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Moral Naturalism is Back! And so am I! August 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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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.


A “Ruse” On Morality April 5, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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One of the most important and intriguing ideas to come out of modern biology is that human morality is largely a product of our evolutionary history. The consensus view among biologists is that the tendency to be generous, fair, and kind to others, at least in some contexts, confers a survival advantage on beings like us who must cooperate to survive. This is not to say that we aren’t self-interested as well; rather we are a battleground between self-interested desires and desires directed at the good of others. [-See Michael’s recent post on this topic]

But I am puzzled by some of the conclusions scientists and some philosophers often draw from this. Here is Michael Ruse on the implications of this research:

God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam. […]

Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers. But it is, and has to be, a funny kind of emotion. It has to pretend that it is not that at all! If we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down. […]

So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective.[…]

Am I now giving the game away? Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral

This is just utter nonsense. True, morality is rooted in emotions and desires which are explained by our evolutionary history, but it is not just a mere preference like a preference for ice cream. A human being who dislikes ice cream will do fine; a person who lacks moral emotions will likely end up in prison. From the fact that something is an emotion or desire it does not follow that it lacks import.

Surely, the fact that a practice enables me to cooperate with others in order to secure goods and to respond responsibly to the needs of others are “grounds” to pursue that practice. They are not “apriori” grounds but philosophers long ago gave up the notion that “rational” is identical to “apriori”.

Morality isn’t “pretending” to be something other than emotion. Everyone except a few hyper-rationalist philosophers are quite aware of the emotional content of morality. But morality can’t be only emotional if it is to perform its function. The fact that it is rooted in emotion does not entail that is opposed to reason or immune to self-control. Emotions have be properly trained and habituated if they are to serve our interests—they are not merely urges.

And if morality is a function of natural selection, how on earth is it an “illusion” or “subjective”? It would seem to be both real and objective. Granted, as intelligent, self-reflective beings we have lots of control over when and how we express these moral emotions. We can resist moral impulses if we wish, just as we can resist the desire to eat ice cream. But that fact does not entail that morality is an illusion—it is a central feature of the human condition as real as hearts, lungs, and language.

Instead of being puzzled about morality’s pretentions, Ruse should wonder about why an interest in science leads some people to be contemptuous of ordinary human traits.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Human Condition? Here’s Ardi! October 2, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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 This is a good day for those of us who like to hear, and tell, stories of Human Origins: The current story in the scientific world has been told for a while now, ever since Don Johanson found Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis, in Hadar, East Africa in 1974: We are the children of small-brained, upright-walking primates who lived some 3 million years ago—primates with insignificant canine teeth, and almost-human hands with opposable thumbs. A creature living on the savannah, enforcing the perception that it was the loss of woodlands that made our early ancestors get up on two legs and look around.

But now we have a brand new chapter in our Story of Origin. Ardi is being introduced to the world, in today’s issue of Science Magazine and all over the newsmedia: Ardipithecus ramidus, a new ancestor (perhaps), at least another traveler on the road that lead to Homo sapiens. The painstaking assembly and interpretation of Ardi’s fractured bones (skull, teeth, pelvis, hands, feet) took 17 years, but now the researchers, including Gen Suwa, Tim White, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, C. Owen Lovejoy and others,  have made their findings public. Ardi’s species predates Lucy by more than a million years, and it lived not far from that very same region. You can explore the details yourself if you are so inclined; personally, I am so excited that I can barely contain myself—this is the story I have been waiting for ever since the news of Lucy broke. What came before Lucy? Since 1974 we have known that the previous picture of early hominids as knuckle-walking, big-brained apes was wrong. We didn’t first develop the big brain, and then get up and walk. It was the other way around. But how far back in time did we diverge from the apes, and when did our hands leave the ground for good? We know that there were medium-sized monkey-type creatures dating back some 8 million years, and even dating back to the first early mammals, 60 million years ago, there were little mouse-sized mammals with some primate characteristics. But where the question gets interesting for most of us who are not paleontologists is, when did we start out on the road to becoming “Human”?

Of course this is one of the primary reasons why Darwin’s theory (The Descent of Man, 1871) met with such massive resistance which can still be felt whenever the debate swings in the direction of Creationism and Intelligent Design: Did we descend from chimpanzees? The Darwinist answer has, usually, been No, not exactly: We and the apes we know today descended from a common ape-like ancestor—we just had to look around for a “missing link” that could show us the intermediary version. Since then, the entire concept of a “missing link” has been discredited: Evolution doesn’t work that way—we don’t have links in a straight chain, but rather a multitude of branches that arise and die out, with some branches ending up being more successful than others. And besides, so few fossils are ever found that it would be astonishing to find an exact Happy-Medium form in-between two distinct species. Well, perhaps that’s what we have now. While Ardi is not a “missing link” (because we should stop using that terminology), she is so old that she represents a hominid (or hominim which is the new and more exact term) who is not even as “human” as Lucy who was truly not very human except for her manner of walking, and her hands. So is she more like an ape? And this is where the surprise comes in: Not really, even if her feet look like ape feet. If ever we humans were ape-like, it must be even further back in time, because Ardi seems to have (1) been upright, judging from the position of her head and pelvis, and (2) had smaller canine teeth than apes. Furthermore, this is the end of the fantasy that we evolved bipedalism on the savannah: Ardi lived in and among the trees, judging from other fossil finds in the area! But even so, she was already upright and bipedal at least some of the time. So was she Lucy’s ancestor? They don’t know yet for certain, but there’s a good chance that her species gave rise to Lucy’s species. And if that is the case, then she is also our ancestor. And she was not typically ape-like. Now that has got to please those who have a problem with the notion that we are “descendants of apes,” but that would be a premature celebration—it doesn’t mean we are not related to primates, it just means that some typical ape-like features were lost in the human line much earlier that we thought, and perhaps the human line never had them, such as chimp-style knuckle-walking. And the chimps and the Bonobos are still our closest living cousins on the planet. That hasn’t changed.

Now all this is factual as well as interpretative science. Why am I so excited? For one thing, I’ve always been fascinated by paleoanthropology. But more importantly for a philosopher, I have also for many years thought that our human origin is at least to some degree a determinant for our “human condition.” That’s what today is known as evolutionary psychology, but in more philosophical terms it means that our physical interface with the world (to borrow an expression from Merleau-Ponty) is an integral part of who we are, and how we interact with the world. Our Lebenswelt includes our physical being, and our physical being has an evolutionary history. If there’s anything that unites us as human beings, aside from our DNA, across the lines of politics, religion, race, gender, and so forth, it is this common history, the physical triggers that become the emotional and cognitive triggers. This is not to say that I discount the existence of “free will,” whatever that is—but our immense array of mental choices and possibilities is grounded in our physical abilities, limitations, and history.

Photo: Before â??Lucy,â?? There Was â??Ardi:â?? First Major Analysis of One of Earliest Known Hominids

[From ABC News: Artist’s conception of what Ardipithecus ramidus would have looked like 4.4 million years ago.
(J.H. Matternes/Science/ABC News Photo Illustration)]

So what can Ardi tell us, if the scientists are right? (1) We were upright, in the trees, long before we had the brains to make plans what to do with our freed-up hands, and comfortable being face-to-face with each other, close and personal, as well as probably capable of identifying each other at a distance; (2) we did not have massive canine teeth, meaning that the males probably didn’t fight over the females, meaning that we are perhaps looking at pair bonding and a semblance of gender cooperation (if not downright gender equality) dating back 4 million years—much more like the Bonobos than the Chimps, by the way. Does this mean that we were non-aggressive creatures, food for the predators rather than predators ourselves? Some of us would probably like to think so, but we can’t make that assumption. Look at Ardi’s eyes: Perfect stereoscopic vision, looking forward. Those are the eyes of a hunter, at least potentially, perhaps part-time if not full-time—opportunistic, like chimps. Besides, Ardi was omnivorous, like we are—she was not a vegetarian. The “killer ape” theory probably shouldn’t be declared totally dead yet.

In addition, National Geographic Magazine comes out with this spin: Why did we start walking upright? What can you do with free hands? Some of us would immediately say, You can hunt. But others would add, And you can gather. And bring what you have gathered to—your mate. Or the one you want to become your mate. Jamie Shreeve suggests just that scenario: We began embarking on the road to humanity by realizing that there was a sexual advantage to being able to bring food to one’s potential partner, in our freed-up grasping hands. And the upright female has another advantage: When she’s in estrus (heat) it doesn’t show. Which, according to Shreeve, would mean that she could string along the food-bringing male, even when she wasn’t ovulating, and even play around if she was so inclined. Now that opens up new vistas for the pair-bonding theory…