Sometimes you wonder whether your own philosophical
convictions block your ability to fairly evaluate the arguments of others. In
my case, my anti-relativism is one such conviction. I find it hard to be
sympathetic to arguments for relativism. I try to do my best do be charitable
but I know I often fail. I guess I would now want some help in being charitable
about Sharon Street’s
argument against Realism based on evolution. The argument is in her paper
‘Constructivism about Reasons’ which she presented at Shafer-Landau’s
prestigious metaethics workshop (the paper is still available online through pea soup). For me, it just seems obviously fallacious.
The same form of argument gives elsewhere a false conclusion from the analogous
premises. But, I must be missing something. A small caveat – she says that her
goal in the paper is not to argue against realism (even though she does). She
does this apparently elsewhere with more success I hope.
The argument is supposed to be a thought-experiment. It
starts from the basic, actual evolutionary story of how life developed. It then
supposes that one day to first valuing creatures were born. They were otherwise
identical but due to a random chance in genes they valued completely different
kinds of things. One of them valued only its own survival and nothing else while
the other valued only its destruction and nothing else (I wonder on what
grounds would be attribute such valuation to her but let that drop). Both of
these beings sought what they valued successfully. The other survived and left
off-spring while the other destroyed itself and the genes it was carrying.
Street’s anti-realism holds that it was not the case that
the first being recognized or tracked a normative truth while the second failed
to do so. Neither was it the case that the first creature survived because it
made true evaluative judgments but rather because it tended to do just what
helped its survival. Now, my realist intuition is the opposite – I believe that
the second creature failed to recognise what was valuable for it. To get me out of this intuition, Street asks
me at this point Why do I think this.
And, her answer for me is not that I recognise something of a true value but
rather the answer is that I merely think this because I’m a descendant of the first
being (or one like it presumable). And, this is supposed to establish that
there really are no evaluative standards but rather evolution only explains the
ways in which we tend to go on making evaluations. Thus, realism must be false.
The possibility of error attributed by our judgments, and not by the standards,
came only about as a result of evolution.
Now, I must be missing something. I feel no pull against
realism at all as a result of the thought-experiment. I can’t see a difference
between it and an analogous case. Start from the same evolutionary story. At
some point first two beings come about as a result of random mutation. They are
otherwise identical except they judge distances differently. Where one judges
that the river is narrow enough to jump over the other thinks it is too wide,
where the other thinks that the alligator is far enough the other does not. As
a result of these judgments, the second survives and the first does not. My
realist intuition again is that the other one of these beings gets the
distances right and the other one wrong.
But, if we follow Street in the
previous argument, we need to ask why I think this. And, the answer must be the
same – I don’t recognise something about true distances but only think this
because I’m a descendent of the second being who judges distances in the same
way as me. And, therefore there are no standards of distances but only
evolutionary explanations of the ways in which we tend to judge distances. But,
no. The argument does not establish this. Surely no matter what the explanation
is for our distance judgments and their reliability there must be distances in
the world, full stop. True premises, false conclusion. So, the evolutionary
explanation for our evaluative judgments cannot be an argument against the
existence of evaluative truths. That conclusion must be established in some
other way. But, maybe I’m missing something.