International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-1520
Individual papers
Empirical Ethics and Natural Normativity?

Evolutionary debunking in ethics: The empirical turn

Jeroen Hopster (Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands)

Sharon Street’s Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Values (2006) has sparked ongoing (meta-)ethical debate. According to Street, our evaluative attitudes have been saturated with evolutionary influence. As a result, these attitudes are unlikely to track mind-independent moral truth. This is the essence of Street’s Evolutionary Debunking Argument (EDA) against moral realism: if our moral evaluations have a contingent evolutionary genealogy, then moral facts cannot be ‘real’ in any robust sense. Appearances notwithstanding, Street’s EDA barely relies on empirical input: the ‘evolutionary influence’ she alludes to is extremely generic. In this presentation I elucidate what Street means by evolutionary influence, and analyze her treatment of empirical evidence. I argue that Street’s argument is successful in weeding outgrowths of (meta-)ethical discourse, which are oblivious to basic evolutionary facts. Although this may be considered a modest success, EDAs can have greater significance – and more intricate application – once they are informed by actual details of evolutionary biology. Street has given debunkers a hammer; the real challenge is to turn it into a chisel.

Evolutionary debunking of fairness norms

Elizabeth O'Neill (University of Pittsburgh, United States)

Sharon Street and Richard Joyce have advanced “global” evolutionary debunking arguments that appeal to the evolutionary origins of moral faculties to cast doubt on all moral or normative beliefs. By contrast, Daniel Kelly has argued that because different types of moral beliefs may have different evolutionary histories, there is value in “selective” evolutionary debunking arguments that target only subsets of moral beliefs, such as moral beliefs about purity. In this paper, I advance a selective evolutionary debunking argument targeting beliefs about the fair distribution of resources. In particular cases in which resources must be distributed, people frequently have conflicting intuitions about which distribution scheme is fair—for instance, resources might be distributed equally among individuals involved, distributed according to the contribution each individual made, or distributed according to each individual’s level of need. I argue that evidence from developmental psychology, comparative economics, and primatology suggests an evolutionary history for resource distribution norms that gives us reason to decrease confidence in intuitions about whether competing schemes for distributing resources in particular cases are fair. This case of the evolution of fairness norms shows, contra an argument from Edouard Machery and Ron Mallon, that we have empirical information about the evolutionary origins of at least some moral beliefs that leads to significant ethical conclusions. This project also engages with the question of in what sense it is useful to say that morality evolved.

Natural normativity: A defense of neo-Aristotelianism in ethics

Erik Anderson (Furman University, United States)

An influential group of neo-Aristotelians in ethics including Phillipa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Michael Thompson have recently argued that appeals to natural teleology are essential to theories of human virtue and flourishing. For example, Foot argues that just as we say that a particular oak tree is “a good oak” by appealing to its success at performing the functions that constitute the “life form” of an oak, we say that a particular human being is “a good person” by (at least implicitly) appealing to her success at performing the functions that constitute the human life form. This is not to say that there are not important differences between human beings and other species. “Good human functioning” involves engaging well in the activity of practical reason, which makes the human case significantly different from the case of other animals. But it remains true that the assessment of human beings as good or bad, flourishing or not flourishing, and the identification of certain character traits as virtues or vices relies on an implicit teleological background—a conception of characteristically human functions that it is natural for human beings to perform. This appeal to natural teleology in ethics has come in for heavy criticism by philosophers of biology, many of whom follow William FitzPatrick in thinking that a proper understanding of evolutionary theory undermines appeals to natural teleology in ethics. FitzPatrick claims that once we recognize natural selection as concerned with “the inter-generational replication of certain germ line copies of genes of the types represented in the organism’s co-adapted genome” rather than with the flourishing or welfare of organisms, we will see the idea that humans or other organisms are “naturally designed” to flourish is based on a misunderstanding of evolution. In this paper I will defend the neo-Aristotelian approach. I will do so in part by explicating what I take to be the most plausible neo-Aristotelian account of ethics, the “capabilities approach” developed by Martha Nussbaum. After showing how Nussbaum’s theory exemplifies Foot’s idea that there are natural human functions and that a good life consists, in part, in performing those functions well, I will argue that there is a sense of ‘human nature’ and ‘human function’ that is biologically respectable, immune to FitzPatrick’s criticisms, and can undergird the appeal to natural teleology in neo-Aristotelian ethical theories.