Links, Aggregated 7/23/10

An individual psychology primarily disposed to consider the interests of all equally, without fear or favor, even in the teeth of social ostracism, might be morally admirable, but simply wouldn’t cut it as a vehicle for reliable replication. Such pure altruism would not be favored in natural selection over an impure altruism that conferred benefits and took on burdens and risks more selectively — for “my kind” or “our kind.” This puts us well beyond pure selfishness, but only as far as an impure us-ishness. Worse, us-ish individuals can be a greater threat than purely selfish ones, since they can gang up so effectively against those outside their group. Certainly greater atrocities have been committed in the name of “us vs. them” than “me vs. the world.”

If the good is the desirable, then a Darwinian science can help us understand the human good by showing us how our natural desires are rooted in our evolved human nature. In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies because they have been shaped by genetic evolution as natural propensities of the human species. Human beings generally desire a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, courage in war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.

Where human behaviour is concerned, the distinction between biological altruism, defined in terms of fitness consequences, and ‘real’ altruism, defined in terms of the agent’s conscious intentions to help others, does make sense. (Sometimes the label ‘psychological altruism’ is used instead of ‘real’ altruism.) What is the relationship between these two concepts? They appear to be independent in both directions, as Elliott Sober (1994) has argued. An action performed with the conscious intention of helping another human being may not affect their biological fitness at all, so would not count as altruistic in the biological sense. Conversely, an action undertaken for purely self-interested reasons, i.e., without the conscious intention of helping another, may boost their biological fitness tremendously.

Sober argues that, even if we accept an evolutionary approach to human behaviour, there is no particular reason to think that evolution would have made humans into egoists rather than psychological altruists. On the contrary, it is quite possible that natural selection would have favoured humans who genuinely do care about helping others, i.e., who are capable of ‘real’ or psychological altruism. Suppose there is an evolutionary advantage associated with taking good care of one’s children — a quite plausible idea. Then, parents who really do care about their childrens’ welfare, i.e., who are ‘real’ altruists, will have a higher inclusive fitness, hence spread more of their genes, than parents who only pretend to care, or who do not care. Therefore, evolution may well lead ‘real’ or psychological altruism to evolve. Contrary to what is often thought, an evolutionary approach to human behaviour does not imply that humans are likely to be motivated by self-interest alone. One strategy by which ‘selfish genes’ may increase their future representation is by causing humans to be non-selfish, in the psychological sense.

We need to emphasize that the rough schematic quasi-functionalist approach, as borrowed and modified from the philosophy of mind, stands in contrast with a standard functional analysis found typically in biology.  Functional analysis in biology ends with identifying particular functions for biological items in specific contexts with respect to particular goals.  In the absence of a relevant biological goal or end there cannot be a function.  The case with genes, however, seems importantly different.  While it is reasonable to assign functions to certain activities of certain genes in terms of bringing about certain states which would be needed to accomplish certain biological goals, it seems most unlikely that every single human gene and every active combination thereof equally has a function in this sense.

Thus, one can speak of the “functional role” of a set of genes or of a “functionalist account” of some specific genetic activity without thereby being committed to finding a corresponding distinct biological function which that activity carries out.  For example, it seems likely that there is a set of genes which do have the function of enabling speech, as speech is clearly an important element for normal human functioning, and, given our evolutionary history, it has been important for humans to have it.  But, although there also seems undoubtedly to be a genetic contribution, it also seems, so far as we now know, unlikely that the correspondingly involved set of genes would have the function of creating a voice of a specific quality, such as a first tenor voice.  There need not be a specific function for every distinct functional role.

…what Kant was trying to do was, precisely, to (1) figure out how we ought to act, and (2) give the conditions of possibility for so acting. And the problem with the “ought implies can” principle is that either you base your moral philosophy entirely on moral psychology (people want x & y, therefore they should do p & q; alternatively, people have the psychological traits a & b, therefore they should do or can be expected to do p & q), or you figure out your morality independently of empirical data. Only the second approach allows you to say what we ought to do, rather than just what we should do, or what it would be best for us to do given what we are like as natural beings. And, in fact, you can only figure out what we oughtto do by refusing to start out with how we are by nature. And this position becomes more tenable still, I think, if you ask yourself why we should reject psychologism in mathematics and logic, but maintain it with regard to moral philosophy. (Imagine: “Some philosophers claim that the square root of 2 has a determine value, regardless of whether human beings can calculate it in their head. I maintain that to have a determinate value is to have a value determined by actual human capacities.”)

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