Many moral philosophers accept the Debunking Thesis, according to which facts about natural selection provide debunking explanations for certain of our moral beliefs. I argue that philosophers who accept the Debunking Thesis beg important questions in the philosophy of biology. They assume that past selection can explain why you or I hold certain of the moral beliefs we do. A position advanced by many prominent philosophers of biology implies that this assumption is false. According to the Negative View, natural selection cannot explain the traits of individuals. Hence, facts about past selection cannot provide debunking explanations for any of our moral beliefs. The aim of this paper is to explore the conflict between the Debunking Thesis and the Negative View.
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Crisp (2006), de Lazari-Radek and Singer (2012), Huemer (2008), Joyce (2000, 2001, 2006), Parfit (2011), Rosenberg (2011), Ruse (1986), Singer (1981, 2005, 2006). Kahane (2011) and Street (2006, 2008, 2011) hedge this conclusion: natural selection explanations are debunking iff we assume some form of meta-ethical realism.
See Cummins (1975).
My reasoning in the following draws on a similar discussion in Sober (1995).
Someone might think that since o’s existence is necessary for o to have T, explaining o’s existence partially explains why o has T, and so selection for T can explain why o has T if it can explain why o exists. But in that case, whenever natural selection explains an organism’s existence, it would explain all of its properties. Thus, in our example, selection for the trait of reciprocity would explain why I wear blue jeans or once owned a bike with a red frame. This, I take it, is absurd.
I have modified the details of this case slightly.
See McLoone (2013) for a suggested revision of the Negative View that avoids counterexamples of this kind.
For a similar view, see Singer (1981).
This contradicts the view of the developmental psychologists responsible for the research discussed by Joyce. See, in particular, Nucci (2001: 13).
See Bowles and Gintis (2011), Henrich and Henrich (2007), Richerson and Boyd (2005), Sober and Wilson (1998). More exactly, the emphasis is on gene-culture co-evolution, which involves reciprocal interactions between cultural and genetic inheritance, as in the acquisition of lactase persistence by dairying peoples in Europe and Africa.
On which, see Wilson and Wilson (2007).
Henrich and Boyd (1998).
I omit any supporting references to help test your intuitions on this point.
For further development of this line of response to Street, see Setiya (2012).
Some philosophers (e.g., Bergmann 2006, Pryor 2004), believe it can be permissible to use bootstrapping reasoning to certify the reliability of a given method of belief-formation provided one has no antecedent reason to doubt the reliability of the method. So far as I am aware, no one defends the view that bootstrapping reasoning is acceptable in a case like that described here. Thus, Bergmann says: “You can't sensibly come to trust a doubted witness on the basis of that very witness's testimony on his own behalf” (180).
For an argument that familiar evolutionary debunking arguments rest on bad epistemology, see White (2010).
See also Street (2006: 113–114).
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See Mogensen (2014) for a detailed development of this kind of argument.
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For helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper, I'm grateful to Krister Bykvist, Ellen Clarke, Daan Evers, Hilary Greaves, participants at the 2014 Philosophy of Biology in the UK conference in Cambridge and at the 2014 Experiments and Intuitions conference at Ertegun House, Oxford, as well as to students participating in my graduate seminar on evolutionary debunking arguments at Oxford in Hilary Term 2015. Last but not least, I would like to thank an anonymous referee at this journal for insightful comments.
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Mogensen, A.L. Do evolutionary debunking arguments rest on a mistake about evolutionary explanations?. Philos Stud 173, 1799–1817 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-015-0579-x
- Moral epistemology
- Philosophy of biology
- Evolutionary debunking arguments
- Natural selection