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Irish Philosophy

Philip Pettit & The Birth of Ethics

Peter Stone thinks about a thought experiment about how ethics evolved.

Philip Pettit is perhaps the most important Irish moral and political philosopher alive today. Born in Ballygar, County Galway in 1945, Pettit studied at Maynooth College, the National University of Ireland, and Queen’s University, Belfast. He began his teaching career at University College Dublin in 1968, and held numerous other teaching positions before arriving at Princeton University, where he is currently Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Human Values. He also serves as Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at Australian National University. Despite working in the United States and Australia, Pettit maintains ties to his native land, delivering, for instance, the inaugural Edmund Burke Lecture at Trinity College Dublin in 2007, and participating in President Michael D. Higgins’ Ethics Initiative in 2014.

Pettit has written numerous books on a variety of topics. He has, for example, for some time been an ardent advocate of republicanism. Long viewed as an alternative to liberalism, this political ideology (no relation to any political party) places non-domination at its core. According to republicans, a free society protects all its citizens, even (or especially) the most vulnerable, from subjection to the arbitrary whims of others. Pettit is also a strong proponent of group agency – the philosophical position that corporate bodies such as states or corporations can legitimately be regarded as agents in their own right, with agendas, beliefs, and preferences of their own. Only the existence of group agency, Pettit holds, can make sense of the way groups are able to function coherently over time despite the many differences among the individuals comprising them.

Pettit developed his book The Birth of Ethics: Reconstructing the Role and Nature of Morality (2018) while giving the Tanner Lectures, a prestigious philosophy lecture series at the University of California, Berkeley. Like other Tanner Lecturers, Pettit received critical responses to his talks from a number of distinguished commentators. (Unfortunately, only one of these critical responses, by the psychologist Michael Tomasello, found its way into the book.) “The aim of the project,” writes Pettit, “is to offer an account of ethics or morality… that makes sense of how we come to be an ethical species” (p.13). But the account is not a historical one: he does not claim to detail the actual historical process whereby ethics emerged. Instead of an ‘actual history’, Pettit offers a ‘counterfactual genealogy’, the aim of which is “to explore the nature of ethics by looking at factors that would almost certainly have given rise to ethical ways of thinking and acting.” The best way to do this, Pettit believes, is to “offer an account of conditions that would have made [ethics] more or less inevitable.” (p.31).

ethics evolution
© Susan Platow 2024 Please visit SMPlatow.com

The Genesis of Morality

Pettit imagines a fictional land called Erewhon, an anagram of ‘Nowhere’ (the name was originally the title of a nineteenth-century novel by Samuel Butler). Erewhon is populated by creatures very much like us, but lacking ethical concepts. Pettit then imagines “how a community of individuals who do not initially employ ethical concepts might evolve communal practices to a point where such concepts would become available to them” (p.29).

In Pettit’s counterfactual genealogy of morals, the first steps towards the development of ethics take place when people desire to make commitments to one another. The people of Erewhon can make statements to each other: about the weather, about where to find food, even about their own thoughts, desires, and plans. But sometimes people are mistaken, even about their own desires and needs, and sometimes people change their minds, especially about their plans. Pettit calls these the ‘misleading-mind’ and the ‘change-mind’ excuses (p.78). But the availability of these excuses makes it difficult for people to rely on what others say. Suppose for example you want to go hunting tomorrow, and hunting goes better when more than one person is involved. You ask a friend to join you, and he agrees. But he fails to show up. Your friend could offer a misleading-mind excuse – something like, “I realized my desire to hunt wasn’t really very strong at all” – or a changed-mind excuse – something like, “I did plan to go hunting, but I decided I’d rather do something else.” Either way, it would be very hard to rely upon a friend like that. And that’s a problem not only for you, but also for your friend, who would like you to be able to rely upon him. By making commitments, however, people can foreclose the possibility of such excuses, in one of two ways: they can avow that certain statements they make are true, thereby denying themselves access to a misleading-mind excuse; or they can pledge to do something, thereby denying themselves access to the changed-mind excuse. So commitments, even while not yet ethical in nature, help make us reliable to others. In Pettit’s words, expressed commitments draw us “into a committal form of self-communication in which we back ourselves to live up to the words we utter” (p.121).

The development of commitments would naturally lead the people of Erewhon to what Pettit regards as the two central moral concepts, desirability and responsibility. “While ethical concepts vary,” Pettit writes, “they all serve to mark different grounds on which actions count as morally desirable, on the one side, and agents count as fit to be held morally responsible, on the other” (p.14). How might this development happen? The practice of avowal leads naturally to the practice of co-avowal, whereby groups of people avow certain desires together. And the practice of co-avowal leads naturally to the idea of desires fit for common, indeed, universal, co-avowal. As a result, “we are more or less bound to evolve a concept of the desirable” from a universal standpoint, one that anyone could freely adopt, and “this concept is effectively equivalent to the concept of the morally desirable” (p.150).

Moreover, “we who have evolved the concept of the morally or multilaterally desirable would go on to hold one another responsible to certain judgments and standards of morally desirability” (p.197). In other words, Pettit regards it as natural to expect the people of Erewhon to hold morally responsible those who “offend against a shared, routine standard of desirability”, given a lack of acceptable excuses (p.217). The act of holding responsible, as Pettit sees it, has three components: the recognition effect, the exhortation effect, and the reprimand effect (p.214). In holding someone responsible for moral failure, we recognize them as being capable of doing better; we exhort them to do better in the future; and we sanction them for not doing better, even if this is only through our negative judgment of them.

Accounting For The Account

Pettit’s ‘counterfactual genealogy’ is rich and complex, with many moving parts. I shall therefore raise only one point of criticism about it, dealing with the centrality of language for Pettit’s argument.

Pettit claims – avows, in fact – that language is “essential for morality” (p.38). The story of Erewhon relies on the fact that “the practices that make ethics inescapable for the protagonists in that narrative – and the practices, presumptively, that make it part also of our destiny – involve special uses of natural language” (p.7). How, after all, could anyone avow, pledge, recognize, or exhort anything without language? But while it is clear that much of our moral behaviour requires words, it is much less clear that morality itself does, nor is it at all clear that morality only came into being once our ancestors acquired language. After all, our primate relatives do many things that certainly appear moral in nature. According to recent experimental evidence, for example, capuchin monkeys get quite indignant if other monkeys receive better rewards (more fruit) for the same effort (see for instance ‘Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay’, Sarah F. Brosnan and Frans B.M. de Waal, Nature 425, 2003). These monkeys certainly seem to recognize unfairness and to respond accordingly.

Tomasello makes a similar point in his response to Pettit included in The Birth of Ethics. According to Tomasello, the origins of morality lie in cooperation, and cooperation may or may not require linguistic communication (p.333). A ‘simple head nod’ or the like will often suffice (p.340).

Pettit responds to these concerns in two ways, but both responses, I fear, dilute much of the force of his argument. On the one hand, he does not deny that nonlinguistic creatures behave in ways that appear moral; but he refuses to call such behaviour ‘moral’ if “considerations articulated in moral terms play no part in prompting or in regulating those responses” (p.13). One must have language in order to articulate anything, and so Pettit appears to be defining morality in such a way as to make language an essential part of it, which would render his claim that language is essential to morality trivially true. On the other hand, Pettit responds to Tomasello by agreeing that yes, a head nod may be enough for cooperation, but “a nod will be of no use whatsoever except among agents who have achieved a means and a medium of communication – some form of language, however rudimentary” (p.350). This also threatens to make Pettit’s connection between morality and language trivial: Is it possible to imagine any cooperative species without any means of communication?

As I have hopefully made clear, The Birth of Ethics stakes out a controversial position on a topic of great philosophical importance. This is true of Pettit’s books in general. Those interested in any of the topics he addresses are well advised to give the Irish moral philosopher’s work a look.

© Dr Peter Stone 2024

Peter Stone is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science at Trinity College Dublin. The second edition of his book Bertrand Russell: Public Intellectual (co-edited with Tim Madigan) was recently published by Spokesman Books.

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