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. Continue reading →