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October 19, 2008

Comments

One wonders where Wilson gets the hubris to write about a subject it seems clear he knows nothing about. I think most people with the smallest amount of philosophical training would have found that cringe worthy.
Love the philosophical posts hilzoy, keep 'em coming.

(By the way, I have vague memories of you referring to this piece before. A post about another person writing when they knew nothing about philosophy? I can't remember)

OMG. Wilson actually said that Rawls "offers no evidence that justice-as-fairness is consistent with human nature"?!!?

And all this time I thought the whole point of a "realistic utopia" is to get principles of justice that we can reasonably expect, given "men as they are and laws as they might be."

I mean, duh. The difference principle, for example, which is specifically designed to take account of human nature by making the requirements of equality subject to the incentives to which the productive are subject.

Or, you know, the massive discussion of moral psychology. Or the gallons of ink spilled to show that a well-ordered society will be stable. etc. etc. Wow.

Thanks for picking up the cudgel!

Hilzoy! Excellent.

I had the pleasure of taking a course from E.O. Wilson and from Gould, I think they were team teaching it, at Harvard lo these many years ago. This kind of pompous windbaggery really ticked me off then, and I was just an undergraduate. He did things like show us a graph of a gene for "generosity" or "morality" and then explain how it would be differentially distributed in the population at large. I remember thinking at the time that we weren't going anywhere fast by beginning with graphs of non existent genes but I saw the kids around me dutifully graphing the expression of this non existent "thing."

Another person who reminds me of Wilson is Posner--somebody whose hideous errors of reason are swallowed as totally logical and reasonable by an uncritical fan base while the rest of us are left scratching our heads to make sense of nonesense like "there's no rape in the black community because most men are locked up so it follows that all the "free" men can get as much free sex as they want." Not. Making.That. UP.

aimai

My two favorite sentences from Wilson's article:

"Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, tend not to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics".

And: "For if ought is not is, what is?" (Tables, lumps of coal, porcupines... the number of possible good answers to this question is infinite.)

He is actually a very good biologist and I saw him speak last year as part of an event sponsored by the NRDC. Clearly he was stepping way too far out of his area of expertise here.

Sheesh! Disgruntled philosophers. What next?

Hilzoy,

Thank you for posting this. I think too many in the sociobiology camp conflate two things:

1) morality is a biological process in that it is the result of human cognition.

2) biological mechanism (and, in particular heritable genetic variation) is required to explain theories of ethics and morality.

That conflation is as flawed as the idea that one must explain natural selection in terms of quantum mechanics.

Mike: thanks for taking it in the spirit in which I meant it. ;)

I should say, for the record, that I think moral philosophy really ought to engage a lot more with biology, and neuroscience in particular. (I got an NEH grant to do just this. ;) ) It's just that Wilson's argument for this claim is so dreadful.

Well, you've got to admit, one sentence of that article was indisputably correct:

"Of course, lest I forget, I may be wrong."

Frankly, I don't think I seen such a steaming heap of pretentious, pseudo-intellectual babble in my life.

(And I am not without experience in these matters--I'm an appellate attorney . . .)

Wilson reminds of Dworkin's discussion of "moron field theory" as a model for moral realism.

But the real question is this: who is the bigger philosophical hack amongst Pinker, Wilson, or Haidt? A murderer's row of obtuseness.

One wonders where Wilson gets the hubris to write about a subject it seems clear he knows nothing about.

Well, it wouldn't be the first time that a "hard scientist" dismissed the humanities - implicitly or explicitly - as just a bunch of blah-blah-blah-yakkety-schmakkety.

I got an NEH grant to do just this.

just saw this fwiw :P

http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2008/10/joy-of-turkheimer.html

cheers!

cf. http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20081003-loss-of-control-may-leave-us-looking-for-four-leaf-clovers.html - pattern (non)recognition

Hilzoy,

If you haven't already done so, I recommend that you never, under any circumstances, read "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by Wilson. It might drive you crazy (though I found it to be entertaining).

Thanks for linking to the Wilson article. It's very good stuff.

This is a schtick that Wilson pulls in Consilience fairly often. He says the project of Consilience is to return to a kind of Enlightenment Eden, when science and humanism were one. But he gets over CP Snow's "two cultures" problem the way that Hitler got over the question of the Sudentenland. In his view, humanism has no distinct questions or problems of its own; the unification of knowledge involves restating all humanistic inquiry in properly scientific terms. Properly scientific terms for Wilson means something like "Writing Hamlet probably serves some kind of adaptive purpose": when he's off his own grounds, science is a license to say pretty much anything he wants and treat it not only as QED. He's pretty honest at some points in Consilience that he can't even be bothered to figure out what some humanists are saying, or to read their work with any care.

Guys like E.O. Wilson are a disgrace, and horrible ambassadors for science. What does it say about a so-called scholar when he's making arguments that seem absurdly flimsy to intelligent teenagers?

Think of mathematics, which is arguably a human invention. Biology might explain why we have the ability to construct mathematical proofs, but it is not necessary to know anything about biology to construct the proofs themselves, since biological claims do not normally figure as premises in mathematical arguments. Likewise, the claim that morality is a human contrivance might imply the existence of a biological underpinning to our ability to construct moral arguments, but it does not follow from this that biological claims must figure in the arguments themselves.

I believe that math and morality is a false equivalence. The notion that we can use biological claims to perfect our understanding of morality is quite different than using them to form mathematical proofs.
We utilize our understanding of biology to explain all manner of behavior, and there is no reason moral behavior should be any different. I am surprised to see anyone assert that biology is not relevant to answering moral questions.

While Wilson asserts that biology is capable of answering moral questions, he does not claim that it presently has all of the answers, nor that we should use some sort of biological imperative to proscribe behavior. Moral philosophy is a long way from being irrelevant, but more and more we are finding the answers to the questions of our behavior in biology, as well.

With respect, hilzoy, you can probably thank folks like Wilson for the NEH grant you received. While he my have gotten some things wrong, Wilson's sociobiology has helped pave the way for all manner of research reconciling social sciences with the biological ones. I am not sure if you are aware of the atmosphere in academia when he first wrote Sociobiology, but it was considered complete anathema in the scientific community and reeked biological determinism. He was protested, spit on and had lectures interrupted with all manner of hateful bile as many saw echoes of social Darwinism in his work.

Hiltzoy, I've designed a popular press publication on ants for you.
"Can the supra-organism, the ant nest, be said to have a philosophy?"
Throw in as examples one's personal experience with carpenter and/or fire ants and the ant farm one should have had as a child, and the article is done.

No one will bother to question your qualifications. You are a professor, so is Wilson; that's enough in the popular press.

Andrew: yes, biology is clearly relevant to understanding our behavior, moral behavior included. However, the question is: is it relevant to understanding what kinds of behavior are accurately described as right, and what kinds are not? (I.e., not to explaining why I did this particular thing, which is as it happens moral, but to answering the question: was it the right thing to do? If so, why?) And if it is relevant, how?

I want to say: normally, people think that I cannot be required to do something impossible. So if biology shows that X is impossible, I cannot be required to do X. Also, biology can be relevant to assessing the consequences of actions; that's fine. Also (not in the letter), understanding exactly how we human beings tend to go wrong can be immensely useful if we want to understand how to avoid our various design flaws. In all kinds of ways like that, biology is clearly relevant.

However, it's a lot harder to argue that it's relevant to understanding the most basic questions of morality, the kind I mention in my "third way" in the post.

And the main point of this is: Wilson, in particular, doesn't do that. His arguments are just plain wrong, and they're wrong because (in addition to making statements about various particular philosophers that are just bizarre -- as though someone blithely wrote that Darwin was a defender of Aristotelian biology, or that silly Freud never entertained the possibility that some of our motives are unconscious), he thinks there are just these two possibilities, and once he's dispatched the obviously silly one, the other, which is his own view, wins by default.

And that's just not so.

I don't have a problem with sociobiology or evolutionary psychology for that matter. It makes sense to apply the same reasoning to humans that we do for every other species on Earth. And when it comes moral principles there is a difference between what people say and what they actually do. I think it's helpful to take a look at what people really do. When we do, we notice that how people actually behave can be explained by natural selection rather than their professed "moral principles".

As far as relevance goes I think that understanding the biological underpinnings of both our moral and our mathematical reasoning would be helpful. Rational intuitionism doesn't seem to me to be much of a solution. It kind of lets transcendentalism in through the back door doesn't it.

"moral first principles and judgments, when correct, are true statements about an independent order of moral values"

Sure, but that "when correct" is a rock that has sunk many a ship. If math cannot be built on an absolute bedrock of a priori Truth then moral reasoning certainly cannot be either. In the end all that we are left with is empiricism, the way that people actually behave and the unspoken evolutionary agendas those behaviors point to. How we would like people to behave is another matter. Once we understand why people do what they do we are in a better position to make different choices.

"Suppose, for the sake of argument, that morality is a 'contrivance of the mind'. This would not imply that we need to use biology to determine what the answers to moral questions are"

Hilzoy - can you point me to where he's making this claim?

Also, I think you're misinterpreting Wilson on Kant a bit. I think Wilson is simply trying to say that Kant's categorical imperative has little or no relation to the process by which our minds arrive at moral judgements.

I'd have to say he's right about that. I'm not sure what relevance that has to his larger argument, though.

Hilzoy, can we find out more about your academic work some time? I know this may be hard (or even impossible) to do while maintaining pseudonymity, but I'm quite curious, and I bet I'm not the only one.

One other thing (sorry): I'm not understanding how lumps of coal are is, in the way that Wilson is talking about.

Here's the thing. Wilson starts out defining "empiricism" -- the alternative to "transcendentalism" -- as follows:

"I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists."

I completely agree with that, as far as it goes. But lots of things come "from human beings alone" -- systems of logic, Chinese art, pro wrestling, you name it. And saying that morality comes "from human beings alone" is consistent with a whole bunch of possible accounts of how we justify moral claims. So my ears prick up when, a bit later, empiricism gets glossed as follows:

"In the empiricist view, ethics is conduct favored consistently enough throughout a society to be expressed as a code of principles. It reaches its precise form in each culture according to historical circumstance. The codes, whether adjudged good or evil by outsiders, play an important role in determining which cultures flourish and which decline."

Well, that sounds more like an account of how systems of ethics develop, not an account of whether we can say that one is right and another wrong, and if so on what basis.

Then: "The crux of the empiricist view is its emphasis on objective knowledge. Because the success of an ethical code depends on how wisely it interprets moral sentiments, those who frame one should know how the brain works, and how the mind develops."

This, again, is true so far as it goes. I'm not clear that I need to know how the brain works to give a really subtle account of e.g. generosity, but I do think that knowing how things go wrong is important for (say) deciding whether someone with some sort of brain disorder is fully responsible for her conduct.

Then: "The empiricist argument holds that if we explore the biological roots of moral behavior, and explain their material origins and biases, we should be able to fashion a wise and enduring ethical consensus."

Yikes, that doesn't follow at all. It would if you thought not just that morality should be informed by neuroscience, but that it can be derived from neuroscience. It would also follow if you thought that it didn't, but that the neuroscience was the really hard part -- figure out how the brain works, and all that's left is to say: well, now that we know the consequences of our various actions, we should just choose the nice ones (or something similarly trivial.) If we assume that what's not neuroscience is either nonexistent or trivial, then once we get the neuroscience right, the rest is easy, and consensus can be achieved. But that's a huge assumption, and I think false.

Moving right along, empiricism seems to imply that morality should be based on "science-based material analysis", which (again) totally does not follow from the original definition, and plainly suggests that morality either can be derived from science, or can be derived from it given some trivial other stuff. (If not, why would we be focussing on science? And what's "material" in "material analysis?)

Likewise, this account of moral rules plainly does not follow from the original definition of empiricism: "they are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates -- the behavioral codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good."

Etc., etc. From a totally innocuous starting point, huge conclusions are said to follow, and to follow not as the result of interesting arguments, but by eliminating an alternative that's sort of silly. A straw man, in fact.

david k: here's that statement in context:

"Many philosophers will respond by saying, Ethicists don't need that kind of information. You really can't pass from is to ought. You can't describe a genetic predisposition and suppose that because it is part of human nature, it is somehow transformed into an ethical precept. We must put moral reasoning in a special category, and use transcendental guidelines as required.

No, we do not have to put moral reasoning in a special category and use transcendental premises, because the posing of the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy. For if ought is not is, what is?"

The argument he's alluding to says: given any straightforwardly factual statement -- e.g., "this car belongs to someone else" -- you cannot infer a moral claim -- e.g. "you should not drive off in it without asking" -- without presupposing some moral premiss -- in this case, something like "you should not take other people's property without asking." The shorthand version is: you can't get from 'is' to 'ought'. (You have to have brought 'ought' with you, tucked away in the other premiss. It cannot be derived from 'is' alone.)

The statement 'if ought is not is, what is?' is admittedly a bit murky. I was taking it to mean: if moral values don't exist, in such a way that we can make statements of fact about them, what does? Now: lots of people have questioned the existence of moral values. They wonder whether it's all just our upbringing, or the will to power, or the superego taking vengeance on us, or whatever. Very few people, by contrast, question the existence of ordinary physical objects, and most of those who seem to (e.g., Descartes) are doing something else (in his case, trying to put philosophy on a completely new footing by deriving everything from scratch.)

So I meant: if one were to rank possible objects of discourse how obvious it is that they were real, the thing at the top of the list would be the thing about which it would make sense to say: if X doesn't exist, what does? Or: if X isn't 'is', what is?

And 'moral values' seemed to me to be a very odd choice for the entry at the top of the list. Certainly not as plausible as ordinary physical objects.

In some ways Wilson's conduct here doesn't interest me at all: there are a lot of very smart people who assume that their expertise in one field allows them to act like a bored and ignorant teenager when surveying other fields. What I find more interesting is how broken the Atlantic's editorial process is. If they have no one on staff who knows enough philosophy to review this article, then they should have paid someone, like, um, a philosophy professor to review it. This isn't rocket science. If you don't want your magazine to be thought of as worthless garbage full of lies, you take some care to ensure that what you print is accurate. Apparently the Atlantic is full of lies, half truths and the occasional truth. At least, the editors have no interest in assuring readers otherwise.

"Yikes, that doesn't follow at all. It would if you thought not just that morality should be informed by neuroscience, but that it can be derived from neuroscience"

I think all he's saying is that it's a precondition. I don't think he's implying that ethics will be easy once we understand the physical basis -- just that it's key.

"If not, why would we be focussing on science? And what's "material" in "material analysis?"

Don't get me wrong - I completely agree that he's doing a poor job making the argument. Here's how I would state it, if I were to be shot for using too many words:

All forms of reason have their origins in the brain. To determine what is morally correct, we need to know the best form of reason to make that determination. Then of course, we need to be sure that we used the correct method to find the best form of reason. This sort of recursive lack of foundation is a Wittgensteinian bottle trap of the most inesacapable sort. We are best off understanding how our minds actually make moral judgements, using the scientific method (which is "preferable" because of its success in telling us about the physical world) and hewing as closely to that as possible.

Not saying I agree - but I think that's his argument.

We utilize our understanding of biology to explain all manner of behavior, and there is no reason moral behavior should be any different. I am surprised to see anyone assert that biology is not relevant to answering moral questions.

This is exactly the conflation that Wilson makes. The point hilzoy is hammering on isn't that biology can't explain moral behavior, but that biology can't justify moral theory. (Also, Andrew, which non-diseased human behaviors can genomics presently explain rigorously? Name one, I dare you.)

I, for one, highly doubt that biology will ever be able to explain highly complex human behaviors at much depth. Biologists of Wilson's ilk are perpetually offering promissory notes about the capacities of biology, especially genomics, for which there is zero evidence. The gaps in causal explanations between genes, development, neurology, environment, and behavior are so vast that is infuriatingly dumb for biologists to promise that genes will explain behavior. The conceptual structure isn't there, the empirical evidence isn't there--it's just a ridiculous ideology posing as hard-nosed realism about human behavior.

But I would never say that biology can never explain human moral behavior, just that it can't do it know and the gaps are dauntingly vast. So I wish the world's Wilsons would cram it and stop promising that if they accumulate enough evidence (what kind of evidence!?!?!) they will be able to tell me that Kant is wrong and Mills is right.

"The statement 'if ought is not is, what is?' is admittedly a bit murky. I was taking it to mean: if moral values don't exist, in such a way that we can make statements of fact about them, what does?"

Okay. What I thought he was saying was that "ought" is really equivalent to "is". For example, when I say, "You oughn't steal that", what I'm really saying is, "If you act according to such and such, you won't steal that."

His further examples of statements support that interpretation.

Wilson's point seems a word game to me. I don't think there's much to be gained by rephrasing moral propositions.

" Biologists of Wilson's ilk are perpetually offering promissory notes about the capacities of biology, especially genomics, for which there is zero evidence."

To be fair, philosophers haven't come very far on an a priori derivation of morality either.

Daaayum, Hillzee, you bring da mad eloquenze when you get all scholarly.

But seriously, though, wrapping elegant rebuttal inside highbrow snark is pretty much my favorite form of argument, so needless to say, this made my week (well, it would have if Colin Powell hadn't endorsed, and defended religious tolerance while doing so, and if Obama hadn't raised $150 million a Benjamin at a time, but you get the idea). I'm always infuriated when thinkers reduce thinking to something mechanical and illusory. Infuriated because it's usually an attempt to fit all human understanding into the realm of their own relatively narrow range of expertise. But also infuriated because there is frequently built into the argument some mechanism intended to deflect dissent by a supposedly irrefutable presumption.

In this case, that presumption is that morality is either a product of the ethereal or the biological. I'm impressed you zeroed in on that like a laser-guided missile (which my biology tells me would be immoral to wield against false arguments).

Hilzoy, I'd like to take an especially contrary position and argue that the study of ethics itself is a futile intellectual endeavor. The texts I have read on the subject seem to me to be desperately trying to justify ethics and to formalize and rationalize it. The problem is, ethics is a socially acquired taste rather like gustatory preference. Yes, it is based on some basic biological principles, which insures that certain ethical rules are universal, but ultimately it is merely a matter of social convention. It is therefore just as fruitless to attempt to explain ethics as it is to explain why some people prefer vanilla over strawberry ice cream.

I think that biological explanations are useful for exploring the underpinnings of the most commonly accepted ethical rules, but they're certainly not definitive. The human tongue establishes the basic underpinnings of our appreciation of food, but that doesn't explain why one person likes vanilla ice cream and another likes strawberry ice cream -- nor does it provide an objective basis for determining which is better.

Guys like E.O. Wilson are a disgrace, and horrible ambassadors for science. What does it say about a so-called scholar when he's making arguments that seem absurdly flimsy to intelligent teenagers?

By some accounts, Wilson is a really great guy. He's done some amazing things. One might question whether he should venture into philosophy. Of course, one might question whether Chomsky should have ventured into Linguistics. Or politics.

Wilson's argument is not optimally stated, and he betrays a misunderstanding of some philosophers' views. But I wouldn't call him a disgrace.

Probably a better "ambassador" for what Wilson is attempting to argue would be Mark Johnson.

David, although I see you state this isn't straightforwardly what you agree with, I disagree that your rethinking of Wilson's argument is much help to his position or more plausible.

All forms of reason have their origins in the brain.

Not really ... all forms of reason DO require a brain to operate. (Well, some sort of brain-like thing; maybe computers have forms of reason.) It's true that all reasoning must have first been done in a brain, but developing forms of reason is a highly social and historical, inter-brain, activity.

To determine what is morally correct, we need to know the best form of reason to make that determination.

No, to determine what is morally correct you need criteria with which you can use reason to determine if an action meets those criteria. Kant doesn't give us a form of reason, he gives us a negative test for determining if an action is moral. He thinks these criteria are justified by the nature of human morality, but that's a different story. You can have criteria for moral judgment that make no claim about the form of human rationality.

Then of course, we need to be sure that we used the correct method to find the best form of reason. This sort of recursive lack of foundation is a Wittgensteinian bottle trap of the most inesacapable sort.

But see, Wilson faces the exact same problem (if you think it is a problem). How on earth does Wilson come around to justifying that biology gives us the best criteria for choosing a form of reason? Why should we accept that evolution gave us the best form of reason? For me, this is kind of like a Xtian stating that morality requires a literalist reading of the Bible because only the literal words of god can provide the reasons for acting morally, as if we can't use the brain god gave us to internally and socially mediate our behavior.

Wilson can't justify it, except by asserting that anyone who disagrees is a mushy-headed humanist, in contrast to his steely-eyed empiricism.

We are best off understanding how our minds actually make moral judgements,

Agreed. It's caused moral psychology, a thriving field that knows the difference between empirical and normative claims. Unlike Wilson.

using the scientific method (which is "preferable" because of its success in telling us about the physical world) and hewing as closely to that as possible.

*Sigh*

"In this case, that presumption is that morality is either a product of the ethereal or the biological"

Respectfully, I don't think that's it. The presumption is that moral truth either is or isn't independent of the human brain.

My guess is that it's going to be one or the other.

To be fair, philosophers haven't come very far on an a priori derivation of morality either.

Yeah, that's why I'm a pragmatist. I treat ethics as the exercise of committing oneself to some forms of life over others. No derivation necessary.

It's caused moral psychology

Sorry, that should be "called moral psychology".

hilzoy --

I find many of your views about what are o ther topics, to be delightfully clear and down to earth, but not this one. Maybe the ox being gored is too close to yours? And evidently many of your very good-minded commenters also feel some ownership of that same beast.

Putting aside the he-said/she-said questions about mathematics-n-morality or whether Rawls was or was not a closet idealist (read the next thousand pages and write a paper about whether you should read the paper!), address yourself to the money question. Is human morality subject to or in any way clarified by the "hypothetico-deductive" method? I would guess, based only on a casual perusal of Rawls' offerings in the Harvard Coop, thar one thing he didn't do was to state his contentions in the form of hypotheses that can be falsified: "IF Hilzoy's belief 'X' about morality is correct, THEN we will (always? sometimes?) observe Y under circumstances Z."

Then Hilzoy goes out and performs observation. The behavior observed is ikely to be teeny-weeny and altogether trivial, but that's science. The magic is that, if Y don't happen, then Hilzoy, by previous training and membership in the mystic cult, has sworn to reject her former belief, no matter how well argued.

CAN YOU DO THIS? HAVE YOU?

Or are you saying that there is nothing of interest or importance about morality that can be even provisionally reduced to the XYZ protocol?

"developing forms of reason is a highly social and historical, inter-brain, activity."

And all of that development took place in brains.

"He thinks these criteria are justified by the nature of human morality, but that's a different story. You can have criteria for moral judgment that make no claim about the form of human rationality."

Actually, it's the story I'm talking about. Kant says, "here are the criteria". We ask "what makes those the correct criteria?". And on and on.

If I read a mathematical proof, I can accept it as a valid proof within the formal system in which the proof was formulated. To call the conclusion of the proof "true", I would have to accept that the formal system itself was valid for producing true conclusions.

And, of course, you can talk to Godel about where that takes you.

"How on earth does Wilson come around to justifying that biology gives us the best criteria for choosing a form of reason?"

My take is that he justifies the scientific method because it has reliably told us about external, physical reality.

Justifying any method is very difficult. Because you have to justify it according to some principle, which itself will need to be justified.

"Agreed. It's caused moral psychology, a thriving field that knows the difference between empirical and normative claims. Unlike Wilson."

Well on that we agree. I certainly wouldn't say that Wilson did a bang-up job.

"developing forms of reason is a highly social and historical, inter-brain, activity."

And all of that development took place in brains.

Understanding the brain is not necessarily sufficient to understand the product of many brains interacting together. I mean, we understand the basics of chemical reactions quite well yet we still do not understand many many regulatory pathways inside a single cell.

"However, it's a lot harder to argue that it's relevant to understanding the most basic questions of morality, the kind I mention in my "third way" in the post."

This is the crux for me. Do you think that anyone has made that argument convincingly?

It would seem to me that if the form my moral philosophical reasoning took were a result of how my brain worked, then knowing how my brain worked would be relevant/helpful in understanding anything I argued. Especially since so much of what structures our arguments is below the level of consciousness.

"Understanding the brain is not necessarily sufficient to understand the product of many brains interacting together."

Understood. But I wasn't claiming sufficiency.

"It would seem to me that if the form my moral philosophical reasoning took were a result of how my brain worked, then knowing how my brain worked would be relevant/helpful in understanding anything I argued. Especially since so much of what structures our arguments is below the level of consciousness."

But surely, if this is true, it is also true of other domains that we uncontroversially accept as being true independent of the truths of biology. For example, physics is a product of the human brain, do we need Darwin to say Newton's theory is better than Ptolemy's, or the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis to believe quantum mechanics is a well-confirmed theory.

Perhaps biology could help explain the biases that lead people to make errors in physics, but it seems like we would need an prior account of what an "error."

Otherwise, we have the trivial claim that all physical theories are equally the products of human brains and all equally supported by the biological facts.

Of course, you might claim that physical theories that reproductively advantage their believers are more likely to be correct. But why would think any such thing? Certainly, biology couldn't justifiy that claim. And biology couldn't justify a similar claim about morality either.

I suppose the conclusion I am drawing is that the claim that the biological facts track the moral facts (or are epistemically consequent to physucal theories) is necessarily a claim external to biology. Biology, even in principle, couldn't provdide justification for that claim. For that, we would need to engage in good physical (or moral) reasoning.

gah, proofread first next time.

My (generous) reading of Wilson is that knowledge of human biology should constrain our less-scientific theories to those which make realistic assumptions.

Hilzoy writes: First, ethicists have to make certain assumptions about what it is possible for people to do, since morality should not require anything it is impossible for us to do, like being in two places at one time.

It looks to me as if they agree in principle.

It also looks to me as if ethicists do not take such constraints seriously in foundational works (it would be horribly anacronistic to require that), and hence have their panties in a bind.

Noen at 11:37pm-

"I don't have a problem with sociobiology or evolutionary psychology for that matter. It makes sense to apply the same reasoning to humans that we do for every other species on Earth."

No, it doesn't make sense. Humans are vastly different from other animals. If you can't see that, look again.

Here's the problem with evolutionary psychology: we are complicated beings. We are not simply governed by our genes as other organisms are. Humans can rationalize and reflect on what we are doing. Sure, evolution can explain some of our actions and desires(eating, sleeping, desire for sex etc.) but for many of our actions, it cannot.
A typical claim of evolutionary psychology would go something like this: the reason many people donate to charity is because in the past, reciprocation was likely, making it evolutionarily worth it. Furthermore (it may be claimed), another factor in why we donate is because as we were evolving, to help another was typically to help a family member who had similar genes.
All this may be reasonable for animals. But ponder this: maybe the reason people do good things is because we think about it, and realize it's bad when others are starving and in need, so we help them!

Evolutionary psychology is bad science, bad psychology, bad philosophy. It's just bad. Furthermore, I think it's somewhat denigrating to humans to make these wild over-generalizations of why we act as we do, pulled out of the evolutionary psychologist's rear end.

hilzoy: Well, that sounds more like an account of how systems of ethics develop, not an account of whether we can say that one is right and another wrong, and if so on what basis.

To an evolutionary biologist, at a fundamental level there's not really a difference: The fact that it persists to develop, means that it's "right".

Part of the point would be that we now get to actively choose what persists to develop. It's precisely that fact that's interesting to Wilson in most of his work over the past 20 years or so: He's looking for what makes us qualitatively different from ants, and what the significance of that difference is.

Jason Williams: Evolutionary psychology is bad science, bad psychology, bad philosophy. It's just bad. Furthermore, I think it's somewhat denigrating to humans to make these wild over-generalizations of why we act as we do, pulled out of the evolutionary psychologist's rear end.

You might want to actually learn something about Wilson's views before you so categorically condemn him. In fact, he's devoted the latter part of his distinguished career to addressing the questions you raise.

In any case, you're simply identifying a case where the level of abstraction isn't adequately pursued in the popular, minimalist gloss of evolutionary biology. The actual field goes much more deeply into the questions than your casual gloss would lead us to believe. To Wilson in particular, the cultural and intellectual epiphenomena are now utterly dominant in the evolutionary process. And it's not just Wilson, though -- I don't know a single working biologist (and I know a few) who doesn't acknowledge that.

This discussion has progressed quite a bit since I went to bed last night.

An example of biology supporting a moral position:

We often argue here for a more egalitarian society. This is considered more moral than the present distribution we find in the US.

Research has found that relative status can have serious health effects on people. Societies with greater levels of inequality are less healthy, due the stress caused by this social positional disparity.

This argument can, and has, been incorporated into justification for the moral position that we should have a more egalitarian society. I could come up with other examples, if you would like, but the point is to demonstrate that biology can, indeed, play a role in moral reasoning.

I'm out of my depth in the larger discussion here, but a few items in Jason Williams's post three above mine jumped out at me as fallacious in the extreme, or at least irrelevant:

Humans are vastly different from other animals. The statement "X are vastly different from all other animals" is true for all values of X. On its own, then, this statement is irrelevant. You make an attempt in the next paragraph to get at how it becomes relevant, but not successfully, IMO.

Here's the problem with evolutionary psychology: we are complicated beings. We are not simply governed by our genes as other organisms are . . . Sure, evolution can explain some of our actions and desires(eating, sleeping, desire for sex etc.) but for many of our actions, it cannot.

This appears to be your explanation of exactly which differences are relevant and why they are relevant, but again, anyone who has spent any significant amount of time around animals of any kind knows that this statement is true for nearly all of them. Or at least it appears to be true for nearly all of them, to the extent that there's not an obvious genetic, adaptive or evolutionary reason why lots of animals do lots of things.

Furthermore, I think it's somewhat denigrating to humans to make these wild over-generalizations of why we act as we do,/i>

Uh, so what? The fact that something is denigrating doesn't make it incorrect.

PTS: "But surely, if this is true, it is also true of other domains that we uncontroversially accept as being true independent of the truths of biology."

I'd say that's a claim in need of supportin'.

"For example, physics is a product of the human brain, do we need Darwin to say Newton's theory is better than Ptolemy's, or the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis to believe quantum mechanics is a well-confirmed theory."

Short answer: No - the scientific method is sufficient. But understanding how our brains work can inform how we reason about the physical world, and why we formulate the sorts of theories we do.

"Perhaps biology could help explain the biases that lead people to make errors in physics, but it seems like we would need an prior account of what an 'error' [is]."

That's a very important point. I believe that an understanding of how our brains work is crucial to understanding why we define "error" in the way we do. Also why we have a concept of "justification", and how justification works to make us consider things to be true.

"Otherwise, we have the trivial claim that all physical theories are equally the products of human brains and all equally supported by the biological facts."

And of course I'm not making such a claim :).

And I'm not closing my italics tags either.

Research has found that relative status can have serious health effects on people. Societies with greater levels of inequality are less healthy, due the stress caused by this social positional disparity.

This argument can, and has, been incorporated into justification for the moral position that we should have a more egalitarian society. I could come up with other examples, if you would like, but the point is to demonstrate that biology can, indeed, play a role in moral reasoning.

This certainly wasn't what Wilson was suggesting. His argument was that all of the the social sciences were studying epiphenomena, and would be subsumed in his new discipline of Sociobiology, or neuroscience, and that all behavior isessentially explainable through the discovery of a small number of natural laws. While he did moderate his stance a bit in the years after he wrote Sociobiology, he still held out hope at least as late as his publication of Consilience in the late 90's that it would still come to fruition.


Italics off

Apparently, it's more difficult to turn off italics than it used to be.

"Putting aside the he-said/she-said questions about mathematics-n-morality or whether Rawls was or was not a closet idealist (read the next thousand pages and write a paper about whether you should read the paper!), address yourself to the money question. Is human morality subject to or in any way clarified by the "hypothetico-deductive" method? I would guess, based only on a casual perusal of Rawls' offerings in the Harvard Coop, thar one thing he didn't do was to state his contentions in the form of hypotheses that can be falsified: "IF Hilzoy's belief 'X' about morality is correct, THEN we will (always? sometimes?) observe Y under circumstances Z."

Then Hilzoy goes out and performs observation. The behavior observed is ikely to be teeny-weeny and altogether trivial, but that's science. The magic is that, if Y don't happen, then Hilzoy, by previous training and membership in the mystic cult, has sworn to reject her former belief, no matter how well argued.

CAN YOU DO THIS? HAVE YOU?"

No. But the reason is that I do not accept this model for moral reasoning. I do not think that moral claims are accepted because they have verifiable consequences.

In this respect, morality is unlike science. But so are other things: e.g., mathematics, formal logic, etc.

Part of what annoyed me about the original article, besides the fact that Wilson hadn't bothered to acquaint himself even minimally with the works he invoked (I mean, no one has to mention Rawls, Kant, etc., but if you do, you should have some idea what they actually said), was the way it simplified things in such a way as to make really interesting questions about the nature of moral reasoning just disappear.

If your only options are (a) thinking that moral principles are vibrating in the ether, waiting to be revealed, and (b) that morality is something best studied as an offshoot of biology, then (b) looks pretty good. But those are not our only options.

It is possible, as someone said above, to recognize a good argument even if you don't know a lot of neurology. It is also very difficult to justify a criterion by which to tell whether an argument is good or not using only biology. (It's a lot easier if you surreptitiously redefine "good argument" as "argument that helps us to thrive as a species", or something, but that would beg the question.) We need, I think, to figure out what kinds of arguments we could make for moral claims, rather than settling the question by wrongly narrowing our options to the two Wilson considers, and then rejecting the one he has set up to be stupid.

First, I'd like to join in the beating up of Jason Williams for his negative comments about evolutionary psychology. Two of his comments are particularly incorrect:

"We are not simply governed by our genes as other organisms are."

Evolutionary psychology does not claim that we are governed by our genes. Instead, genetic components lay a foundation for behavior; cultural factors provide the next layer; individual factors provide the third layer; and immediate contextual factors provide a fourth layer. It's vastly more complicated than "genes govern behavior".

Second is this comment:

"it's somewhat denigrating to humans to make these wild over-generalizations of why we act as we do"

Bingo! That's the same argument that motivated the denial of the heliocentric model of the solar system. It's the same argument that motivated the denial of evolution. It's vanity over objectivity.

Lastly, I'd like to point out the fecklessness of the philosophical argument about ethics. We've got some really bright people here making excellent points about philosophy of ethics -- and in the end, nobody accomplishes anything. This is eerily reminiscent of scholasticism, with its quiddities and questiones, its endless arguments about whether angels could travel from point A to point B without occupying intermediate locations. And in the end, it's just as pointless as scholasticism, because its subject matter is imaginary.

Hilzoy, you rock. I had no idea.

Wilson seems to have moved on to other things since that paper was published, like this biosphere database thingy, but he was hardly ever the only one to pretend that science can be brought to bear upon the humanities without any significant reciprocation. Just today over at Cosmic Variance Sean Carroll has a piece up about the ethics of California's Prop 8 which implies weirdly that humans were unable to act truly ethically until the development of scientific naturalism. And of course Steven Pinker seems to come up with some new assertion every other day painting Locke or Kant or Plato as mere superstitious fools.

The irony is that screeds like this always descend into unsupported yarn-spinning, as Wilson does here with his section on the history of religion. He posits the origin of religion as primarily a "survival instinct" and writes that "The human mind evolved to believe in gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology." Which I suppose explains why humans never developed a belief in biology. Empiricism indeed.


Chris Schoen writes:

"The irony is that screeds like this always descend into unsupported yarn-spinning, as Wilson does here with his section on the history of religion"

I agree, but let's be honest: aren't all discussions of the origins of religion just as much 'unsupported yarn-spinning'?

Chris Crawford wrote: "Lastly, I'd like to point out the fecklessness of the philosophical argument about ethics. We've got some really bright people here making excellent points about philosophy of ethics -- and in the end, nobody accomplishes anything. This is eerily reminiscent of scholasticism, with its quiddities and questiones, its endless arguments about whether angels could travel from point A to point B without occupying intermediate locations. And in the end, it's just as pointless as scholasticism, because its subject matter is imaginary."

Someone (preferably Chris) please explain to me what on earth this passage means. You're talking about ethics? Ethics' subject matter is "imaginary"? What does that mean?
And to talk about how ethics never "accomplishes anything" is bizarre. Ethics is about making yourself and your inclinations better. You don't believe it's useful to study meta ethics and what ethical statements mean? Not useful to decide which normative theory is right?

I'm assuming when you say ethics' "subject matter" is "imaginary" you are saying moral statements are not normative. But I'm not sure.

Hey, it's not like any of this stuff matters, right?

Most posts here simply come back to the basic distinction between normative and empirical, and the difference between explaining what caused a behavior and evaluating whether the behavior was good / correct.

To explain this distinction in a way that biologists should recognize, imagine the following: A creationist approaches you and asks why you believe that evolution through natural selection is true. If your answer begins by explaining the biological brain-processes that led Charles Darwin to write Origin of Species, you've completely missed the point. You also miss the point if you go on to explain what biological factors led to its acceptance by the scientific community. The question calls for epistemological justification, not an explanation of causation.

If biologists insist on reducing everything to a question of causation, that just shows that they incapable of addressing epistemological or ethical questions. If you rephrase those questions to ask about causal mechanisms they are no longer epistemological or ethical questions.

Chris Crawford: The humanities guy who rejects scientific theories out of hand because he feels they're an affront to human dignity is well-recognizable stereotype with a grain of truth behind it. But so is the scientific guy who just declares by fiat that anyone who disagrees with him must be a medieval relic.

Chris Crawford,

I would argue that some investigations of the history of religion bear more fruit than others. Naturalistic explanations like Wilson's have a vested interest in the heroic story of how the scientific method pierced the veil of religious illusion. (The variant of this is the story of how the scientific method overthrew human biological imperatives.)

Unexamined myths run rampant through these tales. Too many to describe here, but they certainly include the primacy of the masculine intellect over feminine emotion, and mistrust of nature, not to mention the kind of magical thinking that invests language with a far-too-literal naming function.

Biology is useful in explaining why we might be as we are. To figure out what we should be, it's all but useless. Just my opinion formed as a double major in molecular biology and ethics.

Antrumf requests that I expand on my claims about ethics. My claim is not that ethics is itself imaginary, but rather that the discussions about ethics rely on imaginary factors such as "natural rights". I deny the possibility of establishing a rational basis for ethics. I claim that ethics is merely a social convention, rather like language. Yes, ethical values are constrained by certain real-world factors. A society that idolizes murder will quickly destroy itself. The ethical prohibition against incest is based on sound genetic considerations. But there's no rational foundation on which ethics is built; it's a social convention. Therefore, philosophical discussions attempting to rationalize ethics are a futile effort.

TSW's argument about scientists who declare "by fiat that anyone who disagrees with him must be a medieval relic" seems very much a straw man argument; I certainly don't recall Mr. Wilson making any such declarations.

Chris Schoen's assertion that "Naturalistic explanations like Wilson's have a vested interest in the heroic story of how the scientific method pierced the veil of religious illusion." strikes me as bizarre. I don't know if Mr. Wilson was motivated by this vested interest, and I doubt that Chris Schoen knows whether Mr. Wilson was motivated by this vested interest. I suggest that it would be more useful to set aside invidious speculations about the motivations of the people making arguments and concentrate on the arguments themselves.

Oh, yes, I forgot to address this statement from Chris Schoen:

"the primacy of the masculine intellect over feminine emotion, and mistrust of nature, not to mention the kind of magical thinking that invests language with a far-too-literal naming function."

I don't know where you pick up this stuff, but it's certainly not part of mainstream evolutionary psychology. In fact, I can't recall seeing anything remotely like this in any book on evo-psych.

Christ Almighty! Is it too early to have a martini?

Go ahead and get incensed y'all but comments such as "Wilson is a disgrace" are absurd and uncalled for.

You didn't like the article, understood. Let's not throw the old baby out with the even older bathwater.

Bigger fish to fry anyone?

Chris Crawford writes:

I don't know where you pick up this stuff, but it's certainly not part of mainstream evolutionary psychology. In fact, I can't recall seeing anything remotely like this in any book on evo-psych.

Yes, that's why I wrote that these were unexamined myths.

I suggest that it would be more useful to set aside invidious speculations about the motivations of the people making arguments and concentrate on the arguments themselves.

I agree that Wilson's motivations aren't especially pertinent. But the "arguments themselves" are quite plainly shrouded in mythic clothing. That's not the slur it might seem. It's scarcely possible to make an argument without some kind of metaphysical commitment. But when the argument is made that one has obviated the need (through scientific method) for metaphysics altogether, we have to call bullshit. Otherwise we find ourselves very quickly in a "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" melodrama.

Fair enough. However, a comment on this statement:

"But when the argument is made that one has obviated the need (through scientific method) for metaphysics altogether, we have to call bullshit."

I would suggest that we never had a need for metaphysics in the first place. ;-)

Also, Chris C., I think you take this argument much further than Wilson would (at least explicitly):

But there's no rational foundation on which ethics is built; it's a social convention. Therefore, philosophical discussions attempting to rationalize ethics are a futile effort.

The logical conclusion of this statement is Social Darwinism, though I realize you probably don't intend it to be. I believe you are making the same error that Hilzoy points out in Wilson's article, in which he paints himself into the corner of Genetic Survival Uber Alles, because he believes it is the only alternative to an externally existing moral order. It isn't.

Chris, I disagree with your contention that my claim that ethics is a social convention leads to Social Darwinism. I am claiming that ethics is whatever a society decides it to be, and there is no such thing as a 'higher ethics'' that can be used to judge any society's ethical system. I can see that my approach removes an objective condemnation of Social Darwinism. But my approach removes any objective statement about any ethical system.

"If biologists insist on reducing everything to a question of causation, that just shows that they incapable of addressing epistemological or ethical questions. If you rephrase those questions to ask about causal mechanisms they are no longer epistemological or ethical questions."

The scientific method can't support "normative" claims. It never will, by nature. Normative claims aren't testable. They don't predict anything (well... unless we've already accepted a moral framework that involves good/bad being related to causality). But I think the normative/empirical issue is not at the core of the argument.

I think hilzoy was right in taking Wilson to task (though I think she misunderstood him in a couple of ways that I noted above). But I don't want Wilson's faulty arguments to get in the way of the more important issues he's talking about.

One is that there is no such thing as moral truths that exist separately from our brains or that are unaffected by the ways in which our brains/bodies interact with the world. This is important because many people hold this mistaken belief.

The other is that an understanding of how our brains operate is critical to being able to evaluate our moral frameworks and principles.

You don't need science in order to decide which moral principles to adopt. But you don't need philosophy either.

Science can help us to understand what's possible or impossible - but it can also help us understand what we are biased toward. It can help us understand a bunch of other things, like why we think that moral claims can be justified at all, why we would want to separate causal and ethical questions (or distinguish theoretical from practical reasoning), and why so many philosophical theories suppose that concepts, ideas or truths have an independent existence.

Most importantly, though, it can help us to determine what are good and bad moral principles. In biology there is an intrinsic good: that activity which promotes our survival. In cognitive science as well: that conceptual framework whose structures most closely match the external world, and whose metaphors are most apt in describing it.

This is where science (in my opinion) can be crucial in our ethical thinking.

Apparently, hilzoy's letter to the editor is "pissy".

You can't complain that Sullivan isn't well-versed in that field ;).

Chris Crawford writes: '...discussions about ethics rely on imaginary factors such as "natural rights"'

This just isn't true. I think a very small percentage of modern philosophers would think natural rights a useful concept. As Bentham rightly said, they are "nonsense on stilts".

Foundations for ethics? Well, utilitarianism is fairly popular today, it has utility as its justification. ie the right action is the one that has the best consequence. I'm not really sure what your saying ethics is "merely a social convention". Certainly ethics is a product of the human mind, as are maths and language and all kinds of things! Heck just read hilzoy's post, it says what I'm trying to say much more eloquently.

You're welcome to think ethics is "whatever a society wants it to be". And you're right that that leads to a rejection of moral objectivism. I don't see why you would want to do that though. There's nothing mysterious or ethereal about saying morality is objective. It simply means you think human welfare matters. If you do think human welfare matters, I don't see how you can believe society dictates what is right and wrong. So slavery was once morally right huh?

Andrew,

The normative assumption there is that the morally correct actions will also be those that are healthier, or that an action providing some health benefit somehow confers some additional moral authority to it.

How would this hold up if, say, rape was shown to have very positive health effects for the rapist, due to whatever-- say release of stress. What normative lesson would biologically determined ethics take from this?

antrumf, let me elaborate some more on my claims. When I claim that ethics is a social convention, I am denying any objective basis for it.

Here, let me try an extended analogy. Ethics is like language. There is no such thing as the "correct" word for "cat". In English it's "cat", in Spanish it's "gato", and there's no basis for claiming that "cat" is a better word than "gato". They're just words, arbitrary symbols established by social convention.

In the same way, any given ethical rule is merely a convention established by society. There's no basis for claiming that one society's social conventions are somehow superior to another society's. Arguing about a rational basis for ethics is no different than seeking a rational basis for the vocabulary of a language.

Let me add that society faces this issue every day in law. Law is merely the formalization of those moral guidelines that the majority of the population embraces. Everybody agrees that murder is bad, so we have a law against murder. On the other hand, we have some disagreement about homosexual behavior, so we have political controversy over various attempts to formalize our moral beliefs about homosexuality. Who's to objectively declare that one side or the other is correct? Ultimately it just boils down to social convention. Hence my admittedly radical conclusion that any attempt to put ethics on a rational basis is futile.

"One is that there is no such thing as moral truths that exist separately from our brains or that are unaffected by the ways in which our brains/bodies interact with the world."

I never know exactly what this means. If it means: we cannot recognize any moral truths (as such) without our brains, then sure. But that's true of any truths. It doesn't obviously follow that those truths are affected by the ways our brains/bodies interact with the world.

I mean: one might think, say, that it is true that Saturn has rings, and it would be true even if there were no humans around to recognize it. Does that count as "a truth being unaffected by the ways our brains/bodies interact with the world"? If so, it doesn't turn on the fact that we have to think in order to recognize that it's true.

Consider the claim that in a given position in chess, taking the queen with your knight will mate in two. Suppose this claim is true. That is, I think, unaffected by the ways our brains/bodies interact with the world, in exactly the same way. Our interactions with the world are of course relevant to whether or not we develop the game of chess to start with. But given that game, with those rules, in a given position a given move either mates in two or it does not, and this would be true even if there were no humans at all. (So in the sort of "human contrivance" that is chess, in which things have definite, deducible properties, truths can be unaffected by the ways in which we interact with the world.)

In what specific way(s) do moral claims differ from these two cases, such that they do depend on the ways our brains/bodies interact with the world?

eric:To an evolutionary biologist, at a fundamental level there's not really a difference: The fact that it persists to develop, means that it's "right".

This is either not true, or poorly stated. To an evolutionary biologist, the persistence of a trait is morally neutral -- no scientist worth his/her salt would ascribe a right or wrong to it. If you meant something different there, I would rephrase it so the word "right" doesn't overlap with the moral reasoning connotation.

Well, self proclaimed radical Chris. (meant in good nature)

I think I disagree with your premise that ethics is a social convention. Seems to me by saying that you're starting with the assumption that morality is not normative. I take great objective to this premise. Because human welfare and well-being matters. I can say some social customs are better than others. Democracy is better than tyranny. Western culture is better than German Nazi culture under Hitler.

I don't really know what to say when we start with opposing premises. I find mine more helpful, considering ethics is all about improving yourself and improving the world around you. I don't think there's anything more I can say.

Chris Crawford, to the extent that you are just claiming that ethics are a social construction, and not "externally" given, I have no real quibbles. But I think you do more than this.

You cite, above, two examples of biologically derived precepts: don't murder, and don't breed with your sibling. You appear to arguing--correct me if I'm wrong--that the reason most cultures observe these strictures is explicable through some kind of game theory; that is, that they are evolutionarily stable strategies, and thus they persist.

This is the definition of Social Darwinism, is it not? We have conflated ethical structures with selection pressures.

When we talk about "rationalizing" ethics, we mean exposing our cultural priorities to scrutiny. This can be done whether or not we consider morality as arising from within or without, and there's nothing futile about it.

What does seem futile, to me, is appealing to a biological final cause. In the "end," not only are we all dead, but likely all our genes as well. Our best efforts cannot change this. Survival, of an individual, a society, or a species, makes a poor moral linchpin. That is not to say that survival is not important, but to exalt it to the status you appear to creates a dangerous inflexibility. (What if, for example, it were reasonably certain that our continued survival as a species were going to result in trillions of years of moral torment for some other life form?)

Now, if I have you wrong, I hope you'll set me straight. But if you are really serious that there is no way to treat ethical problems rationally, it presents the real problem of how or why we can ever get out of bed in the morning.

I do think it is fair to say that some proportion of work in evolutionary psychology relies on just-so stories about human pre-history, leans too heavily on interesting game-theoretic models of dubious utility, and often moves rather hastily from historically and culturally specific behaviors to natural traits. Practitioners of this kind of evolutionary psychology often respond to those of us who express such concerns by accusing us of embracing "blank slate" approaches to human behavior, as if the only choices were biological or cultural determinism. They give a bad name to those doing good work.

"I am reliably informed that E.O. Wilson is a brilliant biologist."

What a coincidence. Because I have been reliably informed that you don't know your arse from a hole in the ground.


Read "Consilience" and get back with us.


And somebody pays you... why again?

antrumf, when you write that " Western culture is better than German Nazi culture under Hitler." I will both agree with you and point out that your statement is nothing more than a matter of taste. It's no different from the claim that "Vanilla ice cream is better than strawberry ice cream." I have no objections to your taste, but when you attempt to find some fundamental objective truth to justify your taste, I object. There is no such fundamental objective truth. There's no way for you to objectively prove that any moral tenet is superior to any other.

Chris, you write "You appear to arguing--correct me if I'm wrong--that the reason most cultures observe these strictures is explicable through some kind of game theory; that is, that they are evolutionarily stable strategies, and thus they persist.

This is the definition of Social Darwinism, is it not?"

No, because Social Darwinism, as I understand it, is not a descriptive concept (e.g. "this is how societies work") but rather a prescriptive concept (e.g., "this is how societies SHOULD work"). My observation about these human behaviors is not in any way normative. Moreover, although I don't mind your shortening and simplifying the observations about human behavior, let's not take those simplified versions too seriously: they're oversimplified.

"But if you are really serious that there is no way to treat ethical problems rationally, it presents the real problem of how or why we can ever get out of bed in the morning."

I'm arguing that ethical problems are purely a matter of personal taste. You cannot provide a rational argument against any ethical standard I propose. You can, of course, point out that a given ethical standard will lead to my own injury, but that's not a proof that my standard is objectively incorrect. There is simply no connection between ethics and objective reality.

And getting out of bed in the morning is easy this way. I decide that it is my personal choice to get up. Voila! ;-)

Hilzoy: I mean: one might think, say, that it is true that Saturn has rings, and it would be true even if there were no humans around to recognize it. Does that count as "a truth being unaffected by the ways our brains/bodies interact with the world"?

I would say that the rings exist. The "truth" doesn't (without our brains).

The statement that "Saturn has rings" includes at least two conceptual metaphors, probably more. Why, for example, do we say it "has" them? Do we think of Saturn as owning the rings? Why don't the rings own Saturn. And if we measured the rings differently, would we say that Saturn actually has one big ring rather than several little ones? Do our measurements miss the fact that what we call rings are actually a disc that goes through Saturn? If we only saw in radio waves, would the rings be rings, or would they be muffins?

You get the idea.

"Consider the claim that in a given position in chess, taking the queen with your knight will mate in two. Suppose this claim is true. That is, I think, unaffected by the ways our brains/bodies interact with the world, in exactly the same way."

I like this example. Would the claim be false if I knocked the chess board over, or if the queen was glued to the board?

If we're not talking about a particular board, then where is the board we're talking about?

A game of chess implies a certain relationship of space, players, and rules, which can't exist apart from our bodies' and brains relationship to the world.

I forgot to answer this question:

"In what specific way(s) do moral claims differ from these two cases, such that they do depend on the ways our brains/bodies interact with the world?"

I don't think moral claims are different in this way. Any kind of claim is dependent on the way our brains/bodies interact with the world.

I'm certainly of the philosophical laity, and I suspect that many in this conversation are, too. Therefore, I hope it won't be too unwarranted to ask for an actual example of a moral law we can actually agree on in all circumstances? The 47 Ronin in the story behaved, to their minds (and to the intended audience), exceptionally morally, but they murdered - "don't murder" is not universally held. What I'm reading of Rawls' notion of fairness seems extremely difficult to use in practice: the veil of ignorance almost never exists, and cannot be expected to. Even if it could, I expect there exist conflicts in which the participants have sufficiently different value systems that there can exist no outcome agreeable to all parties, even from behind the veil of ignorance.

I personally rather doubt that such a moral principle can be found.

You know, I missed the most important thing....

About the chess move, you say "and this would be true even if there were no humans at all".

But a chess game, by definition has players.

Your example is a smaller metaphor for what I'm trying to convey.

I really don't see what all the hyperventilating in this post is about. Even when I was studying philosophy, it seemed pretty obvious to me that morality and ethics in practice derived from survival instinct, not from any higher standard human beings imposed on themselves.

But your response to my post is inadequate.

Your argument seems to be something like this:

1) Moral theories are the products of human beings. It's notions of "error" and "justification" and "reasons" are constructed by human brains.

2) Human brains are governed by biology.

Therefore, biology can points us moral truths that moral reasoning can't by itself.

The same argument applies to physics

1) Physical theories are the product of human beings. Blah blah

2) Human brains are governed by biology.

Therefore, biology can point us to truths of physics that physical reasoning cannot.

Your response to Hilzoy on the Saturn example seems to indicate the following suggestion: all human theories must make use of human language and concepts. However, this is equally true of the theories of physics, biology, and morality. But if it is equally true of all of them, then you can't use that feature to argue that one of them is mind dependent and the others are not. And surely there is a distinction between reality and our theorizing about that reality, unless you are a full-on postmodernist or skeptic.

Now, of course, you might say this: the scientific method makes it possible for us to impartially access physical truths independent of biology while the methods of moral reasoning does not. Scientific reasoning gets us outside of our merely human perspective but moral reasoning does not.

But what reason do you for believing this beyond your prior belief that physics is belief independent and morality is not? It seems utterly question begging to me. At the very least, we would have to engage in moral reasoning and see whether they work in order to find it if you are right. Put it another way, we can't know you are right about moral reasoning a priori, we have to actually try and do some moral reasoning.


P.S. You say that biology has shown that survival fitness is an intrinsic good. What experiment could possibly show that? Do you have one in mind?


And Hilzoy, being a philosophy professor, certainly has to be aware that there are plenty of philosophers who believe the exact same things Dave Kilmer is saying right now - namely, that moral properties aren't real properties, but are creations of human language and human psychology. Hilzoy may disagree with those philosophers, but she shouldn't be surprised by the fact that the idea is out there, or act like it's somehow self-evidently absurd, or some rude intrusion of evolutionary biologists into the territory of philosophers.

Guys like E.O. Wilson are a disgrace, and horrible ambassadors for science.

Damn, whoever wrote this was stupid.

PTS
physics is a product of the human brain, do we need Darwin to say Newton's theory is better than Ptolemy's, or the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis to believe quantum mechanics is a well-confirmed theory.

How one does physics, the kinds of questions one asks, the kinds of experiments one performs, has it's roots in culture and culture is certainly influenced by the genome. Different personalities "look" at the world in different ways and solve problems differently. It's good then to have mix of problem solvers, you are more likely to reach a good solution that way. Thomas Kuhn showed that paradigm conflicts are solved by an inherently political process and politics also has it's roots in our genetics. Of course it isn't simple. The environment influences genetic expression and our genetic heritage influences our environment. There is a constant dialectic between them.

[One] might claim that physical theories that reproductively advantage their believers are more likely to be correct. But why would think any such thing? Certainly, biology couldn't justifiy that claim.

Biology can't justify that claim but if by correctness you mean a priori "True" it doesn't even exist. All that really matters is that it works.

Jason Williams
Humans are vastly different from other animals. If you can't see that, look again.

I see a troop of primates who share 99% of their genome with other primates and who have many behaviors in common. Humans have very few behaviors that are unique to their species. They have clearly evolved from and fit neatly in with their cousins. There is nothing exceptional about them. It's more a matter of degree really.

Sure, evolution can explain some of our actions and desires(eating, sleeping, desire for sex etc.) but for many of our actions, it cannot.

Is there such a thing as true altruism? I think a good argument could be made that it does not or that if it does it's unusual. Real altruism where you and your genome really lose is very rare.

I remember thinking at the time that we weren't going anywhere fast by beginning with graphs of non existent genes but I saw the kids around me dutifully graphing the expression of this non existent "thing."

Aimai, I wonder what the purpose of a model is, to you, if it can't be used to make predictions.

I am surprised by the amount of animosity expressed in this thread. I believe it is not fully warranted.

Ed Wilson has done some great work not just in entomology, but also in evolutionary theory, which applies not just to ants, but also to humans. It is not surprising that theories of human behavior end up overlapping with anthropology and philosophy. Wilson has done academia a great favor by encouraging many scientists to think outside their fields, and encouraging many in the humanities to think more about science. Such academic cross-fertilization produces results of varying quality. It is a shame that The Atlantic did not print Hilzoy's letter, since that would have given Wilson the opportunity to improve his philosophical reasoning, and eliminate some erroneous arguments. Wilson strikes me as the sort of scientist who does not get offended by constructive criticism; he is far from being the most arrogant of scientists, and I am sure he expects his ideas (scientific or philosophical) to be refined, and, in some cases, rejected by subsequent thinkers.

The authors of some of the comments above seem to be angry that Wilson would presume to publish outside his scientific demesne. Such an attitude would hinder efforts to improve both scientific and philosophical discourse.

Oh, and Hilzoy - The Atlantic is not a peer-reviewed journal. If you write an article about ants and submit it to them, I doubt they'll ask E. O. Wilson, or any other scientist, if they should print it. More likely, the editors will just make their own judgement of whether it is thought-provoking and seems reasonable enough to them.

Christmas: I don't at all think that it's somehow absurd to think that morality is just a matter of social convention. I do not myself believe this, but I don't think it's absurd.

What I do think is -- well, I don't know about absurd, but at any rate pretty clearly wrong -- is to treat this as if it were too obvious to need argument.

"I don't at all think that it's somehow absurd to think that morality is just a matter of social convention"

Hilzoy - as far as I can see, Christmas didn't say anything like that. Since Christmas mentioned me explicitly, I wanted to make sure that it was clear that I wasn't saying that either.

I thought Christmas only came around once a year.

So to recapitulate long windedly:

Hilzoy says that because E O Wilson writes an article criticizing ethics with particular reference to philosophers he does not understand you can probably discount his theories on why these ethicists are wrong and you should be suspicious of his contributions to an area of inquiry he is not well informed about.


The evolutionary psychologists rejoinder to this is that he is not visiting the field of ethics - he is annexing it for Sociobiology, which at least has pretensions to following the scientific method.


Hence it does not matter that Wilson does not know the particular fallacies of the people he refers to - they are all wrong and he is somewhat right.


Me, I say we put E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker and Steven Levitt in a cage (Leavitt has the advantage of youth) and let them have at it , I only want one absurdly reductionist world view popular with Social Darwinists to sneer at at a time. I presume its in my genes.

"Your response to Hilzoy on the Saturn example seems to indicate the following suggestion: all human theories must make use of human language and concepts. However, this is equally true of the theories of physics, biology, and morality. But if it is equally true of all of them, then you can't use that feature to argue that one of them is mind dependent and the others are not."

PTS - I'm not arguing that. I am saying that they are all mind-dependent. Theories exist in minds, not in the world.

Maybe the confusion is that morals themselves, unlike Saturn's rings, don't exist in the world either?

I'll try to find a way to explain myself more clearly.

"P.S. You say that biology has shown that survival fitness is an intrinsic good. What experiment could possibly show that? Do you have one in mind?"

I am starting to think that you're messing with me ;).

Are you suggesting that one with a doctorate and expertise in biology cannot have a reasoned knowledge of axiology? That is so grotesquely false and arrogant I cannot believe you would make such a claim.

E. O. Wilson has written on several axiological interests, not as well as philosophers that have a better command of the technical language, but I can think of a handful of individuals quite capable of using biological science in philosophical observations:

Matt Ridley (Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, 1996), Adam Smith (Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1790), George C. Williams ("A Sociobiological Expansion of [T. H. Huxley's] Evolution and Ethics," 1989), W. D. Hamilton ("The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior" in American Naturalist, 1963), and R. L. Trivers (The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, 1971), numerous books by J. Maynard Smith ("The Evolution of Social Behavior" in Current Problems of Sociobiology, 1982), numerous books by Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson (including, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, 1999), not to ignore numerous writings by E. O. Wilson (e.g., On Human Nature, 1978, and Consilience, 1999).

In every case, each one of the above does a better job at the task of axiology that Princeton's Peter Singer. What's his excuse, since he supposedly should know as much as the above, and clearly does not.

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