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Natural Ethical FactsReview - Natural Ethical Facts
Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition
by William D. Casebeer
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Nov 4th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 45)

Casebeer sets himself an ambitious agenda. It has two parts. First, he defends a naturalistic ethics, according to which moral values are not merely explained, but actually justified by their evolutionary past. Second, he argues that a connectionist view of the mind not only offers the best explanation of all cognition, including moral cognition, but also ought to inform and constrain our practices of moral education. The two strands come together in a naturalized Aristotelianism: moral actions are justified by their contribution to eudamonia, here understood as flourishing in accordance with our function, and moral education is a process of character-formation. The most recent science turns out to support a (suitably modified, but still recognizable) version of one of the most ancient moral philosophies.

Casebeer is well aware of the dismal history of attempts to biologicize morality, and the ways in which, in the hands of Spencer or E.O. Wilson, they have tended to lead to absurdities or lend support to repugnant policies. He attempts to avoid the worst of the traps mainly by arguing for a modern-history view of function. Rather than argue, as more traditional evolutionary ethicists have done, that actions (policies, character traits, or whatever) are justified insofar as they promote inclusive fitness (essentially, reproductive success broadly understood) or the health of the species, Casebeer argues that the functions which play a justificatory role must be understood in terms of the role they have played in their recent evolutionary history.

This is an approach which is likely to prove effective in avoiding many of the worst problems afflicting other evolutionary ethics. It is easy to imagine a situation in which rape, for instance, might count as justified on either the inclusive fitness view or the survival of the species view, but it might not count as justified on the modern-history view of function, which might make mention of the manner in which sociability tends to contribute to our flourishing. That said, however, it is very difficult to see how Casebeer's view will cope with a host of other potential problems.

First of all, there is the obvious fact that our functions are unlikely to fit together harmoniously. If sociability tends to contribute to our flourishing, so, sometimes, does betrayal. Dozens of game-theoretic studies have demonstrated, for instance, that while cooperation often pays off, under the right conditions defection is a better strategy. Evolutionary biologists like Robert Trivers have argued that it is likely that animals, including human beings, will have mechanisms which dispose them to be on the lookout for opportunities in which defection pays off, and will also tend to exaggerate the extent to which they are reliable cooperators. Upon what grounds will Casebeer rule out these apparently immoral dispositions? They seem to have as much right to count as functions, on any view, as some of our more praiseworthy features.

Second, it is far from obvious that exercising our moral dispositions requires us to give equal consideration to the interests of others. It may be, for instance, that sociability is a condition of our flourishing, so I have reason to form close and cooperative relationships. But I cannot form such relationships with everybody. Why should not I and my group exploit, enslave or kill other groups? One defensible interpretation of life in the environment of evolutionary adaptation pictures it as precisely a life of war of all groups against all others, and it may be that the psychological dispositions which are the product of intergroup conflict survive in us. Why does the modern-history view not mandate such conflict?

It is difficult to know how Casebeer would attempt to answer these criticisms, because Natural Ethical Facts suffers from a frustrating lack of detail. Casebeer provides few examples of functions, and makes no attempt to show how our recent evolutionary past picks out these functions. This is a case in which the devil most certainly is in the details, since -- I suspect -- any plausible account of the functions Casebeer chooses will apply equally to others he would (properly) reject as part of our moral nature. It is fair to say that the chapters on proper function constitute a promissory note, not an account.

The same lack of detail haunts the account of moral cognition. Here the failure is perhaps excusable, since the empirical research which would be needed to substantiate Casebeer's case is still in its infancy. The claim that connectionism lends support to an Aristotelian (or a phenomenological) view of practical wisdom has been made before, most notably by Hubert Dreyfus and Andy Clark, and it is not clear that Casebeer has much to add to their claims.

Like almost all evolutionary ethicists before him, Casebeer is at his least convincing when he is most practical: attempting to give political and moral advice. Natural Ethical Facts illustrates once again that though evolution has a great deal to tell us about the origins of morality, it has little to tell us about its content. Connectionism might prove more fruitful: most obviously, it might usefully suggest to us better means of moral education. Until authors take seriously the moral and not just the scientific complexity of the phenomena they discuss, however, it is difficult to be sure.

 

2003 Neil Levy

 

Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.


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