Monthly Archives: April 2020

Quine and Skinner and Unconscious Reasoning

“There is a startling irony in these discoveries about how the brain makes choices. It entirely vindicates a research program in experimental psychology that pretty much everyone thought was consigned to oblivion fifty years ago: behaviourism…But the behaviourists may yet have the last laugh because it turns out that the “whole-animal” conditioning they discovered and thought was enough to explain human and nonhuman animal behaviour really does explain it. But it does so only when it operates on the neural circuits of the brain. All of which appear to be built by classical or operant conditioning. Behaviourism is vindicated in the brain by a process roughly the same as the one Eric Kandel discovered builds synapses in the hippocampus” ( Alex Rosenberg ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ p.  155)


 In this blog-post I will discuss Quine and Skinner’s attempt to understand reasoning and rule-following in terms of humans explicitly following the rules and being able to state them. Their explanation of reasons which flirts with eliminativism but doesn’t cross that line will be contrasted with Alex Rosenberg’s mad dog eliminativism. I will argue for the practical indispensability of folk psychology even though it probably doesn’t pick out a real feature that can be discovered in science. 

In cognitive science it is common to explain cognitive competencies in-terms of a plethora of rules that are represented in the brain. Thus in the early days of generative grammar it was argued that there were certain innate rules that governed how people constructed the sentences they spoke. It was argued that while we didn’t have conscious access to the grammatical structure underlying our sentences our brain was unconsciously following rules when we constructed them. Similar arguments were made about how the brain judged distance in perceptual acts. Now there is an ample literature in the philosophy of cognitive science explicating what is meant by the notion of ‘unconscious rules’; I won’t discuss this literature here as I have done so elsewhere (  ( ). Here I will discuss a criticism of the cognitive concept of rules made by two famous behaviourists; Quine and Skinner.

                                 Skinner on Rule Following

 B.F. Skinner distinguished between rules which we consciously understand and behaviour which is shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. For Skinner we are following a rule if we can verbalize what the rule is and act accordingly. To illustrate this point he makes the odd comparison of a person who speaks correctly by  consciously applying the rules of grammar and the one who has learned to speak correctly by his verbal behaviour being shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement ( Contingencies of Reinforcement p. 125). In his 1974 book ‘About Behaviourism’ Skinner made a similar point. He noted that a normal human who is speaking grammatically is no more following an explicit model of the grammar he speaks than a dog catching a ball is explicitly following the relevant part of the science of mechanics before he catches the ball.  Skinner is not dogmatically demarcating all behaviour into two distinct camps; explicit rule governed behaviour and unconscious causal sequences shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. He does acknowledge that there may be intermediate cases not neatly described by either scheme (About Behaviourism pp. 126-128). But Skinner does seem to think that the most natural way to speak about rule following is to speak about explicitly following the rule and being able to state the rule one is following.

                                               Quine on Rule-following

Quine discussed rules in the context of his critique of Chomsky’s views that our brain was restricted to following certain rules when constructing and interpreting our sentences. Chomsky had argued that there were underlying syntactic rules which governed all of the world’s languages.  In his 1972 paper ‘Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ Quine criticized Chomsky’s conception of a rule arguing that it was unnecessary. Quine argued that there was a simpler way of conceiving rules than the one Chomsky used:


“My distinction between fitting and guiding is, you see, the obvious and flat-footed one. Fitting is a matter of true description; guiding is a matter of cause and effect. Behaviour fits a rule whenever it conforms to it; whenever the rule truly describes the behaviour. But the behaviour is not guided by the rule unless the behaver knows the rule and can state it. This behaver observes the rule” (Quine: Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ p. 386).


I will not discuss the debate between Chomsky and Quine on this topic; as I have done so elsewhere ( ). Rather here I will just consider Quine’s conception of rules and explore its relation to Skinner’s views and the relevance of this conception for understanding the reason based explanations in general. 

Quine’s conception of a behaviour conforming to a rule even though the agent engaging in the behaviour isn’t explicitly following the rule, is similar to Skinner’s conception. Think of Skinner’s example of a dog catching a ball. We can explain the behaviour of the dog in a variety of different ways.  Thus an evolutionary scientist can explain the dog’s disposition to chase moving small things in terms of an instinct that had survival value in the dogs ancestors’ past. A behavioural scientist can explain the reinforcing contingencies which have shaped the dog’s instinctual behaviour. A biophysicist can explain physical constraints on the way the dog can move. And there are many other different scientific ways of explaining the dog’s catching the ball. On the Quinean picture; one can say that the dog’s behaviour fits with behavioural laws, laws of physics etc. but isn’t guided by these rules.

A reasonable way of cashing out Quine and Skinner’s views is in terms of free-floating rationales and competencies without comprehension[1]. A famous example of competence without comprehension is Deer Stotting. When Deer are being chased by Lions they engage in a behaviour called Stotting. Stotting involves jumping high while they are being chased. Detailed observations of Lions hunting Deer indicates that Lions are statistically more unlikely to hunt Deer who are proficient at stotting. Now the reason for this is pretty obvious; the deer who engage in dramatic stotting are signalling fitness and strength because of ability to jump high while being chased. It would make more sense for the Lion to chase the Deer who is bad at stotting as they are obviously easier to catch. However, there is no reason to think that Lions are capable of explicitly thinking such thoughts about the fitness of their prey. The Lions have a competence to distinguish between fit and unfit prey; but they lack the comprehension of why they behave as they do. There are reasons for what the Lion does; but the reasons aren’t represented to the Lion. Dennett call’s these reasons which aren’t represented ‘Free-Floating-Rationales’.

In a way the cases we have reviewed are a bit too easy. Few people think that Dogs represent reasons for catching a ball, or Lions represent reasons for attacking poor Stotters. But when it comes to linguistic creatures; things are a bit different. Both Skinner and Quine argue that we should only say that a person is following a rule if they are consciously following and can state what the rule is. But even in this case things can get messy. People can state reasons for what they are doing and the reasons may not be accurate; likewise people can state the rules of the language they are speaking but scientific investigation will reveal that the rules they state do not correspond with the structure of the language the scientist discovers. Skinner gave a clichéd example to illustrate his point using a psychoanalytic explanation:

  “Freud would indicate different reasons for doing something than the reasons you gave. But the reasons he would have given…If they are unconscious reasons, then they must be what I have been calling causes and not reasons because they are not verbalWhen you were young you were reinforced in many ways in the presence of your mother’s face. Then you grow up and you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother looked at that time. That’s all a matter of cause in the sense that it’s just a behavioural process. But you give reasons why you find her beautiful. Then Freud turns up and says aha you overlooked the fact that she looked like your mother when you were a child. So that the contingencies, the unanalysed, un-rationalized contingencies, were simply the fact that that person is attracted to her and that is where motivation comes in, whether the mother was feeding you caressing you and so on, and you go for that kind of person, and you go for this woman. But then you give a lot of other reasons, she is very intellectual, you enjoy talking to her, and so on. You give all sorts of reasons, which as Freud would point out are not the real reason you married her. You married for unconscious reasons, and the fact that it is unconscious means that you haven’t talked about it, and couldn’t talk about it, without converting it into reason governed behaviour. The real reason you married her was because she looked like your mother and as soon as you say that it is now a description of the contingencies.” (Skinner ‘Quine- Skinner Conversation’)


Skinner’s example is interesting. When Freud explains our behaviour in-terms of unconscious motivations he was typically using quasi agents like the ID, the Ego etc and deep repressed feelings. Skinner’s explanations on the other-hand are brute causal. The person is caused to be attracted to a woman who resembles his mother, and the person gives various different reasons to explain why he is attracted to the woman. The reasons he gives are false reasons; the real reason is a causal Freudian story. And the reason the person finds the woman attractive isn’t even a reason in the sense of something that the person represents to himself. On the above story the person’s attraction to that particular woman can be explained in a similar way to the way we explain the Lion’s bias against  attacking stotting deer. There are reasons we can derive to explain the person’s attraction but the reasons are not reasons that the person represents to himself. 

When discussing this issue with Skinner; Quine noted that in this sense the real reasons are actually causes while the reasons the person gives are only pseudo-reasons:


 “So reasons would be separated, the way that the notion of cause separates reasons from false rationalisations. False rationalisations and reasons have in common that they are verbalised, but reasons are distinguished from the false rationalisations in that they are really causes as well…so all reasons are causes...A reason is a verbalised cause (the verbalisation may be through someone else) such that the subject accepts the verbalisation and is aware that it is the cause…” (Quine ‘Quine-Skinner Conversation’)


Quine’s clarification is to the point. Something is a real reason if it tracks a causal sequence. However, the real reason for a behaviour doesn’t have to be represented to the person engaging in the behaviour.  The reason can be discovered and represented to a scientist studying the behaviour (think of stotting deer). Quine adds a twist that I see no reason to accept. Quine notes that in order to be a real reason it must be accepted by the subject as the correct reason and the subject must be aware that the reason given is the cause of his behaviour. Here Quine was thinking of Skinner’s Freudian example and of the accepted Freudian practice where the subject in analysis would come to realise the truth of the Freudian explanation. However there is no reason for us to adopt Quine’s conception of the nature of reasons. If a scientist can discover the reason a deer stotts independently of whether the deer can represent that reason then why can’t the same be true of humans? A psychologist discovers the real reason a person does x but the person may be incapable of understanding the truth of that explanation; nonetheless the scientific explanation will still be the correct one. 

A dissenter could argue that I am too quick in assuming that a scientist can discover the real reason a person behaves as they do; even if the person the scientist  is studying does not accept that the purported explanation is correct. If we think of our discussion of a dog catching a ball from earlier in the essay. In the case of the Dog we discovered many possible explanations of the dogs behaviour in terms of biophysics, operant conditioning, instinctual behaviour etc. The dog’s behaviour can be explained through a multi faceted series of scientific laws and tendencies. But as Quine and Skinner noted above; when discussing rules, there is little reason to think that the dog represented any of these laws when behaving. If we can explain the dog’s behaviour causally in terms of a battery of laws; why do we need to use the language of reasons at all. All we would have would be a causal story about why the dog behaves as he behaves. There seems to be nothing added by saying we are explaining the reason the dog behaves as he does. 

When Dennett speaks of Free Floating Rationales he is speaking of a reason the Lion hunts the way he does. These are reasons the Lion doesn’t represent, and they are reasons that nobody represented a few hundred years ago prior to scientists studying the behaviour. Nonetheless Dennett would argue that the reasons the scientists discovered are the real reasons that explain the Lions behaviour. These reasons were the real reasons prior to anyone representing these reasons. 

One wonders what work the word ‘reason’ (in the sense of a free floating rationale that nobody has represented) is doing, that couldn’t be done by simply using the word ‘cause’. It seems to me that the word is doing no extra work that couldn’t be done by the word ‘cause’. A better verbal choice would be to restrict reasons to speak about explanations that have been represented verbally by the person who engaged in the behaviour. And to use the word cause to explain behaviours such as Dogs catching balls, and Deer Stotting. A scientist can discover the causal sequences that lead to a behaviour occurring and this explanation can contradict the reasons that the person gives to explain their behaviour. In this case the simplest way of parsing it would be to say that the person’s reasons for why they did x was a false reason, and that the scientist has discovered the true causal explanation of the behaviour. There is no point in arguing that the scientist has discovered the real reason the person has behaved in way x; the simpler solution would simply be to say that the scientist has hit on the right causal explanation of behaviour x. We should leave reason based explanations to be folk psychological explanations people use to explain their behaviour; and add the proviso that such explanations will more than likely turn out to be false and be replaced by causal explanations.  Though in practical day to day interactions reason based explanations will probably always be necessary and useful. 



                         Rosenberg’s Radical Eliminativism 


In his book ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’,  Rosenberg goes even further than Quine and Skinner and attempts to explain away all reason based explanations into explanations in terms of causes. When discussing narrative explanations used by some historians; Rosenberg is dismissive. He argues that such explanations rely on outdated theory of mind explanations which have been refuted by modern neuroscience.  The famous french diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand has inspired thousands of biographies trying to explain the various different reasons for his behaviour leading up the French Revolution, and beyond it. However, Rosenberg dismisses these detailed biographies as being nothing more than fairy stories:

“But now it can be revealed that all of their purported explanations of Talleyarand’s decisions to backstab are fundamentally and profoundly wrong; they are not even close to the truth of what was going on inside his mind. That is because their explanations all relied on the theory of mind, and, alas, that theories claims are completely irrelevant to Talleyrand’s actual thought processes.” (ibid p. 142)


Rosenberg argues that because narrative history relies on theory of mind explanations and there is no evidence of a theory of mind module in the brain we can dismiss such explanations as meaningless. He also appeals to the fact that biographies about famous figures are constantly churned out and they seem to reveal no fact of the matter about what the subjects of the biographies reasons for their behaviour are. There are multiple different explanations of why Hitler hated Jewish people that are compatible with the known facts of his behaviour and no way to discover which explanation is the correct one. Rosenberg argues that the only way to actually discover why people like Hitler and Talleyarand thought as they did would be to look at their brains. However, when neuroscientists do study the structure of brains they find nothing resembling belief/desire explanations. 


To justify his claim that the brain doesn’t contain anything like the kind of explanations that one finds in folk psychological explanation Rosenberg gives us a whirlwind tour into findings in the neuroscience of memory and decision making:

“What they had discovered in the sea slug was nothing less than Pavlov’s classical conditioning mechanism…When we acquire new beliefs and store them in memory, the neurons in our brains do exactly the same thing that the neurons in the sea slug’s brain do when it acquires and stores new behaviours-only with a lot more LTP and lots of neurons growing new synapses…Kandel and his colleagues were able to show that the same molecular mechanisms and the same somatic genes that build new synaptic connections responsible for acquiring and storing implicit long-term memories in the sea slug, roundworm, and fruit fly are also responsible for acquiring and storing explicit long-term memories in vertebrates, mammals, primates, and us.” (ibid p. 128) 


Rosenberg goes on to discuss the Nobel Prize winning work of O Keefe et al on place cells and uses it to demonstrate that rats behaviour when understood at the neural level involves nothing that looks like a theory of mind module. He then goes on to argue that all the evidence we have so far indicates that humans are just more complicated versions of a rat’s brain doing more of the same thing (ibid p.139) 


Rosenberg’s eliminativism about belief-desire explanations is stunningly radical. While famous eliminativists like the Churchlands describe their eliminativism about folk psychology as an empirical hypothesis about what discoveries future research into neuroscience would bring. Rosenberg acts as if all of the relevant science has been done and eliminativism has been vindicated; but this is utter nonsense. At this state of play we don’t have a fully sketched out theory of consciousness. At the moment illusionists, emergentists, and pan-psychists are debating the nature of consciousness. Heavy rhetoric aside as things stand we don’t know which explanation of consciousness is the correct one. Furthermore the question of the degree to which our belief-desire psychology is dependent on the type of consciousness we have, or the relation of language to folk psychology is a complex one that Rosenberg casually glosses over. 

As we saw above when discussing Quine and Skinner I have no difficulty accepting that a lot of our explanations of our behaviour in terms of reasons may turn out to be false and be eliminated in terms of causal explanations. But such eliminations have to be done on a case by case basis. From a pragmatic point of view there seems to be no alternative but to use our folk psychology to predict and explain behaviour in most cases. Narrative explanations may not be perfect but it is doubtful they will ever be entirely replaced by findings in neuroscience. 




[1] For details see Dennett 1995, 2018.

E.O. Wilson’s Criticism of John Rawls

John Rawls would be almost universally regarded as one of the most important political philosophers in the last hundred years. To most philosophers his ‘A Theory of Justice’ would be considered a classic and would be a set text for pretty much all political philosophy courses. His work has plenty of critics but most of his critics acknowledge the importance of his work (see criticisms from Nozick, Habermas, and Rorty etc.). Not all of Rawls’ critics employ the same level of respect and careful reading as Nozick et all. In his article for the Atlantic ‘On the Biological Basis Morality’ (1998) biologist E.O.Wilson savagely attacked Rawl’s views on political philosophy (and political philosophy in general). According to Wilson, Rawls’ focus on transcendental arguments and ignorance of science makes his work of little importance. Unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson seems to find little of value in Rawls work. Furthermore unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson didn’t seem to have bothered reading Rawls’ work before criticizing it.

Rawls wasn’t the primary target of Wilson’s article. Wilson wrote his article as a criticism of philosophers and theologians who constructed moral theories while ignoring basic findings in biology. I agree with Wilson on the importance of any theory of morality and political philosophy being constrained and informed by evolutionary psychology and biology. However, I find little of value in Wilson’s ignorant attack on Rawls which ignored Rawls’ actual views and instead attacked a caricature. The scope of this blog-post will be limited to criticizing Wilson’s criticism of Rawl’s views it will leave it to other authors to engage with Wilson’s overall polemic against political philosophy and theology.

Wilson’s primary criticism Rawl’s theory is that it is ignorant of relevant facts about science. In his 1998 Atlantic Article Wilson makes the following blanket criticism of Rawl’s work:

“Rawls ventured no thought on where the human brain comes from or how it works. He offered no evidence that justice as fairness is consistent with human nature, hence practicable as a blanket premise…Transcendentalism remains firm in the hearts of…countless scholars in the social sciences and the humanities who, like Moore and Rawls, have chosen to insulate their thinking from the natural sciences” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’ )


Wilson makes a number of points in the above paragraph which warrant a bit of discussion. Firstly I should note the one area where I think Wilson is correct. Rawls does offer little by way of an examination of how the human brain works; but this isn’t because Rawls has chosen to “insulate his thinking from the natural sciences”. Rather Rawls focused on evidence from psychology, economics, and evolutionary science; his focus on these subjects in 1971 was sensible as these empirical disciplines were much more advanced than the neuroscience of the time.

The absurdity of Wilson’s claim that Rawl’s was ‘insulating himself from the science of his time” can be seen by considering the scientists Rawl’s cited and incorporated into his theory in chapter 8 of ‘A Theory of Justice’ called ‘A Sense of Justice’:

W.R. Ashby ‘Design for a Brain’, Harvey Leibenstein ‘Economic Backwardness and Economic Growth’, Albert Bandura ‘Principles of Behaviour Modification’, Roger Brown ‘Social Psychology’, Paul H. Mussen ‘Carmichael’s Manual of Psychology’, Ronald Fletcher, ‘Instinct in Man’, Jean Piaget ‘The Moral Judgement of the Child’, Lawrence Kohlberg ‘The Development of Children’s Orientation towards a Moral Order’. Goslin D. A. ‘Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research’, William Mc Dougall ‘An Introduction to Social Psychology’ E.E. Maccoby, ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’, John Flavell ‘The Development of Role-Taking and Communication Skills in Children’, G.H. Mead, ‘Mind, Self and Society’, A.F. Shand ‘Foundations of Character’, G.C. Homans ‘The Human Group’, G.C. Homes ‘Social Behaviour its Elementary Forms’, R. B. Trivers ‘Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ , G.C. Williams ‘Adaptation and Natural Selection’, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt ‘Ethology’.

Rawls critically engaged with all of the above scientists when trying to understand how humans developed their sense of Justice. It is utterly absurd for Wilson to accuse Rawl’s of insulating himself from natural science.

What is most notable in Wilson’s comments is his claim that Rawl’s offered no evidence that justice as fairness was consistent with human nature. On the contrary Rawl’s believed that a strength of his theory, as opposed to, alternatives such as utilitarianism, was that it was more consistent with our human nature. Rawl’s argued that it was very important his theory was psychologically plausible:

However attractive a conception of justice might be on other grounds, it is seriously defective if the principles of moral psychology are such that it fails to engender in human beings the requisite desire to act upon it…Most traditional doctrines hold that to some degree at least human nature is such that we acquire a desire to act justly when we have lived under and benefited from just institutions. To the extent that this is true, a conception of justice is psychologically suited to human inclinations…The task of this chapter is to explain how justice as fairness generates its own support and to show that it is likely to have greater stability than the traditional alternatives since it is more in line with the principles of moral psychology. To this end, I shall describe briefly how human beings in a well-ordered society might acquire a sense of justice and the other moral sentiments.” (‘A Theory of Justice pp.455-456)


Rawl’s considers two main theories of our moral sentiments. The first theory is empiricism which he says runs from Hume, to Sidgwick up to present day social learning theory. Rawls puts Freud in the empiricist camp. He parses the empiricist position as:

“The aim of moral training is to supply missing motives: the desire to do what is right for its own sake” (ibid p. 458)


The other tradition of moral learning is rationalist. In this tradition Rawl’s places Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and Piaget. He parses the rationalist theory as follows:

“Moral learning is not so much a matter of supplying missing motives as one of the free development of our innate intellectual capacities according to their natural bent” (ibid p. 459)


Rawl’s consideration of the two major schools of thought is interesting in that he branches philosophers and psychologists into categories together depending on the emphasis they give to innate architecture in humans cognitive development. He doesn’t just focus on philosophical arguments but he makes use of empirical data in constructing his theory.

In theorising how humans acquire their moral sense Rawls offers three psychological laws that he argues play a role in humans acquiring their moral sense; (1) The Morality of Authority, (2) The Morality of Association, (3) The Morality of Principles. Discussing the nature of these laws and the evidence he offers for them will be revealing of Rawl’s respect for the findings of natural science.

The Morality of Authority:

Rawls discussion of the morality of authority involves a consideration of how a child comes to accept the authority of their parents as valid and develops the capacity to feel guilty for circumventing that authority. He sums up his conjecture with the line “The child comes to love the parents only if they manifestly love him first”. Rawl’s speculates that the child will experience his parents as all powerful creatures who get to decide how things should be done. But the child will recognize that the parent loves him and will eventually internalize the capacity to follow the simple rules the parent sets. Because the child will recognize the parents love for them they will learn to follow the rules even when the parents are not there or aren’t offering rewards for the good behaviour. The child will even develop the capacity to feel guilty for transgressing these simple rules. But the child won’t really have any concept of what justifies these rules. Rawl’s cites E.E. Maccoby ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’ to support his claims about the child’s development of the morality of authority.


                           The Morality of Association:

In the beginning of the child’s development his primary association is the family group. But as the child grows up into the world they become members of many different intersecting groups. Each of these groups has its own idiosyncratic rules that the child must learn to follow. By becoming skilled at adopting to his role in various different groups; school, the neighbourhood, friends, team mates etc. the child learns the contextual nature of his role in groups. His identity means something different in each different group. When the child starts growing up and recognizing different groups he is no longer just following the precepts given by his parents. The child must learn to understand himself and others from a variety of different points of view depending on the various different groups he is a member of (Rawl’s cites Mead ‘Mind, Self, and Society’, and Flavell ‘The Development of Role taking and Communication Skills in Children’ in support of his conjectures). Rawl’s argues that through a similar process as the child learns the precepts of his parents; the child comes to learn the rules of the other groups he joins. But by immersing himself in many different groups the child gives himself a deeper understanding of these different moral rules.

The Morality of Principles:

The morality of association is a step up from the morality of authority in the sense that the developing person now has an understanding of rules and how they apply relative to the different groups. However, the morality of association still has severe limits in that it still relies on a sense of fellow feeling between the person at that stage of his development and the members of the various different groups he is in. The person still hasn’t developed any sense of principles that apply independent of contingent ties of affection and friendship. For Rawl’s a person becomes a true moral agent when they will need to acquire an understanding of abstract principles that go beyond contingent friendships. Rawl’s parses the acquiring of the morality of principles as follows:

“Now this leads to an acceptance of these principles by a third psychological law. This law states that once the attitudes of love and trust, and of friendly feelings and mutual confidence, have been generated in accordance with the two preceding psychological laws, then the recognition that we and those for whom we care are beneficiaries of an established and enduring just institution tends to engender in us the corresponding sense of justice. We develop a desire to apply and to act upon the principles of justice once realize how social arrangements answering to them have promoted our good and that of those with whom we are affiliated. In due course we come to appreciate the ideal of just human cooperation.” (ibid p. 474)


                           Justice as Fairness versus Utilitarianism

As we saw above in his 1998 article ‘The biological basis of Morality’ Wilson criticized Rawl’s for insulating himself from the discoveries of natural science and ignoring the question of whether his theory of justice as fairness is compatible with what we know about human nature. Wilson didn’t present any evidence to support his contention and as we have seen contrary to what Wilson claimed Rawl’s was very cognizant of the importance of empirical findings on human nature and its relevance to his theory of justice. Another accusation that Wilson threw at Rawls was that he simply made dogmatic claims which other philosophers denied by making contradictory dogmatic claims of their own. Wilson presents a bleak picture of moral and political philosophy:

“Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, tend not to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility… Rawls opens ‘A Theory of Justice’ with a proposition he regards as irrevocable…A very different premise is presented by Robert Nozick in ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’…Rawls would point us toward egalitarianism regulated by the state, Nozick toward libertarianism in a minimal state.” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’)


Wilson’s interpretation of moral philosophy is utterly bizarre. He seems to think that there is no argumentative rigor in the discipline and that empirical data that would bear on the issue is entirely ignored. Wilson offers no evidence for this strange interpretation other than the fact that two philosophers have a fundamental disagreement on a particular issue. He entirely ignores the evidence provided by each theorist and the arguments they present and simply asserts that because they disagree on something this proves that moral philosophy involves nothing more than dogmatic assertions. His reasoning would be on a par with a creationist who believed that because Wilson and Dawkins disagree on group selection then this proves that evolutionary theorists are simply making up things as they go along.

After asserting without argument that moral philosophers are simply making up their theories and are ignoring science, Wilson claims that making use of discoveries in biology would have been a good starting point for these errant philosophers. Interestingly Rawls does in fact appeal to evolutionary science as a reason that his Theory of Justice is a more plausible theory than utilitarianism.

Rawls notes has famously argued that a person who is in the original position would be rational to want to adopt the justice as fairness conception. However, he noted that in practice such a cooperative scheme would be vulnerable to free-riders who took advantage of the cooperative scheme without contributing much themselves. Hobbes had argued that to stop free-riders taking advantage of a scheme of cooperation it would be necessary for a sovereign to be in place who could punish those who chose to be free-riders.

Rawl’s however thinks that the three psychological laws; (1) Morality of Authority, (2) Morality of Association, (3) Morality of Principle, would be sufficient to ensure that the vast majority of people reared in a functioning democratic system would be encultured to find the idea of being a free-rider distasteful. So the stability of our cooperative scheme would be made more likely because of our psychological nature within the particular system of justice.

He contrasts this state of affairs with a well ordered society paired with the principle of utility. In such a society the psychological laws would have to be altered. The second psychological law would have to be “people tend to develop friendly feelings toward those who with evident intention do their part in cooperative schemes publically known to maximize the sum of advantages, or the average well-being” (ibid p. 499). Rawl’s correctly notes that this psychological law isn’t as plausible as the one he sketched under justice as fairness. He furthermore noted that such principles are less likely to be accepted by people who are less fortunate and told that the principle must be accepted because it is for the greater good. Ultimately Rawl’s argues that a utilitarian principle will lead to a less stable society than the justice as fairness conception. He argues that this is because people will find it psychologically difficult to accept the utilitarian philosophy.

Rawl’s offers an evolutionary argument to explain why people will be naturally more inclined to accept justice as fairness than its utilitarian rival. Citing the work of Konrad Lorenz, he notes that there is amble evidence that behavioural patterns have been as much shaped by natural selection as has our bodily parts such as arms and legs etc. (ibid p. 503). He notes is mountains evidence from evolutionary science (he cites: Trivers, Williams, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt) that indicates that humans evolved in small groups where there was selection pressure on cooperation within these groups.

Finally he asks whether these selection pressures will have made humans more psychologically prone to utilitarian philosophy or justice as fairness:

“if selection is always of individuals and their genetic lines, and if the capacity for the various forms of moral behaviour has some genetic basis, then altruism in the strict sense would generally be limited to kin and the smaller face-to-face groups. In these cases the willingness to make considerable self-sacrifice would favour one’s descendants and tend to be selected. Turning to the other extreme, a society which had a strong propensity to supererogatory conduct in its relations with other societies would jeopardize the existence of its own distinctive culture and its members would risk domination. Therefore one might conjecture that the capacity to act from the more universal forms of rational benevolence is likely to be eliminated, whereas the capacity to follow principles of justice and natural duty in relations between groups and individuals other than kin would be favoured. We can also see how the system of the moral feelings might evolve as inclinations supporting the natural duties and as stabilizing mechanisms for just schemes. If this correct, then once again the principles of justice are more securely based.” ( Rawls ‘A Theory of Justice’ pp.503-504)


Now obviously Rawl’s isn’t claiming that these evolutionary speculations prove that his conception is superior. Rather he is merely arguing that they offer an explanation as to why justice as fairness is more psychologically plausible than utilitarianism.

It is not the purpose of this blog post to take sides on the debate between Utilitarianism and Justice as Fairness. Nor am I claiming that Rawl’s sketch of evolutionary considerations is remotely complete. Rather all I have aimed at in this blog-post was to demonstrate that contra Wilson there is no evidence that Rawls is trying to shield himself from scientific findings.