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October 19, 2008

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P.S. If you think John Rawl's Theory of Justice is so cool, why has it been torn to shreds by dozens of philosophers, not the least John Searle, Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel, Samuel Scheffler, and others -- using biology -- to repudiate Rawl's "veil of ignorance." No such veil is possible, nor even desirable, and it is the linchpin of Rawl's Theory. What's left after ain't much anyone in philosophy regards with more than historical curiosity.

Besides, Rawl's Theory is a work of POLITICAL theory, not ETHICS, not MORALITY, and not BENEVOLENCE (which he seems to know nothing of). It's Kantian footings went down in the Transcendental Aesthetic.

"Are you suggesting that one with a doctorate and expertise in biology cannot have a reasoned knowledge of axiology?"

Whom, might I ask, has suggested such a view? If hilzoy held that (manifestly false) view, then I am sure it would have saved her a great deal of time critiquing the Wilson piece! The very fact that she offered detailed criticisms of actual arguments made by Wilson, rather than an ad hominem argument, shows that she thinks the problems were with Wilson's arguments and not his credentials. (Indeed, she says exactly as much, and I quote: "Of course, that's no reason why he can't write intelligently on [ethics].")

A thought experiment for hilzoy:

Suppose this whole aching dialogue were being carried out by a bunch of social insects in Wilson's lab. Worker-sister hilzoy57457 acts as if she believes in a common bee ethics. Are her genetics and those of her sisters, queen included, plus a few bee-dudes, relevant to the content and applicability of those ethics?

"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."

It is a grotesquely false and arrogant claim. That's just one of many reasons why did not make it, and do not believe it.

Smargash, as a thought experiment imagine that you are one of the less dominant animals in a troop of apes.

It should not be hard for you.

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".

That's a fairly idiotic position to take. Plenty of ideas have "persisted to develop" that are in direct conflict with each other. They can't both be "right."

What you've just described, eric, is the naturalistic fallacy: the idea that because something happens in nature, it's right. If we went by this "morality," we would have to sanction murder, rape, theft, genocide, etc. No, thanks.

Andrew, that is certainly an example of how biology (and, indeed, empiricism in general) can play a role in moral reasoning...but I would hasten to point out that the mere fact of egalitarian societies being healthier doesn't automatically make egalitarianism "right." A fan of wealth gaps could say, well, I don't see why I have any moral obligation to worry about other people in my society so long as my own health is okay, and since I'm in the wealthiest 1%, I have nothing to worry about.

Wilson's article is admittedly pretty silly, but it's only a strawman. His view that biology has relevance for what we should regard as morally right has a lot going for it. Check out Kwame Appiah's book "Experiments in Ethics" for a much better discussion of these sorts of issues.

not new, fwiw.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/aug/16/highereducation.news1

"...her many books add up to an extended caution against simplicity. Although she often writes about knowledge, and about scientific ideas, her fundamental concerns are moral. And as a moral philosopher she is in the business of exposing conflicts between principles, often equally admirable ones. There are plenty of simple ideas about, yet life, and the moral life, are always complex and full of unresolved contradictions."

Why does everyone seem to think hilzoy is denying that biology is at all useful in thinking about morality? That's not what the post says at all.

Also, this is just silly:

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."

No. Because people can't, and don't, come up with articulated reasons for why they think vanilla is better than strawberry. And they don't change their tastes about vanilla v. strawberry when someone else gives them a reason to. I prefer chocolate. Why? Just because. It can't be analyzed further, at least not from my subjective perspective (maybe a scientist could take apart my tastebuds and analyze how they interact with chocolate).

Whereas I can analyze many of the components that go into my disapproval of Nazi Germany, namely the callous disdain for human life, human liberty and human welfare, the racism, the authoritarianism, etc. At the bottom of all of these concerns is my interest in other human beings, my sense that they matter...which is not "objective" in the sense of being mathematically provable.

But it's also not "subjective" in the sense of being a purely individual taste, like my preference for chocolate. Plenty of people dislike chocolate. Very few people will categorically state that other people don't matter to them. Even the Nazis didn't do that. The Nazis differed from me largely because they believed (or, more accurately, wanted to believe) different FACTS: namely, that people of certain races didn't have the same capacities as the master race and were inherently a threat to the Aryan people. Concern for things like human life and human welfare are *species-wide*, unlike my liking for chocolate. People usually take "subjective" to mean totally personal/individual. That does not describe morality. If it did, no society would be possible, and no communication between societies would be possible.

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