Monday, October 02, 2006

Evolution of Kantian Morals

Contemporary theory of Morality (a.k.a. metaethics) is thriving in empirical, psychological and evolutionary arguments to the point that one (or other) moral system is supposed to be correct. A philosophically minded person might be reluctant to accept that the deontologists versus consequentialists debate might be solved by evolutionary reasons. Things, however, seem to go that way. A famous argument has it that, for instance, a Kantian-like moral theory cannot be correct given the demands that it puts over motivation for action. A high motivation for our duty, as opposed to ‘our survival’ doesn’t seem to fit well what we know (or think we know) about human psychology and emotions.

However, once we take a look at how debates in psychology take place, things appear to be different. The way in which research and discussion takes place in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics (to mention a couple) is surprisingly similar to that of philosophy and its history. Suffice it to say that almost all theoretical approaches presuppose a theoretical dichotomy: domain specific or domain general, nature or nurture, maturation or learning, given or acquired, Plato or Locke.

Thus, in an effort to continue proving that debates concerning normative ethics, or how to pick between Kant and Mill, will not be so easily solved by an appeal to Biology, Evolution theory or Cognitive Psychology I hereby present what intends to be an evolutionary account of a Kantian-like version of how normative ethics should go.

Let’s start by laying down my presuppositions. I am assuming that human cognitive capacities are the result of an evolutionary adaptation. Thus, I am assuming that it is by means of their cognitive capacities that human animals have managed to survive. As a consequence it seems acceptable that any practice that points towards an improvement of such cognitive capacities will be evolutionarily advantageous.

Forget the biological side now. Let’s go to the normative ethics side of my claim. I am assuming that autonomy is a core element to a Kantian version of normative ethics. In short, I am assuming that an ethical theory that demands that all our actions be the result of self-determined deliberation processes, as opposed to externally-imbued deliberation processes (and or imperatives), is a Kantian ethical theory.

Now, how do these two assumptions work together? The answer lies in the cognitive processes implied by both, the biological and the ethical side. On the one hand, the ethical claim that a morally correct action is that which results of a self-determined deliberation process, presupposes a rationally competent and critical individual. For an individual to behave according to the “Do as you want so far as you determine your own will” dictum, the individual must be able to engage in highly complex cognitive processes such as the representation of different courses of action, comparing the available options looking for advantages and disadvantages, and questioning previous assumptions in order to determine which option is better to follow. In short, this Kantian version of an ethical theory demands that the individual exercise her metacognitive capacities.

On the other hand the biological claim that it is by using their cognitive capacities that humans have managed to survive through evolutionary history presupposes a complex use of cognitive capacities. Though it seems that a good amount of basic cognitive capacities are shared between apes and human animals, it seems clear that there is an important difference in what respects to high order cognitive processes, such as those labeled as ‘metacognition’. Human’s use of representation is distinctive in that there is a conscious access to concepts and not just an unreflective use of them.

Hence, both the Kantian ethical theory and the evolutionary account of human cognitive capacities seem to stand on a common basis: the advantages of using high-level cognition. If it has been evolutionarily advantageous to develop such a complex cognitive apparatus, why couldn’t a cognitively complex ethical theory (such as a Kantian-like theory) be fit for such an organism? After all, a Kantian like theory has the exercise of high-level cognitive capacities (those that explain why humans are where they are in evolutionary terms) as one of its consequences.

Furthermore, it has been hypothesized that such a use of high-level cognition helps humans in their constant effort to improve their knowledge (science) of the environment. We seem to have yet another evolutionary reason to think that there is space for a Kantian like ethical theory within an organism such conceived.