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What are the best arguments against someone who believes 'Moral philosophy is useless, what we call morality is simply evolutionary instincts to do what we were designed to do as a species'. This person has no exposure to philosophy beyond an acquaintance to some philosophers from ancient times till 1800s. As many of these past philosophers were interested in God and arguing for his existence, her view of philosophy makes it seem similar to religion and antithetical to her atheism. Her view, which is standard scientism, is science supplanted philosophy as it became ascendant. So a related question would be about defending the value of philosophy from a view that borders on biological determinism.

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    To assure the reader this is not a straw man argument it would be good to have a reference to someone who believes something like this. This would also focus the question to that particular writer. Welcome to Philosophy! – Frank Hubeny Jan 20 at 18:08
  • This is a friend who used this argument. However I have also come across variants of this from scientists like Jerry Coyne and public figures like Sam Harris. – Samir Jan 20 at 18:15
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    Would you be able to quote Coyne or Harris? This would focus the question. – Frank Hubeny Jan 20 at 18:16
  • Sam Harris mentions some similar themes as the original question in his talk: ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right I was unable find the Coyne's quote I was looking for, but I did find his post on denying value to Free Will discussion to be releavant. whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/… – Samir Jan 20 at 18:27
  • +1 Thanks. I will take a look at those references. – Frank Hubeny Jan 20 at 18:33
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There is no defense to be made, these are different kinds of things. Scientism is a metaphysics with very little ethical implication. And you can have a single metaphysics as the basis for a wide range of different ethics. If your metaphysics does not determine your ethics, that is all the more reason you need to work explicitly on ethics per se.

Even if she is right about the source, moral philosophy is not useless. A reasonable view of mathematics is that it is an evolved set of modeling principles that makes our species able to deal with physical reality by classifying patterns for our own survival. So what about that makes mathematics itself useless?

Humans still need to live lives and construct societies. The genetic and historical imperatives of various contributors still conflict. How do you resolve those problems?

Arguing from genetic motives directly is a totally reasonable moral philosophy, a more broad-based version of Utilitarianism, which has a long history in the field. It just identifies pleasure in a more tractable way. But Utilitarianism does not get you very far on first principles. (As I see it, it depends on measures that only exist after a solution has been tried extensively, so it only reliably compares solutions that have already been tested. But ethical problems are endlessly new.)

We also note that views based on the Golden Rule appeal to us as structures that make people want to belong to a society. Reasoning from them gets you farther, faster, without the complexity of Utilitarianism. You can look at the genetic roots of that, but the fact that it recurs suggests they exist. And various very good biological arguments have been raised to explain why they work despite apparently conflicting with a simplistic view of Darwinism.

OK, having established that the basics are just biology, what do you do next? The exact thing you would do had you not reduced it to biology -- analyze the patterns and the options and attempt to evaluate them with respect to one another.

Moral philosophy does not need to be obsessed with its own causes, the same way mathematicians can happily insist on some perfect realm outside reality and not care whether the instincts behind mathematics are biological or not. It does have a history of being co-opted by people who are obsessed with its sources, but you can almost ignore them. Pretending to work from first principles makes them feel like their ethics have a foundation. But that foundation does not change the content very much, and rational discussion of the content does not rely upon those foundational arguments.

Knowing physics does not eliminate engineering. Knowing, at a slightly more abstract level than is actually applicable, why something exists or works, does not replace the content of the actual subject matter.

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What are the best arguments against someone who believes 'Moral philosophy is useless, what we call morality is simply evolutionary instincts to do what we were designed to do as a species'. This person has no exposure to philosophy beyond an acquaintance to some philosophers from ancient times till 1800s. As many of these past philosophers were interested in God and arguing for his existence, her view of philosophy makes it seem similar to religion and antithetical to her atheism. Her view, which is standard scientism, is science supplanted philosophy as it became ascendant. So a related question would be about defending the value of philosophy from a view that borders on biological determinism.

There are many agnostic or atheist philosophers, such as David Hume, Karl Popper and Ayn Rand. So the idea that all philosophers are theists is false.

Now, your opponent claims that morality is just what we call our evolutionary instincts. I'm pretty sure we didn't have defined benefit pension schemes in the African Savannah where humans evolved. Nevertheless, if an employer raids such a pension scheme to pay his business's bills, or to buy a fancy car, he is viewed as grossly immoral. Our ancestors also didn't have much medical knowledge but there are moral debates over issues like medical ethics that involve the moral issues surrounding those techniques, e.g. - controversies over abortion and assisted suicide. There are moral debates about whether we should have a welfare state. Our ancestors in the evolutionary past didn't have the idea of the welfare state. I could go on for pages about the issues we have now that our ancestors didn't have. The idea that we evolved all the current ideas about those issues in our evolutionary past doesn't make sense.

Sam Harris's ideas in particular are basically utilitarianism, which is bunk because it presupposes that all substantive moral debates about what we should try to maximize have been solved, which is false as the examples above illustrate.

  • Sam Harris tries to provide the utility function for utilitarianism, to specify what we should maximize, on scientific principles. He's trying to solve the substantial moral debates from a different point of view. – David Thornley Jan 22 at 21:26
  • conventional utilitarianism maximises happiness, and happiness is an evolutionary instinct. The problems @alanf has mentionned can be solved with maximizing happiness. That doesnt make utilitarianisim an instinct though, far from it. – Manu de Hanoi Jan 23 at 0:59

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