Thursday, 5 November 2009

Quote of the Day: Tannsjo on Evolutionary Ethics

There is a debate going on at Alonzo Fyfe's blog on the evolutionary basis of morality. I came across this paper by Professor Torbjörn Tännsjö of Stockholm University (based on which he will be giving a talk next Monday at the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar entitled ‘In Defence of Moral Realism.’ if you are interested and live nearby) Whilst there is much I disagree with in it (he is a hedonistic utilitarian) there is also much I do agree with. Here is one quote highly relevant to the debate at Alonzo's blog
In general, if we can find an evolutionary explanation of most our moral beliefs, this means that we should become agnostic with respect to their truth. This means less of a trouble than if Mackie is right in his insistence that normative notions are queer. If he is right, then all our moral beliefs are false. It is also less serious, than if expressivists of Stevenson's and Gibbard's variety would succeed in showing that all our moral expressions are used, not to express propositions with truth-values, but our emotions or something of the kind. If they were right, then our moral beliefs would lack cognitive content altogether. And yet, an evolutionary explanation would be a 'debunking' one indeed. It would show that we should be less confident in our moral beliefs. We would realise that we are not justified in holding them (even if they make sense and even if they may be true). Moreover, if we could find such an evolutionary explanation it should not only make us agnostic with respect to the truth of our deeply cherished opinions. We should also, as is stressed by Richard Joyce, become agnostic with respect to the moral notions (concepts) we employ.[page 8,my emphasis]
This captures possibly the most basic issue over evolutionary explanations of morality, that, if true, it does not explain it at all but rather explains it away.