Street, Sharon, and . A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value

2006, Philosophical Studies 127 (1):109-166.

Abstract: Contemporary realist theories of value claim to be compatible with natural science. In this paper, I call this claim into question by arguing that Darwinian considerations pose a dilemma for these theories. The main thrust of my argument is this. Evolutionary forces have played a tremendous role in shaping the content of human evaluative attitudes. The challenge for realist theories of value is to explain the relation between these evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes, on the one hand, and the independent evaluative truths that realism posits, on the other. Realism, I argue, can give no satisfactory account of this relation. On the one hand, the realist may claim that there is no relation between evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes and independent evaluative truths. But this claim leads to the implausible skeptical result that most of our evaluative judgments are off track due to the distorting pressure of Darwinian forces. The realist’s other option is to claim that there is a relation between evolutionary influences and independent evaluative truths, namely that natural selection favored ancestors who were able to grasp those truths. But this account, I argue, is unacceptable on scientific grounds. Either way, then, realist theories of value prove unable to accommodate the fact that Darwinian forces have deeply influenced the content of human values. After responding to three objections, the third of which leads me to argue against a realist understanding of the disvalue of pain, I conclude by sketching how antirealism is able to sidestep the dilemma I have presented. Antirealist theories of value are able to offer an alternative account of the relation between evolutionary forces and evaluative facts—an account that allows us to reconcile our understanding of evaluative truth with our understanding of the many nonrational causes that have played a role in shaping our evaluative judgments.

Comment: This is an influential paper that could serve either as required reading or further reading in a metaethics module. Includes a very clear explanation of realism.