Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectivism and Moral Cognition

Monday, November 7th, 2011, 08:50 WIB
Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectivism and Moral Cognition
Book Title        :  Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectivism and Moral Cognitio
Editor               :  William D. Casebeer
Publisher         :  The MIT Press, 2003
Pages              :  224 pages
In his book Natural Ethical Facts, William D. Casebeer makes a claim that one can give a naturalistic account of ethics. Not just a science-based description of what one does and thinks and feels that one should do, but in some sense a justification of these feelings of ought-ness or morality. One way to do this can be through some kind of ethical non-realism. In other words, by writing this book, Casebeer attempts to display that theoretically speaking, there is no reason to rule out a scientific naturalized ethics tout court, and that, practically speaking, by taking into account recent developments in evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences, the outlines of one promising form of such an ethics can be sketched. It will be a pragmatic neo-Aristotelian virtue theory, given substantive form by both conceptions of function from evolutionary biology and connectionist conceptions of thought from cognitive science. The rough structure of the book follows from the unfolding of this admittedly synoptic thesis.

This book is composed of seven chapters. The first chapter is the introduction in which Casebeer gives a description of every chapter. In this chapter Casebeer also explains and/or define some important issues such as naturalism, the natural methods and ethics.
In chapter 2, Casebeer argues and rebuts two popular arguments against a reductive and naturalizable account of morality: the naturalistic fallacy and the open-question argument. He debated that both arguments fail, primarily because they rely on an outmoded analytic/synthetic distinction. Arguing for a continuum of analytic and synthetic judgments, thus demonstrating that moral knowledge and scientific knowledge were commensurable, it would open the way for a reductive naturalistic account of morality. Casebeer accomplished this by recapitulating W. V. O. Quine’s arguments against the analytic/synthetic distinction. He also presented the basics of Dewey’s theory of moral deliberation, arguing that his conception of “ends-in-view” effectively demonstrated the continuity of scientific and practical knowledge with moral knowledge.

The elaboration on the basics of such an approach, rebutting the “error-theory” arguments against a moral science had been articulated by John Mackie was the focus of chapter 3. In other words, using Mackie’s error theory as a foil, Casebeer outlined the basics of a neo-Aristotelian moral theory that naturalizes human function via a modern-history account of the nature of biological functions. This account coheres well with the wisdom to be found in Aristotle, and can help us make sense of the notion of “proper human function.” Using the concept of homeostatic property clusters enables us to rebut Mackie’s claims of relativity and queerness and yet still understand how someone might reach such a view.

Furthermore, Casebeer discusses the two dominant approaches to the nature of cognition in chapter 4. He argues that connectionist accounts can best accommodate the “knowing how” that is most basic to moral engagement with the world in view of our functional natures. Casebeer, further briefly (and grossly) characterize contemporary approaches to judgment in the cognitive sciences, using this “science reportage” to frame and explicate a theory of biological judgment that may be able to navigate between the two extremes of psychologism and supernaturality. This notion of judgment will in turn provide insight into the form and nature of our moral judgments.

In chapter 5, Casebeer encapsulates recent attempts to naturalize moral cognition using some findings of the neurosciences in conjunction with an artificial-neural-net framework. He also extracts some of the common themes that unite past work and discusses its strengths and weaknesses. In addition to this chapter, Casebeer explains moral knowledge, learning, conceptual development, perception, habits, pathologies, systematicity, dramatic rehearsal, motivation, and moral sociability.
In chapter 6, Casebeer delineates together themes from the earlier five chapters by testing how naturalizing morality by way of evolution and connectionism may influence our moral theories, our moral practices, and our moral institutions. Where does this attempt at reduction leave traditional moral theory? On the one hand, some aspects of moral theory particularly an appropriately naturalized Aristotle and large parts of Dewey’s attempt to develop a pragmatic ethic, remain components of the moral life. On the other hand, certain traditional moral theories do not fare as well, at least if they are taken to be universally applicable. Shortly, here Casebeer examines the consequences that the combined forces of the naturalized ethical theory and connectionist account of moral cognition.
In the last chapter, Casebeer explores the remaining objections to the aforementioned approach and outline its additional strengths. This chapter should answer some difficult questions usually put to more traditional socio-biological undertakings that any naturalistic account of morality must deal with. In this concluding section, he briefly discusses some areas that are in need of further research if this approach is to reach fruition. First, although connectionist models proliferate, there are relatively few neurobiologically sensitive models that address moral cognition in either theoretical or practical terms. Second, research that makes use of the accumulated moral experience of humans in various social and cultural environmental milieus is still vital; “moral anthropology” is currently a piecemeal affair, and the theoretical integrity the functional approach offers would go far toward organizing what research there is and spurring further investigation. Third, the neurobiology of moral cognition remains woefully unexplored. Finally, other approaches to norm development that are naturalistic can interact in interesting ways with the functional account.
Thus, through this book, Casebeer offers a striking intellectual synthesis that will surely move moral theory, though not without controversy, toward a more vigorous and scientifically informed future. A critique, for instance, comes from Michael Ruse who argues that Natural Ethical Facts is not a bad book. But it is far too quick to make important points. This book is written in dreadful prose that seems to pass as the norm in too many books in the humanities, especially philosophy. However, he does not believe Casebeer succeeds in defending his position, and indeed, he thinks it is quite indefensible. Otherwise, some scholars also comment that Natural Ethical Facts is well-documented and makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing dialogue between biology and morality. Other praises and critiques can be found from other scholars as well who comment that Casebeer is an intelligent and engaging writer, and there are many very interesting insights and arguments in this book, which those scholars, therefore, recommend to others interested in ethics.
Summary by: Cut Mita