Sunday, February 8, 2009

Kitcher vs. Singer: Two Views of Ev-Psych's Relevance


Sexual double standards. An instinctual moral sense. Innate tribalism. Tradition vindicated as functional. Markets vindicated as a natural process. It all begins to sound as if Darwin’s world is a rather conservative one (except for requiring no God, of course).

Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy of science at University of California at San Diego, wasn’t happy about this when I communicated with him about it a decade ago. “E.O. Wilson, it should be noted, was a genuine liberal, sometimes distressed by his own conclusions. Today’s Darwinian psychologists seem delighted with what they find,” charged Kitcher. “These endeavors are often defended in the name of free inquiry, and the investigators cast themselves as bold challengers of orthodoxy…In fact, they frequently succeed in capturing public attention precisely because they pander to old stereotypes, especially about the ‘proper’ roles of men and women…and any morally sensitive venture into the biological understanding of human behavior would be much more cautious.”


For good or ill, it does seem that sociobiology’s impact is, on balance, a conservative one. But no less left-wing a figure than Princeton philosopher Peter Singer — notorious for his defenses of infanticide and bestiality — now says it may be time for the creation of what he calls a “Darwinized left,” and it is clear he means by this a somewhat more conservative, more sociobiological left.

Singer notes the practical limits that evolutionary theory puts on the left’s ambitions to transform selfish human nature. As he put it in a speech on the topic, “Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood.”

Singer acknowledges that a system that harnesses our instinctual self-interest may be wiser than one that attempts to eradicate or ignore it, and he even notes that arch-capitalist Adam Smith got this idea right two centuries ago. Singer goes further, arguing for the interrelatedness of self-interest and virtue on the basis of the insights gained from “tit for tat” strategies: “By being provokable, [tit for tat] creates a virtuous spiral in which life gets harder for cheats, and so there are fewer of them. Therefore cooperators do better because they are more likely to encounter another cooperator rather than a cheat.”

While praising altruistic actions such as blood donations, Singer recognizes that, as evolutionary theory would predict, our charitable instincts tend to taper off as the beneficiaries become more foreign, more anonymous — less clearly kin. If it is true that our desire to help others is motivated at the gut level by whether we think of them as kin, then we should make redoubled efforts to “expand the circle,” as Singer puts it, of our kin-like relations (and indeed some evidence, such as an aversion to incest even among adoptive siblings or collectively raised children, suggests that relatedness is to some degree a state of mind rather than pure genetics — our kin-regarding instincts can be fooled).

Echoing concerns of anti-urban Founding Fathers such as Jefferson (who thought anonymous city life makes callousness and bad behavior more likely) and concerns of modern paleoconservatives (who argue that a society of anonymous masses and immigrants may not make for good neighbors), Singer asks: “What structures can overcome the anonymity of the huge, highly mobile societies that have come into existence in this century and show every sign of increasing in size with the globalization of the world economy?”

Interestingly — and refreshingly — Singer does not call for a retreat from the increasing interconnectedness of the world but, contrary to many on the left, urges the embrace of globalization (in his book One World: The Ethics of Globalization). You can’t expand the circle of kin-like relations — and accompanying altruistic feelings — while severing the ties of trade between people.


Diana Fleischman said...

Yeah, I really love Singer and “A Darwinian Left” and agree with Singer that we need to expand our circle. In one sense you can define social liberalism and humanitarianism as the expansion of the circle of altruistic tendency. Interestingly you can derive both self interestedness and a feeling for the unity of living things through evolution and evolutionary psychology. But when it comes down to it you can’t defend any morality with the “it’s natural” or “it’s the way we have always done it” cliche. While evolutionary psychologists have revealed some truly nasty things about human nature they have also come up with some interesting ideas about how to ameliorate them. I just went to a bunch of talks this past weekend at a conference and among the evolutionary inspired talks about racism were ideas about how people don’t discriminate smiling black and white faces, only angry ones, and that cues of group membership can often trump racial cues. While some (especially on the religious right) find Darwin’s legacy to be the holocaust, racism and amorality a new book has come out (which I haven’t had a chance to read yet) which states that Darwin was a staunch abolitionist.

The only way in my opinion that we can ameliorate the ugly aspects of human nature is to look them right on and to celebrate every scientific step towards understanding them.

Of course, since you mentioned Singer I’m going to have to bring it back to non-human animals and ethics. Remember when I sent you this

about evolutionary theory and human treatment of animals (we don’t have to hash our discussion again on your blog of course). That is the ultimate expansion of the circle; extending our compassion to all beings who suffer. Just as an aside, Darwin had deep feeling for animals; it was even said that he stopped a man from beating a horse on the side of the road by telling the man he was magistrate in the district and would throw him in jail if he saw him mistreat a horse again. This is the only story I know of where the quiet and good natured Darwin really threw his weight around.

Todd Seavey said...

I hadn’t heard the horse-protecting story before, but a story of stopping a horse-beating would be an interesting and coincidental thing Darwin has in common with Nietzsche.

More on the ethics of animal welfare come May, when I hope to rally people for a Debate at Lolita Bar on the topic (in the meantime, conservatism 2/19, sci-fi 3/4, and religion 4/1 — all the important topics).

Jacob T. Levy said...

I’ll note that Kitcher gave one of the cornerstone papers at an interdisciplinary conference on “Evolution and Morality” last fall:

The papers from that conference will eventually be reworked and released as a volume in the Nomos series.

Todd Seavey said...

He wrote for WSJ recently on the topic, too, reviewing a book on Darwin, as I recall.