Our judgments have evolved… and?

I have seen a number of people who espouse what they call "evolutionary ethics" argue as follows: "Our ethical standards are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only what one group or another has happened to evolve."

Imagine applying this to, say, mathematics: "Our mathematical standards are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective standards of true and false in math, only what one group or another has happened to evolve. If some other culture happens to think that there are integers n greater than two for which an + bn = cn, well, that is just their standard! And when you say that I solved that differential equation wrongly, well, that is only a prediction that the particular mathematicians in our culture with our mathematical standards will disapprove of what you did."

But even worse for these folks: our thought about evolution has evolved as well. And so there can't be any objective right or wrong there either! So if some other group happens to believe that the morals we happened to have evolved are the exact opposite of what would really promote our survival: well, that's just what the belief they happened to have evolved.

This is such obvious nonsense that we must note what motivates it: some people desperately want there to be no objective standards of right and wrong!

12 comments:

  1. "…some people desperately want there to be no objective standards of right and wrong!"

    I'd be interested to know why they'd want this. If they got their wish, then they wouldn't have a frackin' leg to stand on!

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    1. Avoiding justification of their beliefs or political positions is one answer.

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  2. On a related note, do suppose it's possible to be a cultural relativist but not a moral relativist? The Wikipedia page on cultural relativism seems to suggest it's an assumption made strictly for purposes of anthropological study.

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    1. Only if you can show that the basic assumption (s) of cultural relativism can be separated from those of moral relativism.

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  3. 1. "Our ethical standards are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only what one group or another has happened to evolve"

    2. "Our mathematical standards are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective standards of true and false in math, only what one group or another has happened to evolve"

    3. "Our thoughts about evolution are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective founding for evolution, only what one group or another has happened to evolve".

    There is nothing logically inconsistent in thinking that 1 is true and 2 and 3 are false. Why is showing that 2 and 3 are odd things to believe and probably false in anyway relevant to the truth (or falseness) of 1 ?

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    1. Rob, if the fact that our moral sense has evolved is evidence that it is not objective, then the fact that our mathematical sense or our judgment of evolutionary theory has evolved is evidence that they are not objective either.

      Of course, one or more of them could be objective, and the others subjective. I am only addressing the argument that "because evolved" equals subjective.

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  4. I agree with you, Gene, that "Our ethical standards are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only what one group or another has happened to evolve" doesn't make sense.

    The problem in this sentence is the word "meaning", which implies that the the first clause proves the second.

    It appears to me that both clauses are correct, but neither proves the other. I would say "Our ethical standards are a product of our evolutionary history and there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only what one group or another has happened to evolve".

    That said, your objection strikes me as relatively trivial, since it doesn't address the more pertinent question of whether morality is objective or subjective.

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    1. Greg, I am addressing an argument I actually have seen, and pointing out why it is bad. You agree with me that the argument is bad.

      A post pointing out a bad argument is not responsible for clearing up every single issue on the topic of that argument. Of course there are many excellent arguments on the objectivity of morality, so good that moral subjectivism has gone from the dominant position in academic philosophy 60 years ago, to a distinctly minority position. But I don't see why you think my blog post has to address every such issue or be open to criticism.

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    2. I suppose it's because I'm interested in your thoughts on the other topic. But you are of course right that not addressing something else is no shortcoming of the point you've made here. I apologise for implying otherwise.

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    3. No problem. On objective morality, two atheist (as far as I know) philosophers, Bernard Williams and Phillipa Foot, are interesting in turning the tide against moral subjectivism.

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  5. I kind of think the argument is stronger than that, even.

    It seems to me that there is a conflation of ideas here, mainly our 'moral inklings' and objective morality (if there is one) itself.

    The people arguing that our 'moral inklings' are essentially 'arbitrarily' connected to our evolutionary history still need to answer why they exist, i.e. influence reproductive fitness at all if they are not connected to some objective, real, external 'thingy,' which Christians, et al., seem to have developed these elaborate systems for describing and taken to calling 'objective morality.'

    If theists are positing that there is this objective 'natural law' that is very much real, and in some fashion this thing winds up showing up as having effects on things like reproductive fitness, and this results in what we experience as 'moral inklings' to guide our behavior as a result of evolution to help increase our fitness, then the inklings would very much seem to be strong evidence that objective natural law exists in the first place for this whole process to respond to. Maybe you don't want to call this thing 'objective morality', but it is hardly evidence that whatever it is doesn't exist!

    (Anyway, I guess my main point is that if there is such a thing as 'objective morality', it would be kind of dumb to equate it to what an evolutionist imagines is a 'moral inkling.' That doesn't seem like a very good way to imagine what the words objective morality would mean & how they would manifest themselves. Do they imagine that gravity is merely our sense of gravity? The thickening of our bones to support our bodies if we put on too much weight? That's an odd way to define gravity.)

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