The Birth of EthicsReview - The Birth of Ethics
Reconstructing the Role and Nature of Morality (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures)
by Philip Pettit
Oxford University Press, 2018
Review by Harry Witzthum, PhD
Oct 22nd 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 43)

A famous song by Ella Fitzgerald says that Birds do it, bees do it, even educated flees do it. What some species do, apart from falling in love, is living in social groups. The human species is not special in that way: as other species, we do live in social groups. What is special about us as a species, is that we have and use natural language and that we use moral and ethical concepts in navigating through social space and in ruling political communities. The question that occupies the hearts and minds of thinkers throughout the millennia is how to understand and explain this intriguing fact? Where do these ethical norms come from and what is their function? Philip Pettit's book The Birth of Ethics: Reconstructing the Role and Nature of Morality is an attempt at giving just such an explanation. The book is an elaboration of materials based on Philip Pettit's Tanner Lectures from 2015 with the same title.

Pettit is looking for a naturalistic approach to the origins of morality. The question that immediately arises with such an account is how essentially prescriptive concepts employed in morality could be explained in a naturalistic theory that is devoid of prescriptive notions and that utilises only pre-moral concepts?

Pettit does not think that the standard naturalistic move is going to be successful. The standard naturalistic story would try to explain the prescriptive (ethical) concepts in a reductionistic fashion: Firstly, find the non-prescriptive conditions that need to be satisfied whenever a prescriptive (ethical) property is instantiated. Secondly, show that these non-prescriptive conditions actually are satisfied by some class of naturalistic properties recognized in some branch of natural science. So, you can show how the ethical properties are reducible to non-ethical properties.

Pettit does not aim for such an implausible account. He wants to argue for a reconstructive alternative: Start with a community similar to us, but who does not yet have prescriptive (ethical) concepts at their disposal. And then show how prescriptive (ethical) concepts might have emerged in this community by telling a naturalistic story of how this evolution might have happened.  If one does not have to refer to non-natural properties in this story, the end result will be naturalistic as well and morality might be given a naturalistic explanation. Pettit would have to show how this community had to develop practices sufficient to make ethics inescapable. This is exactly what Pettit aims to

Erewhon: The pre-moral society gets started

Enter the ancient human society called Erewhon – the name is a wordplay from the word Nowhere. As the name hints at, the human society is an imaginary society, but one needed to start off the process. The Erewhons are people very similar to us in psychological make-up, despite not yet having ethical or prescriptive concepts at their disposal. First, they have beliefs and desires and act for the satisfaction of their desires according to their beliefs. Second, they primarily desire the promotion of their own welfare and that of their next kin. Third, they depend on establishing social relations with one another for achieving individual success. To do this, they are able to rely on others, and able to get others to rely on them. Forth, they can exercise joint attention, consciously focusing on data they take to be available to all and they can act jointly in pursuit of shared goals. And fifth, they use natural human language to communicate with each other. A further supposition is that Erewhonians live in small, relatively equal groups in relative isolation from other groups.

Erewhonians live a pre-moral life. Their psychological states do not involve any prescriptive properties in their contents. "They do not include beliefs about what is desirable or, equivalently, about what there is reason to desire or what they ought to desire. And while they can use natural language to express their attitudes, they use it only for the limited purposes of giving one another reports on how things are in their environment" (Pettit, p. 33). They can, thus, communicate e.g. whether the blackberries have ripened on the hill or about what the weather is like farther north and other such reports. That is all. They trade information about the world to their mutual benefit.


The social driver for evolution: Mutual Reliance and Reputation

The gadfly that disturbs the tranquillity of Erewhon and that ultimately drives the advances leading up to the development of ethical concepts are the benefits associated with mutual reliance: "We develop the adjustments out of a wish to prove ourselves reliable in our communications with one another, making it possible to rely on others when we need to do so and to get them to rely on us when that is in our interest" (Pettit, p. 314).

The first steps in securing the benefits of mutual reliance is the introduction of practices that Pettit defines as "avowing" and "pledging" beliefs and desires to others. When Erewhonians make basic reports about their beliefs, desires or intentions to one another, they have in principle two excuses at their disposal if the reports turn out to be inaccurate. Either a person can point to the fact that the world misled him and that it did not turn out as he imagined it, Pettit calls this the "misleading mind" excuse. For example, a person might have been quite sure that the berries on the hill were red and ripe, only to find out that the berries really are green and looked red only in the fading sunlight.

Or a person can point to the fact that the world changed since he acquired the data on the basis of which he issued the report, what Pettit calls the "changed mind" excuse. In both cases, these excuses would let the person off the reputation hook: The others in the community would not think the person unreliable in the interactions and would still want to interact with him in the future.

Pettit's main argument is that it would benefit Erewhonians greatly to prove their reputation as a reliable "truth-teller" to others by foreclosing a reference to either of these two excuses. If we truly avow a belief, we foreclose the appeal to the misleading mind excuse. If we truly pledge a desire, we foreclose the appeal to both the misleading and changed mind excuses. Successful avowing and pledging signals to others that the person has invested in the prospect of being seen as a reliable person and shows that he can be trusted – which will be in his proper interest as others will reciprocate with their reliance when he needs it. Once avowing and pledging by individuals is on the scene, so Pettit argues, Erewhonians can also avow and pledge not only on their own behalf, but also on behalf of others in the group.


The basic prescriptive notions of credibility and desirability enter the scene

It is these practices of (co-) avowal and (co-) pledging that are the basis of the introduction of prescriptive or normative concepts. The essential idea, in Pettit's argumentation, in making the crucial transition from a pre-moral society to a moral society lies in the appropriate conditions of avowing a belief or pledging a desire. To avow a belief, we must be sure that the respective belief is appropriately supported by the jointly available data. If we are not careful, our reputation with other group members will be tarnished. Therefore, Pettit argues, concepts of what we ought to believe enter the picture, giving us the prescriptive concepts of credibility. Similarly, in the case of pledging desires. To pledge a desire, we must be sur that the respective desire is appropriately supported by the jointly available desiderata. If we are not careful, our reputation with other group members will be tarnished. Thus, concepts of what we ought to desire when confronted with appropriate desiderata enter the picture, giving us the prescriptive notion of desirability. The concept of desirability encompasses more and deeper complexities in comparison to the concept of credibility, but this review will not go into the details.

Having come this far by introducing the basic normative concepts of credibility and desirability, Pettit further develops the argument, that a case can be made to introduce the additional moral concepts of responsibility and moral obligation. This reconstruction of prescriptive concepts is the basis of Pettit's claim that he has shown how our moral concepts might have evolved.


What does a genealogical account show?

Pettit's main argument is a genealogy of our moral concepts. To summarize: He starts out with an input condition: a pre-moral community Erewhon, which is very similar to us with regard to its basic psychological make-up (self-interest is a main driver) and use of natural language (although using natural language uniquely to report information among each other in the beginning). The basic assumption is that individual persons of this community fundamentally need others to achieve their own welfare – as solitary individuals they would and could not survive on their own. Thus, reliance on each other plays a crucial role in survival: they need to rely on others for their welfare and make others rely on them if that is needed to achieve their welfare. The social pressure to maintain their reputation intact is the central value in this community. Loose it once, and you won't survive for long. Reputation acts as a form of natural selection on this group. And the group strategically adapts to this pressure and develops the practices of "avowing"/"pledging" and finally the prescriptive concepts of "credibility"/"desirability" and finally "ethics"/"morality".

The question is whether this kind of genealogical explanation of our ethical concepts really can demonstrate that our ethical concepts are naturalistic concepts. And it is here that Pettit faces a real dilemma threatening his account. There are two ways to question his account:

A) the genealogical account aims to show how we acquire ethical concepts.

In this reading the genealogical account aims to demonstrate the natural character of our ethical concepts by showing how we acquire these ethical beliefs. But this reading is not conclusive. The genealogical story might just demonstrate the necessary conditions of the application of the ethical concepts without thereby showing that these concepts need to be naturalistic in character. To see this, we might look at pure logical principles such as modus ponens etc. People need to develop psychological traits and show some form of control over their psychological processes to argue correctly by the standards of modus ponens. We might construe a plausible naturalistic story about these psychological mechanisms. But the story about these necessary conditions of the application of the logical principle modus ponens does not thereby show that the logical principles themselves are naturalistic. In fact, the philosopher Edmund Husserl famously argued in his book Logical investigations against this kind of psychologism in logics. Logics employs a priori concepts that cannot be explained by empirical concepts such as psychological mechanisms alone. So Pettit's genealogical argument "only" shows how sophisticated the conditions for the application of ethical concepts are and how these kinds of conditions might have developed over time in the human history – but he does not show conclusively that ethical concepts are naturalistic concepts at all. He only showed us what naturalistic conditions need to be in place to apply these ethical concepts.

B) The genealogical account aims to show how we apply ethical concepts.

Pettit might bite the bullet and argue that his story only wanted to show how prescriptive ethical beliefs might apply in a naturalistic world. His story would still tell us very interesting things about the necessary conditions that need to be in place and how they might have evolved so that ethical beliefs can be applied. But obviously, this conclusion is much weaker as the first reading. And quite frankly, this reading would not make sense with regard to the title of Pettit's book. He talks about the birth of morality! His aim is therefore more ambitious. He wants to say something about how Erewhonians acquire morality – so it seems. But the actual reading about application condition would not show how morality originiated, but just tell a story about the application of ethics in our world. The concepts of ethics might still be in essence non-naturalistic concepts – and nothing would have been shown about the normative nature of ethical and moral concepts.

In the end, Pettit seems to have gotten into a dilemma. Either he aims to show how we acquire ethical beliefs – but his account does not show this – or he aims to show what conditions are necessary to apply ethical concepts – that just might be correct, but he loses the substantive claim of having naturalized ethical concepts.

Either way, Pettit's book is a very interesting, stimulating and thought-provoking account of the possible origins of morality. Without a question, Pettit's arguments are the most developed philosophical arguments in the attempt at naturalizing ethics. His arguments bring the philosophical discipline of ethics in contact to empirical and evolutionary accounts of the origin of morality. This contact between philosophy and empirical science just might spark a creative exchange among the disciplines that could illuminate the ethical universe in the future. The hopeful beginning of such exchanges can be seen in the edition of The Birth of Ethics: the book includes a critical exchange with the noted evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello. One can sure hope that this exchange will inspire further theorists to develop the arguments further.


© 2019 Harry Witzthum


Harry Witzthum, Ph.D. did his doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield (UK). His research interests comprise the philosophy of mind and psychology, philosophy of language, and cognitive science.  He currently lives in Switzerland.



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