Evolutionary Hypotheses and Moral Skepticism

Abstract

Proponents of evolutionary debunking arguments aim to show that certain genealogical explanations of our moral faculties, if true, undermine our claim to moral knowledge. Criticisms of these arguments generally take the debunker’s genealogical explanation for granted. The task of the anti-debunker is thought to be that of reconciling the (supposed) truth of this hypothesis with moral knowledge. In this paper, I shift the critical focus instead to the debunker’s empirical hypothesis and argue that the skeptical strength of an evolutionary debunking argument is dependent upon the evidence for that hypothesis—evidence which, upon further inspection, proves far from compelling. Following that, however, I suggest that the same considerations which spell trouble for the empirical hypotheses of traditional debunking arguments can also be taken to give rise to an alternative—and better supported—style of debunking argument.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A note on terminology: I use ‘moral faculties’ to refer to the psychological mechanisms and processes that explain why we make the moral judgments that we do. EDAs are not aimed at moral beliefs directly, but at the psychological faculties that shape them; the influence of evolutionary forces upon moral beliefs themselves is usually thought to be indirect (see Joyce 2006, pp. 180–181; Street 2006, p. 119).

  2. 2.

    I should note that Street’s (2006) true target is evaluative realism; she extends the skeptical challenge to all evaluative beliefs (when their contents are construed realistically), of which moral beliefs form a proper subset. Having noted this, I will, for ease of exposition, mostly formulate EDAs in terms of an epistemic challenge to moral beliefs. ‘Evaluative’ can be substituted for ‘moral’ so as to make the formulation fit Street’s own articulation.

  3. 3.

    For similar diagnoses, see Shafer-Landau (2012) and Dunaway (2017).

  4. 4.

    All unattributed citations to Joyce and Street henceforth will be to their respective 2006 publications.

  5. 5.

    I borrow this way of framing things from Korman (2014).

  6. 6.

    Detailing the finer contours of hard to fake, honest signals is well beyond the scope of this paper. See Frank (1988) for an informative discussion.

  7. 7.

    My criticism here is structurally identical to one that Sterelny (2012b) has raised against Kitcher (2011), whose genealogy shares similar assumptions to Joyce’s.

  8. 8.

    A possible recourse for Joyce would be to argue that certain forms of cooperation are a prerequisite to language use, whereas other (more sophisticated) forms of cooperation require language—though this would require spelling out both why (a) more sophisticated forms of co-operation were plausibly needed, and (b) the degree to which moral faculties can plausibly be taken to have been important for their emergence and persistence.

  9. 9.

    See Deem (2016), who also takes issue with this feature of Street’s account, and considers a host of other important ontogenetic factors. See also Prinz (2009), who doubts that there is even canalization for very basic and general moral values.

  10. 10.

    Or at least, plausible how-possibly stories arguably do so. See Sterelny (2012a) for a compelling criticism of “key-innovation” models of human evolution.

  11. 11.

    I do not mean to suggest that any adaptive explanation of a cognitive faculty precludes us from forging an appropriate explanatory connection between that faculty and a particular domain of truths. Plausibly, natural selection has not been a distorting influence upon various commonsense beliefs that we hold (e.g., beliefs in the existence of ourselves and other bodies). As Wilkins and Griffiths (2013) point out, fitness-tracking and truth-tracking don’t seem to come apart here; it is reasonable to suppose that true commonsense beliefs are linked to evolutionary success.

  12. 12.

    I am here granting the assumption that human morality is a unified phenomenon that may properly be described as an adaptation, or a by-product. Sterelny and Fraser voice an appropriate suspicion of this assumption, noting that human morality is something of a “complex mosaic”, the many elements of which plausibly “have different origins, respond to different selective forces [and] depend on different cognitive capacities” (2016, p. 983). Though this does suggest that debunking genealogies tend to oversimplify things, it does not undercut the basic argument to be developed in what follows. If anything, it supports my contention that extant accounts of moral evolution are empirically questionable.

  13. 13.

    For discussion relating to probabilistic inferences in the absence of determinate evidence, see Joyce (2005).

  14. 14.

    I assume here that we do not have any independent reasons for doubting our claim to moral knowledge.

  15. 15.

    Fans of the KK-principle might beg to differ. There is a straightforward route from the NDA to moral skepticism for those who take knowing that p to entail being in a position to know that one knows that p. But I do not wish to rest my arguments for the NDA’s skeptical potential upon the KK-principle, whose fans are in relatively short supply nowadays.

  16. 16.

    For those who are unsure as to whether this would indeed be the appropriate response, we can add that Leia has never been a subject in experiment before, and that she is unaware of the typical distribution of placebos under such conditions.

  17. 17.

    This is not to confuse two levels of explanation. M* concerns moral faculties themselves, the reliability of which is cast into doubt by some genealogies but not others.

  18. 18.

    For a rather different take on the epistemic implications of uncertainty with respect to the content of our moral past, see Saillant (unpublished manuscript).

  19. 19.

    I thank an anonymous referee for raising this important challenge.

  20. 20.

    So-called a priori gas is said to induce a “…phenomenology of blatant obviousness” (Hawthorne 2007, p. 205).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank an anonymous referee for detailed comments, which greatly improved the quality of the paper. For helpful feedback on earlier drafts, I am incredibly grateful to Edward Elliott, Benjamin Fraser, Richard Joyce, Daniel Nolan, Neil Sinhababu, Nicholas Southwood, Kim Sterelny, and Shang Long Yeo. Thanks are also due to audiences at the Sydney-ANU philosophy of biology meeting, the Australian Association of Philosophy Annual Conference, and the ANU Philosophy Society Seminar. This work was supported by an Australian Research Council Grant for the project, ‘The Origins of Inequality, Hierarchy, and Social Complexity’.

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Correspondence to Jessica Isserow.

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Isserow, J. Evolutionary Hypotheses and Moral Skepticism. Erkenn 84, 1025–1045 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-018-9993-8

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