Friday, February 24, 2012

Pragmatic Naturalism In Short

Kitcher has a nice, short article about his ethical theory - he calls it pragmatic naturalism - here. I'm going to try an even shorter version here, starting with this caricature:

There are two pieces of cake, and Alphie and Beth both want the larger piece. Their argument gets more and more heated, until finally Beth takes a deep breath and says, "Wait, let's think about this. What would be a good way to divide the cake?"

Alphie answers, "We should each get the same amount of cake."

Beth says, "Yes, that would be fair."

They proceed to divide the pieces of cake so that each gets an equal amount, and both are content.

For Kitcher, the ethical project begins in social conflict: specifically, altruism failures. Alphie and Beth both have desires. Altruism would lead them to satisfy the other's desire. Without sufficient altruism, they come into conflict.

The conflict can be resolved if they can find a rule that they both agree to. Kitcher sees ethics as a social technology for resolving conflicts. There can be progress in ethics, but it's not progress towards some abstract Good (which he doesn't think exists). Rather, it's progress away: away from social conflict.

He compares it to other kinds of technology: there's no "ideal airplane" that engineers are working toward. There are only technical problems - how to go faster, carry more, be more reliable - that can be solved bit by bit. The solutions to the current set of problems reveals, or creates, new problems that must be solved in turn. And so technology progresses.

Without the social technology afforded by ethical principles, hominids would never have gotten beyond small roving bands, Kitcher suggests. Ethics allowed us to live in larger groups, more peaceably. Greater cooperation led to greater evolutionary success. And so ethics progressed.

Ethics is our invention. Human beings do not discover ethical truths....

We create them.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Last night, Maryland's House of Delegates passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry. The state senate is expected to pass the bill (they passed a similar bill last year that died in the House), and our wonderful governor, Martin O'Malley, has already said he will sign it. Maryland is now poised to become the eighth state to grant marriage rights regardless of gender.

Opponents will undoubtedly put a referendum on the ballot in November. The most recent polls show 50% of the state is in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, with 44% opposed. Let's hope folks come out and vote in the fall!

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Ethical Project

I'm reading Philip Kitcher's book, The Ethical Project. Tim Dean has an extensive review of it at Ockham's Beard (starts here and goes on for several posts), so I'm not going to try to "blog the book." But I do want to make a few remarks.

Kitcher is quite the polymath, having written on everything from Finnegan's Wake to the philosophy of mathematics. Unfortunately, he isn't a very good writer - the book isn't one of those that grab you and pull you in. (And that's not just my opinion, several commenters at Tim's blog also found it to be a slog.) It is, however, worth the effort. Kitcher's approach is grounded in evolutionary theory, game theory (Kitcher has himself published papers on game theoretical simulations), anthropological and primate studies, and archaeological evidence.

The first surprise for me was that Kitcher sees ethics as a cultural phenomenon - not an instinct. The reason for its existence is to remedy "failures of altruism." For humans to live in large groups - and gain the benefits of division of labor, etc, that come with such groups - they needed to invent mechanisms that led them to be more altruistic than (for example) chimpanzees are. The goal of the first part of the book is to show how this could possibly have happened. He emphasizes that we will likely never know how it actually did happen; he only intends to refute the claim that "you can't get there from here", i.e., there's no way to derive ethics from evolution.

The second surprise was that Kitcher sees the invention of religion as a crucial step in this process. As rules for behavior developed it became necessary to invent some sort of supernatural enforcement for those rules. Most societies believe in a supernatural enforcer: not necessarily a god, though (he mentions one group that believes breaking the rules brings bad luck).

If he's right, then those who say "no morality without God" may, in fact, be correct - just not in the way they think!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dumbfounded by Morality

Jon Haidt on the reasons people give justifying their moral judgements:

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons. And so in some of the videotapes you can see, they start laughing. But it’s not an “it’s so funny” laugh. It’s more of a nervous-embarrassment puzzled laugh. So it’s a cognitive state where you “know” that something is morally wrong, but you can’t find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what’s wrong, you just say: “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong.”

So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel?

I have occasionally come across the claim that ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice. This is a popular idea on atheist websites - not surprisingly - but I have also encountered it in the scholarly literature. I've been skeptical about about it, but haven't taken the time to look into the evidence in detail. There is at least some evidence of it in the Bible: Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac can be interpreted as a story explaining why child sacrifice is no longer to be practiced.

Apparently the idea is still controversial among scholars and archaeologists. Here's a summary of a recent article that overviews the evidence (via Edward T. Babinski) and comes to a positive conclusion:

DANIEL VAINSTUB, "Human Sacrifices in Canaan and Israel," Beer-sheva 19 (2010), 117-204 (in Hebrew).
"The existence of infant sacrifices in biblical times both in the Canaanite culture and in Israel has been a matter of intense controversy in the scholarship of the last eight decades. Paradoxically, the more relevant data emerges, the wider the scholarly discensus grows. Some hold that the practice never existed among the Canaanites or the Israelites, while others aver that it was a deeply rooted practice both in the Canaanite homeland and the Punic cities of the West. Vainstub's comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of the issue includes an up-to-date survey of the divergent opinions concerning it and offers new insights based on an array of evidence, epigraphic, linguistic, artistic, and literary. The study highlights the significant degree of parallelism among the various sources, and comes to the conclusion that infant sacrifices to Baal by parents were indeed a strongly rooted custom in Bronze and Iron Age Canaan. The practice was taken over by the Israelites, and persisted until its abolition by Josiah. Later on, the practice was limited to the Phoenician coastal area until it was completely eradicated by the Persians there during the 5th century. B.C. Such sacrifices continued in the Phoenician colonies in the West for another 400 years."