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E.O. Wilson on the Foundations of Ethics

Can gene-culture evolution, rather than philosophy, answer our deepest ethical questions? Torin Alter on moral values and the appliance of science.

The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct…
(E.O. Wilson, Consilience, New York: Knopf, Inc., 1998, p.240.)

Consilience, by the eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, is the book of the moment at many colleges and universities, especially in the United States. Wilson argues for a unified conception of knowledge and inquiry. In chapter eleven, ‘Ethics and Religion’, he turns his attention to how ethics and religion are related to science. He is specifically concerned with the impact on the foundations of ethics of gene-culture evolution – a concept he explains succinctly as follows: “To genetic evolution … natural selection has added the parallel track of cultural evolution, and the two forms of evolution are somehow linked.” (p.130). Wilson suggests that philosophy has little, if anything, to contribute to our understanding of the foundations of ethics: in his view, settling fundamental meta-ethical issues, such as whether morality is objective or subjective, is a task for science, not philosophy. I will argue that Wilson is wrong: there are fundamental ethical issues that science alone cannot solve; for addressing them in any serious depth, philosophy is, and is likely to remain, indispensable.

For three-quarters of ‘Ethics and Religion’ Wilson focuses on the following fundamental ethical question: Are moral values independent of (biological, evolved) human nature? He labels those who answer “yes” transcendentalists, and those who answer “no” empiricists. He notes that transcendentalism and empiricism each come in religious and secular varieties. But the only argument for transcendentalism that he discusses is a religious, specifically a Christian, one. Actually, it is not much of an argument. He simply imagines a transcendentalist who tries to found morality on the alleged self-evidence of religious doctrine, and who rejects empiricism because of its commitment to “the reigning theory of evolution” (p.243).

Wilson argues that the smart money is on the empiricist. His argument is that the available evidence points to a geneculture explanation for the origins of moral beliefs. He writes,

It is to be expected that in the course of evolutionary history, genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would have come to predominate in the human population as a whole. Such a process repeated through thousands of generations inevitably gave birth to the moral sentiments. (p.253)

This, Wilson argues, supports the following account of moral rules:

…they are no more than principles of social contract hardened into rules and dictates, the behavioral codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are willing to accept themselves for the common good. Precepts are the extreme in a scale of agreements that range from casual assent to public sentiment to law to that part of the canon considered unalterable and sacred. (p.250)

The ideas expressed in the preceding passage date back at least to Plato. In fact, the way Wilson develops the empiricist’s story of the origins of moral values bears a striking resemblance to Glaucon’s famous speech about the origin of justice in Book II of Plato’s Republic, right down to the discussion of what is now called the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Plato 358e-362d). Wilson adds evolution and natural selection into the mix, but the resulting view is essentially the same as that described by Glaucon. Not surprisingly, Wilson concludes that the empiricist’s naturalistic account is far more credible than the dogmatic religious ‘argument’ he attributes to the transcendentalist.

My aim here is not to argue for or against Wilson’s brand of empiricism, but to show that he is wrong about how the empiricism/transcendentalism issue should be addressed. I will begin by raising a problem for his claim that science alone can resolve that issue. Then I will argue (very briefly) that his negative assessment of philosophy’s contribution to ethics is based on misconceptions about the way contemporary philosophy is actually done.

The main problem with Wilson’s reasoning is that he commits what is known in philosophy as the genetic fallacy, where ‘genetic’ refers to origins, not to genes. Let us suppose that the empiricist is right about the origins of our moral values. It does not follow that our moral values cannot be justified on independent grounds. Wilson recognizes such a distinction with respect to empiricism about theism. He writes,

Overall it is possible to imagine the biological construction of a mind with religious beliefs, although that alone does not dismiss transcendentalism or prove the beliefs themselves to be untrue. (p.258)

Clearly, Wilson’s claim would remain true if we substituted the word ‘ethical’ for ‘religious’. The distinction between a psychological explanation of the origins of a belief and its E.O. Wilson on the Foundations of Ethics Can gene-culture evolution, rather than philosophy, answer our deepest ethical questions? Torin Alter on moral values and the appliance of science. Portrait of truth value/justificatory status is quite general. Yet he not only fails to mention the distinction in his discussion of ethics, but his argument for empiricism about ethics depends on its denial. He conjectures that the empiricist will win the day precisely by “that alone” – by establishing the “biological construction” of ethical beliefs, i.e., a gene-culture explanation of their source. Perhaps it is possible to show that there is a tight connection between the origins of ethical values and their justificatory status. But it is far from obvious how such an argument would go. Moreover, it is unclear how science alone could establish the requisite connection.

In the final third of his chapter on ethics and religion, Wilson turns his attention to theistic beliefs, and he asks, Do theists believe in God because God is there to be perceived (transcendentalism)? Or, rather, will a gene-culture explanation of theistic beliefs turn out to be correct (empiricism)? He claims that the objective evidence for empiricism is weaker in the case of religion than in the case of ethics (p.258). But the evidence he actually cites is exactly similar in both cases, and so his asymmetrical stance is puzzling. In any event, in neither religion nor ethics should we confuse the origins of our intuitive beliefs with their validity, regardless of how closely the two issues may be intertwined.

The problem is that the pivotal ethical issue that interests Wilson depends upon abstract matters that philosophy is, and science is not, suited to address. The problem can be brought out in another way. Wilson fails to acknowledge how counterintuitive the consequences of his empiricism about ethics are. As he correctly observes,

If the empiricist world view is correct, ought is just a shorthand for one kind of factual statement, a word that denotes what society first chose (or was coerced) to do, and then codified. (p.251)

Now, suppose “society first chose (or was coerced) to do” acts like torturing innocent children solely for fun. Imagine, for example, that for the entirety of human evolutionary history, environmental conditions were such that group cooperation among humans substantially decreased the chances of an individual’s surviving long enough to reproduce, and performing acts like torturing innocent children increased the chances of survival and reproduction. Given sufficiently bizarre environmental conditions, such a counterfactual scenario is theoretically possible. If that scenario were actual, then by Wilson’s empiricist reasoning torturing innocent children solely for fun would have been morally obligatory (or at least permissible). That consequence is highly counterintuitive, and not just to transcendentalist philosophers. Can our ethical convictions really be so easily dismissed? Surely not without further argument. We should accept a view that has such counterintuitive implications only when the evidence is extremely strong. Establishing the “biological construction” of the origins of our ethical beliefs would fall considerably short of that standard.

Further, if the justification for morality were based solely on “what society first chose”, then, assuming that you are not especially prone to feeling guilty, why should you refrain from harming others to your own benefit if you are sure you can get away with it? Wilson does not so much as allude to that question, even though it has been central in philosophical discussions of ethical foundations since Plato posed it poignantly in Book II of the Republic. How could empirical science alone, unaided by rigorous and thoroughgoing philosophical reflection, possibly answer Plato’s question? Wilson provides no clue. There would seem to be ample reason to believe that meta-ethical debates among philosophers will retain their significance regardless of future refinements in gene-culture explanations of the origins of ethical beliefs.

Wilson’s dim view of philosophy’s potential and actual contributions to meta-ethics appears to be based on misunderstandings of the actual practice of philosophy. Consider the following remark, which is typical of his attitude toward contemporary philosophical ethics:

Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, are not prone to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility. (p.240)

Wilson’s description may be true of certain individual ethicists, and it certainly seems applicable to many discussions of ethical issues in popular, non-academic publications. But even a casual glance through a few typical publications about ethics in contemporary philosophy should convince any reasonable person that, in general, they lack these failings (see, for example, the journal Ethics). The subdiscipline of meta-ethics, a mainstay topic among philosophers, is dedicated to the study of ethical foundations. Meta-ethicist philosophers do more than declare their positions on ethical foundations; they debate the validity of their positions. Regarding the admission of fallibility, this is usually implicit, for an excellent reason: the entire philosophical tradition takes the point for granted. The same is true of scientific publications. How many contemporary articles on cell biology actually contain the statement, “I may be wrong”?

Finally, Wilson implies that his empiricist approach to ethics is not mainstream. As he acknowledges, his approach is basically that of the British empiricists, such as David Hume and Adam Smith. But Hume’s influence on discussions of ethics in contemporary philosophical ethics would be difficult to exaggerate. There are, to be sure, other currently popular approaches. But the sort of empiricism Wilson advocates is hardly under-represented (see, for example, Allan Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Harvard University Press 1990).

My conclusions are firstly that philosophy is needed for pursuing in depth the basic issues concerning the foundations of ethics; and secondly that Wilson has provided no grounds for believing that this need for philosophy will be ever by undermined by developments in science. These conclusions do not entail that philosophy is self-contained in a way that is incompatible with Wilson’s overall consilience thesis. But they do entail that philosophical methodology may be indispensable for making progress on what Wilson describes as “the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls.”

© Dr Torin Alter 2000

Torin Alter teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa.

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