Respect for Persons and the Evolution of Morality

Let me begin with a stylized contrast between two ways of thinking about morality. On the one hand, morality can be understood as the dictate of, or uncovered by, impartial reason. That which is (truly) moral must be capable of being verified by everyone’s reasoning from a suitably impartial perspective. If we are to respect the free and equal nature of each person, each must (in some sense) rationally validate the requirements of morality. If we take this view, the genuine requirements of morality are a matter of rational reflection and self-imposed law. For Kant it seemed to be a matter of reflection by a rational individual, testing the impartiality of his maxims. For Rousseau, who was an important influence on Kant, under the proper conditions collective deliberation could yield impartial rules of justice that are willed by all. From another point of view moralities are social facts with histories. The heroes of this tradition are Hume, Ferguson and, perhaps surprisingly given his “deductive” method, Hobbes. The moral codes — or if “code” implies too much systematization, moral “practices” — we have ended up with are, to some extent, a matter of chance. This is by no means to say that morality is entirely arbitrary, but it does contain a significant arbitrary element. The morality we have ended up with is path-dependent: only because our moral codes have started somewhere, and have changed in response to unanticipated events, can we explain why we ended up where we have, and different societies end up in different places. The proponents of each view typically seek to discredit the other. Those who conceive of morality as the demand of impartial reason often insist the evolutionists confuse “positive morality” (the moral code that people actually follow) with justified (or true) morality, which is revealed by impartial reason. The positive morality that has evolved is simply what people think is morality, not what really is morality..
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