Philosophers debate the nature of morality
Is it right to steal your neighbour’s car because you really like it? Your immediate response is “No,” that it’s wrong and unethical. But what makes you respond this way? That is, why do we distinguish the right from the wrong, and what exactly are we talking about when we do so?
On Thursday, the Philosophy Department organized a debate on Evolution and Ethics, titled “Does Evolution Undermine Mind-Independent Morality?” Put simply, are human moral beliefs a product of evolution, or do our moral claims connect with a mind-independent morality?
Professor Russ Shafer-Landau, from University of Wisconsin, led the realist’s side, arguing that human beings are independent moral agents, capable of having knowledge of an objective morality. Opposing his stance was Michelle Dyke, a last-minute proxy for fellow New York University philosopher, Sharon Street who was originally going to lead the debate, representing the constructivist view or that our moral beliefs are influenced by the process of evolution.
Dyke contends that all our morality is somehow shaped by evolution, constructed by our individual attitudes and our social commitments towards society.
“People believe parents should take care of their children,” she illustrated, because that is what they have learned over the years through natural selection and normative facts as a result of evolution.
She proposed that we reject moral realism based on the skepticism surrounding it, understanding that our objective beliefs are mind-dependent rather than mind-independent.
Shafer-Landau responded from the realist’s side.
“Our moral views have a tainted history,” Shafer-Landau said. “If evolution created our moral belief faculties, then they are not reliable.”
According to the realist, morality is objective, and our moral judgements appeal to moral standards that are not dependent on any individual’s ratification.
He claimed that moral knowledge exists. We consider slavery and genocide wrong based on judgement about independent facts. It is not something that evolution taught us. If a society did, in fact, assert genocide and slavery to be right, we would still deem it immoral and unethical regardless of that society’s normative facts. In other words, that society would be morally wrong.
But how can our finite and fallible minds connect with a reality that is not of our own making? That is the biggest question that the realists face. If there exists a set of moral objectives, how do our minds make contact with the independent moral reality?
Shafer-Landau sought briefly to address this question. He accepted that realists do not have adequate explanation on how human beings get moral knowledge but argues that the constructivists have a problem too. Their view, in his thinking, makes it too easy to gain moral knowledge, as it entails that morality stems from our social engagement.
For a constructivist like Dyke, moral questions are answered based on the society’s perceptions of right and wrong and an individual’s deepest commitments.
On the contrary, Shafer-Landau stated that an individual can be mistaken about his or her very own deepest commitments, leading to no moral insight.
“Societies can also be deeply committed to things that are grossly immoral at their very core,” Shafer-Landau said. “If a society at its core is fundamentally intolerant, then intolerance is right in that society.”