Saturday, December 04, 2004


Although moral philosophy is a field in which I have made some very minor academic contributions, I have never taken it very seriously. So although my own account of the nature of morality is in my view at once factually correct, useful and not dependant on religious assumptions, I have been content merely to outline it rather than defend it in every detail. And I believe that to be a very conservative thing to do. And in making that claim I am also saying that there is a substantial opposition between what philosophers generally do and what conservatives generally do. And I should make clear that in talking about philosophers, I am talking about real students of the world and of discourse about the world -- not the psychiatric cases and comedians (Derrida etc.) who pass as philosophers in Europe.

There are two things behind what I have just expressed: 1). My belief that morality is largely inborn and, 2). A thoroughly conservative distrust of theory carried to extremes. That really constitutes the whole of what I want to say on the matter but let me spell it out a bit more anyway.

Because the standard psychological measures of moral attitudes (e.g. Kohlberg's) are profoundly contaminated by the Leftist assumptions of their authors, I have not even tried to look up inheritance data about morality in the behaviour genetics literature. So suffice it to say that most important human characteristics seem to show very substantial genetic inheritance (See e.g. here and here and here). If morality were an exception that would be most surprising. And from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, it would be even more surprising. Man is both a social animal and an animal that falls very readily into conflict with his fellow humans. So ways of regulating behaviour to enable co-operation and forestall conflict must necessarily be of foremost importance. And that is largely what moral and ethical rules are all about. To forestall conflict there HAVE to be rules against murder, stealing, coveting your neighbour's wife etc. And that is why there are considerable similarities between the laws of Moses (ten commandments etc) and the much earlier Babylonian code of Hammurabi. The details of moral and legal rules are of course responsive to time, place and circumstances, but there are some basics that will almost always be there. And given the importance of those basic rules for social co-operation, it should be no surprise that such rules became internalized (instinctive) very early on in human evolution. So many if not most of our social instincts are in fact moral or ethical instincts. Ethics are the rules we need for co-operative existence.

Obviously, however, the rules are not so well entrenched as to produce automatic responses. We have broad tendencies towards ethical behaviour but that is all. This is probably due to their relatively recent evolutionary origin. Most of what we are originates far back in our evolutionary past whereas the social rules that we use became needed only with the evolution of the primates.

Additionally, we are the animal that relies least on instinct. So all our instincts can be both modified and defended by our reasoning processes. Just because a thing is instinctive to us it does not mean that the behaviour concerned is emitted in any automatic way. We think about why we do what our instincts tell us and generally conclude that our instincts are thoroughly commendable! And we do generally explain our rules of behaviour in a thoroughly empirical and functional way -- generally starting with: "If everyone did that .... ". And moral philosophers are of course people who specialize in such talk. But the talk is largely epiphenomenal (an afterthought). It is predominantly their set of inherited dispositions that make people behave ethically, not any abstract rationalizations.

And that realization does explain why philosophers so often back themselves into absurd corners. You might guess what is coming next at that point: Peter Singer. Peter Singer is undoubtedly a very able and influential philosopher and in good philosophical style he starts out with a few simple and hard-to-dispute general rules from which he logically deduces all sorts of conclusions that are greeted with horror by normal people -- his view that babies and young children may be killed more or less at will, for example. As a theoretical deduction, his views are defensible but seen in the light of the biological basis of morality, they are counterproductive. A society that killed off its young more or less at will would not last long.

So we come back in the end to the good Burkean principle that theories are to be distrusted and and continually tested against whether or not they lead to generally desired outcomes. Philosophers judge an argument on its consistency, elegance and comprehensivesness. Conservatives judge it on its practical outcomes. And Leftists judge it on whether they can use it to make themselves look good.


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