About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Metaethical antirealism, evolution and genetic determinism

by Massimo Pigliucci

The Friday afternoon session of the American Philosophical Association meeting from which I am blogging actually had at the least three events of interest to philosophers of science: one on race in population genetics, one on laws in the life sciences, and one on the strange combination of (metaethical) antirealism, evolution and genetic determinism. As it is clear from the title of this post, I opted for the latter... It featured three speakers: Michael Deem (University of Notre Dame), Melinda Hall (Vanderbilt), and Daniel Demetriou (Minnesota-Morris).

Deem went first, on "de-horning the Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value" (no slides, darn it!). The point of the talk was to challenge two claims put forth by Sharon Street: a) that the normative realist cannot provide a scientifically acceptable account of the relation between evolutionary forces acting on our evaluative judgments and the normative facts realists think exist; b) that the "adaptive link account" provides a better explanation of this relation than any realist tracking account. (Note: much of this text is from the handout distributed by Deem.)

The alleged dilemma consists in this: by hypothesis, evolutionary forces have played a significant role in shaping our moral evaluative attitudes. If so, how is the moral realist to make sense of the hypothesis while holding on to moral realism? Taking the first horn, the realist could deny any relation between evolution and evaluative judgments. But this would mean either skepticism about evaluative judgments, or lead to a view that evolved normative judgments coincidentally align with moral facts, neither option being palatable to the moral realist.

The second horn leads the realist to accepting the link with evolution. But this means that the s/he would have to claim that tracking normative truths is somehow biologically adaptive, a position that is hard to defend on scientific grounds.

According to Street there are two positions available here: the tracking account (TA) says that  we grasp normative facts because doing so in the past has augmented our ancestors' fitness. The adaptive link account (ALA) says that we make certain evaluative judgments because these judgments forged adaptive links between the responses of our ancestors and the environments in which they lived. Note that the difference between TA and ALA is that the first talks of normative facts, the latter of evaluative judgments.

Street prefers ALA on the grounds that it is more parsimonious and clear, and that it sheds more light on the phenomenon to be explained (i.e., the existence of evaluative judgments). Deem doesn't think this is a good idea, because within the ALA evaluative judgments play a role analogous to hard-wired adaptations in other animals, which seems implausible; and because it is mysterious why selection would favor evaluative judgments.

Deem then went on to propose a modified ALA: humans possess certain evaluative tendencies because these tendencies forged adaptive links between the responses of our ancestors and their environments. Note that the difference between standard ALA and realist ALA is that the first one talks of evaluative judgments, the latter of evaluative tendencies. (This distinction makes perfect sense to me: judgments are the result, at least in part, of reflection; tendencies can be thought of as instinctual reactions or propensities. So, for instance, humans have both, while other primates only — as far as we know — possess propensities, but are incapable of judgments.)

To put it in his own words, Deem claims that "the realist can show that his/her position is compatible with evolutionary biology and can provide an account of the relation between the evolutionary forces that shaped human evaluative attitudes and independent normative facts. ... [However] it seems evolutionary theory underdetermines the choice between realism and antirealism in metaethics."

Okay, I take it that Deem's idea is to reject the suggestion that evolution makes it unnecessary to resort to the realist idea that there are normative facts. Perhaps so, in a way similar to which an evolutionary account of our abilities at mathematical reasoning wouldn't exclude the possibility of mathematical realism ("Platonism"). But one needs a positive reason to contemplate an objective ontological status of moral truths, and I think the case for that is far less compelling than the analogous case for mathematical objects (one of the reasons being that while mathematical abstractions truly seem to be universal, moral truths would still apply only to certain kind of social organisms capable of self-reflection).

Melinda Hall talked about "untangling genetic determinism: the case of genetic abortion" (another talk without slides, or even a handout!). She is interested in abortion in cases where medical evidence predicts that the infant will be severely disabled. Given such information, is it moral to terminate the pregnancy ("genetic" abortion, a type of negative genetic selection) or, on the contrary, is it moral to continue it?

The basic idea seems to be that genetic abortion is conceptually linked to genetic determinism, i.e., an overemphasis on the importance of genetic factors in development. In turn, Hall argued, the decision to terminate pregnancies in such cases contributes to stigmatize, as well as reduce social resources for, the disabled community.

Disability has both a social and a biological component, and if a lot of the negative effects of disabilities on life quality are the result of social construction, then the main issue is social and not biological. Disability advocates claim that it is problematic to make a single trait (the disability, whatever it is) become an overriding, criterion on the basis of which to make the decision to abort.

There is thus apparently a tension — which Hall sought to diffuse — between the usually pro-choice attitude of disability advocates and the restriction on the mother's reproductive rights if one objects to "genetic abortion."

A reasonable (I think) worry is that "gene mania," i.e., the quest for purely or largely biological explanations for human behavior, may encourage the search for simplistic solutions to problems that are in reality complex and in good part social-environmental. My own worry about Hall and some of her colleagues' approach, however, is the opposite danger that disability advocates may seriously underestimate the biological basis of disabilities, which may in turn lead to an equally problematic tendency to reject medical preventive solutions. (Indeed, Hall at one point made the parenthetical comment that disabilities may not be a "problem" at all. I think that's willful rejection of the painful reality in which many human beings live.)

Hall went on to invoke the nightmarish social scenario depicted in the scifi movie Gattaca. I don't object to using scifi scenarios as evocative thought experiments, but of course there is a huge disanalogy between the situation in Gattaca and the issue of disabilities. Gattaca's "inferiors" were actually normal human beings, pitted against genetically enhanced ones. Disable people are, in a very important sense, the mirror image of the movie's enhanced humans, since they lack one or another species-normal functionality typical of humans.

Though Hall qualified this, disability advocates apparently worry that "negative genetic selection" may nurture a societal attitude that it may one day be possible to eliminate disability, which somehow could turn into decreased social support for disabled people. Frankly, I think that's an egregious example of non-sequitur, and moreover it flies in the face of the empirical evidence that Western societies at least have significantly increased allocation of resources to the disabled (see, for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act).

This whole discussion seems to be predicated on an (unstated and, I think, indefensible) equivalency or near-equivalency between the moral status of a fetus who is likely to develop into a disable person and that person him/herself. As the commentator for the paper (Daniel Moseley, UNC-Chapel Hill) pointed out, it is hard to see what is morally wrong in parents' decision to abort a fetus that has a high likelihood — based on the best medical evidence available — to develop a disability that would be hard to live with, regardless of whatever support society will provide (as it ought to) to the disabled person resulting from that pregnancy, should the parents decide not to abort.

Finally, Daniel Demetriou spoke about "fundamental moral disagreement, antirealism, and honor." (Yay! Slides!!) He took on Doris and Plakias' argument that moral realism predicts fundamental moral agreement (analogously, say, to agreement about mathematical or scientific facts). However, empirically there is plenty of evidence for moral disagreements, for instance in the case of the "culture of honor" among whites in the American South. This is turned by Doris and Plakias into an argument against moral realism (i.e., there are fundamental disagreements about moral norms because there is no objective thing of the matter about moral norms).

There are indeed interesting data showing that white Southerners respond more violently to insult and aggression. The alleged explanation is that these people inherited (culturally, not genetically) a culture of honor, which comes from their pastoral ancestors. More broadly, an honor culture according to some authors is likely adaptive in pastoralist social environments, where goods are easily stolen and a reputation for prompt and violent reaction may function as an effective deterrent (as opposed to, say, the situation in agricultural societies, where goods like crops are not easily stolen).

Interestingly, African pastoralists, as well as pastoralists in Sardinia and in Crete, consider raiding from other livestock owners a way to prove their honor as young men. The same goes for the Scottish highlands, again highlighting the connection between honor and violence.

Demetriou, however, is not convinced by this account, raising a number of objections, including the fact that pastoralist societies are still concerned with fairness, as in the concept of fair fighting. Fairness in fighting would not be a good deterrence against aggression, contra the above thesis. Moreover, there are several honor cultures that are not in fact violent. Instead, Demetriou put forth a "competition ethic account" of honor, where honor has to do with social reputation.

Metaethically, Demetriou agreed that honor really is different from the liberal ethics of welfare, favoring prestige instead. Similarly, liberalism favors cooperative principles, while honor ethics favors competition. So for Demetriou the honor outlook is much more fundamentally different from the liberal ethos than even the story based on the effectiveness of violence would suggest.

However, the author concluded, moral realism has no problem with the divergence between liberalism and honor, since it is possible to accommodate the difference invoking pluralism of a realist sort. Well, yes, though it seems to me that this strategy is capable of accommodating pretty much any set of data demonstrating empirical divergence of ethical systems... Moreover, one of Demetriou's comments toward the end was a bit confusing. He wondered why a white Southerner who has grown up in an honor culture couldn't "wake up" to a liberal approach, perhaps (his examples) after watching the right movie or reading the right book. But wait, that seems to imply no pluralism at all, but rather a situation in which the person steeped in the honor culture was simply wrong and realized, under proper conditions, that he was so. That, of course, may be, but it is a very different defense of realism against the empirically driven antirealist argument. Which one is it? Actual pluralism, or the idea that there is one correct moral system and some people are simply in error about it?

Overall this felt as a somewhat disjointed session, particularly because the second talk had hardly anything at all to do with antirealism, while neither the first nor especially the last talk had much to do with genetic determinism. But such is the way of many APA sessions, and each of the three talks did raise interesting questions about the relationship between ethics and science. It has been pretty uncontroversial for a while among moral philosophers that their discipline (just like every other branch of philosophy, I would argue) better take seriously the best scientific evidence relevant to whatever philosophical issues are under discussion. The much more interesting and thorny question is that of what exactly the implications of the science are for ethical and even metaethical positions, as well as — conversely — what the implications of our ethical theories are for the way science itself is conducted and scientific advise is implemented in our society.


  1. Hall's talk would probably have been most interesting to me, because while bioethics is very fascinating in and of itself, it's also becoming increasingly important as new technologies are emerging. You also homed in on one of my concerns: the notion that disabilities may not be a "problem" at all. While your comments on this issue were brief, I generally agree with the sentiments you expressed.

    Thank you for your reports on what seems to be informative gathering.

  2. Hi Massimo,

    I've read Demetriou's longer paper, and he is suprisingly unwilling to say anything about what this "pluralism" amounts to. If it's pluralism about values plus incommensurability between those values, then it's not realist: there will be muutually incompatible true answers to questions about what to do. If it's pluralism about values plus some kind of commensurability, then the view threatens to collapse into a kind of monism (since these "plural" values are measurable on a single scale). This is a well-worn problem for pluralist-realists like Ross, yet one finds suprisingly little discussion of it in Demetriou. Did he do anything other than wave his hands at "pluralism"?

    1. Vanitas,

      > Did he do anything other than wave his hands at "pluralism"? <

      Nope, or at least not that I was able to discern during the talk. He seemed to me to lean toward the monist collapse you describe, but still wanted to call it pluralism.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.