Thursday, April 12, 2007

I wish I was better at coming up with titles for blog posts

Because if I were, I could compete with Akrasia's "You Damn Dirty...MORAL...Apes". But since I know I'm outclassed, I am instead going to see if I can drag him out on the substance of his post.

Anyone even slightly into popular science has noticed a lot of talk recently about apparently "moral" behaviour among great apes (along with shockingly immoral and treacherous stuff too). Akrasia cites a New York Times piece on Frans de Waal, and comments:

Boringly, the author initially seems to imply that the evolutionary origins of human morality mean serious trouble for moral philosophers. And while one of the main subjects of the piece -- primatologist Frans de Waal -- seems to cling to a rather na├»ve understanding of the relation between empirical investigation into the emotional bases of moral agency and critical philosophical analysis of moral claims (or, to put it in rather quaint terms, the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’) [...]

He promises more, but so far has not delivered (and with the possible exception of Larison, none of us are without that particular sin). I thought I'd try to provoke him with my own naive thoughts.

I doubt Akrasia would deny the potential importance of this work for moral psychology, as opposed to moral philosophy. It would be significant if our capacity for formulating moral beliefs and judgments is an adaptation, since this would mean that its features could be explained by the selection benefits they gave our ancestors. Moreover, if we share some moral capacities with great apes, then we share even more with other humans, including those in other cultures and other historical periods. That's significant because it undermines a radical historicism about moral opinion. In jurisprudence, de Waal's findings tend to give support to people who look for universal principles across legal systems, against those who think everything is culturally relative..

The real question is the relationship between moral philosophy (critical reflection on what we believe about what we should do) and moral psychology (empirical inquiry into what we believe about what we should do). Akrasia seems to police that boundary using a meta-normative/positive distinction. In other words, moral philosophy (in its metaethical rather than applied form) is about what we should believe about what we should do, while moral psychology is about what we do believe about what we should do.

One problem with this approach is that it would place a lot of the tradition of moral philosophy on the side of moral psychology. Andy can give me trouble if I'm wrong, but Hume would seem to be more interested in what we do feel about moral matters than in telling us what we should feel. Mikhail points out that even Kant believed he was providing a rational basis for generally held moral intuitions. Plato's Socrates thinks that the mass of humanity is wrong about what is good, but Aristotle's account of the virtues does not seem to be meta-normative. The natural law tradition seems to be moral psychology. IIRC, Mill claims (wrongly) that our moral intuitions comply with utilitarianism. Everyone who thinks they disprove utilitarianism by showing how counter-intuitive its consequences takes empirical data in the form of undergraduate intuition as capable of counting against a theory in moral philosophy.

And unlike some of the traditional philsophers, contemporary academics working in meta-ethics rarely try to act as moral reformers. (Peter Singer seems to be the main exception.) And few would take them seriously if they tried. (I know a number of vegetarians, not one of whom became that way as a result of Singer.) So it would seem that they are not placed to tell us what we should think about the right or the good, as opposed to making clearer why we think what we already do. But if that is what it's about, then the distinction with theoretical moral psychology seems pretty blurry to me.

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