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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Decent LifeA Delicate BalanceA Fragile LifeA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Tapestry of ValuesA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst MarriageAgainst 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Virtues of FreedomThe Virtues of HappinessThe Virtuous Life in Greek EthicsThe Virtuous PsychiatristThe Voice of Breast Cancer in Medicine and BioethicsThe War Against BoysThe War for Children's MindsThe Whole ChildThe Woman RacketThe Worldwide Practice of TortureTherapy with ChildrenThieves of VirtueThree Generations, No ImbecilesTimes of Triumph, Times of DoubtTolerance Among The VirtuesTolerance and the Ethical LifeTolerationToxic PsychiatryTrauma, Truth and ReconciliationTreatment Kind and FairTrusting on the EdgeTry to RememberUltimate JudgementUnborn in the USA: Inside the War on AbortionUndermining ScienceUnderstanding AbortionUnderstanding CloningUnderstanding EmotionsUnderstanding EvilUnderstanding Kant's EthicsUnderstanding Moral ObligationUnderstanding Physician-Pharmaceutical Industry InteractionsUnderstanding TerrorismUnderstanding the GenomeUnderstanding the Stigma of Mental IllnessUnderstanding Treatment Without ConsentUnhingedUnprincipled VirtueUnsanctifying Human Life: 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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
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
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.