Flanagan and Darwin

Flanagan takes seriously “Charles Darwin’s proposal in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that there are universal emotional expressions that have been naturally selected for because of their contributions to fitness, possibly in ancestral species” (120).  Thus, psychology, at least to some extent, is working from a basis of “human nature,” in the sense of emotional and cognitive capabilities and habits that are built in by way of evolution.

“Ever since Darwin, attention to the evolutionary sources of morality has brought a plausible theoretical grounding to claims about ultimate sources of some moral foundations and sensibilities in natural history” (12).  Presumably, identifying that bedrock will alert us to constraints beyond which it will be practically impossible to go.  We cannot ask of humans (“ought implies can”) what they are incapable of doing.

Flanagan then devotes Chapters 3-5 of his book to considering possible candidates for the basic equipment, starting with the “seeds” proposed by the Confucian philosopher Mengzi (or Mencius in the Jesuit’s translations of his work) in the fourth century BCE and moving on to a consideration of the “modules” proposed by Jonathan Haidt.  He offers (page 59) a strong set of evidential conditions that would have to be met if “seed” or “module” theory is to be convincing.  These conditions are:

  1. The seed or module would have to be associated with an automatic affective reaction.
  2. The seed or module should ground common sense judgments.
  3. These judgments and affective responses should be widespread, perhaps even universal, among human communities.
  4. The judgments and affective responses should be directly tied to corresponding actions.
  5. There should be a plausible evolutionary explanation for the selection of these judgments and affective responses (generated by the “seeds” or “modules”).

Because they are so specific [Haidt’s five modules are care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity (purity)/degradation], the modules strain credulity as actual products of evolution.  (Haidt has recently attracted the ire of leftists by claiming that liberals are deficient in the “loyalty” module and, hence, their moral views are not as comprehensive as those of conservatives.  Flanagan nobly—and correctly—tells us that Haidt’s views on the political valence of his modules is logically separable from any assessment of the modules themselves.)

It is not just that children seem to have no innate sense of sanctity (purity) or that modern Western societies have fairly relaxed attitudes toward authority.  It is also that the emotional responses to harm (from horror to delight—think of the crowds at executions and lynchings) and to purity (from disgust to the joys of the carnivalesque) run the whole gamut.  The modules do seem useful as ways to analytically designate the different dimensions of morality, but to posit them as in-built products of evolution seems an effort to ground morality through a just-so story.  Plus there are other dimensions of morality we could consider.  For example, the commitment to doing a job correctly; the pleasure and pride taken in competence, in a job well done, and the disapproval of shoddy work.  Do we want to suggest a module for that—and tell an evolutionary story about our dissatisfaction with “good enough” work?

Flanagan—he is a philosopher after all—cares about whether the modules are “real” in the sense of being in-built equipment.  But he is, finally, agnostic on the question, admitting that a pragmatic (these are just useful conceptual tools) rather than a realistic (the modules actually exist) take might be most plausible.

He then falls back on a less specific alternative in an effort to save some remnant of realism.

“A ‘basic equipment’ model says that what you start with is whatever—the kitchen sink, as it were—there is in first nature, and that whatever you end up with in second nature is the emergent product of whatever all the dispositional resources of first nature can yield when mixed with the forces of the environment, history, and culture” (110).  The key words here are “can yield.”  So the quest is still for the constraints, the limits, that “first nature” imposes.

I have two basic beefs with even this less specific way of giving Darwin his due.

The first is that the basic equipment is not necessarily a product of selection.  Flanagan is very careful to avoid Darwinian reductionism.  Lots of things—his favorite example is literacy—are just by-products of abilities that were selected for.

“There was no selection for literacy.  In order to read we utilize brain areas originally selected (not even in our lineage but in ancestors) to track animals.  One way to out the matter is that literacy didn’t initially matter one iota for fitness.  It couldn’t have.  We were not literate for almost the entire history of our species” (25).

My problem here is what criteria are we to use for deciding which human capabilities are the product of evolution and which are not?  It seems like the only test is whether we can tell a plausible story about a trait’s being very, very old and being connected to the passing on of one’s genes.  We all know too well what kinds of ingenious stories get told to pull something into the evolutionary camp.

Let’s take three problematic issues.  1. Myopia.  Surely it’s ancient and, presumably, we have to say that evolution is indifferent to it—and then tell a story to explain that indifference.  Because it is hard to explain how myopia contributes to fitness.  2. War.  Every human society has an experience of war.  Yet war is most dangerous for precisely the society members—young men—who are in a vital position for transmitting their genes.  From an evolutionary perspective, war seems particularly perverse.  So, since the simple fitness tale fails in this case, all kinds of mental gymnastics are called upon to explain the phenomenon, to save the appearances. 3. Homosexuality.  Another puzzler when it comes to any straight-forward fitness explanation.

My point is simply that some apparently widespread (maybe even universal) human traits lend themselves to Darwinian explanation and others do not.  Do we really want to claim that only the Darwinian ones are really human nature and the others are not?  And what would be the basis of such a claim?

The second issue is central to Flanagan’s work.  Namely, one way to judge a trait is in relation to fitness; another way to judge a trait is in relation to “flourishing.”  “The distinction between a trait that is an adaptation in the fitness-enhancing sense(s) and one that is adaptive, functional, conducive to happiness, flourishing, and what is different still, good or right; or in a thicker idiom still, what is compassionate, just, fair, loving, faithful, patient, kind, and generous” (83).

Flanagan’s basic point is the we don’t have to settle for what evolution dishes out to us.  Rather, morality entails our judging our basic equipment—and working to change it where it violates our sense of “flourishing” or our sense of “right and wrong” or “good and evil.”  And Flanagan stresses throughout the plasticity of humans, the many varieties of feeling and behavior of which we have proven capable through the evidence of individual and cultural differences.

Allow for moral judgment of what nature provides and for plasticity and I really don’t see what’s left of Darwinism.  What does it matter if a trait is evolutionarily produced or a by-product of in-built capacities or a cultural product?  I have already suggested that I find it very difficult to sort traits out into those different bins.  Now I am saying, why would it matter? All the traits—no matter their origin—are to be subjected to our judgments about their morality and their desirability.  And we will work to reform, alter, revise, and adapt any trait in response to our judgments.  The origin of the trait will make no difference to how we set about to work upon it.

But, comes the objection, the chances for successful revision will be different depending on the trait’s origin.  That’s a species of what I consider “false necessity.”  Why think we know ahead of time, theoretically as it were, which traits are revisable and which are not?  The proof is in the pudding.  Only practice will teach us our limits.  It is a bad mistake to let someone tell you ahead of time what you are capable of and what you are not capable of.  The tyranny of low expectations.  Morality, after all, is always aspirational.  It always paints a picture of a better us—more loving, more generous, more caring that we often manage to be.  Why takes an a priori pessimistic stance about our capabilities?

Not surprisingly, I guess, since this question is at the heart of any moral philosophy, the issue is one about determinism versus free will.  I resist Darwinism (especially in many of its crudely fundamentalist forms) precisely because it is deterministic, trying to legislate that certain things just can’t be done, or to apologize for certain kinds of behavior (male sexual aggression, for one) as inevitable and thus should be shrugged off.  Morality would hold us to a higher standard—and refuse to capitulate to the notion that those standards of flourishing or the right and good are “unrealistic.”

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