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Ethics as Social Science

The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

Leland B. Yeager

With this important book, esteemed economist Leland B. Yeager grounds moral and political philosophy in the requirements of a well-functioning society, one whose members reap the gains from peaceful cooperation while pursuing their own diverse goals.
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Chapter 3: Origins of Ethics

Leland B. Yeager


EXPLAINING ORIGINS VERSUS APPRAISING SUBSTANCE History scarcely shows that people deliberately invented and agreed to ethical precepts. True enough, some rules of families and other groups, including statutes enforced by governments, have been deliberately adopted. They were framed, however, against an already existing ethical background. Instead of being deliberately devised, ethical precepts evolved through largely unplanned biological and social processes. Explaining how something originated and why it persists is not the same as appraising or justifying it: “has evolved” does not mean “is good” (Ruse 1990, p. 65). Oddly, many people seem unable to distinguish a statement of what is believed true from advocacy of what ought to be true (Dawkins 1978, p. 3). (Examples come to mind of “political correctness” requiring particular positions on what are actually questions of fact.) A naturalistic explanation of traits and behaviors does not entail approval. Nature, so far as we know, has not been aiming at any particular results. To the question whether nature deserves emulation as the handiwork of a benevolent and omnipotent God, John Stuart Mill answered in effect: Are you kidding? (Wright 1994, p. 331; Mill 1874/1969). Lecturing on “Evolution and ethics” in 1893, Thomas Henry Huxley attacked the idea of deriving values from evolution. On the contrary, society’s ethical progress “depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it” (quoted in Singer 1982, p. 62; cf. Wright 1994, p. 242). Although natural selection may “want” us to be effective and...

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