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I’ll be the first to admit that last week’s post was insufficiently argued. But I think it may have been helpful as a springboard for further (potentially more carefully argued) reflection; I expect that next week’s post, as well as this one, will follow up on it. I argued last week that attempts to explain value judgements seem to run into trouble when they don’t ground those judgements in a deeper metaphysical reality. I looked at this problem there largely in terms of the early twentieth-century analytic tradition. But I didn’t address one of the most common non-metaphysical attempts to explain value judgements: the evolutionary explanation.

Several comments from Jesse took this approach. “Morality,” he claims, “has existed in some form or other since the first self-replicating proteins formed in the primordial ocean.” Citing game theory, he notes that organisms which helped each other out would have been far more likely to survive and thrive. Ethan Mills, while somewhat skeptical of the game-theoretic explanation, still cites James Rachels for another kind of evolutionary explanation: at the social rather than individual level, societies wouldn’t have lasted long without morality.

Now I am not and was not speaking only of “morality” in the sense of aiding (or refusing to harm) others. (There was a reason the word “morality” didn’t appear in that post.) As I noted in my comment, I was also speaking of other kinds of value – including virtues like self-discipline and patient endurance that would be valuable whether or not anyone else is around, and for that matter of aesthetic value, the value in good art or the beauty of nature.

But that’s not the big issue here, for it’s not so hard to come up with evolutionary explanations for these other kinds of value either. Self-disciplined creatures would very likely have adapted better to their environments. There are plenty of people, perhaps most notably Denis Dutton, who have even tried to find evolutionary explanations for aesthetics.

I am not going to pass judgement here on whether evolution is a correct or adequate causal explanation for the origins of human value judgements. For the sake of argument, in this post, I am going to assume that such accounts get the causal origin of value judgements basically correct. Because far more important is a deeper criticism: they miss the point.

The error being made here is parallel to the one that tries to prove God’s existence merely as a First Cause of the universe, not as a First Explanation. In this bastardized version of the cosmological argument, the causal processes of the universe must have a starting point, identified with God – a rather useless God, one that doesn’t mean anything more than the Big Bang. But the intellectually respectable form of the cosmological argument isn’t just about causes, but about other kinds of explanation: not just where the world comes from, but what its essence is and what it’s for.

Return more directly to the present topic: to explain the causes of value judgements, to identify where they have their origin, is not actually to explain value. What this kind of explanation explains is the bare fact that people happen to make judgements of value. What it doesn’t and can’t explain is the truth or falsity of those judgements. To have an adequate account of ethics and values, we need to know not merely why people happen to think some things good and some things bad (or why they act accordingly). We need to know why things actually are good and bad. (Our mode of explanation needs to be ethics, not ethics studies.)

Few are seriously prepared to jettison this distinction, between what actually is good or bad and what people merely believe to be so. We want to say that Pol Pot was wrong when he thought it was a good thing to commit genocide on his own people. To consistently say such a thing requires that we believe value judgements can be correct or incorrect; they need to have a referent, to refer to the action having a real goodness or badness independent of whether the agent takes the action or believes in its goodness. (Some do try and advocate a thoroughgoing value relativism, of course; I have responded to some such arguments here, here and here.)

I think the early analytic philosophers, more than those who find evolutionary explanations sufficient, at least grappled with this problem – they just failed to solve it. They asked: what do we mean when we call something good or bad? Those who try to reduce judgements of good or bad to a simple descriptive property – good is what fosters the species, produces pleasure, etc. – run into trouble pretty quickly, for it’s pretty clear that a great many usages of “good” do not simply mean any of these things. One could try and argue that those who use “good” to mean anything other than species preservation or the production of pleasure are mistaken, but they’ll have a pretty hard time making the case. Neil Sinhababu made a valiant effort, but I have argued that he failed, with some additional thoughts.

I have many problems with G.E. Moore’s concept of the naturalistic fallacy, and especially with the inadequate alternative he provided (as I discussed last week) – but I suspect that this important point is where he was coming from when he came up with it. Moore took the idea of the naturalistic fallacy much too far; I think one can legitimately make inferences from “is” to “ought” statements, but one should still be careful about doing so, especially when one puts a particular kind of descriptive claim at the heart of one’s ethics. The problem is nicely illustrated by Ayn Rand in this deeply problematic passage:

the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p.17)

What Rand doesn’t seem to have thought of is that such a view can have absolutely nothing to say to the person who chooses to kill herself – in suicide, in war, in civil disobedience. If your system of values comes out of the desire to live, it is irrelevant to anyone who takes that desire as unimportant. I think there’s a similar problem with the point Ethan makes in his comment that Buddhism is ultimately based on our desire to end suffering; not everybody treats that desire as decisively important, and I think Buddhists have a problem addressing those who don’t. (I intend to take up this point more next week.)

How to get around this problem? I note that Ethan lists Aristotle as having a “naturalist” theory of ethics comparable to Rand’s or Sinhababu’s. But Aristotle’s theory is a bit different from theirs, in that he sees value as an inextricable part of the natural world. The idea of God as First Explanation ultimately derives from his thought, because for him explanation needs to be teleological as well as causal: you need to explain things in terms of their purposes, what they’re for, as well as their (efficient) causes, what put them there. Aristotle’s views of nature are of course tied up with beliefs about causes that we cannot share in a scientific age. But it seems to me that we may still need something like them in order to make sense of value.