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Biology and the Foundation of Ethics
  1. Andrew S Leggett
  1. Department of Philosophy, University of Reading

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    Edited by Jane Maienschein and Michael Ruse, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 336 pages, £45.00, US$64.95 (hc); £15.95, US$19.95 (sc).

    Is evolutionary ethics going to be to the new millennium what virtue ethics has been to the eighties and early nineties? If the rash of books on the subject is anything to go by, the answer has to be “yes”. This is not, however, to claim that the subject is novel. Although many point to Edward Wilson's work in the seventies as heralding the dawn of a new focus in ethics, the claim that ethics can be grounded in our biological nature was fully explored by Aristotle and, as contributors to this collection attest, by many other philosophers and biologists in the intervening period.

    Despite the back-cover promise that “the book asks, for example, whether humans are innately selfish and whether there are particular facets of human nature that bear directly on social practices” the enquiring reader will be disappointed if she expects a thorough discussion of these interesting areas. The majority of the volume's articles are concerned with detailing historical attempts to root the phenomena of morality, apparently peculiar to humans, in alleged facts about human nature, with only the final two—“The case against evolutionary ethics” and “Biology and value theory”—fully participating in the contemporary debate. From the collection, three papers in particular raise issues that may be of interest to readers of this journal.

    In his chapter, “The moral status of animals”, Michael Bradie introduces, at the conclusion of his largely exegetical treatment of the discussions prevalent among eighteenth century philosophers, the “thorny issue” of the treatment of animals. Appealing to a version of the “slippery slope” argument, he declares that our inability to appeal to either “cognitive considerations ... or to the capacity to suffer . . . to mark a sharp distinction between humans and the brutes” means that if animal experimentation is permissible, then experimentation on human fetuses and suitably defective humans should be similarly permissible. This conclusion finds further support in the work of Richards (discussed by Woolcock in “The case against evolutionary ethics”) who argues, by appeal to an essentialist account of human nature, that those who lack certain features are not human beings “in the full sense”.

    The debate in Woolcock's paper concerns whether theorists who maintain that an evolutionary ethics can support an “altruism guarantee”—ie the commonly held intuition that humans are altruistic by nature—are justified in their claims. Woolcock's conclusion is that the theories discussed fail in their attempts, and that as a result normative ethics remains largely unaffected by evolutionary biology. Interestingly he does not argue from the perspective that morality appeals to some objective truth. Instead he claims that morality gains the illusion of objectivity “because, as rational agents, we rapidly learn that only certain kinds of reasons are acceptable when offered publicly as justifications for our actions”. At most, he says, our moral point of view is genetically inherited insofar as we are inherently disposed to sociability. On this view, then, arguments about the morality of a particular course of action are, despite the illusion, nothing more than will-power contests: the winner is the one who persuades enough others to accept his or her point of view. That rampant egoism does not exist has, on Woolcock's view, nothing to do with innate altruism and everything to do with our capacity to reason: if you can't beat them, join them.

    Paul and Falk's paper, “Scientific responsibility and political context”, is an excellent discussion of the moral status of the scientists engaged in “normal research” activities in Germany under the Third Reich. As well as discussing the morality of individual cases, the paper raises pertinent questions about the moral responsibilities with which scientists are (often unwittingly) burdened. In their concluding remarks, Paul and Falk suggest that a grave moral question-mark looms over scientists who argue that they are “accountable only for the quality of their ‘pure’ research” and ignore the morality of the interests their research serves. As Woolcock argues, even if morality is an illusion, rational game-theory requires that we at least pay lip-service to the moral consensus.

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