(by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)
First, let me offer my thanks to Eric for giving me this opportunity and to everyone who commented on my posts. This was fun.
Since my latest post on debunking I came across a paper called “Evolutionary Debunking Arguments” by Guy Kahane. (Forthcoming in Nous, you can find it on Philpapers.org.) Kahane mounts some careful and compelling criticisms of selective (“targeted”) debunking strategies and global debunking strategies in metaethics, and I strongly recommend this article to anyone interested in the topic. For my last post, want to focus on a claim from Kahane’s paper that isn’t central to his broader thesis but relates to my earlier posts. Kahane argues that evolutionary debunking arguments (EDAs) implicitly assume an “objectivist account of evaluative discourse.” EDAs cannot apply to subjectivist theories because: subjectivist views claim that our ultimate evaluative concerns are the source of values; they are not themselves answerable to any independent evaluative facts. But if there is no attitude-independent truth for our attitudes to track, how could it make sense to worry whether these attitudes have their distal origins in a truth-tracking process?” (11)
I don’t think Kahane is right about this. Learning about the evolutionary or historical origins of our evaluative judgments can have an effect on those judgments—even for subjectivists. But we need to revise the description of EDAs as follows. Rather than ask whether the origins of our attitudes or intuitions have their origins in a truth-tracking process, we need to ask whether they have their origins in a process that we (subjectively) feel ought to bear on the judgments they are influencing.
Consider judgments about art. Imagine that Jack is a subjectivist about aesthetic evaluation. Ultimately, he think, there is no fact of the matter about whether a painting is beautiful. He sees a painting by an unknown artist and finds it magnificent. Later he learns that the painter skillfully employs a series of phallic symbols that trigger cognitive mechanisms which cause him to experience aesthetic appreciation. Would knowing this alter his judgment about the quality of the work? I can see two ways in which it might. First, his more general subjectivist ideas about the right way to evaluate works of art may rebel against cheap tricks like this to augment appreciation. He doesn’t feel that mechanisms that draw him unconsciously to phallic symbols ought to bear on his evaluation of a work of art. Second, learning this fact may have an effect on his visceral appreciation of the painting. (Now he sees a bunch of penises instead of a mountainous landscape.) In a real sense, then, his initial appreciation of the painting has been debunked.
So how might this work in moral case? Imagine Jill is an ethical subjectivist who is about to vote on a new law that would legalize consensual incest relationships between siblings as long they don’t produce children. Jill’s intuition is that incest is wrong. However, she has recently read articles that trace our intuitions about the wrongness of incest to disgust mechanisms that evolved in hominids to prevent genetic disorders. She knows that genetic disorders are not an issue in these kinds of cases, since the law stipulates that preventive measures must be taken. Her disgust, and therefore her intuition, are aimed at something that does not apply in this context. She feels, then, that her intuitions ought not to bear on her final judgment. And so she discounts the intuition and defers to other values that permit consensual relationships that do not harm anyone else.
The general point here is that evolutionary or historical explanations of our intuitions can have an effect on our all-things-considered evaluative judgments even if we think those judgments are ultimately subjective. Knowing the origins and mechanisms behind our attitudes can result in judgments that more accurately reflect our core values. This seems like a proper goal of philosophical inquiry in areas where no objectivist analysis is available.
Thursday, July 02, 2009
(by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)