Moral thinking pervades our practical lives, but where did this way of thinking come from, and what purpose does it serve? Is it to be explained by environmental pressures on our ancestors a million years ago, or is it a cultural invention of more recent origin? In The Evolution of Morality, Richard Joyce takes up these controversial questions, finding that the evidence supports an innate basis to human morality. As a moral philosopher, Joyce is interested in whether any implications follow (...) from this hypothesis. Might the fact that the human brain has been biologically prepared by natural selection to engage in moral judgment serve in some sense to vindicate this way of thinking—staving off the threat of moral skepticism, or even undergirding some version of moral realism? Or if morality has an adaptive explanation in genetic terms—if it is, as Joyce writes, "just something that helped our ancestors make more babies"—might such an explanation actually undermine morality's central role in our lives? He carefully examines both the evolutionary "vindication of morality" and the evolutionary "debunking of morality," considering the skeptical view more seriously than have others who have treated the subject. (shrink)
This collection reports on the latest research on an increasingly pivotal issue for evolutionary biology: cooperation. The chapters are written from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and utilize research tools that range from empirical survey to conceptual modeling, reflecting the rich diversity of work in the field. They explore a wide taxonomic range, concentrating on bacteria, social insects, and, especially, humans. -/- Part I (“Agents and Environments”) investigates the connections of social cooperation in social organizations to the conditions that make (...) cooperation profitable and stable, focusing on the interactions of agent, population, and environment. Part II (“Agents and Mechanisms”) focuses on how proximate mechanisms emerge and operate in the evolutionary process and how they shape evolutionary trajectories. Throughout the book, certain themes emerge that demonstrate the ubiquity of questions regarding cooperation in evolutionary biology: the generation and division of the profits of cooperation; transitions in individuality; levels of selection, from gene to organism; and the “human cooperation explosion” that makes our own social behavior particularly puzzling from an evolutionary perspective. (shrink)
In his paper ?The Error in the Error Theory?[this journal, 2008], Stephen Finlay attempts to show that the moral error theorist has not only failed to prove his case, but that the error theory is in fact false. This paper rebuts Finlay's arguments, criticizes his positive theory, and clarifies the error-theoretic position.
What contribution can the empirical sciences make to metaethics? This paper outlines an argument to a particular metaethical conclusion - that moral judgments are epistemically unjustified - that depends in large part on a posteriori premises.
It might be expected that it would suffice for the entry for “ moral anti-realism” to contain only some links to other entries in this encyclopedia. It could contain a link to “ moral realism” and stipulate the negation of the view there described. Alternatively, it could have links to the entries “anti-realism” and “morality” and could stipulate the conjunction of the materials contained therein. The fact that neither of these approaches would be adequate—and, more strikingly, that following the two (...) procedures would yield substantively non-equivalent results—reveals the contentious and unsettled nature of the topic. (shrink)
Taking as its point of departure the work of moral philosopher John Mackie (1917-1981), A World Without Values is a collection of essays on moral skepticism by leading contemporary philosophers, some of whom are sympathetic to Mackie s ...
It is widely believed that the Divine Command Theory is untenable due to the Euthyphro Dilemma. This article first examines the Platonic dialogue of that name, and shows that Socrates’s reasoning is faulty. Second, the dilemma in the form in which many contemporary philosophers accept it is examined in detail, and this reasoning is also shown to be deficient. This is not to say, however, that the Divine Command Theory is true—merely that one popular argument for rejecting it is unsound. (...) Finally, some brief thoughts are presented concerning where the real problems lie for the theory. (shrink)
Facts about the evolutionary origins of morality may have some kind of undermining effect on morality, yet the arguments that advocate this view are varied not only in their strategies but in their conclusions. The most promising such argument is modest: it attempts to shift the burden of proof in the service of an epistemological conclusion. This paper principally focuses on two other debunking arguments. First, I outline the prospects of trying to establish an error theory on genealogical grounds. Second, (...) I discuss how a debunking strategy can work even under the assumption that noncognitivism is true. (shrink)
Different versions of moral projectivism are delineated: minimal, metaphysical, nihilistic, and noncognitivist. Minimal projectivism (the focus of this paper) is the conjunction of two subtheses: (1) that we experience morality as an objective aspect of the world and (2) that this experience has its origin in an affective attitude (e.g., an emotion) rather than in perceptual faculties. Both are empirical claims and must be tested as such. This paper does not offer ideas on any specific test procedures, but rather undertakes (...) the important preliminary task of clarifying the content of these subtheses (e.g., what is meant by "objective"? what is meant by "experience"?). Finally, attention is given to the relation between (a) acknowledging that the projectivist account might be true of a token moral judgment and (b) maintaining moral projectivism to be true as a general thesis. (shrink)
Were I not afraid of appearing too philosophical, I should remind my reader of that famous doctrine, supposed to be fully proved in modern times, “That tastes and colours, and all other sensible qualities, lie not in the bodies, but merely in the senses.” The case is the same with beauty and deformity, virtue and vice. This doctrine, however, takes off no more from the reality of the latter qualities, than from that of the former; nor need it give any (...) umbrage either to critics or moralists. Though colours were allowed to lie only in the eye, would dyers or painters ever be less regarded or esteemed? There is a sufficient uniformity in the senses and feelings of mankind, to make all these qualities the objects of art and reasoning, and to have the greatest influence on life and manners. And as it is certain, that the discovery above-mentioned in natural philosophy, makes no alteration on action and conduct; why should a like discovery in moral philosophy make any alteration? (shrink)
The Evolution of Morality attempts to accomplish two tasks. The first is to clarify and provisionally advocate the thesis that human morality is a distinct adaptation wrought by biological natural selection. The second is to inquire whether this empirical thesis would, if true, have any metaethical implications.
Through most of the 20th Century, the influence of Darwin on the philosophical field of ethics was negligible. Things changed noticeably in the last couple of decades or so of that century, and now “evolutionary ethics”—which had lain dormant since Darwin’s contemporary Herbert Spencer—is a lively and hotly debated topic. There are several Darwinian theses that might have bearing on moral philosophy.
Any metaethicist tempted to dismiss a defense of moral intuitionism as too flaky to merit serious attention should think twice. Ethical Intuitionism is a forceful, clear, original, and intelligent piece of philosophy, and Michael Huemer can be proud of his efforts. He proceeds by identifying an exhaustive list of five possible metaethical positions, then knocks down four until only his favored intuitionism remains. One of the advantages of any such “last man standing” strategy is that even the most hardened opponent (...) is likely to be cheering on the author at least a lot of the time: The noncognitivist will support the demolition of subjectivism, the naturalist will applaud the humbling of the noncognitivist, and so on. Speaking as a moral error theorist, I was myself nodding along as Huemer undermined first the noncognitivist, then the subjectivist, and then the reductive naturalist. Yet even here, where my sympathies lay firmly with Huemer’s negative conclusions, I could perceive avenues for reply against his charges. But I don’t at present have the luxury of space to speak in defense of those whom I would, on other occasions and on other grounds, myself attack. Let them tell their own tales. I remain more-or-less on Huemer’s side through the first four chapters, and it is not until he gets to the case against moral nihilism that my own favorite view comes under attack. Thus, for the remainder, I shall don my moral nihilist’s hat and speak against Huemer’s dismissal of that viewpoint. (shrink)
Suppose there are two people having a moral disagreement about, say, abortion. They argue in a familiar way about whether fetuses have rights, whether a woman’s right to autonomy over her body overrides the fetus’s welfare, and so on. But then suppose one of the people says “Oh, it’s all just a matter of opinion; there’s no objective fact about whether fetuses have rights. When we say that something is morally forbidden, all we’re really doing is expressing our disapproval of (...) it.” The other person protests: “No!—that’s totally wrong. Of course there are objective moral truths.” And suppose their dispute now settles on this new matter of whether there are objective moral facts, and the debate continues. They’ve now stopped discussing abortion, and are discussing the nature of any moral debate about abortion; they’ve stopped doing ethics, and started doing metaethics. If wondering about what one morally ought to do is to engage in ethical thought, then wondering about what one is doing when one wonders about what one morally ought to do is to engage in metaethical thought. When we make public moral judgments are we stating facts, or are we just expressing our opinions? And if there are moral facts, then what kind of fact are they? Can moral judgments be true or false? Can moral judgments be justified, and if so how? These kinds of questions are the domain of metaethics. (I’m not saying that there is a crisp and principled line to be drawn between meta-ethics and regular ethical discourse; but it is, if nothing else, a pedagogically useful division of labor.). (shrink)
To hold an error theory about morality is to endorse a kind of radical moral skepticism—a skepticism analogous to atheism in the religious domain. The atheist thinks that religious utterances, such as “God loves you,” really are truth-evaluable assertions (as opposed to being veiled commands or expressions of hope, etc.), but that the world just doesn’t contain the items (e.g., God) necessary to render such assertions true. Similarly, the moral error theorist maintains that moral judgments are truth-evaluable assertions (thus contrasting (...) with the noncognitivist), but that the world doesn’t contain the properties (e.g., moral goodness, evil, moral obligation) needed to render moral judgments true. In other words, moral discourse aims at the truth but systematically fails to secure it. If there is no such property as moral wrongness, for example, then no judgment of the form “X is morally wrong” will be true (where “X” denotes an actual action or state of affairs). Advocates of this position include Hinckfuss 1987; Joyce 2001; Mackie 1977 (see MACKIE, J. L.). Various forms of moral skepticism—some of which are arguably instances of the error theoretic stance—have been familiar to philosophers since ancient times. (See SKEPTICISM, MORAL.) Error theoretic views can be controversial—as in the case of religion and morality—or widely agreed upon—as in the case of ghosts and phlogiston. It is important to note that error theorists maintain that the judgments in question are erroneous not merely because of the absence of any objective moral facts sufficient to render them true, but also because of the absence of any non-objective moral facts sufficient to render them true. There is, for example, a kind of moral realist who maintains that moral properties are objective features of the universe (see REALISM, MORAL). There is also a family of metaethical views according to which moral properties are in some manner constituted by us—by our beliefs, attitudes, practices, etc.. (shrink)
In his contribution to this volume, Paul Bloomfield analyzes and attempts to answer the question “Why is it bad to be bad?” I too will use this question as my point of departure; in particular I want to approach the matter from the perspective of a moral error theorist. This discussion will preface one of the principal topics of this paper: the relationship between morality and self-interest. Again, my main goal is to clarify what the moral error theorist might say (...) on this subject. Against this background, the final portion of this paper will be a discussion of moral fictionalism, defending it from some objections. (shrink)
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In a recent article, William F. Harms (2000) argues in a novel way for a form of moral realism. He does not actually argue that moral realism is true, but rather that if morality is the product of natural selection.
John Mackie’s moral error theory is so closely associated in people’s minds with his arguments from relativity and from queerness that one might overlook the fact that there may be numerous other, and possibly better, ways of establishing that metaethical position. Perhaps, indeed, there are even further resources for arguing for a moral error theory to be unearthed in Mackie’s own book. I have in mind Mackie’s thesis of moral objectification: that the “objective prescriptivity” with which our moral judgments are (...) imbued is the result of our “tendency to read our feelings into their objects” (1977: 42). Mackie invokes Hume’s famous projectivist image of the human mind’s “great propensity to spread itself on external objects,” and, indeed, it is in his book-length analysis of Hume’s moral theory (Mackie 1980) that the topic receives a more careful discussion than in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. In both books he musters some considerations in favor of the thesis, and reveals to us that he thinks that “it is very largely correct” (1980: 72). (shrink)
Moral imperatives are claimed to be inescapable. The moral felon who convinces us that he desired to commit his crimes, that he had no desires that the actions thwarted, does not incline us to withdraw our judgment that he did what he ought not to have done. We do not permit him to evade his moral culpability by citing unusual desires or interests. This thesis of moral inescapability seems familiar and yet is notoriously difficult to make sense of. Philippa Foot (...) calls it “the fugitive thought,” and argues that there is no coherent thought to be brought into the light, but thinks that we could carry on moral discourse purged of claims of inescapability.1 Her pessimism about locating the fugitive is justified, but moral discourse may well not survive its elimination. Inescapability—our tendency to morally condemn the criminal regardless of his desires or interests—lies at the heart of our moral framework; indeed, we might well think that it is the whole point of having a moral language. For this reason our moral discourse is hopelessly flawed in the sense of there not being an acceptable explication of the central moral concepts, though it is not without practical merit. Participating in moral discourse may be warranted in pragmatic terms, despite its defects. (shrink)
“Nihilism” (from the Latin “nihil” meaning nothing) is not a well-defined term. One can be a nihilist about just about anything: A philosopher who does not believe in the existence of knowledge, for example, might be called an “epistemological nihilist”; an atheist might be called a “religious nihilist.” In the vicinity of ethics, one should take care to distinguish moral nihilism from political nihilism and from existential nihilism. These last two will be briefly discussed below, only with the aim of (...) clarifying our topic: moral nihilism. Even restricting attention to “moral nihilism,” matters remain indeterminate. Its most prominent usage in the field of metaethics treats it as a synonym for “error theory,” therefore an entry that said only “Nihilism: see ERROR THEORY” would not be badly misleading. This would identify moral nihilism as the metaethical view that moral discourse consists of assertions that systematically fail to secure the truth. (See Mackie 1977; Joyce 2001.) A broader definition of “nihilism” would be “the view that there are no moral facts.” This is broader because it covers not only the error theory but also noncognitivism (see NONCOGNITIVISM). Both these theories deny that there are moral facts—the difference being that the error theorist thinks that in making moral judgments we try to state facts (but fail to do so, because there are no facts of the type in question), whereas the noncognitivist thinks that in making moral judgments we do not even try to state facts (because, for example, these judgments are really veiled commands or expressions of desire). (In characterizing noncognitivism in this way, I am sidelining various linguistic permissions that may be earned via the quasi-realist program (see QUASI-REALISM).) While it is not uncommon to see “nihilism” defined in this broader way, few contemporary noncognitivists think of themselves as “nihilists,” so it is reasonable to suspect that the extra breadth of the definition is often unintentional. Both these characterizations see moral nihilism as a purely metaethical thesis...n. (shrink)
In The Myth of Morality, Richard Joyce argues that moral discourse is hopelessly flawed. At the heart of ordinary moral judgements is a notion of moral inescapability, or practical authority, which, upon investigation, cannot be reasonably defended. Joyce argues that natural selection is to blame, in that it has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, and demands that it does not make. Should we therefore do away with morality, as we (...) did away with other faulty notions such as witches? Possibly not. We may be able to carry on with morality as a 'useful fiction' - allowing it to have a regulative influence on our lives and decisions, perhaps even playing a central role - while not committing ourselves to believing or asserting falsehoods, and thus not being subject to accusations of 'error'. (shrink)
The first objective of this chapter is to clarify what might be meant by the claim that human morality is innate. The second is to argue that if human morality is indeed innate an explanation may be provided that does not resort to an appeal to group selection, but invokes only individual selection and so-called “reciprocal altruism” in particular. This second task is not motivated by any theoretical or methodological prejudice against group selection; I willingly concede that group selection is (...) a legitimate evolutionary process, and that it may well have had the dominant hand in the evolution of human morality. There is a fact of the matter about which process, or which combination of processes, produced any given adaptation, and it is to be hoped that in time enough evidence might be brought into the light to settle such issues. At present, though, the evidence is insufficient regarding human morality. By preferring to focus on reciprocity rather than group selection I take myself simply to be outlining and advocating a coherent and uncomplicated hypothesis, which may then take its place alongside other hypotheses to face the tribunal of our best evidence. (shrink)
As a metaethicist, I am interested in whether expressivism is true, and thus interested in whether the argument that people think they find in Hume is a sound one. Not being a Hume scholar (but merely a devoted fan), I am less interested in whether Hume really was an expressivist or whether he really did present an argument in its favor. Hume’s metaethical views are very difficult to nail down, and by a careful selection of quotes one can present him (...) as advocating expressivism, or cognitivist subjectivism, or moral skepticism, or a dispositional theory, or an ideal observer theory, or even utilitarianism. It is entirely possible that Hume’s position is indeterminate when considered against these terms of modern moral philosophy; it is also entirely possible that he was hopelessly confused (much as it pains me to admit it). However, I doubt very much that Hume should be interpreted as an expressivist in any straightforward manner, and therefore I am doubtful that he should be interpreted as arguing in its favor. Most of this paper does not discuss Hume directly at all: I critically discuss the motivation argument and I advocate a certain positive metaethical view—one that mixes elements of traditional expressivism with elements of cognitivism. This position is neutral between moral realism and radical moral skepticism. I close by wondering—very briefly— whether Hume might have held such a view. Given my reservations about the determinacy of Hume’s metaethical outlook, the case is not pressed with any vigor, but because it is an interpretation of Hume that has not, so far as I know, been articulated before, it may be of interest to note that it seems to be consistent with much of what he says—at least as much as any other precise interpretation. (shrink)
The lead text of this book is based on primatologist Frans de Waal’s 2003 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, to which he adds three short appendices. There are commentaries by Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer, followed by a 20-page response. Josiah Ober and Stephen Macedo provide a brief introduction. As befits a Tanner lecturer, de Waal’s scope is broad, his writing accessible, and the pace lively. He continues his crusade against the “veneer theory”—the idea that humans (...) are naturally sociopaths and that empathy, altruism, and morality are the result of recent cultural forces. The extent to which de Waal dichotomizes this debate, however, masks much of interest. One can agree with the seemingly obvious fact that humans are obligatorily gregarious organisms—replete with various prosocial mechanisms—while still expressing reasonable doubt that our capacity to make moral judgments is the result of an innate mechanism dedicated to that task. De Waal is an unparalleled source of rich first-hand primatological data, arguing cogently that humans show continuity with other apes regarding empathy, consolation behavior, peacemaking, and reciprocal relations. Yet he admits these “building blocks” are “by no means sufficient” for morality, and in his Response discusses two further levels of morality: rule enforcement for the community’s good, and disinterested moral reasoning. He doesn’t address whether this third, uniquely human, level is a distinct innate adaptation, apparently not appreciating that if it isn’t, and yet is necessary for being literally accorded a “moral sense”, then moral nativism is false and at least some of human morality is “veneer.” In characteristic non-philosopher manner, de Waal ultimately rejects the question as “semantics” and thus “mostly a waste of time”. It seems a surprising blemish that the author of a book subtitled “How Morality Evolved” should grow impatient with those wondering what precisely is necessary and sufficient for morality, and what specifically has evolved. (shrink)
This collection of eleven papers by Elijah Millgram (nine of which have been previously published) is ostensibly united by the thesis that the best way to go about assessing moral theories is to identify the view of practical reasoning that each such theory rests upon, and evaluate the adequacy of these respective theories of practical reasoning. The correct moral theory, Millgram assures us, will be the one that is paired with the best theory of practical reasoning. He outlines this methodology (...) in a substantial (32 pp.) introduction. Why should we adopt Millgram’s method? A host of concerns immediately leap to mind. If two or more different moral theories rest on the same theory of practical reasoning, then how would discovering the latter to be the correct theory of practical reasoning help us decide among the moral theories? What if a given moral theory is consistent with two or more different theories of practical reasoning? What if we cannot evaluate theories of practical reasoning independently of having adopted a moral perspective? Millgram doesn’t address these natural questions head on, but rather proposes that the essays of the volume collectively constitute a “feasibility demonstration” (p. 3) of the method. In other words, the only way that we will be persuaded that the pairings between moral theories and practical reasoning theories are tight enough to support this grand project is to get our hands dirty in detailed discussion of particular moral theories, particular theories of practical reasoning, and the relations between them. It is through seeing the method at work that we will become convinced, Millgram hopes, of several interlocking theses: (1) that each of the major moral theories of the past has had a distinctive take on practical reasoning; (2) that pivotal structural elements of these theories are due to the underlying theory of practical reasoning; (3) that problems in a moral theory can often be traced to problems in the underlying theory of practical reasoning; (4) that theories of practical reasoning are “engines” (p.. (shrink)
This paper concerns the relation between two metaethical theses: moral naturalism and moral skepticism. It is important that we distinguish both from a couple of methodological principles with which they might be confused. Let us give the label “Cartesian skepticism” to the method of subjecting to doubt everything for which it is possible to do so—usually by introducing alternative hypotheses that are consistent with all available evidence (e.g., brains in vats). Let us give the label “global naturalism” to the principle (...) that requires of any item which we admit into our ontology that it “fits” (in some manner or cluster of manners to be specified) with our naturalistic scientific worldview. One might be both a Cartesian skeptic and a global naturalist, if the latter principle is something that has survived the former test procedure. Alternatively, one might have adopted global naturalism for some other reason, while having little patience for the Cartesian method of doubt. Moral naturalism is the metaethical view that moral entities (e.g., properties like goodness and evil) fit within the scientific image of the world. The moral naturalist will probably be a global naturalist, but need not be: It is consistent with allowing non-natural entities into one’s ontology that one happens to think that moral properties are of the natural variety. Moral skepticism denies that moral entities fit within our scientific worldview. One way of denying moral naturalism is to be a moral error theorist: to hold that our moral discourse attempts to make reference to moral properties, but these properties do not exist.1 Another way of denying moral naturalism is to be a noncognitivist: to hold that our moral discourse was never really in the business of referring to moral facts or properties in the first place, and ipso facto such facts or properties are not naturalistic. In this paper, the label “moral skepticism” denotes the disjunction of these two theses. Neither the error theorist nor the noncognitivist must be committed to global naturalism, but usually will be; indeed, this commitment will often be a motivating factor of their metaethical views.. (shrink)
To reject a false theory on the basis of an unsound argument is, in my opinion, as much an intellectual sin as to embrace a false theory. Thus, although I am no fan of any particular form of moral rationalism—and, indeed, on occasion have gone out of my way to criticize it—when rationalism is assailed for faulty reasons I find myself in the curious position of leaping to its defense (which goes to show that in philosophy it isn’t the case (...) that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend). This puts me at something of a dialectical disadvantage, since my “defense” of moral rationalism has strict limits: I will defend it against specific kinds of criticism, but I have no interest in defending it simpliciter. It is important to bear in mind that what is in dispute between Shaun Nichols and myself is not the truth or falsity of moral rationalism, but rather what kind of evidence bears on the matter. (shrink)