Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Mythic Morality

A thought:
Historically, moral and political policies have been based either upon mythologies of the supernatural or else mythologies involving nature. The belief in the special creation of species, in God's providential care for the world and everyone and everything in it, and in compensation for unjust suffering and retaliation for unpunished wickedness in the next life, are examples of moral supernaturalism that tend to promote ethical complacency and resignation where social inequality is concerned. On the naturalistic side, fanciful cosmological models of higher and lower powers and empirically false assumptions about the distribution of rationality and competence have served to rationalize oppression, maintaining the position of the parasitic classes of society—aristocrats, landowners, and priests—and not only allowing but also encouraging persecutory impulses. The new human sciences, predicated on the assumption that not only our bodies but also our minds and feelings as well are the products of a long evolutionary history, can potentially help us to frame a more accurate image of reality than folklore, philosophy, or the imaginations of novelists and dramatists. For as worthwhile as these cultural forms are, they are not sources of moral knowledge uncolored by bias and unwarranted assumptions.

... [H]uman beings have no functions, no purposes, in virtue of which their qualities can be evaluated, except those they themselves decide to adopt. A person is, from the biologist's perspective, a temporary federation of replicators that are working to be represented in future generations, sometimes threatened, sometimes exploited, and sometimes assisted by other federations of replicators. We exist not to glorify God, nor to exercise rationality, nor to bring about any particular conditions of society, but merely because we are assemblages of successful replicators.

Reproduction is the habitual practice of every organism; it is not the specialization of females, but of every living creature, and sooner or later, after the completion of this task, the individual dies. Furthermore, everyone now living is the descendant of ancestors whose qualities enabled them to survive and reproduce under demanding conditions—outfacing plagues, famines, natural disasters, and all the exigencies of social life and social conflict. In this respect, we are all biologically equal. Virtually all of us will have no descendants at all after some large number of generations have lived and died. In this respect, too, we are all biologically equal.

-Catherine Wilson, "Darwinian Morality," Evolution: Education and Outreach

I think this writer is deeply confused. While correctly highlighting the (putative) disadvantages of older metaphysical/moral systems, she does not see how empty and vague the notion of "biological equality" is.

The difference between moral equality (where each person is accorded an equal amount of respect based on their personhood) and this odd "biological" equality (where each of us shares a similar evolutionary history) is monstrous. It is utterly impossible to see what these two notions have to do with one another. Furthermore, in a very important sense, we are not "biologically equal". Some of us are smarter, faster, stronger, more attractive or more charismatic than others.

In fact, if one examines the history of western thought, one finds that the most strident defenders of individual liberty and equal rights were also theists or natural right theorists, holding to some form of "supernatural" or "natural" mythologies.

Nietzsche's question looms: We believe that god is dead, and we believe that there is no intrinsic moral order in the universe, so where are values going to come from?
Just so you know, when I post "A thought" I don't necessarily agree with it. Nor do I try to fairly represent the entire ideas of the author. It's just some snippet that I think is interesting filler for the blog. To be fair to Ms. Wilson, you have to read her entire piece, if you haven't already, to understand her point.
Just so you know, when I post "A thought" I don't necessarily agree with it.

... which is why I said "this writer".

In any case, I did read her piece, and the same confusion runs through it. Simply citing the similar confusion held by Pinker, Darwin and others (evolution has produced a sympathetic moral sense, therefore we all ought to develop it) doesn't help anything. Evolution has just as likely produced instincts for violence, clannish protectiveness and racism in us... does it follow that these are good instincts to follow?

The "empirical studies" she mentions begin with the undefended idea that morality is essentially fairness and altruism. This is how they identify "moral" traits in the population at large. But, wait: how can these studies purport to say anything interesting at all about morality when they assume (as they must) a prior conception of it which is not at all obvious or universal?

These are ancient points in this debate, to see them ignored in a modern peer-reviewed article. And I mean no disrespect to your excellent blog by saying these things!
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