An Emerging Taste for Good and Bad

I can’t say for sure when or why, but at some point in my lifelong train of thought I came to view emergence as a dirty word in philosophy. It seemed absurd that perfectly natural phenomena might escape explanation in terms of simpler or ‘lower’ levels of reality. After all, I figured, the whole promise of a natural worldview was the unbroken explanatory link stretching from the simplest elementary particles of matter all the way up to the collective social movements of complex mammals like yours truly.

I suspect that my greed for this flavour of strong reductionism was largely ideological – my youthful self badly wanted a tidy naturalistic and deterministic understanding of the universe. Such an understanding by its very nature precluded the messiness of emergence. Of course we rarely get what we want by virtue of wanting it alone. And as much as my former self might protest, I now begrudgingly accept that to more accurately understand the universe, one must ironically acknowledge necessarily unpredictable phenomena and events.

Looking back, my best (admittedly post hoc) explanation for my mistake is that my rejection of top-down, theological accounts of the universe soured me on emergent explanations of phenomena which are a bizarre admixture of top-down and bottom-up. It is only in the last couple of years that I have begun to properly grapple with the messiness of a causal and undesigned universe, or so I hope.

I mention all of this because I think an ideological desire for tidy naturalism continues to taint a lot of philosophical domains, meta-ethics included. Consider the massive influence of Hume’s guillotine on moral philosophy. We cannot derive an ought from an is, Hume famously argued. True enough. But this does not imply that ought is not compatible with is. If we allow for an emergent conception of morality, we should not expect to derive an ought from anything! We should allow for an admittedly vague framework whereby the contingent and necessary properties of living, feeling creatures result in emergent ‘moral’ obligations.

I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds sloppy. It’s all a little too convenient to say that morality just happens to exist merely because we do. It would be almost too good to be true if we could just stop worrying about explaining what it is to act morally in terms of simpler reasons because any such account was doomed to fail by necessity. But if we allow the possibility that morality might be emergent, we can do battle against some of our more pervasive and distracting intuitions and hopefully address more fruitful questions in meta-ethics.

Perhaps one of the most basic problems is who or what is worthy of moral consideration? I suspect most people could be persuaded that all humans have some degree moral worth simply because they are members of the species homo sapiens. I also suspect that most people would agree that some subset of animals that exhibit signs of intelligence and the capacity to suffer also merit some level of moral worth. Perhaps it would even be uncontroversial that a great many artifacts and natural phenomena have second-order moral worth to the degree that they provide humans with pleasure or meaning.

This is the anthropocentric version of moral worth – whatever helps us feel happy and whatever suffering makes us feel guilty are what counts. Once again, this is a suspiciously convenient basis for morality. But just because it happens to be convenient is not sufficient reason why it might not be so.

I would argue that moral worth and a moral sense are two separate properties and that they do not always coincide. Many creatures on Earth have moral worth but do not behave accordingly. We routinely see in nature (and for that matter, in ourselves!) callous, disgusting behaviour towards creatures that can plainly suffer. At least we have the good sense to know it is wrong, but we shouldn’t get too cocky. From what we can tell about our history, our moral sense is a relatively recent emergence and it is clearly one that we have yet to properly hone.

The well-known primatologist Frans de Waal has argued that chimpanzees apparently observe a basic moral code, but this argument is contentious to say the least. There is a great risk of anthropomorphizing and projecting our phenomenological moral sense onto the behaviours of other creatures who we deem worthy of moral consideration. Arguably a moral sense is a far more complex and recent cultural and evolutionary development than the capacity of being wronged. A similar argument holds that the capacity to appreciate beauty came about fewer times and much later than the many instances of beautiful things, creatures and phenomena.

So far as I can tell, a  perception-like concept of morality nicely encapsulates the emergent, emotion-driven nature of what we feel to be right and wrong. It also gives us room for competing legitimate moralities as well as the possibility of refining our moral ‘tastes’.

But why should it be that a proper moral sense has only emerged in human beings? This is an empirical question that is being vigorously pursued by countless thinkers. It is arguably one of the hottest scientific questions of the day. But the fact that we recognize that our moral sense is evolved and dependent to some degree upon our biological history is a crucial shift in perspective.

But just as we cannot determine the properties of chemicals simply in reference to their constituent sub-atomic particles, neither should we hope to determine our moral obligations with reference only to the vastness of our evolutionary and cultural heritage. The point of emergence is that there is a jump in explanatory levels. As I alluded to in a previous post, there is a gap that we ought to mind with great care. To properly understand morality, we need to study the phenomenon itself; we need to pay close attention to how our moral behaviour manifests itself, how it changes over time, how competing moral systems influence each other and so forth. We must be of two minds; we must study the ‘is’ and contemplate the ‘ought’ even if the two will never seamlessly intersect.

I owe a great many insights in this post to Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing The Sacred.  His book is difficult to say the least, but I have not been so pleasantly persuaded in quite some time. Highly recommended.

Reinventing The Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

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