Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction

By Janet Radcliffe Richards | Go to book overview
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8

The end of ethics

Even if materialist Darwinism leaves us capable of the altruism that is a necessary condition of moral behaviour, it may seem to remove the point of moral effort altogether, by removing the whole basis of ethics. This is said by both opponents and supporters of radical Darwinian views. The main lines of argument - in particular the claim that God is essential for both providing and revealing moral standards - are discussed here, and once again the analysis seems to show that there is no difference between the implications of the different degrees of Darwinism.

The chapter also makes a long detour, in the middle, into a discussion of relativism. This discussion has no direct connection with Darwinism, but relativism lurks in the background of many of the claims about Darwinism and ethics, and is worth assessing in its own right. The discussion raises further problems of incoherence and shifts of level, and also introduces the idea of pragmatic self-refutation.

The chapter ends with a sketch of how ethical enquiry can proceed against a background of evolutionary psychology, and connects it with the discussion in Chapter 6 of punishment and responsibility.

The overall conclusion, if these arguments are right, is that even the most thoroughgoing form of materialist Darwinism allows us a capacity for genuine altruism. The genetic account of altruism does, admittedly, leave it quite limited in extent; but the question has been only about whether the radical forms of Darwinism preclude altruism altogether, and they do not. And anyway, an account iof human nature that shows altruism to be limited in extent is hardly revolutionary; no account of human nature has ever claimed otherwise. Religion has never doubted that we are sinful; and advocates of the standard social science view, which attributes more to society than to genes, usually agree that our society makes us pretty selfish. The holders of both these views typically regard us as capable of moral improvement, but there seems no reason why that hope, too, should not apply to the gene-machine view. Once again, then, an issue that might be thought to turn on the question of which version of Darwinism was true seems not to do so after all. All versions allow for altruism; none sees it as all-pervasive.

However, even though the most radical form of Darwinism may, like the others, leave open the possibility of our making moral improvement, it may seem open to a different objection, which would apply to the blank-paper view as well. Can these fully materialist versions of Darwinism allow for there being such a thing as genuine moral improvement? Even if we are capable of change, is there any change worth aiming for? Traditional ways of thinking allow us to recognize our moral shortcomings and try to improve, because there are moral standards against which we can compare ourselves and our progress. But if our moral systems and moral intuitions are the result of mindless physical laws and

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