the biological takeover of ethics

From the NTY:

Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.

The article primarily discusses Franz de Waal and Marc Hauser. Philosophers will obviously object to biology’s imperialistic claims, but it cannot be doubted that an area that previously was the sole purview of the human sciences is now accessible to the natural ones – and their much more accurate and rigorous methodologies. This does not however mean, as an E. O. Wilson would have it, that philosophical ethics has become unnecessary – only that it must change.

Ethics must accept the new knowledge offered by biology and attendant sciences. It is very possible that ethics will have to abandon its own search for specific ethical theories – and let the psychologists and neuroscientists do that. Indeed the plethora of ethical systems (kantian deontology, utilitarianism, emotivism, virtue ethics, etc.) will begin to strike us hopelessly flawed attempts to come up with the one single principle for all of morality – just like the early greeks spent their time arguing whether the universe was fundamentally constituted of fire, earth, water or air. As it turns out, it is made of of all and none the above – that the answer is much more complicated and that we might never reach a most fundamental level.

As with pre-socratic philosophies, it is perhaps time that ethics gave up its search for fundamental principles and outsourced that work to the natural sciences who will begin in media res, finding little pieces they will puzzle together instead of looking straightaway for and ethical Grand Unified Theory.

What is the role then for philosphy and ethics in particular? I think the primatologist de Waal offers us the beginnings of an answer:

As Dr. de Waal sees it, human morality may be severely limited by having evolved as a way of banding together against adversaries, with moral restraints being observed only toward the in group, not toward outsiders. “The profound irony is that our noblest achievement — morality — has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior — warfare,” he writes. “The sense of community required by the former was provided by the latter.”

The answer lies not in the substance of this paragraph but in the thinking that underlies it. The distinctive feature of homo sapiens is that it reasons, that it can abstract from its situation and therefore change itself. Biology and psychology will tell us how we behave and why, it will even explain our oughts – it will tell us why be think like kantians in certain situations and why we reason like utilitarians in others. Ethicists will no longer be able to preach their own pet ethical theories; they must move one rung up the ladder and begin to concentrate of the more difficult question of what we want to want. Science will explain the mechanism of our ethical reasoning; it will, however, be up to ethics to pull all the diverse pieces of scientific explanations together and use them to figure out not what we are but what we want to become. This is one area in which philosophy is (still) the best equipped contestant.


4 Comments to “the biological takeover of ethics”

  1. I’ve enjoyed your last few posts and agree with your conclusion about the role of philosophy. For my part, I think this work takes two main forms. (1) It becomes cultural politics. (2) It becomes pedagogy of judgement, not teaching people what to think but ennabling them to reason well.

    I call both sorts of work ‘ameliorative’ since they both aim to make us better and not to tell us how things are. Traditional metaphysics and ethics I call ‘legislative’ since they aim to arrive at grounds for telling us how to understand the world and what to do in it that go — or wish to go — beyond what we know and what we imagine for the future.

    It seems to me that there is still a value in working through all our old legislative traditions. In the first place, that work ameliorates; it teaches us to reason well. But even more, these traditions provide us with a rich vocabulary — a conceptual common ground — with which to engage in cultural politics.

  2. I imagine, that ethical ideas and emotional, spiritual and physical experiences also change the way our brain functions, provoking neural connections, and the physiological integration of mind and body. When we become more fully functioning human beings, we become more humane.

  3. i agree with S. that there is still much value in the old legislative traditions and their careful systems, only it seems that the sciences are the area in which these traditions need to be expounded upon. The scientist will tell us if the philosophers of old were right or not.

    as to the ‘ameliorative’ aspect of ethics: i don’t think i becomes (simply) “cultural politics” and “pedagogy of jedgement”. Rather, i see a much more substantive role to be played by philosophy. We must not only think more clearly about our existing ethical ideas and find better compromises between them, but we must figure out how to improve these ideas, how to move beyond what we currently find good and evil. This implies a new system of ethics, but not another interesting but contingent (empirically verifiable) theory about what is good; the new system would be both open and critical, organizing all the other theories and new scientific discoveries into something coherent. Perhaps this is what you meant in the first place…:)

  4. I liked it all but the last sentence best! 🙂 I think of morality as how we usually go on so when I say ‘cultural politics’ I mean negotiating how we will go on. I agree with you that this negotiation should take into consideration our best science.

    Pedagogy of judgement, I suppose, will continue to be carried out by having people study the history of ideas and applying themselves to puzzling through the current batch of technicalities (which look to be increasingly scientifically informed). It will be more intellectually conservative.

    The best cultural politics on the other hand be open, critical, and draw together the best of our scientific theories and traditions. I don’t think it will lead to a single predominant intellectual system of ethics that we’ll all get behind — at least not anytime soon — but I do think it will massage culture onto new moral paths. It will shift what we think possible and important and, more importantly, what we do.

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