Moral Naturalism is Back! And so am I! August 22, 2010Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
Tags: evolutionary psychology, experimental philosophy, moral naturalism, narrative ethics
Vacation’s over, and I’m back after having been out of town all summer. Thanks to Dwight for keeping the blog hot, even with jury duty! Ever the optimist, I hope to weigh in on topics close to my heart, and mind (for I believe in the importance of both) with shorter intervals than last semester.
First, welcome to the new academic year, everyone—for I assume that most of you are involved in Academia in some form or other. Next, let’s dig into the pile of saved articles I’ve accumulated over the past months where I haven’t had regular Internet access (and I survived!). Here’s a story that caught my eye, from New York Times July 22: A conference was held in Connecticut in which a new breed of moral philosophers (ethicists working with evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists) confirmed the philosophical presence, and importance, of moral naturalism. A quick recap: Moral naturalism is the philosophy that morality is a natural occurrence in the human mind—not (primarily) a matter of acculturation, or selfish/unselfish choices based on rationality. In the 20th century moral naturalism was crowded out by psychoanalysis, behaviorism, logical positivism, and other approaches which all have merit, but the idea that ethics could be founded in our emotional apparatus wasn’t getting much attention except for a few thinkers such as Richard Taylor and Philip Hallie. (You’ll recognize some themes here from many of my previous posts.)
But something started happening in the late 1980s—interestingly, paralleling the development of narrative ethics, the idea that moral values find expression, and may be developed through storytelling. From one direction came the new findings of neuroscientists: that an area of the brain seems to be devoted to moral considerations. From another came the evolutionary psychologists, connecting morals to our long history of evolution. Add to that experimental philosophy, with its (sometimes a mite oversimplified, but intriguing) “What if” questions such as the famous Trolley Problem, introduced by Philippa Foot. Combine that with narrative ethics, and you get a new form of moral naturalism (and that description is also oversimplified, but I’m just trying to paint a general picture): human emotions have developed certain built-in features that enable us, even as babies, to recognize right from wrong, from the perspective of being social animals; as adults, these features are still fundamental, but can be overridden—by experience, cultural pressures, and/or reason; and the stories we hear, and tell, about right and wrong, will combine our moral emotions with a sense of causality, and teach/explain the moral dos and don’ts that will provide either compliance with societal rules or rebellion against them. So here, moving into the second decade of the new millennium, we have a moral philosophy that is actually on fairly firm ground, working with science as well as recognizing the common human experience of moral feelings. This is exciting, folks. So doesn’t anyone see a downside to this? Yes, some ethicists question the loss of the exalted state of reason as the foundation and instigator of moral choices and values. And we may have to do yet another reevaluation down the line, reinstating reason as a fundamental element of ethics. I often argue that we’ll have to, because moral emotions are error-prone.
So here are some tidbits from the conference, reported by David Brooks:
Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia argues that this moral sense is like our sense of taste. We have natural receptors that help us pick up sweetness and saltiness. In the same way, we have natural receptors that help us recognize fairness and cruelty. Just as a few universal tastes can grow into many different cuisines, a few moral senses can grow into many different moral cultures.
Paul Bloom of Yale noted that this moral sense can be observed early in life. Bloom and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which they showed babies a scene featuring one figure struggling to climb a hill, another figure trying to help it, and a third trying to hinder it.
At as early as six months, the babies showed a preference for the helper over the hinderer. In some plays, there is a second act. The hindering figure is either punished or rewarded. In this case, 8-month-olds preferred a character who was punishing the hinderer over ones being nice to it.
This illustrates, Bloom says, that people have a rudimentary sense of justice from a very early age. This doesn’t make people naturally good. If you give a 3-year-old two pieces of candy and ask him if he wants to share one of them, he will almost certainly say no. It’s not until age 7 or 8 that even half the children are willing to share. But it does mean that social norms fall upon prepared ground. We come equipped to learn fairness and other virtues.
Brooks comments that the conference left alone the question of transcendence and the sacred, and that is a valid complaint, since so many people are convinced that the entire idea of ethics is founded in religion, and we can’t just disregard that conviction and throw it under the trolley—that’s as bad as 20th century ethicists disregarding the role of emotions. But my overriding concern is that the moral naturalists of the 21st century (to which I suppose I belong) are losing sight of the role of reason, and that the new moral naturalism will become another fad, a radical “ism” that will, in time, be replaced by a counter-theory, in good Hegelian fashion. We’re not quite at the pinnacle yet, where we understand everything about ethics.