Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Nozick on Morality and Evolution

Posted by M. C. on July 16, 2022

Further, why do those who claim direct access to real values have to say that propositions about value are necessary? Why isn’t it enough to assert that the value propositions are true in the actual world, and in “nearby” possible worlds? To me, the “moral” of Nozick’s account is that we should be reluctant to throw away what seems manifestly true because of difficulties in reconciling this with evolution.

You think this post is a tough read? Try reading Nozick’s work. He is good but I need a Wikipedia open while I read.

David Gordon

Robert Nozick is probably most familiar to readers of this column as a libertarian political philosopher, but this week I’d like to look at another issue, relevant not only to libertarians but to anyone interested in moral and political thought, which he discusses in his last book, Invariances (Harvard, 2001.) This is whether our beliefs about these subjects are objectively true or merely the expression of preferences. If we say, e.g., that people own themselves, is this something that is true or is it just a preference that we have?

Nozick doesn’t think it’s true. Not that he thinks it’s false—i.e., that it’s true that people don’t own themselves. Rather Nozick questions whether ethical truths exist at all.

How can ethical statements be true, if truth consists in correspondence to the facts? Are there special kinds of facts, ethical ones, and if so, by what route do we discover them? … The history of philosophy is abundant with unsuccessful attempts to establish a firm basis for ethical truths. Inductively, we infer that the task is unpromising.

But don’t our considered moral judgments put us in touch with moral facts? Nozick finds no basis in evolutionary theory to account for this claimed grasp of moral facts. Suppose he is right that we cannot explain by use of Darwinian evolution how we can grasp ethical truth. Why should we take this as a decisive reason to abandon the claim that we know such truths? Perhaps we instead have grounds to doubt that Darwinian processes account for all our knowledge.

We might press the point further. It is hard to explain through evolution how we know any necessary truths. Does this give us reason to abandon necessary truth? If not, why should we toss moral truths overboard on Darwinian grounds?

Nozick fully anticipates this response, but his answer I find astonishing. He does propose abandoning necessary truth, in large part because by evolution he cannot account for how we might attain such knowledge. Why he accords evolutionary considerations such enormous weight escapes me.

But my skepticism is not an argument, and Nozick’s intricately elaborated alternative to ethical truth merits attention. Once again, Darwinian evolution exerts decisive weight. Nozick endeavors to determine the evolutionary function of ethics. Why has natural selection endowed us with the capacity to make moral judgments? He plausibly suggests that cooperative behavior in some circumstances increases “inclusive fitness.”

Again, suppose Nozick is right. Why does this matter for ethics? As always, he has considered the objection:

Derek Parfit … asks the pertinent question of what difference is made by something’s being the function of ethics. Many things have bad functions (war, slavery, etc.). And even when the function is a good one, as evaluated by the standards instilled to go with cooperation, is normative force added by saying that this good effect of ethical principles (namely, enhancing mutual cooperation) also is the function of ethics?

Nozick’s response brings out a key feature of the book. Ethical rules not only have a function but also exhibit certain properties that enable them to carry out this function effectively. One of these has decisive importance to our author. “Objective ethical truths … are held to involve a certain symmetry or invariance…. The Golden Rule mandates doing unto others as you would have others do unto you.” As Nozick sees matters, invariance under transformation is the mark of truth. Once we combine function with invariance, in a vastly more complicated way than I can here explain, we arrive at a close substitute for objective truth.

See the rest here

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