has been left mysterious - is it some sort of process of conceptual analysis? Is it openness to the insights to be found in myth and literature? Or what? Still, the general view is one that at least seems to be arguable on its merits.

I've made a couple of comments on the thread, and I do have a bit more to say on the thread when I get a moment. I continue to have some problems with the overall theory, at least in the form that Ruse has developed so far. But I'm not so out of sympathy with his approach as to think that discussion and clarification is useless. (OTOH, I wonder whether he is planning to engage his commenters at all ... since he hasn't as yet. Oh well.)

On thing that does strike me as strange is that Ruse seems, if I follow him, to think that there are moral absolutes for us, though not absolutes simpliciter. As far as I can work out, these absolutes are bedrock psychological features that human beings all share, and which are basically non-negotiable (even if some rational but non-human creature did not share them, and was not making a mistake about the world in not doing so). Okay, that's possible, I suppose, if we bracket off a small class of exceptions such as psychopaths ... but how plausible is, it given the wide variety of moral views that we actually see if we study the historical and anthropological record? It looks from here as if any evolved human psychology that we all share is going to be, to say the least, rather "thin" or minimalist.

And even if I'm wrong on this - even if there is some more substantial and rich evolved human psychology, how do we know this? The humanities might be of some help, I suppose - e.g. scouring for information about old or strange cultures might reveal clues about a transcultural human nature - but isn't this sort of question primarily a matter for science, in particular psychology? In which case, how are moral truths a good example of the epistemic power of science being limited? That was, remember, Ruse's initial claim.

I don't see how Ruse can go on using supposed moral absolutes, or objective moral truths, as an example - or at least as a clear-cut one - of things that the humanities can find out but the sciences can't. At best (and I'm happy to accept this scenario) it's a situation where scientists, humanist scholars, and philosophers who have some comfort with both the wider humanities and the sciences, should cooperate to get a clearer picture of human nature and of how it feeds into human moral systems.


Rob said...

From the description here, I would call those hardcoded, not absolute.

It seems incredibly unlikely to me that any hardcoded moral that is in humans only would be absolute, since there is a fair amount of variation. (cf. Psychopaths)

Michael Fugate said...

I am glad this discussion is taking place, but I must say I find Talking Philosophy an odd place due to its contributors. In fact, I probably would never visit the site if you weren't writing there. Here's why - Jeremy is completely arbitrary as a moderator - he gets all pissed off which Richard Wein (who is always a thoughtful commenter), but allows Jim Houston to be a complete asshole without a word. I can't understand the outsized ego of Houston who seems to have no presence other than at Talking Philosophy - no academic appointments, no books, no nothing.

Svlad Cjelli said...

All humans share a subconcious tendency for abstract potential factors in computation.

Hence, we can safely say that canadian parking-laws are universally embedded absolutes of the core space-time fabric.

Philistines would disagree, of course.

Mark Sloan said...

I liked Ruse’s post because he clearly described what I believe are factual errors in his thinking. Worst was the astonishing claim that normative ethics is a product of natural selection to further reproductive success.

Perhaps he intended to present the less astonishing, but still in error, claim that our “moral biology” such as produces empathy, loyalty, and guilt is the only “evolutionary input” to human ethics.

Why is this last claim a factual error?

I described why it is an error in a comment I posted in the comments section on Ruse’s article. I’ll summarize it here for any who might be interested.

The claim is a factual error because it does not include the “evolutionary input” of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution here means only that people select and copy (reproduce) cultural norms based on perceived attractiveness and benefits, which often have nothing to do with reproductive fitness.

This was fortunate for ethics because the emergence of culture forever unhitched morality from being only about reproductive fitness.

The competing idea to Ruse’s is that 1) our biology based emotions like empathy, loyalty, and guilt that motivate altruistic behavior and 2) our enforced cultural norms (moral standards) such as “Do not kill, lie in court, or murder” and the many versions of the Golden Rule are biological and cultural heuristics for winning altruistic strategies from game theory. That is, their common function (no matter how diverse, contradictory, and bizarre in the case of enforced cultural norms) is to motivate or advocate altruistic behaviors that increase the many possible benefits of cooperation in groups.

These altruistic strategies from game theory are as intrinsic to physical reality and as objective as the mathematics of game theory.

This claimed function also has excellent explanatory power. For example, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a highly effective heuristic for the altruistic strategy from game theory called indirect reciprocity.

The competing idea that the only “evolutionary input” to enforced cultural norms is our moral biology has, in comparison, virtually no explanatory power.