Sunday, May 1, 2011

Darwin and Moral Realism: The Survival of the Iffiest

I’ve covered Sharon Street’s evolutionary debunking argument of objective (mind-independent) moral reality before. I’ve also covered some responses to the argument, along with some more general reflections on arguments of this sort. I’d recommend reading some of those posts before tackling this one.

In this entry, I’ll be covering the following article:
Skarsaune, K.O. “Darwin and Moral Realism: Survival of the Iffiest” (2011) 152 Philosophical Studies 229
It’s a direct response to Street’s Darwinian dilemma. So a quick recap on her argument is our first port of call.

1. Street’s Darwinian Dilemma
Non-natural moral realists believe that moral properties (values, rights, wrongs etc) exist in some mind-independent realm. Further, these realists tend to believe that we acquire knowledge of this realm through the exercise of our intuitive evaluative judgments. In other words, our intuitive evaluative judgments are some how in tune with this mind independent realm.

Now we all know (irrespective of our metaethical proclivities) that most of our intuitive evaluative judgments are the products of a complex evolutionary history. That is to say, most of our intuitive judgments can be said to have come about due to their fitness enhancing abilities. So, for example, our belief that we have certain duties to protect our offspring, or our enthusiasm for reciprocal forms of altruism, can be explained in terms of fitness enhancement.

But this creates a problem for the defender of moral realism. It implies that our evolved judgments have somehow managed to coincide with the mind-independent moral truth.

The thoughts set out in the preceding paragraphs can be expressed as an evolutionary debunking argument:
(1) Causal Premise: Our intuitive evaluative judgments are the product of a complex evolutionary processes.
(2) Epistemic Premise: Evolutionary processes are fitness enhancing, they do not track the truth of mind-independent moral properties.
(3) Therefore, our intuitive evaluative judgments are unjustified.

Street thinks that in responding to this argument the realist is confronted with a dilemma. As with all dilemmas, there are two horns on which they can impale themselves:

First Horn: They can argue that there is a relation between evolutionary processes and the mind-independent moral truth (which seems implausible).
Second Horn: They can argue that there is no such relation, in which case they land themselves in an unwelcome form of scepticism.

Skarsaune thinks the realist can be open to both horns of the dilemma, no matter how pointy they may appear to be. To be precise, he argues that the realist can provide an account of the relation between evolutionary processes and moral truth; and that if this account fails, then they could happily embrace the scepticism conclusion. He also makes some interesting concluding remarks about the nature of moral realism. We’ll look at all three of these elements in what follows.

2. Pain and Pleasure
Skarsaune’s willingness to embrace the two horns of the dilemma stems from his belief that he can provide a pre-established harmony account of the relationship between evolved evaluative judgments and the moral truth. If you have read my series on David Enoch’s response to Sharon Street, this will be a familiar idea, however, I think Skarsaune’s account is slightly more persuasive.

Enoch focused on the correlation between evolutionary goals such as survival and reproduction and deeper moral truths like the intrinsic goodness or badness of pain; Skarsaune focuses directly on the evolutionary utility of pain and pleasure.

He begins by making the following substantive claim:

  • P: Pleasure is usually good (for an agent) and pain is usually bad (for an agent).

This claim is agent-relative and non-absolute. It accepts that there may be exceptional cases in which pain might be good for the agent. This possibility does not matter for Skarsaune’s argument, provided such cases are relatively rare.

P can be restated using the language of reasons as follows:

  • P*: The fact that x would give the agent (S) pleasure is usually a reason for S to bring about x; likewise, the fact that x would give S pain is a reason for S to avoid bringing about x.

Skarsaune argues that two plausible inferences can be made from P (or P*). The first of these maintains that if P is true, then the first horn of Street’s dilemma is tenable. That is to say, a connection between evolutionary processes and moral truth can be found. The second inference maintains that if P is false, then the second horn of Street’s dilemma is tenable. That is to say, the realist has nothing to fear if P is false because this would imply that an awful lot of what we think we know about morality and about reasons for action would be in error. Realists usually accept such risks of error (indeed, one reason for being a realist is that one accepts the risk of error).

3. The Evolutionary Utility of Pain and Pleasure
Turning our attention to the first inference, we need to understand Skarsaune’s confidence in the connection between evolution and pain and pleasure. Surely, we might argue, evolutionary processes direct us toward that which is fitness enhancing, not that which is intrinsically good or bad?

Yes, responds Skarsaune, but one way in which evolution directs us toward that which is fitness-enhancing is by making things that are evolutionarily beneficial pleasurable and things that are evolutionarily detrimental painful. (You might like to read this series I did on Paul Draper’s evidential argument from evil for related ideas).

It’s easy to see how this is the case in relation to pleasure: the belief that something is pleasurable provides motivation to act; those individuals who took pleasure from evolutionarily beneficial activities were motivated to act in evolutionarily beneficial ways; as a result they tended to leave more offspring than those who did not take pleasure from such actions. Thus, the fact that we associate pleasure with certain activities plays a part in evolutionary explanations of our existence.

So far so good, where do we go from here? Well, we simply point out that P is true - that pain and pleasure are part of the essential moral fabric of the universe - and so evolutionary processes can track the truth of moral states of affair. Problem solved; dilemma dissolved. Right?

Not so fast. Doesn’t this really only imply that evolutionary processes create value? In other words, that evolutionary processes have made certain things valuable to us, and not that evolutionary processes have somehow managed to direct us towards the independently determined moral truth?

Skarsaune has a response. It is true that evolution has created a type of value by using the pleasure/pain mechanism, but we need to be clear about what this is. Evolution has merely made it the case that we find certain states of affairs to be valuable; it has not made it the case that pleasurableness itself is a good. The goodness of pleasure (and badness of pain) is independent of evolution. The distinction is subtle, but essential.

So there is, in effect, a pre-established harmony between the pleasure-seeking (and pain-avoiding) mechanism used by evolution and an independently specified moral truth. This allows the realist to embrace the first horn of Street’s dilemma.

4. What if we are wrong about P?
Not content to rest on the foregoing argument, Skarsaune also thinks he can show that a moral realist should be undeterred by the second horn of Street’s dilemma. The realist might be forced into that horn by someone arguing that P is wrong: that pain and pleasure are not usually good/bad for the agent pursuing them.

Skarsaune asks us to assume, for sake of argument, that this critic is correct. What would follow from this? Only that most of our beliefs about practical reason and morality are false. And presumably if this is the case, we’ll have bigger things to worry about than the plausibility of moral realism.

For example, suppose it were really the case that pleasure did not supply you with a reason for action. This would mean that most of your beliefs about what you have reason to do would be false. Maybe that's not significant since it relates to the agent-relative aspects of pleasure and pain. What about the agent neutral aspects? Well, similarly, the falsity of P would deprive us of many reasons for acting in the interests of others since most of those reasons relate to making the lives of others more pleasurable.

Either way, if P is false, then a lot of what we take for granted is false.

5. Realism and Mind-Independence
Even if Skarsaune’s argument to this point has been convincing, there is one final objection. Indeed, this is an objection raised by Sharon Street in her original presentation of the dilemma. It runs roughly along the following lines:
Sure, we can say that pleasure and pain are valuable and can be tracked by evolution, but in saying this aren’t we renouncing our commitment to moral realism? After all, realism is usually understood to be the view that moral facts are mind-independent. But pain and pleasure are very clearly mind-dependent. So to place them at the centre of our moral theory is to switch from realism to anti-realism.
Skarsaune disagrees. He thinks Street only makes this argument because she has an impoverished conception of moral realism. Realism is not committed to the view that moral facts are entirely mind-independent. We have to be more discriminating in our understanding of what the realists think is independent from what.

To be precise, we need to more discriminating in our breakdown of the various mental states from which a moral fact can be independent. Skarsaune argues, citing the examples of Nagel, Parfit and Shafer-Landau, that realists do not think moral facts hold independently of all mental states. They think that moral facts hold independently of beliefs and judgments, not independently of affective states.

I don’t know what to make of that claim. In some ways, I don't care what those defending realism actually believe. It is often the case that individuals hold beliefs that are inconsistent with the theories they defend. What matters to me are the implications of those beliefs. I think that if what Skarsaune says is true, then there is no important difference between realist and anti-realist theories. This would be an odd result, but I'd be glad to hear that defenders of realism are coming round to my position.


  1. Now we all know (irrespective of our metaethical proclivities) that most of our intuitive evaluative judgments are the products of a complex evolutionary history. That is to say, most of our intuitive judgments can be said to have come about due to their fitness enhancing abilities.

    I certainly do not "know" this, because it is radically unclear and almost certainly false. The idea that evolutionary theory could ever offer this kind of extraordinarily complete explanation is false. The idea that there is such a thing as a set of "our" intuitive ethical judgments is false. The idea that childhood experiences don't radically condition our ethical responses is false. There is no need for the realist or the anti-realist to engage with any position that makes operates under these preposterous assumptions.

  2. John d,
    will you stick to Evolution and Ethics or will you also review articles on Plantinga's EAAN?

  3. Hi el ninio,

    I'm currently on a bit of an evolution and metaethics binge so I have no immediate plans to cover the EAAN. At the end of this week I'll be looking at a paper that proposes an evolutionary debunking argument for religious belief (kind of a reverse Plantinga).

    I'll cover anything that seems interesting to me. So I wouldn't rule out looking at the EAAN.


    I was perhaps incautious in my summary of Street's position. I was trying to summarise what is a very long original article (Street's article that is). I don't think her original argument is as preposterous as you might think. But suppose it is, this article is an attempt to see whether it would succeed even if we assumed its first premise to be true. That's seems like a perfectly legitimate thing to do.

  4. I don't see why a moral realist would have to say that morality is mind-independent. I think that the realist needs to make sure that morality is in some sense more substantial than anti-realists seem to think. It's not clear how much more substantial it has to be, but the idea that morality is "culturally relative" or that it's "a matter of opinion" (belief-dependent) seems to be an "eliminative reduction" that destroys any hope of morality being as substantial as the realist would like. For the moral realist, morality must be "irreducible" in the sense that it can't be eliminated through a reduction.

    Let's say that morality is mind-dependent in the sense that minds have intrinsic value. In that case intrinsic value might give us desire-independent reason to act. Perhaps we ought to save human lives considering that other people's lives involve the existence of minds, which have intrinsic value. I don't see how mind-independence would destroy the hope of moral realism in that case.

    Does moral realism make any difference in reality? It might. The realization that other people's minds have intrinsic value could help foster altruism, cooperation, and empathy. Anti-realists could decide to care for their family and friends rather than to nurture their empathy towards strangers. If we found out that morality is irrational, that might give us more reason to neglect our empathy for strangers rather than nurture it.

    I don't think we should demonize the enemy, marginalize the importance of strangers, and so on. If moral realism is true, that seems to help justify my beliefs in a way that might not be possible if it's false.