Kant, Hume and the evolution of morality

There is a long post on the Illusive Mind blog defending an evolutionary morality against Kant. I do not particularly want to defend Kant, but i do want to raise a very sizable caveat: whatever “morality” evolution has given us isn’t by any means necessarily the “right” one!

Here is the synopsis of the article/post:

In this essay I will outline what I regard as the most successful attempt to explain the evolution of altruism. I will then illustrate some of the effects that an evolutionary account of moral behaviour has on cognitivist and noncognitivist theories of ethics. I will argue that evolutionary theory does not undermine Hume’s noncognitivism but supports it and casts doubt on Kantianism.

Where things go horribly wrong is when morality is reduced to “a question of desire” because we then have nothing to ‘get behind desires’ and assess them morally (unless you posit some kind of coherence theory, but that is no the case in this article):

The question of retaining moral judgements then is reduced to a question of desire. Do we want to utilise judgements whose agenda is the ongoing survival of the species (at the level of the gene) through a system of rewarding co-operation and punishing cheating?

In effect the morality we have inherited through evolution is taken to be ‘valid’ – except when we don’t like it. The exception is, in my opinion, befuddled; the first part of the above sentence is, however, very dangerous, committing something akin to an is/ought or natural fallacy.

The only alternative on offer is a purely rational ethics à la Kant, but even this is undercut by more primary evolutionary forces:

The only way to be objectively moral and avoid ‘evolutionary baggage’ from tainting our moral judgements seems to be to devote oneself completely to reason in a Kantian fashion. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that reason is above evolutionary pressures. In The Evolution of Reason, William Cooper argues, “the laws of logic emerge naturally as corollaries of the evolutionary laws” (2003, p.5).

In the end, one gets the impression that we are enslaved to the morality evolution thought up for us and are incapable of stepping out of it to evaluate our own moral intuitions.

Admittedly, evaluating our moral intuitions is no easy task. But what is often forgotten is that we are not alone working at that task. It might be impossibly solipsistic for me to want to morally evaluate my own moral intuitions (where would i stand in order to do so?); but it certainly is not very difficult for someone else, actually many other people, to do so.

The solution will likely be neither Humean nor Kantian. We must both use some moral intuitions to assess other ones but also reason through our moral intuitions and find instances where the intuitions clearly go wrong.


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