Thursday, July 02, 2009

On Debunking V: The Final Chapter

(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 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.


  1. Thanks, Tamler, for your very interesting stint as a guest blogger! I'll never see debunking the same way again.

  2. Hi Tamler,

    What you say--about using what we learn from evolutionary psychology to adjust our moral judgments, desires, etc.--seems spot on to me; I emphasized a similar idea when covering evolutionary accounts of happiness (and unhappiness) in my "Happiness and the Good Life" class this past spring. I don't, for that, find the incest example compelling. At least, Jill needn't necessarily dispense with her intuition because it originally played some (let's say) biologically significant role; there may be other reasons now (say, concerning ideals about various sorts of relationships) that make for a different kind of position against incest. (I.e. the situation is going to be a wee bit more complex if Jill's core values don't reduce to the sovereignty of the individual and the harm principle. I don't want to derail the discussion, and don't want to turn this into an argument about incest, so I hope I've said enough about that!)

    But it is right that when we learn that an "intuition"--no less than a desire--may have sources we hadn't been aware of before, then we have to decide, say, how we will treat that new evidence. Simply to ignore it would be, as Sartre might say, to "flee." (A (plausible) subjectivist theory of value doesn't entail that we can simply ignore new you suggest, something like consistency in our values may be at stake.)

  3. Hi Matthew,

    I agree that Jill doesn't have to arrive at that conclusion. It was just a (perhaps oversimplified) example of how evolutionary explanations might affect someone's judgment in a principled way. And you're right that genetic explanations may play a particular important role in developing subjectivist theories about happiness and the good life.

    Eric, thanks again.

  4. Tamler, thanks for citing my paper. You raise a very interesting question.

    In part the question here depends on what we mean by 'debunking argument'. I used that term to refer to a specifically epistemic argument, but of course it can be used more loosely.

    A few points:

    (1) Knowing the causal origins of a some subjective response might affect or eliminate that very response. If the subjective response in an intrinsic one, then the outcome might be, on simple subjectivist views, that something stops having the value it had. But strictly speaking, this isn't any kind of argument. It's just a psychological effect.

    (2) Most subjectivist views are not so simple and rule out certain psychological influences as irrelevant to value. David Lewis, for example, tells us to imagine something vividly but ignores its causal history. Presumably he would say the same about the causal origins of our response to the thing. To be sure, the opposite could also be claimed: the causal origins of the response might be stipulated to be relevant by some subjectivist (as noted above, some have made this move to address problems for subjectivist views of well-being). This however is pure stipulation. The subjectivist needs to claim that such a constraint is an analytic truth, but it's hard to see how claims about neuroscientific processes or evolutionary origins could be analytic truths... In any case, even if accepted, such considerations won't be epistemic in the sense I discuss in my paper. It's just being stipulated that e.g. certain evolutionary origins rule out a role to some subjective response in generating value. But this couldn't be because this response is not 'truth tracking' in some independent sense.

    (3) It might be further argued (I argued that in some earlier versions of this paper) that the fact that we are inclined to give claims about causal origins such an epistemic role is itself evidence that subjectivism isn't a correct account of our evaluative or moral concepts. The character in your example might take herself to be a subjectivist, but her response might indicate she isn't really.

    (4) On another reading of your example, we are not talking about intrinsic subjective attitudes (the kind that generates value for subjectivists) but about derivative ones. Subjectivists can treat derivative attitudes as justified or not in way they cannot (strictly speaking) treat intrinsic attitudes. But I'm not sure how the incest example is supposed to work here. Why isn't Jill's disgust not intrinsic? It's true that its causal origins was to fulfil some evolutionary function that is now irrelevant (and which is not the object of Jill's own intrinsic attitudes), but this itself seems irrelevant. Since Jill is not intrinsically concerned with the propagation of her genes, perhaps the same could be said about the causal origins all of her intrinsic desires.

    (5) The argument might have more direct force if the claim was that, unconsciously, Jill's response involves the belief that incest in these cases involves genetic risk. Since this belief is in fact false, then Jill's attitude is unjustified by strict subjectivist standards. But it's doubtful that such a belief can be attributed to Jill -- and in any case, this would mean that no real work is done by the causal origins story. The attitude would be unjustified even if there was no such story to be told.