Thank you again, Cocoon, for hosting me as your first featured author. I’ve enjoyed—and profited from—the discussion in the comments section of my last post. In this final post, I’d like to cut a new path through some issues I’ve been thinking about lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the connection between the problem of contingency for religious belief and evolutionary debunking arguments.
These two types of arguments have a lot in common. They both start with observations about the contingency of our beliefs on a certain topics (religion or morality), observations about the method by which these beliefs were formed, about how the content of these beliefs was the result of historical accident. And then, by some steps that are under-described in the literature, we’re meant to get to a skeptical conclusion.
Another commonality: evolutionary debunking arguments seem to rely variously on a sensitivity principle, or a safety principle, or a non-accidentality principle. Here’s one example of each variety.
Justin Clarke-Doane (2012):
The claim that we were selected to have true moral beliefs has counterfactual force. It implies that had the moral truths been very different, our moral beliefs would have been correspondingly different—that it would have benefited our ancestors to have correspondingly different moral beliefs. Accordingly, the key implication of the claim that we were not selected to have true moral beliefs is the negation of this counterfactual.
For Clarke-Doane, the skeptical worry is that facts of evolution show that this counterfactual is false: had the moral truths been very different, our moral beliefs would have been correspondingly different. And that counterfactual is so crucial for knowledge—the skeptic says—that once we realize this, we can no longer sensibly claim to have any knowledge of mind-independent moral facts. Hence the epistemic challenge to moral realism from evolution: our moral faculties—the processes by which we arrive at our moral beliefs—lack an important virtue. And that virtue seems to be sensitivity.
And here are E.O. Wilson and Michael Ruse (1985) arguing for moral skepticism:
Suppose that, instead of evolving from savannah-dwelling primates, we had evolved in a very different way. If, like the termites, we needed to dwell in darkness, eat each other’s feces and cannibalise the dead, our epigenetic rules would be very different from what they are now. Our minds would be strongly prone to extol such acts as beautiful and moral. And we would find it morally disgusting to live in the open air, dispose of body waste and bury the dead. Termite ayatollahs would surely declare such things to be against the will of God… Ethics does not have the objective foundation our biology leads us to think it has.
The idea seems to be that, had things gone differently in our evolutionary history—and they easily might have—the method by which we arrived at our current moral beliefs would have produced radically different moral beliefs. And so, imagining that we “rewind the tape,” so to speak, and rely on the same method of moral belief formation that we actually used, we’ll see that we easily might have arrived at moral beliefs that, by our own lights, would have been false. And that, one might think, shows that our moral beliefs were not formed safely, and so do not count as genuine knowledge.
Finally, here’s Sharon Street (2006) putting the evolutionary challenge to moral realism in terms of luck and coincidence:
[T]he realist must hold that an astonishing coincidence took place—claiming that as a matter of sheer luck, evolutionary pressures affected our evaluative attitudes in such a way that they just happened to land on or near the true normative views among all the conceptually possible ones.
And Matthew Bedke (2009) has it that “cosmic coincidence” is a defeater for intuitive non-naturalism; like Street, he too seems to gesture toward this non-accidentality, anti-luck condition on knowledge. We have good textual reason, then, to suspect that accidentality is the “active ingredient” in evolutionary debunking arguments.
So these authors seem to think that a successful evolutionary debunking argument will have roughly this form:
1. [Insert facts of evolution here]
2. Therefore, my moral beliefs were not formed sensitively, or safely, or non-accidentally.
3. Therefore, my moral beliefs don’t count as genuine knowledge.
Of course, this argument’s success will depend on what we insert into that first premise! Exactly what are those facts of evolution that entail that our moral faculties are insensitive, unsafe, or accidentally true if true at all? That's been left unclear in the literature.
But we can still make progress in evaluating this argument. For reasons we considered vis-à-vis the problem of contingency for religious belief, we can say three things for sure. First, as I argued previously, that inference from 2 to 3 is dubious, so the moral skeptic will have to fashion another version of the evolutionary debunking argument. Second, If the facts of evolution that are meant to carry us to premise 2 are merely facts about the contingency of our evolutionary history, facts about how easily our moral sense might have delivered beliefs that would be false by our own lights had we evolved differently, etc., then the first inference will be vulnerable to the objections we discussed last time.
Third, it looks like the problem of self-defeat will be less pressing for the moral skeptic than it was for the religious skeptic. Everyone—except Phil H in the comments! ;-)—has beliefs on religious topics and therefore will have to answer to the problem of contingency for religious belief. But genuine moral skeptics might plausibly withhold judgment on any moral topic, and they might claim that their skepticism resulted not from the use of their moral faculties but by the use of their rational faculties, faculties that aren’t undermined by the facts of evolution.
And moral realists can’t avail themselves of that exemption. Unless of course they think their moral faculties just are (among) their rational faculties, or that our moral sense is analogous to our rational faculties in crucial respects.
And some philosophers do think that. We might call them “Rationalists,” and they think our moral judgments do not rely crucially on any mental intermediate, any sentiment, seeming, “gut feeling,” “affect-laden intuition,” etc. Rather, we just see the truth of certain moral propositions in an immediate, non-inferential way, as we just see that e.g. Gettier’s Smith had JTB but no knowledge. Philosophers we might call “Sentimentalists” think otherwise: our moral judgments do rely crucially on some mental intermediary.
I can see—if a bit dimly—how Sentimentalists might be threatened by evolutionary debunking arguments. For them, moral judgment relies crucially on a report or representation from our evolved moral sense. And this evolved moral sense was not aimed at the truth or anything necessarily connected to the truth. We can’t make moral judgments without this moral sense, and yet we have no reason to trust it, given those facts of evolution. We’ve got no dispute-independent reason to favor the deliverances of our moral faculties over conflicting deliverances from others’ moral faculties (or the conflicting deliverances our moral faculties easily might have given had we evolved differently). Sentimentalists, it seems, are in trouble from an evolutionary debunking argument that doesn’t rely on controversial claims about sensitivity, safety, or non-accidentality, but only rather more plausible conciliatory claims from the epistemology of disagreement.
But Rationalists are not threatened—at least not on pain of self-defeat for the skeptic. The skeptic’s rational faculties are not so tainted by the facts of evolution that he cannot run through and accept this evolutionary debunking argument. (Otherwise, self-defeat.) So, if Rationalism is right about moral psychology, why can’t we say the same about our moral faculties? That seems to be an acceptable way out of the evolutionary debunking argument. Either the skeptic self-defeats, or Rationalists are off the hook.
And there’s a third option for moral psychology. Maybe our moral judgments do rely on some intermediary (some report, some representation), as the Sentimentalists say. Yet maybe the source of this intermediary was not the product of unguided evolution, showing no concern for truth. Maybe, as “Divine Revelationists” hold, the source of the reports on which we base our moral judgments is some supernaturally-endowed conscience, divine testimony, or the like. In that case, it’s hard to see how the facts of evolution could undermine those moral beliefs.
So that’s what I’m thinking these days: Sentimentalists should worry about evolutionary debunking arguments, but Rationalists and Divine Revelationists need not worry.
One more upshot: For obvious reasons, Divine Revelation is incompatible with philosophical naturalism. For less obvious reasons, naturalism doesn’t play nice with Rationalism. (Accepting Rationalism about moral psychology would be, for many, to just give up on the anti-a-priori, demystifying project of naturalizing moral psychology.) So naturalists are pushed in the direction of Sentimentalism. And non-naturalists are not; non-naturalists can embrace Rationalism or Divine Revelationism with smiles, open arms, and back-pats.
But recall that Sentimentalists should worry about evolutionary debunking arguments. So I’m inclined to conclude that only naturalists should worry about evolutionary debunking arguments.
This is very much a work in progress for me, so I'd greatly appreciate any feedback or comments that come to your minds. Thanks in advance! :-)