In the Long Cool Hour

Amia Srinivasan

  • The Ethical Project by Philip Kitcher
    Harvard, 422 pp, £36.95, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 06144 6

‘These English psychologists,’ Nietzsche wrote in 1887, ‘just what do they want?’

You always find them at the same task, whether they want to or not, pushing the partie honteuse of our inner world to the foreground, and looking for what is really effective, guiding and decisive for our development where man’s intellectual pride would least wish to find it (for example, in the vis inertiae of habit, or in forgetfulness, or in a blind and random coupling and mechanism of ideas, or in something purely passive, automatic, reflexive, molecular and thoroughly stupid) – what is it that actually drives these psychologists in precisely this direction all the time?

Nietzsche’s complaint is not that morality should be protected from explanation – this passage opens On the Genealogy of Morality – but rather that the ‘English psychologists’ appear to be driven by self-loathing. Under the cover of cool empiricism lies a ‘secret, malicious … instinct to belittle humans’, or a disillusioned idealism, or maybe just ‘a bit of everything, a bit of vulgarity, a bit of gloominess, a bit of hostility to Christianity, a little thrill, and a need for pepper’.

Nietzsche would no doubt have been just as wary of those today who look for the ultimate explanation of morality – not to mention love, sex, religion and art – in brain scans and evolutionary just-so stories. ‘It is increasingly evident that moral standards, practices and policies reside in our neurobiology,’ the ‘neurophilosopher’ Patricia Churchland claims. ‘Our moral nature is what it is because our brains are as they are.’ Steven Pinker writes that the ‘human moral sense turns out to be an organ … with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations.’ Thus Daniel Dennett feels able to claim that Darwinism is a ‘universal acid’ that ‘eats through just about every concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionised worldview’. Some neuro-evo evangelists, especially those writing for a mass audience, take themselves not only to be explaining morality, but to be explaining it away. All talk of persons and character, just and unjust, the very idea of moral reasoning, should be given up: we must speak now only of brains, hard-wired through natural selection to serve the interests of selfish genes. John Gray declares that morality is a ‘myth’ obscuring the fact that our existence has ‘no more meaning than the life of a slime mould’. David Brooks, author of the bestselling pop-science Bildungsroman The Social Animal, explains that his fictional everywoman ‘Erica’ is slow to trust ‘Harold’ because ‘while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues discernible at a glance, Pleistocene women faced a more vexing problem,’ since they had to choose a man ‘not only for insemination but for continued support’.

The widespread belief that scientific explanation replaces morality and moral talk – and its corollary, that science must be rejected if morality is to be saved – labours under a confusion. Consider the question: ‘Why does Sarah believe that it’s good to keep promises?’ It can be answered in two ways: by giving a causal explanation of Sarah’s belief, or by listing the considerations Sarah might reasonably cite in support of her belief. When we answer the question in the first way – for example, by saying something about the evolutionary origins of promising – we inhabit the world of cause and effect. When we answer it in the second way – for example, by talking about the special duties that are incurred when one makes a promise – we inhabit what Wilfrid Sellars called the ‘space of reasons’. The mistake is to think that living in a world of causes precludes our also inhabiting the space of reasons. We are indeed creatures of cause, living within and as part of the natural order; but at the same time we are creatures of reason. Our capacity to justify ourselves to each other, to persuade without coercion, is constitutive of our personhood, and as important for the scientist as for anyone else.

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[*] W.G. Runciman discussed evolutionary debates about altruism in the LRB of 23 February.