Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Evolve this, buddy!

Noah Millman, who typically seems to be an intelligent fellow, forwards two surprisingly fatuous contentions in this post.

1) "we can’t rely naively on an Aristotelean teleology which we now know has no empirical basis"

Ah, someone must've had their final-cause-detection meter set on high, and still have failed to find any teleology!

Because what else can Millman mean here? Four hundred years ago, the founders of modern science made a methodological choice: they would only look for efficient causes, and they would only consider efficient causation in their explanations. Final causation was excluded not because of any evidence that it does not exist, but because explanations in terms of final causes were thought to be unenlightening.

That an enterprise which has deliberately excluded teleology from its explanations does not reveal to us any final causes is hardly surprising.

2) Millman next suggests that the hole created in Aristotelian ethics by removing teleology (which, on its face, would seem to be about the equivalent to the hole created in the United Kingdom by removing England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) can be patched with the theory of evolution.

This is absurd. The theory of evolution might help to explain why we act the way we do. But morality is about what we ought to do, not what we happen to actually do. Consider this: for the Romans, it was absolutely standard practice, after defeating an opponent in war, to grab all of the women of their foe and turn them into sex slaves. Quite obviously, there are a lot more people in the world with Roman genes because of this practice than there would've been otherwise. Or contemplate Genghis Khan*: I have read that something like a quarter of the population of Central Asia carries his genes.

Clearly, forcing women into sex with one "pays off" in evolutionary terms. And if we stick to a purely Darwinian perspective, there is nothing more to be said.

In fact, a major role morality has played in history has been to get people to stop doing things that they evolved to do, even if those things offered an evolutionary advantage.

Thinking in terms of evolution can provide interesting insights into why we do the things we do. But quite obviously, it has nothing to say whatsoever about what we ought to do.

* Siri does not seem to use context at all in deciding what has been said: when I dictated "Genghis Khan," Siri rendered it as "Genghis con"!


  1. Wikiepdia reports:

    "Some accounts say that Genghis Khan was castrated by a Tangut princess using a hidden knife, who wanted revenge against his treatment of the Tanguts and stop him from raping her.[24][25][26] After his castration"

    Is it possible that such acts of self-defense by victims of aggression throughout history may have contributed to the development of morality and that morality is part of social evolution rather than some kind of objective standard that tells us how we "ought" to act ?

    1. Of course lots of things in history contributed to morality. Of course it is part of social evolution.

      Those things are not the issue. It is, "Why should I (or anyone) pay any attention to these moral principles?"

      "Because they evolved" is a woefully inadequate answer. Rape, child molestation, and genocide all evolved as well.

  2. Ethics tend to guide morality in a more logical and more consistent path, but unfortunately morality rarely returns the favor. People are generally nuts. That seems to be the disconnect.


Current review queue

Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews