(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.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
(by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)