Someone may ask, "What is the difference, then, between moral philosophy and moral psychology?" The answer may be that there is no interesting difference and that the issue is of interest only to university administrators.—Gilbert Harman, "Three Trends in Moral and Political Philosophy" (2003)
In "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" (1891), William James provides a rough taxonomy of the state of ethical philosophy at the time that he was writing. Making a division between psychological approaches that identify the good with the feeling of pleasure derived by a naturally evolved organism and metaphysical approaches that hold that the good is conceptual, James argues that both are equally goods and that each implies similar obligation. James's solution, therefore, to the problem of which type of good must be honored is a pragmatist one: both are seen to have an effect on the organism and are thus equally real. Both are therefore equally worthy of consideration and respect.
Today, it may be harder to make the same kind of sweeping survey of the state of ethics and to solve the problem of casuistry in one stroke. In some department, somewhere, every type of moral philosophy is actively defended. However, for almost four decades, the "brain-borne" or metaphysical approach to ethics has been dominant in academic philosophy, and the evolutionary psychological understanding of happiness has played a secondary role. Now, deontologists, contractarians, utilitarians, experimental philosophers, and many virtue theorists work on how to conceptualize the good properly. Meanwhile, evolutionary moral psychologists have taken up the other part of James's project, albeit with little of his concern as a moral philosopher about finding how to achieve the most good. Instead, these scientists look to clues in our own and in other species' development in order to determine why we perceive certain activities and actions to be good (e.g., caring for others) and others to be bad (e.g., cheating on exams).
The question this essay takes up is that of whether Ethics as a discipline has something to learn from the literature in evolutionary moral psychology and if this mode of explanation should be part of its future. Its primary thesis is that Ethics does have much to learn because the sciences that study the evolutionary mechanisms by which ethical judgments are produced will allow us, in a naturalist and pragmatist fashion, to better understand the possibilities for achieving our ethical goals. They will do so not because they demonstrate that all effective and achievable moralities must be anchored in evolutionarily derived moral faculties or intuitions but because these sciences can help to reveal the means by which our culturally derived ethical ideals might be realized as well as indicate the innate psychological and psychosocial stumbling blocks and hurdles to these ideals' realization.
In "The Moral Philosophy and the Moral Life," James proves a keen diagnostician of the aim of moral philosophers as well as a keen analyst of the main questions to which moral philosophy must find answers if it is to be successful. Regarding the goal of moral philosophy, he notes that it aims "to find an account of the moral relations that obtain among things, which will weave them into the unity of a stable system, and make of the world . . . a genuine universe from the ethical point of view." In order to construct such a system, James notes that the moral philosopher must answer questions about the psychological origin of our moral judgments, about the meaning of our primary ethical terms such as good and obligation, and about how to rank competing goods and duties in order that we may act correctly. In order to assess the importance of evolutionary moral psychology for moral philosophy, this essay will primarily be concerned with what James labels the origin question. However, the semantic and casuistic questions will be returned to when this essay argues that evolutionarily derived moral sentiments mean and demand something different than do second-order moral sentiments and that the latter should be given primacy over the former.
In attempting to answer the question about the psychological origin of our moral ideas, James notes that there are two main schools of thought...