Comments on Wojciech Załuski’s paper ‘On the Applicability of Evolutionary Anthropology in Legal and Moral Philosophy’

1. In his characteristically lucid and skillfully grounded paper Wojciech claims (1) that evolutionary anthropology (understood as a nontrivial view of human nature mainly based on evolutionary psychology) can be used fruitfully in the analysis of some questions of legal philosophy, and (2) that the relevance of evolutionary anthropology for moral philosophy is very limited. These claims strike one as being quite counterintuitive: after all, the issue of how natural selection has shaped our sense of morality, moral behavior, and moral intuitions is a rather heatedly debated topic, at least among philosophers and evolutionary psychologists. The prevailing view on this problem is that homo sapiens possesses at least a minimal innate moral competence, which is of an evolutionary origin. On the other hand, positive law, conferred by an act of legislation, seems to be of a much more conventional nature than morality. It follows that our sense of legality, legal behavior, and legal intuitions do not rest upon some hard-wired dispositions shaped by evolution. They seem to be influenced by the necessity to resolve in an efficient way some important issues which were absent in ancestral environments (e.g. legitimacy of state coercion, limitations of public power, contractual obligations).

2. One must note, however, important conceptual distinctions concerning morality and law made by Wojciech. First of all, the object of moral judgments is narrowed down to motives of the agents (precluding other approaches to moral philosophy, such as consequentialism or virtue ethics). Secondly, the concept of law is narrowed down as applicable to legal rules which prohibit morally reprehensible acts directed against basic human goods such as life, bodily integrity or property. Taking those distinctions into consideration, the two above-mentioned claims cease to be perplexing. In this perspective, our moral behavior is identified with our legal behavior, and, as it was already mentioned, the issue of how natural selection shaped our moral behavior is considered to be quite relevant. On the other hand, as Wojciech mentions, often it seems impossible to indicate with certainty the motives of the agent acting morally. In such cases one can point to different, incompatible ‘stories’ reasonably explaining a given moral act. Evolutionary ‘explanations’ encounter the same difficulties.

3. It seems worth noting that if one takes as the object of moral judgments the moral behavior of the agents (in accordance with consequentialist approach), the relevance of evolutionary anthropology to moral philosophy becomes straightforward. In this perspective, the object of moral psychology would be to answer the question whether human beings have in-built pre-dispositions to behave morally. For some evolutionary psychologists, the answer to this question is affirmative. Humans behave, at least to some extent, altruistically, because such behavior is a biological adaptation. Therefore, we possess at least some minimal innate moral competence, shaped by natural selection.

4. Respectively, if we understand the concept of law as applicable to all legal rules conferred by an act of legislation, one can argue that the relevance of evolutionary anthropology to legal philosophy is much more limited than it seemed before (due to the fact that our sense of legality, legal behavior, and legal intuitions seem to be influenced by the necessity to resolve in an efficient way some important issues which were absent in ancestral environments). Perhaps even more limited that for moral philosophy.

5. The conclusion that the problems of metaethics lie beyond the reach of natural sciences in general seems to be very strong. As a counterexample, one can mention a growing body of data from empirical sciences, which shows that many moral judgments (interestingly enough, especially deontological moral judgments) seem to be influenced by emotion. It undermines the epistemic status of these judgments and underlies the need of their independent justification. Especially if one claims that emotions which appear in such contexts are biological adaptations which in many cases, due to the fact that the ancestral and the present environments were very different, do not help but mislead.

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One Comment to “Comments on Wojciech Załuski’s paper ‘On the Applicability of Evolutionary Anthropology in Legal and Moral Philosophy’”

  1. Ah, the silent assassin ;o) Radek, I think you are right here- Wojciech does seem to overlook the growing evidence that gives an emotional source for our otherwise seemingly purely logical reasoning. Should be an interesting discussion…

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