Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Debunking Part Deux: Selective Debunking in Metaethics.

(by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)

In my last post, I explained why an evolutionary account of parental love in no way undermined or debunked my love for my daughter. Now I want to apply some ideas from that post and discussion to a debunking strategy employed by Peter Singer and Josh Greene* in “Ethics and Intuitions” and “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul” respectively.

Singer and Greene aim to accomplish two things: first, debunk our deontological moral intuitions by appealing to an evolutionary account of their origin; and second, to explain why this account doesn’t reveal consequentialist intuitions to be equally misguided. (Balancing these two aims is tricky business, as I’ll try explain below.)

Their basic line of reasoning is this: evidence from evolutionary biology (and neuroscience, social psychology etc.) suggests that non-consequentialist intuitions are the product of emotional responses that enabled our hominid ancestors to leave more offspring. Since they were adaptive, we would have these intuitions whether or not they reflected moral truth of some kind. Consequently, we have no reason to trust these intuitions as guides to what we ought morally to do, or to take these intuitions as “data” to be justified by more general normative principles or as starting points in an attempt to reach reflective equilibrium. As Singer writes: “there is little point in constructing a moral theory designed to match considered moral judgments that themselves stem from our evolved responses to situations in which we and our ancestors lived during our period of evolution...” (348)

Here’s the key question. If this evolutionary account successfully debunks our non-consequentialist intuitions, then why doesn’t it debunk consequentialist intuitions as well, leading to moral nihilism? Singer provides one response but I don’t think it can work. He claims that our consequentialist intuitions are not products of natural selection. They are better described as “rational intuitions.” Why? Well, Singer argues, to take one example, natural selection would not favor treating everyone’s happiness as equal. True, but that is precisely the consequentalist intuition that we don’t have. We believe it’s permissible (or obligatory) to favor our own children’s welfare over the welfare of others. As for the other crucial consequentialist intuition, not wanting people to suffer in general—this likely is a product of our evolved sense of empathy. By Singer’s reasoning, we should likewise be suspicious of that intuition as well.

Josh Greene’s response is different, part of a divide and conquer strategy. He argues that the naturalistic and sentimentalist account undermines, at the very least, rationalist deontologists because it reveals them to be rationalizers. The normative conclusions they claim to be reaching through reason are actually a product of evolved emotional responses. As an analogy, he asks us to imagine a woman named Alice who (unbeknownst to her) has a height fetish and is only attracted to men over 6 foot 4. When she comes back from a date, she defends her view of the man’s attractiveness with claims about his wit, charm, intelligence, or lack thereof. But really it’s all about the height. Her claims are rationalizations of unconscious impulses, Greene argues, just like the theories of rationalist deontologists.

The analogy is interesting and perhaps not altogether favorable for Greene and Singer’s purposes—for consider what this true account of the causes of her taste in men doesn’t do. It doesn’t debunk her taste in men! The account does not show that it’s false that she finds tall men attractive, it just shows that she is attracted to them for different reasons than she originally thought. Is she going to start dating Danny Devito types now that she’s aware of this? Surely not. And there’s no reason why she should. Similarly, those who, say, believe it permissible to favor one’s children’s welfare over the welfare of strangers can retain this intuition and just abandon the pretense that they’ve arrived at it through reason.

In short, while Greene’s strategy may undermine a certain kind of justification for non-consequentialist intuitions, it doesn’t seem to give us any reason to hold them in less regard than our consequentialist ones. If you agree that Singer has not demonstrated the inherent “rationality” of consequentialist judgments, then it seems the two sets of intuitions are, for the moment, equally justified or unjustified.

I can think of a host of objections here, but the post is long so I’ll stop for now. Comments and eviscerations welcome!

*Greene is officially a moral skeptic but one who only attempts to debunk non-consequentialist judgments and who believes that consequentialism is the most reasonable normative theory to endorse even if it is not, strictly speaking, true. The paper is available on his website.


Dan said...

It looks like you're trying to take the height fetish analogy a step farther than Greene intended, and that step only makes sense if we assume emotivism (or something similar). Attraction doesn't depend on anything more than the person's attitudes/evaluations, so explaining away her stated reasons for her attraction doesn't debunk the attraction itself. If there's nothing more to morality than the person's attitudes/evaluations, then (analogously) explaining away their stated reasons for their moral views won't debunk the moral view itself. But if there is something more to morality (e.g., if it's supposed to be backed by reasons), the analogy doesn't go through for that step and we may have a debunking.

Tamler said...

Dan, that's true. But if moral intuitions are supposed to be backed by reasons then I don't see how their debunking strategy accomplishes the second aim: not throwing the consequentialist baby out with deontological bathwater. The intuition "I ought to favor my child's welfare over the welfare of strangers" doesn't seem any worse off than the intuition "I ought to prevent as much suffering as possible."

Neil said...

Hey Tamler,

There seems to be a tension between your claims wrt to Singer and Greene. You castigate Singer for putting forward a claim - that we ought to treat everyone as equals - on the grounds that it is not intuitive (which is an odd criticism, because Singer's point is that it is not intuitive: it is reached by reason, he claims). Then you criticise Greene for putting forward a claim on the grounds that moral intuitions need not be backed up by reasons.

I discussed these debunking strategies in my 2007 book, btw.

Tamler said...

Neil, I don't think it's an odd criticism. Singer concedes on p. 350 that that the "more reasoned" response may still be said to be based on an intuition. And then he calls it a "rational intuition" because it doesn't seem to trace back to our evolutionary past.

Now it's one thing to call something a rational intuition. It's another thing to show that it really is derived from reason. I can't see any argument for the latter. If a principle is not intuitive and there's no argument to show that it's derived from reason, why should we consider it more reliable than a deontological principle?

I'm not completely sure what criticism of Greene you're referring to. My point is NOT that moral intuitions need not backed up by reasons (although I can see how someone might intepret my original post that way). I had intended to be neutral on that front. My point is that whether or not moral intuitions need be backed by reasons, Greene and Singer haven't shown deontological intuitions to be any worse off than consequentialist ones. And so the selective debunking strategy is unsuccessful.

I'll definitely check out the discussion in your book.

Arjan Haring said...

Hi Tamler,

Great posts! I am trying to disgest it all. Important and tricky stuff.

Just finished "Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life", and I think that is on the same drift.

Ah well, maybe not, but I really really liked it. I feel much more clearness in my head now. Mainly about the whole "doing good" community and their claims of importance.

If you have any recommended readings I would like to know.

Keep up the good work.

alex said...

Hey Tamler,

Thanks for a really interesting post! I suspect that as more and more evolutionary explanations are put forth for everything from our literary preferences to our mate preferences, issues concerning debunking or genealogical explanations will become more and more relevant/pressing.

[Freud (I know, I know) actually has some interesting things to say about this sort of thing in 'The Future of an Illusion'.]

On that note, could you or Neil point me towards the 2007 book you mention? And, if anyone has any additional suggestions for recent books/articles on genealogical explanations, I'd love to hear them!


Tamler said...

Hi Alex,

I think the book you're referring to is Neil Levy's Neuroethics (Cambridge UP, 2007).