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« Seth Lazar on Sparing Civilians in War | Main | Tamar Gendler on Why Philosophers Use Examples »

August 02, 2014


Jim Vaughan

Very lively interview! I really get the vexed nature of the question of the genealogy of morals - especially with regard to Evolution. Does this make them just a quirk of our species or is there something more absolute about some moral "truths".

I think this will really divide people in their preference for the phenomenological vs. the scientific explanation.

As far as the scientific "genealogy" goes, I don't think Evolution is like a bad Geographer. Look at the arrangement of seeds in a sunflower, which follows the Fibonacci series of numbers. Is this proof of a mathematical designer God? No, mathematically you can show the F series is simply the most economical way of packing cylindrical seeds, discovered by Evolution through a billion trials. All flowers with this problem converge on this solution.

Similarly with morals and Evolution: using Game Theory, you can explain many forms of innate morality common to all social species that depend on co-operation for survival. The same principles that make infanticide good genetic sense (Hrdy), for an alpha male Silverback ape, render it disastrous (and therefore immoral) for humans, because we depend on mutual social trust and co-operative alloparenting. Altruistic punishment is essential for any close co-operation, so it makes sense for us to have a strong moral instinct to enforce it. One step to even closer co-operation is ant morality, but because our genetics is more diverse than the haplo-diploidy of ants, we don't share their collectivist instincts. Morality is thus NOT universal across species.

So, in brief, I think the specifics of our morality are relative to our cultural and genetic legacy, but reflect absolute universal laws determining the essential pre-conditions of close co-operation - true for any species. Nietzsche's Slave and Master morality, are two such Evolutionary Stable Strategies (ESS), of which Slave morality is the more inclusive, and therefore in the long term - successful.

However, maybe also our ethics, like aesthetics e.g. art and music, have developed beyond mere genealogical explanations. This is Levinas' approach in ascribing ethics as "first philosophy", explicable not in terms of abstracted concepts of "Being", but the demand of the infinite dynamic spark of "Beyond Being" we encounter in the Other. For me this sounds too theistic, but I can see that it may be the consciousness in the other that makes absolute demands of our moral obligation.

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