Pragmatism, evolution & moral philosophy

Those who grow passionate on one or the other side of arcane and seemingly pointless disputes are struggling with the question of what self-image it would be best for human beings to have. —Richard Rorty

Pragmatism casts philosophy in a different light. It sees philosophy—including moral philosophy—as just another thing that humans do to get by.

That’s to say: it situates philosophy within the glorious indifference of the natural world, the competition and selection, the evolving universe, the dust clouds, the equations of physics.

In general and on average over the long run 1, we see things as good or bad insofar as it helps us get by. And getting by” ultimately means: survive and reproduce. In the long run, your belief-value bundles have to be adaptive.

On this view, moral philosophy is not—as the non-naturalist moral realist would have it—a quest for values that are correct” independently of the evolutionary environment 2. Strange as it sounds, evolutionary processes are the source of normativity. Philosophers who hope to improve our values need to think about the messy, hard realities of adaptiveness, equilibria and economics at least as much as they think about moral principles we can all (currently) agree on. The former underwrite the latter 3.

Maladaptive belief-value bundles can emerge and persist for short periods, of course 4 5. I once heard the story of the Scottish Highlanders, whose inflexibility of custom kept them in relative poverty while the modernising Southerners became rich. Eventually, economic incentives for the Southerners led to the Highland Clearances, the forceful destruction of the Highlander way of life.

It is not enough to promote the values we currently hold. We must also update them, so as to preserve and improve their adaptiveness.

  1. I’m not sure how best to caveat this.↩︎

  2. At this point, the non-naturalist says: surely pain is always instrinsically bad”, or pain is bad because of how it feels”. And the naturalist-pragmatist replies: sure, perhaps its adaptive to think this way. But it’s not quite the right way to think about things.↩︎

  3. It always seems like the non-naturalists don’t linger enough on the question of why they find certain truths about value to be self-evident.↩︎

  4. It’s almost a tautology to say that maladaptive behaviours don’t last. The key insight is that the reason they don’t last is competition from more adaptive behaviours. If you can prevent competition, you can get away with all sorts of not-maximally-adaptive behaviour. But the more not-maximally-adaptive behaviour you preserve, the more you risk your ability to prevent competition.↩︎

  5. I’m not sure how close we should expect cultures get to optimal” adaptiveness, even over the very long run. I guess they usually just approximate local maxima.↩︎

April 22, 2022