E. O. Wilson On Biology And Morality

E. O. Wilson On Biology And Morality

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that The Atlantic has put E. O. Wilson’s article ‘The Biological Basis Of Morality‘ online. I had repressed all memory of this article, but it really annoyed me at the time, so much so that I wrote a letter to the editors about it. For some, um, unfathomable reason they declined to publish it, but now (heh heh) I can, and so I have put it below the fold. (Why should perfectly good snark go to waste?)

I am reliably informed that E. O. Wilson is a brilliant biologist. I would read anything he wrote about ants with interest. But it does not follow from that that he knows anything about philosophy. Of course, that’s no reason why he can’t write intelligently on it. But it is a reason why someone at the Atlantic should have gone over what he wrote to make sure it was accurate, as I’m sure they would have done had I submitted an article on insects. Apparently, no one did.

To the Editors:

Suppose that E. O. Wilson’s article on ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’ were a hoax. Suppose that, inspired by Alan Sokal, Wilson had written it to see whether, if a scholar who is deservedly famous for his work in one field were to write on another, you would hold his work to your usual standards of accuracy and sound argument. And suppose he now wrote to let you in on the joke. He would be able cite from his article all the features of Sokal’s work that so embarrassed the editors of Social Text, including:

Obvious and easily detectable factual errors. Wilson claims that ethicists “tend not to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics.” This would be astonishing if true; fortunately, as any attempt to check this assertion would have made clear, it is not. He writes that Kant’s Categorical Imperative “does not accord … with the evidence of how the brain works”. It would be fascinating to learn what advances in neurology have shown that it is morally permissible to act on maxims that we cannot will to be universal laws. According to Wilson, John Rawls “offers no evidence that justice-as-fairness is consistent with human nature.” In fact, Rawls devotes a sixty-page chapter of A Theory of Justice to this question. Wilson describes Rawls as a “transcendentalist”, i.e., a thinker who holds that “the order of nature contains supreme principles, either divine or intrinsic”. In fact, Rawls explicitly rejects this view. These are only a few of the factual inaccuracies that pervade Wilson’s article. None of them would have been difficult to detect, had anyone tried to do so.

Quotes taken out of context. One example: Wilson claims that “Rawls opens A Theory of Justice with a proposition he regards as irrevocable”, and which he then quotes. In fact, Rawls begins the next paragraph of Theory as follows: “These propositions express our intuitive conviction of the primacy of justice. No doubt they are expressed too strongly. In any event I wish to inquire whether these contentions or others similar to them are sound, and if so how they can be accounted for.” If this counts as taking a claim to be irrevocable, I would hate to see Wilson’s idea of diffidence.

Unsound arguments. Wilson begins by distinguishing the view that moral laws “exist outside the mind” from the view that they are “contrivances of the mind”. He then argues that we should reject the first alternative, since it amounts to the view that moral laws are “ethereal messages awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a non-material dimension of the mind”. He takes the view that morality is a human contrivance to imply that we can answer moral questions only by understanding the biology behind our moral sentiments. It is worth noticing the implications of this argument. If we could not conduct any inquiry whose object is a human contrivance without inquiring into its biological roots, we would be unable to balance our checkbooks or figure out winning moves in chess without first understanding the selection processes that led us to engage in these activities — unless, of course, we were prepared to regard truths about our bank balances or what move will mate in two as “ethereal messages awaiting revelation”. Wilson’s argument depends on the idea that these are our only alternatives. But they are not.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that morality is a ‘contrivance of the mind’. This would not imply that we need to use biology to determine what the answers to moral questions are. Think of mathematics, which is arguably a human invention. Biology might explain why we have the ability to construct mathematical proofs, but it is not necessary to know anything about biology to construct the proofs themselves, since biological claims do not normally figure as premises in mathematical arguments. Likewise, the claim that morality is a human contrivance might imply the existence of a biological underpinning to our ability to construct moral arguments, but it does not follow from this that biological claims must figure in the arguments themselves.

Still, one might think, biology might be relevant to ethics not because ethics is a human contrivance, but because of the particular sort of contrivance that it is. To assess this suggestion, we should distinguish different ways in which biology might be relevant to ethics. First, ethicists have to make certain assumptions about what it is possible for people to do, since morality should not require anything it is impossible for us to do, like being in two places at one time. (Since most moral theories require qualities, like generosity and courage, which some people actually display, and which it must therefore be possible for people to have, it is unclear that sustained biological research is needed on this point.) Second, biology might help us to understand the social consequences of adopting various different moral views. Most of Wilson’s examples show biology to be relevant to ethics in one of these two ways, whose possibility few ethicists would dispute.

The crucial issue is whether biology is relevant to ethics in a third way. If we knew which moral principles people can act on, and the consequences of adopting them, we would still have to decide which principles we should adopt. Should we adopt those that make us happiest? Those that promote human autonomy? Those that all could endorse? Professor Wilson’s central thesis is that we can use biology to answer this question. But it is not clear how biology could answer it: how, for instance, any amount of information about the processes of selection that led to altruistic behavior could license conclusions about when that behavior should be encouraged and when it should be proscribed. Wilson’s only support for the claim that it can is that the alternative is to imagine moral truths “vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind”. But if, as I argued above, this is not our only alternative — if we can hold both that morality is a human contrivance and that biology is not relevant to answering moral questions — then this is no support at all.

Suppose Wilson were to inform you that his article was in fact a hoax, and to list the points made above: that his article contains obvious errors that anyone familiar with his subject would have caught and corrected; that it takes quotes out of context and attributes to thinkers positions they explicitly disavow; and that its central thesis is supported only by the semblance of an argument. And suppose he then asked why, given these facts, you chose to print it. How would you reply?

[hilzoy]

P.S.: The chapter of Rawls’ Theory devoted to the question whether Rawls’ principles are consistent with human nature is ch. 8 (pp. 453-512). Rawls’ rejection of what Wilson calls ‘transcendentalism’ can be found in Political Liberalism. In that work Rawls defines a view which he calls ‘rational intuitionism’. Rational intuitionists, as Rawls describes them, hold that “moral first principles and judgments, when correct, are true statements about an independent order of moral values; moreover, this order does not depend on, nor is it to be explained by, the activity of any actual (human) minds.” (p. 91) By contrast, Rawls holds that the principles of justice should be “represented as the outcome of a procedure of construction” (p. 93); or, in Professor Wilson’s terms, as a contrivance of the mind. Rawls spends a chapter developing his view by explicitly contrasting it to the view Wilson attributes to him, which makes this attribution hard to understand.

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