04 August 2016

The Naturalistic Fallacy Revisited, Again

In his chapter titled The Two Faces of Morality in "Evolution and Morality" (2010), Robin Bradley Kar wrestles with the issue of whether a universe of pure matter can give rise to immaterial notions of morality. I made use of some of Kar's other work in my piece Looking for Bedrock (download here) that addressed competing foundations for human rights.

Kar begins with a commonplace: "When we sincerely judge an action to be wrong ... we usually consider that purposed fact to give us a special, moral reason for action, which has a practical authority that is in some sense independent of our antecedent desire, inclinations, and interests." In short, whatever actually it may be, morality is understood as a "trump" with respect to what we otherwise want. (For more on rights as "trumps" see my post on Nicholas Wolterstorff's "Justice: Rights and Wrongs" here.)

If "right and wrong," unlike desires, inclinations, and interests, are supra-personal trumps, then they must be (or at least they seem to be) objective in some sense of ontological realism. At this point Kar puts "objectivity" in scare quotes because, after all, in a universe composed of matter in motion there cannot be an immaterial "thing" like morality. So how could a notion of immaterial morality have come about? On the one hand,
We know that evolutionary dynamics are inherently selfish and competitive, and a breezy understanding of evolutionary theory might therefore lead one to assume that the correct evolutionary explanation of our capacities for moral judgment must be debunking.
In other words, pure naturalism entails there is no such "thing" as morality.

On the other hand, at least for Kar,
With regard to human motivation ... we know that natural selection has favored the production of social dominance hierarchies in many social animals ... These patterns of behavior plausibly involve perceptions of authority that are distinct from the attitudes that go into purely goal-oriented behavior ... Because we are ourselves social creatures ... it is certainly possible that our moral psychologies would operate by getting us to perceive certain rules as having authority. 
In yet other words, the notion of morality is itself a product of evolution. A feature, not a bug, as it were. Okay. But is Kar's understanding of the evolution of the notion of morality true? Which thus invites the question: What does it mean for something to be "true" in a naturalistic universe?

Kar finds himself in a bit of a pickle but believes he can sidestep naturalism's epistemic conundrum:
Let us assume that part of the correct evolutionary explanation of our capacities for cognitive judgment [which includes moral judgment] is that they conduced to the reproductive success of their bearers, within their environment of evolutionary adaptation, by disposing them to form true beliefs about the world.
In other words, true beliefs "work" by increasing reproductive success. (How's this for a pickup line: "Hey baby, I've got more true beliefs than any other loser at this bar. Let's go to my place and see if we can have some reproductive success.")

But even this concession to "truth" makes Kar nervous:
This explanation makes reference to truth, and some may worry that this reference is problematic (especially insofar as it is meant to play a role in a purely naturalistic explanation) because it is unclear whether truth is itself a natural property.
So Kar quickly reiterates his belief that it's all about reproductive success, not some real notion of metaphysical truth. And by "truth" he doesn't mean "perfect biconditional symmetries concerning the belief that p if an only if p."  Truth, even in Kar's limited sense, means only that "the reproductive advantages of this particular trait can depend upon its capacity to approximate" truth. But how would we know if such a cognitive belief p approximates truth unless there is some "true truth"-- a real p--to which to compare our cognitive p?

To say the least, I find Kar's efforts, valiant as they are, unpersuasive. And if you don't feel inclined to agree with my evaluation, go here to read a short and concise interview with Alvin Plantinga where he debunks a variety of arguments for a-theism including the disconnect between the putative truth of naturalism and the inability of naturalism to account for truth.

Which brings us back to morality. If philosophical naturalists can't account for truth, they certainly can't account for moral realism. Why should we care about right and wrong if our notions of right and wrong are no more than collectively effective means for reproductive success among social creatures? Who is to say that my individual reproductive success isn't more important that our collective success? And even if human evolution has succeeded because of embedded notions of right and wrong, why should I give a damn?

(Don't believe me or Plantinga? Then check out atheist philosopher Joel Marks here who has reluctantly come to the conclusion that naturalism entails a-morality.)

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