Tag: moral philosophy

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.”

Owen Flanagan’s The Geography of Morals

I am a big Owen Flanagan fan and have just finished reading his most recent book, The Geography of Morals (Oxford UP, 2017).  Because I am an academic, with all the pathologies of my tribe, I will have a bone to pick with Flanagan in my next post.  But praise should always precede criticism–and there is so much to praise in this book.

Flanagan has worked for years to broaden the scope and interests of moral philosophy beyond the sterile deontologist/consequentialist debates into which so much moral philosophy has cornered itself.  Of course, he has plenty of company in that quest, with Alisdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor the most notable writers to walk away from “technical” philosophical ethics.

I think it is fair to say that the five philosophers just mentioned all, to some extent, pay attention to the emotional bases of ethical judgments in order to downplay the idea of a rational deliberating self, whose actions follow from a weighing up of reasons (whether those reasons be Kantian or Millian).  Flanagan’s persistent interest (over the past 25 years at least) has been in “moral psychology.”  He wants to identify the psychological processes–both emotional and rational–that generate moral conviction.

He has two persistent reasons for wanting to pursue questions of moral psychology.

1.) He wants a realistic, empirically based sense of the constraints underlying human behavior.  His version of “ought implies can” is to identify deep-seated tendencies in human reasoning and human responses to environment that will, at least, suggest (I use this weaker word advisedly) limits to human capabilities and things that will prove difficult for humans to accomplish.  His favorite example here is in-group prejudice.  He takes it as universally true that humans care more for their family members and for a limited range of others.  Thus, it is difficult, although not impossible, to extend the set of others to whom humans will offer sympathy and care.

2.) Flanagan insists that any individual’s morality is developed within a “form of life.”  He adapts the word “ecology” to describe the environment in which moral intuitions, convictions, reasons, and emotions emerge in individual humans.  We are born into “a preexisting but ever-changing cultural ecology.  The ecology is the normative force field in which we grow and develop, and it is authorized, regulated, and maintained outside the head, in the common, but possibly fractious, social ecology” (93).  Following Wittgenstein’s thoughts on private language, Flanagan’s position is that worries about subjectivist moralities are entirely misplaced.  No one invents–or could possibly live by–a private morality.

Several important consequences follow from Flanagan’s approach.  The first is that morality is about persons-in-relation (to other persons, to the environment, to animals, to the traditions and cultures into which they are “thrown”—to use Heidegger’s term.)  Morality is social, inter-subjective, inter-species, inter-relational through and through.  Flanagan mentions Williams’ famous distinction between morality as applying to norms of social interaction as contrasted to ethics as pertaining to the individualistic question “What is the good life for me”?  But Flanagan, correctly in my view, finds that distinction only moderately useful (in certain contexts) because it is almost impossible to conceive of a good life that doesn’t have establishing good relations with others, the environment, animals etc. at its core.

A second consequence of focusing on relations is to knock morality off a pedestal—either one that imagines us all doing some kind of Kantian deduction to reach the categorical imperative or worrying about which switch to pull on runaway trolleys.  Morality is mundane, implicated in the minute-by-minute monitoring and adjustment of our relations to all in which we are immersed.  “The moral problems of life vary with age and circumstance, but they are mostly . . . matters of tender mercies, love, attention, honesty, conscientiousness, guarding against projection, taming reactive emotions, deflating ego, and self-cultivation” (10).  Morality is ordinary.

A third consequence is the breakdown of barriers between philosophy and the human sciences.  Flanagan quotes Dewey (from Human Nature and Human Conduct) approvingly: “Moral science is not something with a separate province.  It is physical, biological, and historic knowledge placed in a humane context where it will illuminate and guide the activities of men” (44 in Flanagan).  Whatever the human sciences can tell us about human beings is relevant to thinking about how humans construct and structure “forms of life” that include “normative orders.”  Here’s Flanagan’s description of the latter.  “The normative order uses both the capacities of individuals to acquire reliable dispositions inside themselves—typically conceived as virtues–to do what is judged to be good, right, and expected, as well as public institutions and structures, such as law and tax codes, to accomplish, regulate, and enforce regiments of order and justice that individuals might not find easy to abide from reliable inner resources” 25-26).

As the appeal to “dispositions” indicates, Flanagan is firmly in the neo-Aristotelian camp.  Forming the right dispositions, cultivating virtues, is the primary moral work in his view—and his appeals to psychology are in service of that cultivation.  What are effective methods of creating dispositions—and what are the limits on what those methods can achieve?

But you will have noticed that the definition of “normative order” is content-light in terms of designating what the good or the right is.  That’s because Flanagan accepts that there is more than one “form of life” on the planet. The good and the right is not a constant, nor is it the same in all contexts. As the title of his book indicates, he wants to explore the possible variations in normative orders that history and geography offers us.  What might Western moral philosophy, in particular, learn from an encounter with Eastern sources, especially Confucianism and Buddhism?

Much of the book is devoted to this comparative work.  Specifically, three chapters are devoted to thinking about anger.  To what extent is anger an “inevitable” human emotion; to what extent is anger (in fact) part and parcel of morality insofar as moral indignation can seem to be the baseline moment of moral judgment; and, if there are alternatives to anger’s role in moral judgment, would we be better off adopting those alternatives?  Those chapters justify both Flanagan’s focus on moral psychology and his exploration of moral traditions that take fairly different approaches to similar problems.

Flanagan is, however, not simply an Aristotelian.  He is also a Darwinian.  And it is that aspect of his thought that I will examine in my next post.