The Two Faces of Morality: How Evolutionary Theory Can Both Vindicate and Debunk Morality (with a Special Nod to the Growing Importance of Law)
Evolution and Morality, NOMOS vol. LII, p. 31 (eds., James E. Fleming & Sanford Levinson, NYU Press 2012)
68 Pages Posted: 9 May 2011 Last revised: 24 Nov 2017
Date Written: May 7, 2011
Given recent progress in evolutionary accounts of morality, this article asks the following question: Will the correct evolutionary explanation, if any, of the human capacities for moral and legal judgment ultimately vindicate them, by revealing perceptions of their objectivity and special practical authority to be grounded in something suitable real? Or is it more likely to debunk them, by explaining those same perceptions to be nothing more than projections of human psychology? A third possibility is that the correct evolutionary explanation will reveal the human capacities for moral and legal judgment to have two faces - one which inclines people to participate in a recognizable species of moral and cooperative life and another which coopts those psychological capacities for more competitive and antisocial purposes.
To decide between these possibilities, this article identifies a set of evolutionary circumstances in which the human capacity for moral and legal judgment can be said to admit of at least a partial vindication, in a perfectly respectable sense of the word. If these circumstances were to hold true, then humans should be understood to have an evolved capacity to see (in a clear but metaphorical sense) and be appropriately motivated by certain natural facts that are worthy of moral attention. These circumstances plausibly hold for humans, but only to a degree. Hence, it is most plausible that humans can see and be appropriately moved by certain moral facts, but only imperfectly, and only through a lens that sometimes distorts moral vision in certain systematic and identifiable ways. Just as the ordinary sense of sight allows humans to apprehend various natural facts about the world but also subjects them to certain optical illusions, the human sense of morality appears to allow ordinary humans to apprehend various moral facts while subjecting them to certain “moral illusions.”
This article thus argues for the third possibility. In the process, it develops a distinctive form of naturalistic moral realism, which bears some affinities to the prior work of people like Richard Boyd, David Brink, Michael Moore, Peter Railton and Nicholas Sturgeon. As a corollary, it ends with a counterintuitive suggestion. It suggests that the law - at least in some modern (but growing sets of) circumstances - may have the independent authority to override some of our first order moral reasoning, even in its correct and conscientious employment. Legal authority need not be reducible to or derivable from moral authority.
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