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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 406-410 ( 19 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/agency.html

Book Review

The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency 
by William A. Rottschaefer
Cambridge University Press, 1998

Reviewed by Neil Levy, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.

To call this an ambitious book is wildly to understate its aspirations. Rottschaefer aims to provide a naturalistic account of moral agency, based on the best scientific work in evolutionary biology, sociobiology and psychology, which will explain how human beings come to acquire, assess and act upon moral beliefs and motivations. Moreover, he hopes to demonstrate that the mechanisms of acquisition and assessment are also justificatory: they explain not only how we come to be moral agents, but can be invoked to vindicate our values.

Rottschaefer begins by analyzing the notion of moral agency. He defends a variant of the view represented, most importantly, in recent analytic philosophy by Harry Frankfurt; what is sometimes called (though not by Rottschaefer) a real self view. This is a view of the moral agent as possessing both first-order and higher-order desires, where higher-order desires are desires about first-order desires. In its original formulation, this was intended as an account of moral responsibility: an agent is responsible for an action just in case she acts upon a desire that she endorses at the appropriate higher level. Rottschaefer modifies the account in several important ways. Rather than speak of desires, he speaks of ‘nonstrongly cognitive sources’ (19), which are intended to have some representational content. Moreover, he defends a four-tier view of moral agency, with a base level which consists of learned and evolutionarily based dispositions and propensities, a behavioural level consisting of the desires and beliefs which directly motivate action, a reflective level dedicated to assessing the lower levels in the light of norms and principles, and finally a self-system which assesses all the other levels in the light of conceptions of the self. These higher levels are seen as possessing causal powers over the representations and motivations at lower levels.

All this is laid out in Rottschaefer’s first chapter. Already, we have a sense of the magnitude of the task he has set himself, and already we encounter one of its important limitations. By taking on such a massive task, Rottschaefer ensures that he must leave significant portions of his model undeveloped and undefended. For instance, the distinction between the base level of moral agency and the behavioural level is somewhat obscure. It may well be defensible, but it does not receive anything like an adequate exposition, never mind defence, here. This is a recurring frustration with this book. Perhaps it is an inevitable failing with a task of this size.

In any case, having laid out his model, Rottschaefer then attempts to assemble evidence for its existence, and to spell out some of the contents of each level of agency. He does so by considering evidence from evolutionary game theory for the existence of altruism, and from psychology for the existence of an innate empathy. The chapter on game theory is a fairly routine exposition of the kinds of situations in which tit-for-tat would be an evolutionarily stable strategy. To my mind, however, it suffers from two important confusions. The first, and the less important, is the belief, only explicitly expressed in a later chapter, that the implementation of tit-for-tat as a game theoretic strategy requires ‘rather sophisticated’ cognitive equipment (74). Of course, it all depends upon what we call sophisticated, but Rottschaefer plainly means by this that only the more intelligent animals, like the higher primates, could engage in such strategies. This is clearly false: tit-for-tat has been documented, famously, in vampire bats, and it has been invoked to explain the mutually beneficial interactions between cleaning fish and the predators they service. Conditional strategies can and are implemented even by insects.

More important is Rottschaefer’s confusing definitions of altruism and selfishness. Altruism is, of course, a technical term in biology. It is usually used to mean any behaviour that increases the fitness of a recipient organism while decreasing the fitness of the donor. There is a question here, which is purely definitional, concerning whether the fitness in question should be inclusive; in other words, should we describes as altruistic cases in which (for example) an organism sacrifices its life for a sufficient number of close relatives for the sacrifice to boost its inclusive fitness? No matter how we decide this issue, we face the further task of relating this purely technical notion of altruism to the ordinary one in which we are interested in moral philosophy.

Rottschaefer defines reciprocal behavior - in which an organism benefits another in the expectation of a return to itself or to its kin - as biologically selfish (38). This seems plausible. But he describes kin altruism as biologically altruistic. This is very implausible. Kin altruism can be selected for because it boosts inclusive fitness; it seems to follow that it is biologically (though perhaps not ordinarily) selfish. Worse is to come. Rottschaefer claims that a range of behaviors which can be selected for are ordinarily altruistic, and that therefore ordinary altruism can evolve. Helping one’s children, for instance, can obviously be selected for; indeed, it is biologically selfish. But it is ordinarily altruistic. Helping others with reciprocation is also biologically selfish, but it is also ordinarily altruistic. Helping kin is, as we mentioned, biologically altruistic, and it is also ordinarily altruistic.

Now, some of this is of questionable plausibility, and some of it is plainly wrong. It is questionable whether helping one’s kin is ordinarily altruistic. It is highly questionable, indeed, I think implausible, that helping one’s children is ordinarily altruistic. It is plainly wrong to think that helping others with reciprocation is ordinarily altruistic. No one thinks I act altruistically when I pay my grocer for the goods I need. All this matters because Rottschaefer thinks he has established that genuine altruism might evolve by demonstrating that under the right conditions kin and reciprocal altruism can be selected for. If in fact genuine altruism is distinct from biological altruism, in such a way that genuine altruism does not contribute even to inclusive fitness, then a lot more work remains to be done to show that genuine altruism is best understood as a biological phenomenon (assuming, of course, that genuine altruism exists). Once again, limitations of space prevent Rottschaefer from giving the question the space it requires.

Of course, it is one thing to show that the biological bases of morality might have evolved, and quite another to produce evidence that they actually did. Rottschaefer believes he finds the evidence in Martin Hoffman’s work on the development of empathy. Empathy appears to be innate in human beings, at least if Hoffman is right in interpreting the phenomenon of neonate responsive crying as a precursor of empathy. Moreover, the fact that empathy seems to develop according to a standard schedule in all children suggests that it has a biological substratum. Though, as Rottschaefer admits, one biologically-based morally relevant capacity does not a moral agent make, the fact that there appears to be one such capacity is encouraging news for those who wish to defend a naturalistic account of moral agency. If there is one such capacity, there may well be others, and morality might be built upon their foundation.

After chapters exploring the limitations of E.O. Wilson’s sociobiological derivation of ethics, and Skinner’s behaviorism as a science of values, Rottschaefer turns from the biology to the psychology of moral agency. Here he explores two products of the cognitive revolution in psychology; Kohlberg’s developmental theory and Bandura’s social cognitive theory. Kohlberg suggests that moral cognition develops in a very regular manner, passing through definite stages, which he identifies. If he were right, then the evidence that morality was a fundamentally biological phenomenon would be overwhelming. Unfortunately, some of Kohlberg’s predictions have not been borne out. In particular, it does not seem to be true that everyone follows exactly the same sequence of stages in acquiring morality, nor is it true that the stages are as distinct as he suggested. Instead, people mix moral stages in their reasoning.

Rottschaefer takes these facts as indications that morality is only partially a biological phenomenon. The fact that its acquisition varies from individual to individual suggests, to him, that social learning is essential to its acquisition. Hence his investigation of cognitively-based social learning theories. But moral learning has regularities and constraints which suggests that its limits, if not its content, are dictated by biology.

Much of this ought to be relatively uncontroversial, in its general form if not in the details of its substantive claims. Obviously whatever morality is, we must come to acquire it by way of mechanisms which have evolved. That this is so ought to be accepted by everyone, regardless of their views on the usefulness of examining morality from a biological point of view. Far more controversial is Rottschaefer’s claim that knowledge of the biological basis of morality can go part of the way toward justifying substantive moral claims.

There is a very well known objection to any attempt to invoke biology in the pursuit of this aim: the so-called naturalistic fallacy. It is, supposedly, a fallacy to cite natural facts in justification of normative claims: the gap between “is” and “ought” makes any such appeal mistaken. Rottschaefer discusses the naturalistic fallacy in its epistemological form. Here, the argument is that it is fallacious to cite the reasons why we come to believe a claim in justification of that claim, As he points out, this is only sometimes a fallacy: it is perfectly in order to cite the reasons why we believe a claim as justifying that claim if we came to acquire the belief by way of a reliable mechanism for forming beliefs of that kind. Perception is one such mechanism, for instance: my belief that there is a computer before me is justified by the perception which causes me to come to have that belief. So if there are reliable moral belief forming mechanisms, we can cite our coming to have our beliefs in virtue of these mechanisms as (defeasible) evidence that these beliefs are true.

But are there any such reliable mechanisms? Rottschaefer claims there are: the different levels of moral agency he has identified are reliable mechanisms for ‘attaining whatever “representations” and motivations are needed to achieve morally relevant actions’ (198). The same quasi-perceptual representations which give rise to feelings of empathic distress, for instance, are rightly cited in justification of why we ought to act to alleviate the distress of others.

However, empathy is not the whole of morality, as Rottschaefer rightly emphasizes. Our empathic responses are moulded by processes of social learning, in such a manner that when we are fully-fledged moral agents, they have been profoundly modified. If all goes well, the mature agent feels empathy only when it is appropriate. She feels empathy for everyone who is the victim of an injustice, for instance, and not just for those who are relevantly similar to her (as the basic empathy mechanism tends to lead infants to do). Frequently, however, all does not go well: she feels empathy when it is inappropriate, and totally fails to feel empathy for members of out-groups. Since the base level capacity of empathy must be modified by higher levels of agency for it function appropriately, but only some modifications are normatively acceptable, we cannot appeal to the mere fact of empathic distress in justification of our moral intuitions. Instead, we need some criteria to appeal to show that the manner in which the base level capacity has been shaped is appropriate.

Rottschaefer takes up this challenge, but his response to it is inadequate. He tells us, plausibly enough, that when the higher-level systems function reliably, the moral representations they yield will be true (assuming, with him, the truth of moral realism). But the notion of reliability here is itself a normative one; it would therefore be circular to appeal to it in justification of our normative views. We need to be able to identify the appropriate moral standards independently. Rottschaefer suggests we can do this by taking paradigm cases of moral action as our guide. In addition, however, we can cite the importance of survival and reproduction, which we have glimpsed through our foray into evolutionary theory, to any adequate morality.

It is here that the inadequacies of Rottschaefer’s discussion of the connections between biological and ordinary altruism come back to haunt him. He has not shown that ordinary altruism is possible at all, on one plausible reading of what such altruism consists in. On another, the one he prefers, according to which reciprocal and kin altruism count as ordinarily altruistic, he has not shown that broader altruism exists. Some systems of morality are explicitly limited, in essentials, to in-group members. Such a system of morality can provide the contents of Rottschaefer’s higher levels of agency, the levels which shape our base level capacities. It can be taught to children in such a way that they come to internalize it. It meets all of Rottschaefer’s conditions for a justified moral system. But at least some of these moral systems - for instance, those of sincere Nazis - are regarded by most of us as profoundly immoral. Unless Rottschaefer can show that something in the formal conditions of moral agency he sets out show that we are required, rationally, to care for the survival and reproduction of out-group members, he cannot show that the biological and psychological evidence he amasses goes any way at all to justifying morality.

This is a rich and wide-ranging book. I have had space only to consider some of its major themes. I have not discussed Rottschaefer’s intricate and challenging defence of his integrationist position against reductionist and eliminativist views of agency, nor his defence of moral realism. Here, and in articulating a view of the kind of relationship we can forge between the view of humanity yielded by the best science and the ordinary view of ourselves as moral agents which would provide the resources for a meaningful moral life, Rottschaefer makes a substantial contribution to the ongoing project of reconciling our fragmented knowledge of ourselves. So far as the important project of demonstrating that true morality has not merely biological preconditions, but a biological foundation, is concerned, however, Rottschaefer’s work does more to articulate the problems than to solve them.

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© Neil Levy.


Levy, N. (2002). Review of The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency by William A. Rottschaefer. Human Nature Review. 2: 406-410.

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