I was just re-reading a long, fascinating and very heated evo-psych thread I started on Facebook late last year, and toward the end it veered off into philosophy. A very smart author friend of mine has strenuously argued for adopting a perspective of radical freedom, and it’s a bone of contention between us. Here’s a paraphrase of my response to him:
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Our morality is an accident of evolution, negotiating fixed, impersonal laws — from one perspective. We do not really know if the universe is teleological. It will be an open question as long as there are people around to ask it.
How do we know that relativity is not relative? How do we know that our abstractions are valid? Ultimately, we pick the philosophy most aligned with our experience, and put faith in it, hopefully provisional and not dogmatic faith when we apply it to real things.
But here’s the subtle point from my admittedly essentialist bias: our moral calculus is a product of nature, but we cannot look to nature to help us apply it. One woman I argued with claimed that evo psych is one big appeal-to-nature fallacy. Not so. We have to look outside it for moral guidance and it doesn’t pretend otherwise. That’s what science is about — objectivity, value neutrality — and what morality is about is what works best among humans, in the long run. This is cultural, to an extent, but I think it’s more.
We have to ask, has the condition of women improved under “patriarchal” Western culture? Apparently so. But is that improvement a direct effect of our culture, or a side effect? To the extent that our culture is a patriarchy, it’s a side effect. Our culture fostered birth control and lifesaving medical technology that made it possible for women to assert themselves, sometimes with the help of men. Political conservatives tend to view patriarchy as a direct cause; feminists argue correctly that it’s not. The most repressive cultures on earth are patriarchies. But replacing them with matriarchies would be a similar horror. Our culture is moral to the extent that it promotes human freedom and gender equality. From what do I derive that value? From a broad view, from my innate sense of fairness, and, yes, from my faith.
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In short, a little essentialism, a little openness to the idea that we are each variously biased by nature and have to work hard to overcome that bias, is only fair. We are neither radically free nor incapable of confronting and changing our attitudes. I like to emphasize, though, that if you don’t make allowance for nature, for hard facts, then you will not make a better world.