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The Unsuccessful Natural Selection Argument for Subjectivism

Of all the arguments for subjectivism, the one that I find most compelling, as a

scientist, is the natural selection argument. This argument, as it is explained by Michael

Ruse and Edward Wilson in “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” from Conceptual

Issues in Evolutionary Biology, says that natural selection can explain why we have all

the moral beliefs we have. Although this fact can be debated, I personally agree with

Ruse and Wilson’s argument that natural selection can explain every single moral belief

held by humans. Therefore, in this essay, we will take this as a given. When I first

thought about this, my initial reaction was that this destroys morality. If we can explain

morality so easily with one scientific principle, natural selection, how can there be moral

truths? Therefore, the conclusion that is drawn is that there are no moral truths and

subjectivism is the only alternative that makes sense. However, I was surprised to find

out that even this scientific argument for subjectivism is not at all successful. The

counterargument is provided by Elliott Sober in “Prospects for an Evolutionary Ethics,”

From a Biological Point of View. He makes the point that while natural selection can

explain the way things are, it cannot explain the way things should be. This is a different

question than the one Ruse and Wilson try to answer. This essay will explain exactly why

the natural selection argument for subjectivism is unsuccessful.

It is important to specify the different types of questions we are asking about

morality. Sober poses two kinds of such questions. The first, in a general sense, asks:

Why do we have the moral beliefs we do? The second question is more along the lines

of: Do we have the moral beliefs we should have? In the words of Sober, the first
question poses a problem of “explanation,” while the second is about “justification”

(Sober, 94). Sober admits that Ruse and Wilson adequately address the first question in

explaining how our moral beliefs can be the product of natural selection. Sober even

expands their argument, providing more evidence for the origins of our moral beliefs

(Sober, 95-99). Therefore, we take this as a given. Ruse and Wilson take their argument

further and attempt to answer the second question: “We suggest that it will prove

possible to proceed from a knowledge of the material basis of moral feeling to generally

accepted rules of conduct. To do so will be to escape – not a minute too soon – from the

debilitating distinction between is and ought” (Ruse and Wilson, 423). Although we will

soon discuss exactly what is meant by the words is and ought, what Ruse and Wilson are

saying is that the theory of natural selection can answer our second question; it shows

that no ethical statements are true, which is support for subjectivism. In other words,

once we have a better scientific understanding of the way our minds work, which is a

product of natural selection, we will be able to use this understanding to explain the way

morality should be. If such explanations can be provided, then there are no moral truths

and subjectivism is the logical alternative.

Sober’s counterargument will quickly demonstrate that this second part of the

argument by Ruse and Wilson is flawed. While they make such statements with little

justification, Sober provides a convincing and detailed argument for why Ruse and

Wilson cannot answer this second question so easily. While they adequately “explain”

morality, they do not “justify” it. To understand Sober’s argument we must begin with a

discussion of the “is / ought gap” (Sober, 102) formulated by Hume. While an is-

statement describes something without any moral judgments, an ought-statement makes a


moral judgment about whether something is right or wrong. Hume’s thesis is that “a

deductively valid argument for an ought-conclusion must have at least one ought-

premise” (Sober, 103). It is on this thesis that Sober bases his argument against Ruse and

Wilson’s claim that no ethical statements are true; it is not deductively valid to derive

such an ought-statement from the is-statements that make up the theory of evolution.

Although Hume’s thesis says that it is impossible to deduce an ought-conclusion

from purely is-premises, Sober emphasizes that this thesis leaves open the possibility that

“purely is-premises provide nondeductive evidence for the truth of ought-conclusions”

(Sober, 109). In the case of natural selection, this would mean that there could be some

sort of correlation between the moral beliefs that evolved through natural selection and

what are ethical truths. However, Sober argues against this idea, producing a

generalization of Hume’s thesis: “Purely is-premises cannot, by themselves, provide

nondeductive support for an ought-conclusion” (Sober, 109). Therefore, Sober goes

beyond Hume’s thesis, claiming that there cannot even be a nondeductive connection

between is and ought. To explain why he thinks this in a little more detail, let us look at

one specific argument he makes. He starts with two statements worded as follows: “(1)

Action X will produce more pleasure and less pain than will action Y. (2) You should

perform action X rather than action Y” (Sober, 109). While he agrees that the first

statement provides evidence for the second, he suggests that “the two are connected in

this way only because of a background assumption […] that pleasure is usually good and

pain is usually bad” (Sober, 109). Although he makes the point, that facts about how

people form their ethical beliefs can provide evidence concerning whether those beliefs

are true, he says that “descriptions of the process of belief formation cannot provide
information about whether the beliefs are true unless we make assumptions about the

nature of those propositions and the connections they bear to the process of belief

formation” (Sober, 110). Therefore, Sober’s conclusion is that any statement about the

way things should be must be based on at least one evaluative premise, and cannot even

be nondeductively related to pure is-statements without an ought-statement.

In conclusion, the natural selection argument for subjectivism is shown to be

wrong because of the fact that an ought-statement cannot be derived from purely is-

statements. I originally thought that natural selection provided a convincing argument

against the existence of moral truths. But if even this argument is not successful, I don’t

think there is a single argument for subjectivism that would always be successful. In the

words of Ronald Dworkin, “morality is a distinct, independent dimension of our

experience, and it exercises its own sovereignty.” With this notion in mind, it is difficult

to come to a conclusion about morality such as that all moral facts are untrue.
Should the Concept of Subjectivism Have Any Role in Our Lives?

What kind of role should the concept of subjectivism play in our lives? Is it even

possible to be a subjectivist? If it were, would accepting subjectivism affect our lives?

To answer these questions, it is first necessary to have a very clear definition of

subjectivism. We will define it by what I am going to call “pure” subjectivism, which is

the exact opposite of the purest form of objectivism. This subjectivism leaves absolutely

no room for any moral truths whatsoever, and also necessarily involves objectivism being

false. If we take this as our definition of subjectivism, we find that it is impossible to be

a subjectivist. This argument is made in different ways by both Barry Stroud and Ronald

Dworkin. Furthermore, if it is impossible to be a subjectivist, the concept of subjectivism

should not affect our lives very much. But what if it were possible to adopt some form of

subjectivism, even if it is not the pure form described above? It turns out that any form

of subjectivism in our lives would have little effect on us. We will explore one example

of this, which is subjectivism as it relates to tolerance. By studying the writing of

Bernard Williams, we can understand that subjectivism provides little support for

tolerance. Although this does not prove that subjectivism cannot affect our lives in any

way, it shows that in at least one case, that of tolerance, it has no consequences, unlike

what might initially suspect. In summary, it is not possible to be a subjectivist, and even

if it were, it would not affect our lives in terms of how tolerant we are.

We will begin with one particular argument against the possibility of being a

subjectivist. This is the argument provided by Barry Stroud in “The Study of Human

Nature and the Subjectivity of Value” from The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. His
argument is against “unmasking explanations,” which are a way of explaining why we

treat things as good or bad without appealing to their actual being good or bad (Stroud,

224). The way that subjectivism could be supported is through an unmasking explanation

of evaluative thought, and if he explains that this is not possible, then he has provided an

argument against subjectivism. As a basis for his argument, he says that although

subjectivism denies that there are values, it does not deny that there is evaluation, because

it is impossible to deny the existence of something so obviously true. His argument goes

as follows: Evaluating something involves belief in the value assigned, and attributing a

belief involves understanding the concept of the belief, which in turn involves knowing

how to use the concept. Because knowing how to use a concept involves having some

beliefs involving that concept, evaluating something will involve some belief. Therefore,

we cannot provide an unmasking explanation that would support subjectivism. Because

only an unmasking explanation can explain evaluation in general, this suggests that we

cannot show that subjectivism is true and objectivism is false. In the words of Stroud, we

cannot “coherently get ourselves into the position of discovering that none of the

evaluative beliefs or attitudes of human beings corresponds to anything that is so in the

way things are” (Stroud 248). Because we defined subjectivism as involving objectivism

being false, this argument proves that it is not possible to be a subjectivist.

Ronald Dworkin also argues against subjectivism in “Objectivity and Truth:

You’d Better Believe It,” from Philosophy and Public Affairs. What he asks is whether

we can distinguish between claims within morality and claims about morality. To help

understand these ideas, he uses the concepts of internal skepticism, which assumes the

truth of some value judgments, and external skepticism, which either does not assume the
truth of any value judgments or does not imply any value judgments. Dworkin analyzes

different arguments for subjectivism and argues that they all must make claims about

value. The conclusion he comes to is that “The epistemology of any domain must be

sufficiently internal to its content to provide reasons, viewed from the perspective of

those who begin holding convictions within it, for testing, modifying or abandoning those

convictions” (Dworkin, 120). This means that the explanation of external knowledge

must be at least somewhat internal. One other explanation that Dworkin provides that is

a little easier to understand is that “if morality is to be destroyed, it must preside over its

own destruction” (Dworkin, 128). Dworkin comes to a similar conclusion as Stroud, but

uses a different argument. If it actually is impossible to be a pure subjectivist, the

concept of subjectivism should not affect our lives.

Although we have just shown that it is probably not possible to be a subjectivist,

let us consider for a moment that it is possible, just so we can consider how this would

affect our lives. In this case we do not need to carefully define subjectivism; it could

either be the pure form of it discussed above, or just any type of subjectivism. It is not

important for the definition to be that specific, because we are going to end up showing

that any form of subjectivism should not affect our lives. Tolerance is the particular

aspect of our lives that we are going to examine in terms of how it is affected by adopting

subjectivism. It would seem that accepting subjectivism would lead to more tolerance.

However, by studying the writing of Bernard Williams in “Interlude: Relativism,” from

Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, we see that the principle of toleration is inconsistent

with subjectivism. Williams discusses what he calls vulgar relativism, which “consists of

three propositions: that ‘right’ means […] ‘right for a given society’; that ‘right for a
given society’ is to be understood in a functionalist sense; and that (therefore) it is wrong

for people in one society to condemn, interfere with, etc., the values of another society”

(Williams, 20). Assuming that by “functionalist sense” Williams means “what is needed

for a society to survive,” vulgar relativism basically says that a society will have the

easiest time surviving if it determines what is right for itself instead of having other

societies decide this. In other words, it is best for societies in general if they are

absolutely tolerant of other societies. But Williams contends that relativism is

incompatible with the claim that it is wrong for any society to be intolerant of other

societies: “The view is clearly inconsistent, since it makes a claim in its third

proposition, about what is right and wrong in one’s dealings with other societies, which

uses a nonrelative sense of ‘right’ not allowed for in the first proposition” (Williams, 21).

The problem is that what is right for a given society is determined by the beliefs and

practices of that society. So if one society has intolerant beliefs and practices, in

particular beliefs and practices that encourage interference with the values of other

societies, then it is right for that society to be intolerant. Williams’ convincing argument

that vulgar relativism is inconsistent shows that adopting subjectivism does not mean we

must be more tolerant. Although this does not prove that subjectivism should not affect

our lives in any way, it does show that subjectivism has no consequences for tolerance.

We have shown that it is probably not possible to be a pure subjectivist, and even

if it were, it would not affect our lives in terms of how tolerant we are. If both of these

facts are true, it is likely that adopting subjectivism would not affect our lives in many

other ways, even though this essay does not take the time to prove this statement. In

conclusion, the concept of subjectivism should not play an important role in our lives.