John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.4, "Transcending our Evolutionary Situation without God"

This section attempts to bridge the gap between natural selection and moral obligation without bringing God into the picture. It looks at two figures: Joshua Greene and then Philip Kitcher.

8.4.1 “Joshua Greene”

Hare begins with Joshua Green’s book Moral Tribes. The governing metaphor of the book is that of two tragedies, which Greene calls the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of common-sense morality. The tragedy of the commons is a multi-person cooperation problem. Morality is thought to be given to us by evolution to solve such dilemmas by cooperating because we can trust each other to do so at least to some significant degree. Something like the Golden Rule facilitates cooperation, but why be committed to such a rule? Perhaps brotherly affection, or a tit-for-tat agreement. Or they may be friends, or care about reputation, or may fear the other’s built-in irrational desire for vengeance.

But also, we have at least a small amount of care for strangers and a readiness to help them “hard-wired” into us, and Greene claims that such “neighborliness” can be found in other primates and even in capuchin monkeys. The problem is that tribal loyalty and self-interest are stronger. For the first of these (tribal loyalty), Green quotes the anthropologist Donald Brown, whose survey of human cultural differences and similarities identified in group bias and ethnocentrism as universal. For the second (self-interest), he quotes studies on what he calls “biased fairness” in which our perception of reality and fairness is unconsciously distorted by self-interest.

The tragedy of common-sense morality, on the other hand, results from a higher-order dilemma. Imagine different tribes who’ve come to accept different moral pictures. What seems common sensical to one tribe isn’t to another. The point of this parable is that the situation of these tribes is our situation. What we need to find is a metamorality that can adjudicate conflict between us. Once we see the evolutionary forces that gave rise to morality we can “climb the ladder of evolution and then kick it away,” as Wittgenstein says about his method in the Tractatus. Greene argues that the unnatural metamorality we should end up with is utilitarianism. This is because utilitarianism trades only in the currency that is common to all the tribes, and that currency is happiness and its maximization.

The picture raises three questions, deriving from the three arguments in Chapter 1: the arguments from providence, grace, and justification. Consider them in reverse order. Why should I regard the conclusions of this metamorality as binding on me? This is Korsgaard’s so-called normative question. The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? The third question is how can I reasonably believe that moving to this metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way? This question focuses on the cost of the moral demand, construing it as Green does in a utilitarian way.

The first question asks for a justification. How can Greene justify the claim that we should live under his form of the moral demand? He rules out religion, but the exclusion is unfortunate, because it deprives him of resources for justification that he needs. It’s hard to find accurate figures, but one estimate is that, by 2050, 80% of the world’s population will belong, at the present rate of change, to one of the major religions. Surely we should be looking at the resources of those religions to see if they can help us with common currency.

It is significant here that Greene has distorted the history of utilitarianism by excising its religious roots. He says it was founded by Bentham and Mill, but he ignores Hutcheson, who first writes of the greatest Happiness for the greatest numbers, and especially Paley, whose work preceded Bentham and indeed the success of whose book at Cambridge provoked Bentham to write his own version of the theory. The point is that utilitarianism starts with Christians, and works out the view that, as Butler puts it, benevolence, especially God’s benevolence, seems in the strictest sense to include in it all that is good and worthy. Bentham, but not Mill, is cutting himself off from the roots of his own theory. Indeed, the prizing of benevolence is common currency to all areas of the world in which the five major religions have established a significance presence.

What is Greene’s answer to the normative question? There are various question-begging answers. One is that strengthening our sympathies for distant strangers is the honest response, the enlightened response to world hunger. But the striking thing is that he does not squarely face this question. At one point he implies this: the love of what is good simply because it is good, which Scotus calls the affection for justice. But there is a problem here. There is another abstract principle behind nature’s working, namely, competitive self-replication. Nature is a mixture. We can’t generate a justification of the obligation to follow a universalistic moral demand just from the principles behind nature’s working because we need to know which principles to invoke.

The second question is how can I move to this metamorality, given that I am the mixture of motivations that Green has described? Here again Greene doesn’t provide an answer, and he concedes our brains weren’t designed to care deeply about the happiness of strangers. He thinks Hume’s right that reason is the slave, but he wants to allow more space than Haidt to reason. He wants reason to be able to transcend the emotions, which he regards as automatic processes that tell us what to do.

But if our reasoning process starts from emotional inputs as its premises, and this input is contaminated in the way Greene says it is, how is the processing supposed to give us pure utilitarian theory as its output for how we should live our lives? We are dealing here with a mysterious emergent property. But Hume’s a telling case here. He concedes that if we had a society in which those whom we exploited were not able to harm us because of their weakness, we would not be moved by any abstract principle of justice to end the exploitation, even if they resented it. We might hope to be moved by the calm passions of compassion and kindness, but the reach of our natural endowment of these is, as Greene acknowledges, significantly limited. What is supposed to get us to accept a higher standard?

What creates the problem here is the combination of optimism about the new metamorality with pessimism about the input processed by our reasoning. One solution is to be more optimistic about the sentiments. Frans de Waal has criticized the denigration within sociobiology of human moral capacity, and called this kind of denigration “Calvinist,” tracing the view back to Calvin’s picture of the total depravity of human beings. The roots of morality, he thinks, lie in empathy and reciprocity, and are already present in primate sociality. For de Waal, the philosophical defender of moral sentiments is again Hume, and the enemy is Kant. But de Waal is not consistent in what he says about religion. He concedes that there is no human culture without religion, though humans had social norms before they had our current major religions, and he says that, if we were able to excise religion from society, it is doubtful that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. This means that, ironically, in terms of the second question, at least sometimes he says we need religion (just as Kant does), even though he is not himself a religious person. It also means that our sentiments in the absence of religion are not sufficient to take us to a morally good life.

The third question asks how I can reasonably believe that moving to this utilitarian metamorality is consistent with my own happiness, if it does not seem that other people are moving in the same way. Something like an argument from providence can be found in both Mill and Sidgwick, Mill in Three Essays on Religion, and Sidgwick at the very end of Methods of Ethics. Sidgwick, though, doesn’t endorse the solution, though the problem it addresses is recognized as a real problem. A utilitarian needs to have something to say about how prudence (understood as the pursuit of one’s own happiness) is consistent with the moral demand (understood as the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number). Without an argument like this it is not clear how Greene can hold his utilitarian metamorality and the pursuing of individual happiness are consistent.