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The first of the three-volume collection Moral Psychology is titled The Evolution of Morality: Adaptation and Innateness, and comprises seven main contributions on a wide range of issues in evolutionary moral psychology. The intention of the collection, as stated by the editor, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, is to "[bring] together some of the most innovative, insightful, and informed philosophers and psychologists" working in the field of evolutionary moral psychology. In particular, what is remarkable as an editorial choice is the format of the volumes: each of the seven main articles is followed by two commentaries from different authors and each of these sections is closed by a reply to the commentaries by the author(s) of the commented article. This format allows for often interesting and at times productively heated discussions, where authors and commentators rebuke each other and leave the reader with open challenges to think about.
What follows is a survey of each section of the collection, with a focus on the main articles and, where necessary, some additional remarks on the commentaries to the main articles.
The field of moral psychology has been proliferating among psychologists as well as philosophers in the past decades although a strong resistance to some of its main tenets is still present. This is true especially amongst philosophers, who seem shielded by some hard-to-refute arguments; for these reasons it is not surprising that the first article of the collection, by Owen Flanagan, Hagop Sarkissian, and David Wong, is a plea for naturalism in moral philosophy. The article provides arguments for naturalizing moral theories and counterarguments to those that are considered the milestones against naturalism in moral philosophy and in particular Moore's stance on the impossibility of a naturalistic account of morality.
The second article, by Leda Cosmides and John Toby, argues, on the basis of empirical evidence from experiments, that there is no such thing as a central system for deontic reasoning. In particular, experimental subjects seem to use different reasoning algorithms depending on the particular task they are confronted with, making a case for domain specific deontic rules. These theses are in stark contrast with the enterprise of discovering a domain-general deontic logic that is applicable to all types of deontic reasoning. The discussion about this section becomes particularly heated when it comes to terms with Jerry Fodor, one of the commentators on the section. The debate is between advocates (like Cosmides and Toby) of the Massive Modularity Hypothesis and those like Fodor who claim that the mind is not massively modular and that complex mental faculties are the product of domain-general cognitive processes. The debate reiterates the discussion that has been carried on between some evolutionary psychologists and counter-advocates of the Massive Modularity Thesis, in particular Fodor, for instance with the 1997 book by Pinker, How the Mind Works (1997) and Fodor's 2000 reply with The Mind Doesn't Work that Way. For an up-to-date account of the debate, the article by Willem E. Frenkenhuis and Annemie Ploeger (2007) Evolutionary Psychology Versus Fodor: Arguments for and Against the Massive Modularity Hypothesis, is particularly useful.
Nevertheless, despite the interesting nature of the discussion in itself, Fodor's reply has quite a personalistic flavor and seems more interested in defending his modus operandi than the theory itself that he advocates.
In the third article of the collection Debra Lieberman investigates the origin of moral behavior in relation to a specific domain: incest. Lieberman offers two theses, the first that "moral sentiments relating to incest are, in part, by-products of psychological adaptations governing the development of sexual aversion towards one's own family members" (p. 165) and the second, that adaptation may play a role in regulating the sexual behavior of kin towards one another. Scientific discussions about incest were first undertaken by the Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermarck at the beginning of the XX century, and Lieberman's arguments are meant to support the original thesis that the moral prescriptions found across cultures on incest are a product of an evolutionary mechanism dedicated to preventing the negative fitness consequences caused by inbreeding. It is important to point out that the Westermarck Hypothesis competes with one main contrary thesis (the latter in agreement with the Standard Social Science Model), according to which it is exposure to the taboo of incest in societies that generates feelings of sexual disinterest or disgust towards one's own kin. According to Lieberman the evidence that was claimed to be lacking in support of Westermarck hypothesis has now been gathered and made available so that it is finally possible to take a stand on the two alternatives. In his comment, however, Arthur P. Wolf points out that Lieberman's explanation does not help understand why societies sanction others' inbreeding behaviors, whereas one could easily understand why one would avoid incest at the personal level, viz. to avoid negative fitness consequences, attitudes towards third parties are central to the concept of "moral" and the moral problem is not addressed by Liebermann.
In the fourth section of the collection, Geoffrey Miller advocates a theory of sexual selection of moral virtues. Moral virtues are seen as signs of fitness indicators parallel to what a big and colorful plumage is in peacocks. The article offers an interesting glimpse into Geoffrey's more elaborated theory as exposed in his 2000 book The Mating Mind, where he suggests how also higher order faculties (for instance, those expressing cultural abilities) in humans are the result of sexual selection in the same way as lower order faculties are. For instance, the development of moral virtues, as well as artistic and scientific/intellectual enterprises in the human species are sexually selected in the same fashion that specifically physical properties are. The author provides a wide selection of examples and explanations to justify his thesis, and the article ranges over a wide area of philosophical enquiry and reconnects to some classic authors in philosophy. However, the commentators, Catherine Driscoll and Oliver Curry, point out some difficulties in Miller's theory: one of its most troublesome flaws resides in the comparison between moral virtues and costly fitness signals such as the peacock's tail; whereas it is patent that the latter is a costly signal of fitness in sexual selection, it is not as clear that the former can be considered as such, for a number of reasons that Driscoll provides. Secondly, according to Curry, Miller's theory is not able to account for certain types of virtues (for instance, what are referred to as the Christian Virtues); the commentator provides a conflict-resolution account, alternative to Miller's, that allegedly solves Miller's theory's flaws.
The fifth main article, by Peter Ulric Tse, defends the thesis that the evolution of human morality is strongly associated with the use (peculiar to the humans species) of symbolic thought. Symbolic manipulation of concepts is, according to Tse, a privilege of the human species and is characterized by analogical and arbitrary association of concepts as well as one-shot learning abilities. In human moral reasoning, acts are moral or immoral because at some point in evolution they came to stand for something abstract like the category of "bad" or "wrong" or "evil" or the correspondent positive categories. This is the reason why animals, lacking capacities for symbolic thought, cannot be classified as moral or immoral but should rather be treated as a-moral. Tse provides several arguments in defense of his theses, however the author of this review agrees with the first commentator (Michael R. Dietrich) that the account Tse provides lacks in justification (Dietrich's words are slightly more direct and the commentator describes Tse's theory as a "just-so story"). The interesting part of the Tse article is the positive account he provides, the theory he develops is rich and explanatory but fails in its persuasiveness: in particular, there seems to be no negative account or, in other words, a survey of the available alternatives and their problems and a set of reasons why his theory should be preferred to others. Dietrich's commentary hints at the fact that Tse's theory is a "putative evolutionary explanation […] merely compatible with some of the principles of evolutionary biology (p. 299)". Tse replies that his theory is, indeed, a hypothesis, in need of confirmation and claims that his theory makes observable predictions that can be tested and verified. Nonetheless, a slightly more developed account would be desirable on Tse's account.
In the sixth section of the collection Chandra Sekhar Sripada presents three models that purport to account for the innate structures that play a role in shaping individuals' moral attitudes. Sripada argues against the first two models, the Simple Innateness Model and the Principle and Parameters Model, and provides reasons for defending the Innate Biases Model, categorizing it as "the most plausible account of the innate structure that shapes the content of moral norms" (p. 343). According to the latter, the presence of recurring moral patterns across societies is due to the presence of an innate structure in the human psychology, which makes it more likely for certain moral norms rather than others to arise. According to the author his model is able to explain why there is a certain observational regularity in human moral norms and at the same time allows for enough variability across cultures, as observed by cultural anthropologists. The comments to this article are concentrated on the Poverty of Stimulus Argument (PSA), which is used, among others, by Sripada in order to justify his model. Gilbert Harman disputes the analogy with linguistics in the study of the development of human moral norms and claims, among other things, that the PSA can be used for justifying other models as well, eg. the Principles and Parameters Model. John Mikhail directly attacks the PSA, by claiming that whereas in linguistics we have a fairly intuitive grasp on the diversity of actual languages, such empirical data is not available for moral theories. For this reason, the PSA cannot be used for justifying a "universal moral grammar" module, parallel to the universal grammar module advocated in linguistics. Again, it turns out that the analogy between linguistics and morality, as presented by Sripada, is at least dubious.
The first article of the collection was a defense of naturalization in moral philosophy and in the same spirit the very last contribution addresses another one of the central issues that evolutionary moral psychology deals with, to wit, the problem of innateness. Jesse J. Prinz, the author of the last article, defends the thesis that morality is not innate, by providing an inquiry on a set of issues related to the problem of innateness in moral theory: 1) presence or lack of universal rules; 2) presence or lack of universal domains; 3) the modularity problem; 4) the Poverty of Stimulus Argument; 5) theories of fixed developmental order in moral development and 6) animal precursors thesis. The final part of the article contains the sketch of Prinz's positive account of where morality comes from, where it claimed that morality is a by-product of other human capacities and, especially, arises as a solution to social coordination problems.
This first volume of the collection Moral Psychology is certainly an interesting and valuable contribution to the field, addressed mainly to an expert audience or in any case to the very interested reader, for the scientific nature of the contributions.
© 2009 Carlo Martini
Carlo Martini, Tilburg Center for Logic and Philosophy of Science, Tilburg University, The Netherlands