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Philosophy Speakers: Metaethical Implications of Taking Darwin Seriously

Date & Time:
September 21, 2018 | 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
SS 1253
Ron Bontekoe, University of Hawaii-Manoa

About the Talk

A sound understanding of evolutionary biology has at least three crucial implications for the enterprise of ethics. First, we have to abandon any theistic conception of the world's origins and with it, of course, any divine command or natural law conception of ethics. Second, we must acknowledge that human reason is an adaptation--or better perhaps, what Stephen Jay Gould calls an "exaptation." As with any adaptation, this implies that it has been shaped into a state of passable effectiveness (for the achievement of its original and subsequent purposes), but it is not by any means perfect (or as Kant would say, "pure") -- a fact which renders any a priori approach to ethics enormously problematic, not to say objectionable. Third, there is sound evolutionary reason to see the rudiments (or analogues) of what we call ethics in the prosocial behaviour of other species -- especially our nearest cousins among the primates.

The purpose of ethics ever since its inception, Philip Kitcher argues in The Ethical Project, is the amelioration of altruism failure. But the reason there is such a thing as altruism failure is because the fundamental condition of all life forms is one of competition for the means of survival. Sometimes an individual's prospects of success in this competition are best served by cooperating with others (something altruism favors); sometimes it is best served, on the other hand, by cooperating with some in order to defeat other competitors (something patriotism favors); and sometimes it is best served by adopting a parasitic strategy (or immorality). Since success in the struggle for survival is the only thing that determines what kinds of creatures, and what kinds of behaviours, are perpetuated, and all three of these strategies can prove successful under the appropriate circumstances, the problem of altruism failure is perpetually with us. This also explains why delineating the boundary between legitimate claims to equal treatment and the legitimate claims of partiality is a crucial, if vexing, task of ethics. The classical ethicist who comes closest to appreciating all of these insights and accommodating them within his own theory of morality is David Hume.

About the Speaker

Prof. Bontekoe earned his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Toronto in 1988. Since joining the Philosophy Department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 1990, he served as the department's graduate chair for fourteen years, and recently served for six years as the department chair. He has published four books—two monographs (The Nature of Dignity and Dimensions of the Hermeneutic Circle) and two co-edited anthologies (Blackwell’s Companion to World Philosophies and Justice and Democracy: Cross-Cultural Perspectives). His main research interest these days is in the metaethical implications of evolutionary biology. 

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