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March 12, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Philosoraptor |
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Imagine two groups of hunter-gatherers in the year 2,000,000 BC. Group A’s members are completely amoral. They have no concept of fairness or justice or duty, and pursue their own desires independently of moral constraints. Group A’s members steal from each other when no one is looking. They never risk their lives to help each other. Group A cannot hunt cooperatively, because every member tries to shirk their duties, and no one is willing to make a sacrifice for the common good.

By contrast, Group B’s members have a concept of morality, and make moral judgements. Moreover, they make specific types of moral judgements: judgments about duty (which help the group cooperate), judgements about murder and theft (which stop the group’s members from harming each other, and keeps the group intact), and judgements about fairness and justice (which help establish a working set of rules).

In the long-term, Group B’s members are far more likely to survive and reproduce. This leads us to a startling realisation – it is very likely that evolutionary pressures selected us to both make moral judgements generally, and to make the specific sorts of moral judgements that we make today.

Of course, the story that I offered above is merely a made-up just-so story, and doesn’t have any scientific authority behind it. But it is very likely that the moral judgements we make today are shaped by evolutionary pressures. And this has troubling implications for “moral realists” – people who think that our beliefs about objective moral truths are justified. It implies that we may not actually have good reasons to think that (for example) murder is wrong.

This is the argument advanced by the philosophers Sharon Street and Richard Joyce. Street begins by distinguishing between two possibilities. The first is that evolutionary pressures selected us to have true moral beliefs. This is plausibly true in the case of mathematical beliefs: evolution selected us to believe that 1+1=2 because it is true that 1+1=2. As Joyce points out, if a hunter-gatherer in 2,000,000 BC saw one lion go behind a bush and then another lion go behind the same bush, it would have been evolutionarily advantageous to believe that there were now two lions behind the bush. Had it instead been the case that one lion plus one lion equals three, evolution would have selected us to believe that 1+1=3. So evolution selected us to have “truth-tracking” mathematical beliefs.

But this doesn’t seem to be the case for our moral beliefs. If it were true, for example, that we are morally required to kill our own children, it seems that evolution would still select us to believe that we are morally required to protect our children (since killing your offspring is not the most successful reproductive strategy). So the evolutionary processes which created our moral beliefs were probably not truth-tracking.

This is the second possibility that Street considers — that evolution selected us to have certain moral beliefs, independently of the truth of those moral beliefs. But then, if evolution systematically distorted our moral beliefs in ways which were not truth-tracking, how are we justified in thinking that our moral beliefs are true? Street concludes that we cannot be justified in believing in any objective moral truths.

Does this mean that we ought to dispense with moral rules? Not necessarily. Street is not an amoralist – she is a “constructivist.” She believes that moral rules do exist, but only as a result of the existence and nature of human minds. Joyce, by contrast, is a “moral error theorist” – he believes that moral discourse is systematically flawed, and that no moral rules exist at all. But this belief is the result of other arguments. This argument at most proves that we are not justified in believing in objective moral facts – it does not prove that no moral facts exist.

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