(SUNY Series, Philosophy and Biology. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1998. Paper edition, 193 pages, including endnotes, references, and index.)
What would it be like to conceive of ourselves and our moral systems as completely contained within the natural realm, the contingent products of Darwinian evolutionary processes? Is it possible to accept our status as complex animals, deterministically connected to the rest of nature, and still take seriously our ethical commitments? If we don’t have free will, and the individual is not seen as ultimately morally responsible for his or her actions, how do we carry on moral discourse and justify moral judgments?
Bruce Waller takes on these important questions in this eminently readable and for the most part persuasive account of a naturalistic, non-objectivist morality. His arguments and conclusions will seem radical to most readers: we don’t have, or need free will (in the sense of being exempt from deterministic causality) to behave ethically, or to be held accountable. Morality has no rational foundation outside our naturally derived ethical dispositions, but is none the worse for it, since moral imperatives just are our most heartfelt, hardwired interpersonal inclinations. Morality is integral to our animal nature, and other creatures exhibit in varying degrees the autonomy and authenticity necessary for moral status.
We may be the only creatures capable of abstract reasoning, but according to Waller rationality cannot give us reasons to be moral, nor is it foundational to ethics. Our moral motivations are, as he puts it, non-rational, discovered in the ineradicable desires to stay connected with kith and kin, and to have stable societies in which we and those we love can flourish. These motives are entirely a matter of our evolutionary inheritance, and there need not be (and cannot be) any further justification of them. This, then, is an ethical anti-foundationalism or non-objectivism that runs counter to the standard presumption that morality, in order to avoid rampant relativism, must somehow find a basis outside "mere" human preferences.
In his discussions of free will, Waller demonstrates that it is possible to have real autonomy (the capacity to select among anticipated alternatives) and real authenticity (the capacity to form deep, character-based commitments) without supposing that we have a "miraculous freedom from environmental influences and past causal history." The freedom most of us normally have isn’t a "libertarian mysterious choice" but a high degree of naturally given cognitive flexibility, operating within the constraints of our naturally derived character and our available options. We can explain this freedom, naturalistically and deterministically, as the fortunate outcome of how we’ve been shaped by biological and environmental contingencies, just as we can explain the relative lack of freedom of those with limited flexibility (e.g., drug addicts, schizophrenics) as the unfortunate outcomes of different contingencies. This means that there’s no "true self" or essential self-constructing agency within the individual that’s responsible for being free (or unfree) in this naturalistic sense.
This conclusion sets the stage for what is most central, but what many will find most difficult to accept in Waller’s analysis: that moral responsibility – conceived as the true self’s ultimate origination of choices – doesn’t exist. Waller summarizes the libertarian position he critiques, in all its improbability:
Libertarian autonomous choice has no causal antecedents, does not stem from my own character and history, is not a product of my personality or character, and is not shaped by the environment that shaped me. It doesn’t matter that we have different environmental histories, different educational opportunities, different levels of encouragement and support and success: our miraculous libertarian autonomous choices transcend all differences, and thus we ourselves and nothing else – not the gods who made us, the genes that directed us, nor the environment that shaped us – bear moral responsibility for our choices and their consequences…
But for the naturalist, frustration rapidly boils over into impolite questions: where does this choice come from, if not from my formed character? If the choice transcends my history and my character and my desires and my intellect, then how can it be my choice at all [original emphasis]? Such miraculous autonomous choices seem completely detached from me and my choosing and my deliberative processes, all of which have been shaped by my cumulative genetic and learning and social histories [emphasis added]. The miraculous saving of moral responsibility thus seems to be at the expense of a coherent account of autonomous choice (pp. 35-36).
Given these objections, Waller recommends that we dispense with moral responsibility altogether, a course not often chosen. He shows that even some very competent, naturalistically inclined philosophers try to save moral responsibility by holding on to some subtle, self-constructing element of choice, such as Daniel Dennett’s claim that free will consists in our decisions about our deliberative processes themselves, for instance in the decision to stop considering alternatives. Waller simply replies that these higher-level acts, no less than any other aspect of our behavior, are a function of learning histories which the individual has in no sense chosen independently of the unfolding of impersonal circumstances. Even the most sophisticated, self-conscious efforts to shape one’s own character (and certainly these are undertaken from time to time) cannot escape being embedded in the natural causal framework, and thus offer no support for the moral responsibility thought necessary to justify praise and blame.
But having dispensed with moral responsibility, what becomes of morality? Waller argues that we needn’t link or justify perfectly valid moral judgments (person A is evil, person B virtuous) with the non-naturalistic claim that individuals somehow choose themselves and their characters ex nihilo. Evil and virtue still exist, even though individuals don’t choose themselves and so don’t deserve praise and blame for being how they are. Positive or negative moral evaluations are warranted, but not deserved, which means that prescriptive language ("you ought not to do such and such") and other social sanctions still have indispensable roles to play in fostering virtue and discouraging evil. So morality, both as a structure of desirable behavior, and as a means of generating it, still remains a robust possibility under this strictly naturalistic view of ourselves.
However, (and here is one of my few quibbles with this excellent book) Waller perhaps underestimates the naturalistic uses of praise and blame, or reward and punishment, supposing that we must steer entirely clear of these lest we fall into the error of assigning moral responsibility. But praise and blame, if carefully understood as not implying an ultimately originative self, can function as warranted evaluations that have the effect of shaping moral character. Even if justice cannot be based on retributive (or laudatory) desert, we must still reward and punish to some extent to create persons who behave responsibly within social norms. What dropping free will and moral responsibility does is to temper moralistic, holier-than-thou punishing, in which those handing out just deserts believe in their innate moral superiority. Naturalism reduces the excesses of self-righteous retributive rage by depriving it of a metaphysical basis in free will. However, judicious punishment (and praise) will still be necessary in the foreseeable future to create moral individuals and a stable society. Even though persons end up behaving badly through no fault of their own (in the sense of non-naturalistic, ultimate fault) it’s just and fair to punish bad behavior if that’s the only feasible way to redirect it. We are not necessarily, as Waller seems to think, unjustly punishing their bad fortune to have become misbehavers (p. 64).
This quibble aside, Waller’s case for a morality untethered to moral responsibility is a strong one, with the virtue that such morality is founded not in some ethereal, mysterious self-choosing self or transcendent rationality, but in biological dispositions that can be channeled by culture. But Waller’s more or less scientific account of the natural roots of morality leads, inevitably, to his non-objectivism concerning the content of value systems, and therefore to the possibility of unresolveable moral disputes:
We are only too aware that within our own species there is the possibility - and actuality – of fundamentally different and categorically opposed basic moral principles (as between egalitarian and elitist-aristocratic value systems). When disputing such views, we may eventually find that there is no shared set of values on which to base arguments. Thus reason and argument may end without any rational means of resolving the conflict, and no basic value framework can be assumed without begging the question against alternatives that (however repugnant we find them) are genuine and coherent. In such cases we can seek the causes of such differing moral dispositions, but we are at the end of justification (p. 148).
This means, although Waller never says so explicitly, that the ultimate defense of our moral commitments (to democratic, rights-based egalitarianism, for instance) lies in force, since the possibility exists that nothing we say to our opponents cuts any ice. This, of course, is not news, as the war against Nazi Germany demonstrated, but it should serve as a caution to those who imagine that a stable, rationally supported moral equilibrium between authoritarian and democratic regimes might ever develop.
Waller makes many worthwhile and (from my less than omniscient perspective) often original observations in the realm of ethics and free will, most of which must go unmentioned here. But there are three points I found particularly striking which receive considerable treatment in his book. First is that although rationality cannot serve as a foundation for morality, it significantly extends the reach and resilience of our ethical predispositions, for instance in helping us to generalize the golden rule beyond our immediate community to others very much unlike us. Second is that the traditional duty-based, Kantian moral framework is a drastically impoverished moral conception compared with the creaturely, biological morality which Waller shows we have in common with other animals. Third is his proposal to develop a "care-based" morality, something many of us might find appealing and which reason – by itself arid and impotent – could fruitfully extend:
The care-based ethic is fundamentally right: affection, caring, trusting, and generous impulses are the moral foundation. And the tendency of reason-oriented ethical systems – whether Kantian or utilitarian – to ignore that foundation has left an artificial ethics: a rationalist ethics that is well suited for moral enhancement but crumbles underfoot when used as a moral foundation. Reason-based ethics reinforces rather than replaces care-based morality. The rules-reason approach is an important means of extending and enhancing and sustaining moral behavior when affection has reached its limits, but the moral foundation – on which duty morality must build – remains the immediate nonreflective inclinations of care and affection: inclinations rooted in biology, nurtured by direct and indirect reciprocity, and existing prior to rationality (p. 156).
Finally, I think Waller provides a most persuasive response to questions each serious student of ethics must eventually confront: Why should I be moral? If my particular moral convictions lack a foundation outside contingent biology and culture, why should I hold them instead of others? Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that Waller’s answer is not to be found in reason, or science, or in a true self in touch with transcendent moral principles. I leave future readers of this most enlightening volume to discover it for themselves.
© Thomas W. Clark, 5/99