February 16, 2017

'Animals can't do X,' ethics division

Perhaps I'm overstating the opposition, but that's my takeaway from the most recent posting of philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci.

I'm not sure how strongly he holds that idea, but Dan Kaufmann, who joined him for one of their bloggingheads-type talks, does in spades.

The old idea that "animals can't do X" or "aren't X" or similar has its modern roots after 1859.

The first claim was that humans aren't animals subject to evolution by natural selection. Then along came the "Ascent of Man" in 1871, the first scientific claim to say, no they are.

The battle lines heated up in the second half of the 20th century, with research developments in neuroscience, the development of cognitive science as an interdisciplinary new discipline, and the articulation of evolutionary psychology. I have issues with all three, especially the last, but at the same time have stated that ev psych, when done right, already has things to teach us.

The lines of resistance against a mix of legitimate findings and provocative interpretations from these and related areas has also been sharply drawn, per the header.

Some of the claims:
1. Animals don't have consciousness;
2. Animals don't have a theory of other minds;
3. Animals don't have true emotions.

Have all had to be, at a minimum, modified. Humans still have a degree of consciousness, TOM, and non-instinctual emotions well beyond many other animals and a fair degree beyond even those closest in connection to us.

But is this merely a difference in degree, or a difference in kind?

On all three, at a minimum, I say it's halfway a difference of degree.

And, now comes the issue of ethics and morals?

My initial hot take is that it's at least possible that the difference between humans and other animals is 50 percent one of degree.

And, at a minimum, we don't need philosophers, or scientists with philosophical-type presuppositions, drawing Venn diagrams that have "human morals" and "animal pseudo-morals" in two totally non-overlapping circles.

I don't expect better versions of ev psych or neuroscience to give us 100 percent definite answers Nor do I expect them even to give us a lot of additional guidance in less than 40-50 years from now. But, at that or some other future point, I do expect that additional guidance on empirical information and how to think about these issues to start emerging.


Peter Fish said...

Hi socratic
I missed the comment deadline for that thread on Massimo's blog, but I wanted to clarify my POV on this. Humans, of course, evolve just like all animals and other living things. But human culture was created by and for humans, and it's questionable whether "evolution" is even an appropriate term for this ongoing creational process. It is certainly used in that context, and this has caused a great deal of confusion. For one thing, it is unquestionably teleological, and mostly operates through problem-solving (and sometimes problem-creating) activity of some kind. For another thing, it works much faster: substantial changes can be effected by a single event, such as the publication of a book, or the reaction produced by a world war. To apply Darwinian concepts to this process is misleading. We make changes in ethics and morality to suit our purposes, just like sheep farmers dock the tails of their sheep. They've been docking those tail for thousands of years, and the sheep continue to grow them, pace Lysenko. Humans still continue to evolve in the customary respect: I have almost no facial hair, and 22 direct descendants, and one might expect to see further developments in hairlessness a few thousand years down the line. Or not.

Gadfly said...

Oh, I'm not denying that cultural evolution played a significant role in human ethical development, and almost certainly much larger than biological evolution. But the real question here, per Massimo and Dan, is, did biological evolution play any role measurably above zero?

And, I think that answer is yes.

Traruh Synred said...

Yeah, I don't get Dan's positions on this kind of thing,,.

If 'ethics' did not evolve, then what? This does not mean other additional concepts are not needed to understand how it works.

Que thermodynamics analogy...

Peter Fish said...

I suspect that ethics and humans evolve on a different time scale. But if we can lose most of our body hair in a quarter million years, we can probably also evolve some ethics-friendly patterns in our brains over the same period.