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Issues in Evolutionary Ethics.

Discussions of the relationship between sociobiology and ethics notoriously tend to generate more heat than light, falling as they do on the fault line between the 'two cultures' of the sciences and the humanities. These two additions to the SUNY 'Philosophy and Biology' series give evidence of the sophistication of contemporary philosophical discussions of this contested issue.

Thompson has edited a source book for courses on the topic which falls into two parts. Part One contains excerpts from Darwin's Descent of Man and from Spencer and Huxley, contributors to the historical debate over 'Social Darwinism'. Part Two focuses on responses to E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology and on the wider debate generated by that work. There are seminal papers and book excerpts from most of the leading writers in the field; I should note at the outset that limitations of space do not allow me to do justice within the scope of this review to every contribution deserving of comment.

I will begin with Part One and with my suspicion that it does not quite earn its place. It certainly makes obvious Darwin's outstanding intelligence, but it does so by highlighting his clear-sighted view that evolutionary explanation would only take one so far in explaining moral judgement. The excerpt concludes with Darwin's sympathetic engagement with Mill's views on the aetiology of the 'moral sentiments' and a more suggestive reprint for this historical section would have been Mill's views on moral psychology. Instead, Spencer's contribution makes it clear which form of naturalism deserved G.E. Moore's harsh treatment and led to the entire tradition falling into disrepute. Huxley's early critique of this form of 'Social Darwinism' is an interesting and humane nineteenth-century document, but little more.

In Part Two, however, the contemporary reprints that are included are consistently interesting and the philosophical standards high. Highlights are Philip Kitcher's trenchant assault on Wilson reprinted from Vaulting Ambition, Mackie's paper on 'The Law of the Jungle', and the measured assessment of the 'best-case scenario' for sociobiological explanations of ethics by Alexander Rosenberg. Besides 'landmarks' of the contemporary debate such as the excerpt from Wilson, the collection represents the current main lines of argument. Michael Ruse's claim that sociobiology should be placed in the wider context of a sceptical 'error theory' of morality in the manner of Mackie is well represented, as is the powerful counter developed by two papers in the collection, one by Rottschaeffer and Martinsen, the other by Collier and Stingl. This objectivist view is that, far from being differentially supportive of scepticism, a sociobiological approach to ethics is quite compatible with the postulation of objective moral values, particularly if the latter are naturalistically characterized. Overall, then, it is a useful collection which can be recommended for courses on the issue. The book includes an editorial introduction and a bibliography.

Michael Bradie's book is an informative contribution to the discussion whose great merit is a historical placing of the debate in the wider context of the development of modern moral philosophy, especially the British Moralists of the eighteenth century. There is little new in the history and unfortunately the ideological and religious context of eighteenth-century moral philosophy is not adequately treated. The various different forms of belief in a Christian providential order prevalent in the period are not sufficiently distinguished. Bradie's argument does not chart a direct course, and a 'cut and paste' writing style results in some infelicities: for example, Bishop Butler's moral psychology is given no less than three virtually identical explanations. However, the book draws together many useful sources and Bradie's commentaries on the work of such contemporaries as Ruse, Alexander, and Roberts is accurate and fair-minded.

I was left a little uncertain as to the point of Bradie's historical section. Placing contemporary debate within a wider historical context can only be beneficial, but it would be unfair to contemporary evolutionary ethicists such as Mackie and Ruse to view them merely as restaging an older debate, already staged in eighteenth-century British moral philosophy, between egoism and altruism. If that were so, the sociobiological datum would, in itself, add nothing. Mackie and Ruse see the proof that altruism is an evolutionarily stable strategy as offering independent evidence that confirms the separately developed insights of the social contract tradition: on this view we have no good reason to engage in such altruistic practices, but are causally determined to do so.

However, such historical placings of the contemporary debate can serve to make a slightly different point; that the sociobiological arguments play a limited dialectical role in the reductionist and sceptical positions of Mackie and Ruse. Their scepticism and reductionism comes first, and certainly does not follow from the sociobiology. The central issue, to which Bradie alludes, is whether or not sociobiological explanations could 'debunk' morality, in the sense that a counterfactual sustaining thesis could be developed to the effect that evolution has shaped the moral systems such that our existing practice is sufficiently explained by the sociobiological data alone. Nozick's well-known argument in Philosophical Explanations that sociobiology could no more debunk an objective basis for morality than the objectivity of the contents of perception has, in my view, yet to be satisfactorily answered by those who see sociobiological ethics as inherently sceptical. I have already noted that there is an 'objectivist' strand within contemporary sociobiological ethics, more faithful to Darwin's own views, which pursues this point. Overall, both books under consideration reflect the skewed emphasis of contemporary discussion which focuses on sceptical and reductionist use of sociobiological results unmerited by the data and ignores the more piecemeal and detailed achievements of, for example, Allan Gibbard's work.

Two concluding morals. Firstly, there seems little chance that ethics will be given a sociobiological reduction, or even that sociobiological facts will sceptically debunk normative explanations. However, this does nothing to lessen the theoretical interest and fruitfulness of pursuing sociobiological explanations as far as they can reasonably be pursued. Secondly, this area is particularly prone to divide into a dichotomous confrontation between 'the natural' and 'the normative'. If the error of the normativist is to insist on the autonomy of morality, the naturalist colludes in this by over-inflating our explanatory expectations and eliding explanation and reduction. Both sides should be united by their common desire to make our ethical practices intelligible, which will require a range of explanatory strategies pitched at different explanatory levels and with different degrees of 'fineness of grain'. A phenomenon of such ramified complexity as morality would hardly seem to deserve less.
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Author:Thomas, Alan
Publication:The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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