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Bracancovic Tomislav | Junior Fellow
2002-10-01 - 2002-12-31 | Research area: Philosophy of Biology
Evolutionary Perspective on Human Nature and Ethics
The scientific and philosophical problems planned to be dealt with in the project can be broadly stated by rewriting E.O. Wilson’s famous sentence into a question: “Has the time come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized?” More specifically expressed, how to justify modern-day Darwinian philosophical and scientific belief that evolutionary theory must have a bearing on moral and ethical issues? Of course, approaching this difficulty by such general and vague questions will not provide us with any useful hints for its solution. The crucial starting point, therefore, is to find adequate connecting points on both ethical and biological side. More precision can be gained by referring to Kitcher's (1985) division of possibilities of “biologicization” of ethics: (a) “Biologicization” of ethics as the evolutionary explanation of the origin of morality, i.e., origin of ethical concepts, judgments, and principles; (b) “Biologicization” of ethics as the evolutionary clarification of facts about humans that can help – in conjunction with already existing and accepted moral principles – in deriving normative principles that are not yet appreciated; (c) “Biologicization” of ethics as the evolutionary approach to the problem of objectivity of ethics, i.e., evolutionary approach to meta-ethics; (d) “Biologicization” of ethics as the evolutionary attempt at formulating entirely new fundamental normative principles – not just revising already accepted ones as in option (b). The project will concentrate on option (b), which prima facie looks as the most promising framework for the task at hand. Among other things, concentration on option (b) is guided by the fact that this approach received relatively less attention than other options in the current research on evolutionary ethics. Namely, research was focused primarily on options (a) and (c). Option (a) is what sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists (from E.O. Wilson to Tooby, Cosmides, Buss or Pinker) have been doing during past few decades. Option (c), on the other hand, is what philosophers are primarily working on, trying to solve meta-ethical dilemmas such as the problem of naturalistic fallacy or the problem of objectivity of ethics. This latter issue turned particularly “popular” thanks to Michael Ruse’s Taking Darwin Seriously (1987) and was extensively elaborated on the pages of the journal Biology and Philosophy by authors like Woolcock, Waller, Ryan, Rottschaefer and Martinsen, Stingl, Campbell, and others. Given the outlined state of research concerning options (a) and (c), the project will not primarily engage into these purely scientific (descriptive) or purely meta-ethical (logical and semantic) issues. Instead, it will focus on potential connections between descriptive and normative accounts, with special emphasis on their practical implications and consequences. My preferring option (b) to (d) is influenced by two reasons, one methodological, the other “evolutionary.” The methodological reason is philosophical modesty: it is much easier to “inject” evolutionary ideas into already existing ethical systems than to try to develop an entirely new one. The “evolutionary” reason is similar and corroborates the methodological one: If we accept the truth of option (a) — that ethics and morality are evolutionary products and can be explained as such — then we have to work, to use Francois Jacob’s phrase, not as “engineers” but as “tinkerers,” i.e., evolutionary ethicists are not expected to “engineer” entirely new ethical “engines” or theories, but to tinker with or improve those that already exist. The central aim of the project is to investigate possible approaches and solutions to option (b).