Wednesday, April 24, 2013

If you have not read the comments after my last Doctor Who review, the following will probably not make much sense to you

Furthermore, if you have read the comments after my last Doctor Who review, the following will probably still not make very much sense to you.



1: 

Is the problem that we are using "empirical" and "rational" as if they were the same when actually they are very nearly opposites? 

(Rational: Only what a man in dark room with no knowledge of the world could work out from first principles is really real; Empirical: Only what you can see and touch and weigh and measure is really real.) 

2: 

I think that the existence of this question is more interesting than which side is right. 

Remember C.S Lewis's use of Haldane’s paradox. (My reason tells me that my brain is composed of atoms; if my brain is composed of atoms than my thoughts are the result of non rational chemical atomic and subatomic processes, if my thoughts are the product of non rational processes then I have no reason to believe what they tell me, therefore I have no reason to think my brain is composed of atoms.) One side thought that the problem was unresolvable, the other side couldn't see what the problem was. 

(We all know the story about how the philosophix pulled this argument apart when Lewis tried to use it to disprove the non-existence of miracles; what's often missed is that she thought that it was a proper grown up philosophical argument and that his second version was a great improvement. A.N Wilson delivers an impressive punch to Lewis when he points out that Lewis only became convinced by this argument after he became a Christian.) 

3: 


Some people say that there is nothing apart from what can be weighed and measure and expressed to four significant figures, or proved logically from first principles. 


Those people often say that beliefs about how you should live and how you should act (in particular the ones they don’t agree with) are superstitious or literally meaningless...something we should all have grown out of, like the belief that bears will eat you if you stand on the cracks in the pavement. 

So if I say that it should not be permissible for a physician to kill a patient (even if that patient is very sick and wants to be killed) (which I wouldn’t necessarily say, i incidentally) they say that i only think this because I believe in various entities who’s existence cannot be proved from first principles or weighed and measured and expressed to for significant figures -- the soul, angels, god, morals. The nice ones say that its quite okay for me to believe in such things in the privacy of my own homes, laws should only be based on things which you can weigh and measure and prove. What some of us sometimes find confusing is that it often turns out that those very same people have very strong beliefs that are very important to who they are -- that hurting people is wrong even when it is useful; that men and women should be treated the same; that you shouldn't eat horses or show your willy to strangers; that Wagner and Dylan and Picasso have a sort of floaty goldy magic regeneration stuff in them that One Direction basically don’t. When you say “but hang on a minute, you didn't find those things out by weighing and measuring or by working it out from first principles “ they often literally don’t understand the question and say “Oh, i suppose you think that only people who believe in the tooth fairy can be good, do you?”


4: 
When Mr Spock talks about logic, he is sometimes actually talking about logic, in the sense of deriving conclusions from premises. He would have no problem with saying that if I believe in such and such a thing, I would also have to believe in such and such another thing and behave in such and such a way, without committing himself on whether it was right of me to believe in the original thing or not. Vulcans are often portrayed as having very strong mystical beliefs and a very strong sense or personal honour (they are, after all, mutant Romulans, or possibly vice versa.) But they follow through on the implications of those beliefs, like an orthodox Rabbi who regards the Torah as non-negotiable but will take on all-comers in a rational debate on what it means and how you apply it. Nimoy was Jewish. 

But very often, "Logical" just means "sensible", or "scientific" or simply alien. (If Spock describes some aspect of human behaviour as illogical, he often just means "I don't understand this" or "I don't approve of this". Nimoy recorded a song, god help us, in which he argued that it was highly illogical that 

a: if a lot of people own cars and use them for short trips, they sometimes find it hard to find a place to park them and 

b: however much two people love each other, when they have lived together for a long time, each of them can start to find the other irritating. 

Terry Nation (or was it Terrence Dicks, or even Douglas Adams) thought that being logical meant being stupid. Davros, like a very primitive computer, could draw conclusions from premises but could not conceive that those premises were false. Which is true as far as it goes: I can't find out from a maths book how much money is left in my current account. But I imagine that a brilliant scientist, however mad, might have spotted that you need accurate data to work from. 

5: 
The Doctor's collywobbles about wiping out the Daleks is a bit mixed up, of course. Partly, he's worried about interfering in history at all: he doesn't really know what a history of the universe rewritten without the Daleks in it would be better or worse. Partly, it's based on the idea of absolute values -- you don't kill children or commit genocide no matter what. Partly, I suppose, it is about empathy: Sarah thinks of the Daleks as being like a deadly virus; the Doctor at some level thinks of them as people. At the beginning he accepts the Time Lord's judgement that the Daleks will eventually wipe out everything else in the universe and that this would be a bad thing. But how is that any more than an aesthetic judgement? -- it would be bad because variety is more pleasing than uniformity, it would be bad because humming birds are prettier than Daleks. If Darwinian logic says that eventually the race most perfectly adapted to survive is the only race which survives, how is that different from Newtonian logic telling us that eventually the the universe will run out of energy and there will be nothing at all? 

Forty years of fandom has inscribed Genesis of the Daleks with a meaning that Terry Nation never really intended it to have. It's all about Time Lord self interest. A Dalek dominated universe would be bad for the Time Lords so they used the Doctor as their pawn to strike the first blow in the great time war. 

6: 
When I said that I might have been happier if Clara's leaf had been defined as a "magic" leaf I think I was thinking of Tolkien and or Lewis's definition of magic as "objective efficacy which cannot be further analysed". The Key to Time is clearly magical: rules established early on state that "if you put these six bits of crystal together and make a cube, time will stop. It just will." I don't think anything would have been gained by expanding on that and saying that its made of Timestopanium which will cause the the higgs boson wifi quantum to atrophy... 

I think that the difference here is between those of us who think that if you believe in morals at all, you must believe that morals are magical, like the Key to Time: things which are there because they are there and can't be further analysed; and those who think that people worked them out or divided them or constructed them based on something else. Do you say that you should follow the Golden Rule because you should follow the Golden Rule because it is a good rule and you should follow good rules because it is good to follow good rules; or do you say that the Golden Rule is a sort of approximation, based on trial and error, of the kind of behaviour which will, all things being equal, make you and those around you fairly happy, most of the time, probably. As a matter of fact following traditional morality probably will make you and those around you fairly happy, most of the time; but if a moral rule is a moral rule and not a sort of actuarial utilitarian estimate then you have to apply it even on days of the week when it is going to make you and those around you miserable. That's why magistrates always asked pacifists whether they would stand aside if a German officer was about to kill their children: they were prepared to excuse him from military service if he really believed "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was a rule -- not if he turned out to actually think it was more of a guideline. 


7: 
The great theologian Johnny Cash said that he hoped that his preference for dark coloured clothes would draw attention to those people who didn't know about Jesus "path to happiness through love and charity". The idea that Jesus offered agape as a sort of self help system, on the lines of "a path to weight loss through yoga and cabbages" is completely off the wall: only one step up from the fellow who says "become a Christian so that your business will prosper." (Terrific song, though.) 

8: 
So the problem is not that there is an opposition between "rationality" and "morality." The problem is with people who say. "There are no magical things. Everything can either be worked out from empirical observation or derived from first principles -- oh, apart from that thing over there. That's a magical thing, obviously." 

9: 
Sadists and racists often tell the following story. 

A dusky skinned foreigner from a non-specific middle-eastern country has planted an atomic bomb under a skyscraper. He is now in the custody of a special agent who has only (for the sake of argument) twenty four hours to find the bomb. The dastardly terrorists, while brilliant in many ways, were not clever enough to train their guy hold out under torture for a short period of time, or to move the bomb to a new location should their operative be captured. So: is our special agent (lets call him "Jack" to simplify things) entitled -- indeed, morally obligated -- to horribly torture the dusky skinned foreigner in order to force him to disclose the location of the bomb? Is he, entitled -- indeed, morally obligated -- to horribly torture the dusky skinned foreigner's five year old son (who is conveniently also in his custody) in order to force him to disclose the location of the bomb. And if the suspect were to say "Actually, I can deal with torture, but like all dusky skinned followers of queer native religions I am a colossal paedophile, so if you will allow me to brutally molest your five year old son for an hour or two, I will happily tell you the location of the bomb" is Jack morally obliged to hand the little boy over. (The third example, you will note, is exactly the same as the first two, unless you have smuggled in the idea that the terrorist suspect deserves to be hurt for being a terrorist suspect and the terrorist subjects son deserves to be hurt for being the son of a terrorist suspect -- or, indeed, that white kids matter more than dusky skinned foriegn kids.) Logically, one screaming child is preferable to six thousand screaming children. But when people talk about "morals" they generally mean "I don't care if it useful or not. Torturing children is off the agenda."

73 comments:

  1. I don't watch Doctor Who very much, but I thought that there had already been an episode/story which dealt with the Doctor and genocide. It might have had Colin Baker in it? Trial of a TimeLord or something? What was his attitude to genocide that time around?

    Regards

    ReplyDelete
  2. What some of us sometimes find confusing is that it often turns out that those very same people have very strong beliefs that are very important to who they are -- that hurting people is wrong even when it is useful; that men and women should be treated the same; that you shouldn't eat horses or show your willy to strangers; that Wagner and Dylan and Picasso have a sort of floaty goldy magic regeneration stuff in them that One Direction basically don’t. When you say “but hang on a minute, you didn't find those things out by weighing and measuring or by working it out from first principles “ they often literally don’t understand the question and say “Oh, i suppose you think that only people who believe in the tooth fairy can be good, do you?”

    I have, of course, many, many times agreed with you about the inconsistency and illogic of Professor Dawkins and his ilk. However, my response is that bedrock moral intuitions are first principles. Professor Dawkins disagrees with me, but then behaves as if they are anyway.

    Logically, one screaming child is preferable to six thousand screaming children. But when people talk about "morals" they generally mean "I don't care if it useful or not. Torturing children is off the agenda."

    While I am wholly on your side on deontological morality, the objectivity of morality, etc., you do appear to be more absolutist than I am, Kantian if you like.

    I believe it is wrong to lie, I believe you should keep your promises, I believe you should give aid to the dying, etc. None of these can be elevated to the status of "always wrong" because occasionally they are going to conflict. (I.e. all of these duties are pro tanto duties, capable of being overruled should they run into a higher duty.) I should keep my promises to my child. But if I promise to bring her to the park and, on the way to the park, we come across the victim of a hit-and-run who has been left to die by the side of the road, well, I'm going to have to break my promise. You can, if you like, insist that I should feel guilty about this and I agree that I should try to make up for breaking my promise to my child. However, I think you've really gone off the rails if you insist that I acted wrongly because "breaking promises is off the agenda."

    ReplyDelete
  3. I suspect a point which may be being missed here, and in many similar discussions, is that we're not seeing two moral intuitions collide. We are seeing a moral intuition collide with what one is capable of doing. How our moral intuitions collide with the practical effect of our empathy.

    (I am giving ground to Andrew Stevens in accepting that our moral intuitions reflect or attempt to reflect some real property of metaphysical reality. I don't actually believe they do--indeed, I'm not even convinced human beings have what AS would call moral intuitions in the first place. But that for another time.*)

    While I might be able to construct a compelling moral argument about wiping out all the daleks or torturing a small boy or letting a pedophile terrorist mollest my son, I might well be unable to bring myself to do it. No doubt my own faculty of practical empathy would tie my hands, no matter how ironclad the moral logic. (And there is also of course the social opprobrium.)

    *Well, maybe just a little. I might argue, for example, that the 'moral intuition' that killing is wrong is really more the activity of mirror neurons when I imagine someone being killed, visualise their suffering etc. Which is why it's easier to block the train with the fat man when I don't have to push him off the bridge myself.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yeah. I think the empathy thing is very important. People used to ask capital punishment fans if they'd be so enthusiastic about strangling people if they were the ones pulling the lever. Which is a good point without actually being an argument: there will always be a certain number of psychopaths who actually want to be soldiers and torturers and executioners; and there are plenty of people who can overcome their squeamishness if they honestly believe that blowing a strangers brains out is in the common good. (The philosopher Dave Sim had a metaphysical intuition that homosexuality was yucky, and said that it would no more be rational to over come that intuition than it would to over come his disgust at faeces or vomit. To which the answer is presumably "Unless you own a dog or a baby.")

    Come to think of it, what the Doctor says is "could you then kill that child" not "would it then be right for you to kill that child." Which is actually a very good point. To kill the embryonic Daleks or the hypothetical child, the Doctor would have to disregard the feeling of empathy telling him not to do it. But it's precisely because they lack those feelings of empathy that wiping out the Daleks might be right thing to do.

    Pity? It was pity that stayed is hand.

    Which only pushes the question back a level, of course: the Doctor does have empathy and the Daleks don't. Davros is in the position of getting to choose whether the Daleks, in the future, will have empathy or not. And Terry Nation has read the Abolition of Man: you can't make that decision unless you have some higher court of appeal.

    ReplyDelete
  5. 'Do I have the right?' could certainly be heard as the rationalisation of a man who knows he won't able to touch the wires together. Or the confusion of a man who really isn't sure if this is the right thing to do. Or one who can see in his minds eye the pitiable creatures he's about to murder.

    I think it's easy to think of the Doctor as a character whose actions reflect a well-thought-out and consistent moral position. But really, those actions have never really been all that considered, beyond a basic urge to help. His ethics really don't seem any more consistent than the laws of time he's forever bending out of shape.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Salisbury: What is your explanation for the intuition that courage is a virtue? Yes, we imagine ourselves as brave and approve and then we imagine ourselves as cowardly and disapprove. But what is the source of our approval or disapproval?

    I agree that the problem here is empathy. Salisbury is mistaken that empathy is the answer to the trolley problem, however, which has a simpler solution. Our duty of non-maleficience is stronger than our duty of beneficience. It may very well be correct to push the fat man, but it is decidedly a different thing from just letting the trolley hit him. Let us vary the problem to try to remove empathy from the equation. E.g., let us say that Amy steals Bill's wallet. She then drops it while running away, whereupon it is picked up by Constance. Constance makes no effort to return the wallet to Bill (though she could) and just keeps it. Granting that both Amy and Constance have done wrong - who is more wrong?

    The philosopher Dave Sim had a metaphysical intuition that homosexuality was yucky, and said that it would no more be rational to over come that intuition than it would to over come his disgust at faeces or vomit.

    Mr. Rilstone is unfairly stacking the deck in his favor here. I will attempt to stack the deck in my own favor and see whose reason people agree with. Dave Sim does not have an intuition that homosexuality is wrong. (I at least have no such rational intuition though I will allow Mr. Sim to analyze his own psychological states and perhaps he will disagree, but his analogy to vomit is telling, I think.) What is probably happening here is that his mirror neurons are firing. He is imagining himself having homosexual relations and, due to his own sexual orientation, his empathy is causing him to react with disgust. It is not so very different from Mr. Rilstone's visceral disgust at torture, murder, etc., which is what is causing his own moral reasoning to go badly wrong. I agree that empathy seems to be a decent rough-and-ready guide to moral reasoning, but in many moral dilemmas, empathy isn't the answer; it's the problem.

    ReplyDelete
  7. But it's precisely because they lack those feelings of empathy that wiping out the Daleks might be right thing to do.

    You could not possibly mean this, but I will assume that it is a good faith error. There are many people who are born with empathy deficits - from autistic people to sociopaths and psychopaths. Assuming they have done no wrong, is it even possible that the right thing to do would be to wipe them out?

    There are excessively empathic people who seem to believe this. Give a read to Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door. Dr. Stout believes that 4% of the human population is born without empathy and, from reading her book, one gets the impression that her "solution" to this "problem" is to round them all up and put them in concentration camps. It has always amused me that her vaunted empathy does not seem to extend to those people without any empathy, when surely they are among the more pitiable people on the planet. But, of course, her empathy is what is causing her reaction. To her, such people are too strange, alien, different, other. She tries to put herself in their shoes (much like Dave Sim and homosexuals) and she recoils in disgust.

    Anyway, it is obviously the Daleks' murderousness, not their lack of empathy, which is the problem. One can, after all, imagine a race of highly empathic, but masochistic, serial killers.

    I think it's easy to think of the Doctor as a character whose actions reflect a well-thought-out and consistent moral position. But really, those actions have never really been all that considered, beyond a basic urge to help. His ethics really don't seem any more consistent than the laws of time he's forever bending out of shape.

    Well, obviously. How many dozens of writers have written for the character? There's no possible way he could be that consistent. That's all right though. Most real people aren't very consistent either.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The set up to the story is that the Daleks are "evil"; this evil consists in their willingess to "exterminate" other races -- not indiscriminately and for fun, but whenever that is useful to them. We are specifically told that this is because Davros has engineered them to be without pity. (The punchline, you will remember, is that the Daleks turn on him, he begs for pity, and they kill him enemy, not understanding the concept.) When the Doctor has the chance to kill them, he feels pity and empathy for the embryonic life-form, and imagines feeling pity and empathy for a child who will grow up "evil" and "ruthless". And he concludes that if he destroys the species, he'd be the same as the Daleks. I can't define the Daleks as evil because they don't have pity and then not show pity to them. That seems to be what the scene is driving at, and it seems to make sense within the narrative.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yes, thank you, that does explain why you expressed it the way you did. The lack of pity still had to have another trait added to it in the narrative (in this case, the ambition that Davros also programmed into the Daleks) in order for it to make moral sense, but that is a more than adequate explanation for the turn of phrase.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I have plenty of feelings about how I should behave, and how I'd like other people to behave.

    But I don't attempt to make those anything more than my feelings. Some of them are shared between large groups of humans (and other animals), for both cultural, situational, and genetic reasons.

    But that doesn't make them intrinsic to the universe, or handed down by a creator - they're just things that are common because they are useful, and those people that had them were more like to survive to propagate them (either culturally or genetically) than those who didn't.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Salisbury: What is your explanation for the intuition that courage is a virtue? Yes, we imagine ourselves as brave and approve and then we imagine ourselves as cowardly and disapprove. But what is the source of our approval or disapproval?

    This is easy to answer. First we need to understand why courage would evolve at all. And to understand that we only need to know that evolution works statistically. If a little bit of extra courage is, say, five per cent more likely to get me killed, and seven per cent more likely to keep my offspring fed, alive, or put me in a position to have offspring at all, over fairly short evolutionary time that tendency is likely to become prevalent in the group.

    As to why we see it as a virtue, that would be because a courageous friend is more useful to us than a cowardly one. My survival depends on my hunting partners not running away when we’re ambushed by a lion.

    (Of course my survival may also depend on my running away, which makes it in my interest to do so. Which makes it in their interest to disapprove of my cowardice, putting social pressure on me to at least display valour. Thus the evolution of shame, which encourages me to at the least keep my terror of lions to myself.)

    I agree that the problem here is empathy. Salisbury is mistaken that empathy is the answer to the trolley problem, however, which has a simpler solution. Our duty of non-maleficience is stronger than our duty of beneficience. It may very well be correct to push the fat man, but it is decidedly a different thing from just letting the trolley hit him.

    Maleficence and beneficence are identical in each case. The trolley fails to hit him without our intervention.

    Let us vary the problem to try to remove empathy from the equation. E.g., let us say that Amy steals Bill's wallet. She then drops it while running away, whereupon it is picked up by Constance. Constance makes no effort to return the wallet to Bill (though she could) and just keeps it. Granting that both Amy and Constance have done wrong - who is more wrong?

    I suspect many subjects would say they are near enough to equally wrong, but find it easier to perform the second action. Empathy again. Indeed, I would be willing bet on the hypothesis that people scoring higher on empathy will tend more to see both actions as similar in mischief, having as they do a greater ability to put themselves in Bill’s shoes from any distance.

    ReplyDelete
  12. First we need to understand why courage would evolve at all. And to understand that we only need to know that evolution works statistically. If a little bit of extra courage is, say, five per cent more likely to get me killed, and seven per cent more likely to keep my offspring fed, alive, or put me in a position to have offspring at all, over fairly short evolutionary time that tendency is likely to become prevalent in the group.

    Actually, this is a pretty implausible theory. However, you could come up with a more plausible mechanism through sexual selection. I wasn't talking about evolution, though. I was talking about how empathy matters here, but I'm willing to grant you an amendment to multiple sources, if that's what you prefer. (And, if you're going to argue for morality through evolution, that's what you should prefer.)

    Maleficence and beneficence are identical in each case. The trolley fails to hit him without our intervention.

    I was sloppy with my terminology there, sorry. It's actually a case of the Doctrine of Double Effect - the duty not to harm others intentionally as a means to an end is much stronger than the duty not to harm others as a foreseen, but unintended, side effect. For the record, it is not just utilitarians who would solve the trolley problem and the Fat Man problem the same way. Some moderate deontologists do as well.

    I suspect many subjects would say they are near enough to equally wrong, but find it easier to perform the second action. Empathy again. Indeed, I would be willing bet on the hypothesis that people scoring higher on empathy will tend more to see both actions as similar in mischief, having as they do a greater ability to put themselves in Bill’s shoes from any distance.

    Now vary it up again. Constance no longer takes the wallet. She just sees it and leaves it there, being too busy to try to return it. As a consequence, Bill doesn't get his wallet back. Do people with high empathy still regard Constance as equally wrong as Amy (Bill still doesn't have his wallet after all and so the effect is the same)? Are they right to do so?

    ReplyDelete
  13. By the way, Salisbury, allow me to concede, for the record, that I have no refutation of your view. It is important to keep in mind, though, that it will inevitably cause you to conclude in "error theory" or "moral nihilism." I.e. no moral judgments are true. When we express moral judgments, we are trying to state truths, but since there are no moral truths, we always fail.

    This is, in my view, the only other contender to moral realism. Why don't I agree with it? Because it rests on a long, complicated chain of reasoning with a number of premises, many of them rather dubious. And virtually all of them seem less certain than the claim that "it is wrong to torture children just for the fun of it," whose falsity is entailed by the argument. I concede the possibility that it might be false, but find it far more likely that the argument for error theory is mistaken. In general, the argument for error theory seems to rely, for its weight, almost entirely on the unproven and unprovable assumption of materialism, a very dubious premise. (Scientists aren't even consistent materialists. They posit the existence of "fields" and "quarks" which look nothing like matter as we know it, but which they just define as "material" anyway. Moreover, I follow Putnam and Quine that the indispensability of mathematics to empirical science gives us good reason to believe in the existence of mathematical entities.)

    My moral realism gives an explanation for why we have wars of conscience within ourselves - why part of us wants badly to save that drowning child who is no relation at all to us and another part desires to remain on the riverbank where it is safe. I'm not saying this state of affairs couldn't possibly have come about with no moral entities - presumably the cowardly portion of our brains is an evolutionary vestige. Still, if all human behavior was determined through evolution, it certainly seems to be a curiously inefficient system compared to, say, simply programming us more rigidly.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Actually, this is a pretty implausible theory. However, you could come up with a more plausible mechanism through sexual selection.

    It’s a standard explanation, evidenced by the increase in the number of children fathered by men who have killed among Yanomamö populations, among other things. Which is also to say, it is an example of sexual selection. I chose to keep it simple for those in the cheap seats: but if you want the guts of it it has to do with the number of rapes and captures of wives during raids on neighbouring villages.

    I wasn't talking about evolution, though. I was talking about how empathy matters here,

    Then you’ve run off on a tangent. I haven’t made a claim that empathy is the only explanation for moral intuitions, so called, but that it goes a good way to explaining one kind of moral intuition.

    What you’ve failed to offer so far is an argument for the existence of a physical or abstract property of morality, or the mechanism by which out minds might be able to intuit it. Your argument seems to be that since we do intuit morality, it must exist. That argument stumbles if we’re able to provide alternative origins for those intuitions.

    I was sloppy with my terminology there, sorry. It's actually a case of the Doctrine of Double Effect - the duty not to harm others intentionally as a means to an end is much stronger than the duty not to harm others as a foreseen, but unintended, side effect.

    And you consider this syntactic hair-splitting simpler than the explanation from empathy?

    Beneath the double negatives, you’re really just talking about the order in which things are done. Let’s imagine that instead of needing to be pushed, our second fat man is standing, unsuspectingly, on an elevator. Except this time he’s not fat, he’s thin—and it’s the bulk of the elevator itself that will stop the trolley. As an unintended side effect of this, he will be killed.

    I suspect just as few people would be willing to pull that second lever as to push him off the bridge. And to the extent that some might be more willing, that may be explained by the lack of physical contact, itself associated with empathy. It would be interesting to see how people felt about pushing him off with a big stick, or opening a trapdoor under him. These are all testable hypotheses, and I don’t think either of us can give anything like a definitive explanation without testing them.

    Now vary it up again. Constance no longer takes the wallet. She just sees it and leaves it there, being too busy to try to return it. As a consequence, Bill doesn't get his wallet back. Do people with high empathy still regard Constance as equally wrong as Amy (Bill still doesn't have his wallet after all and so the effect is the same)? Are they right to do so?

    I’m not interested in whether they’re right to do so, only in what they would consider right. If empathy provides the sense of moral force, then you would only be gauging my level of empathy versus theirs. But for what it’s worth, yes—I believe that experiment would yield a stronger sense that Constance has behaved immorally in people who score higher on tests of empathy.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Andrew S -- I agree with your conclusion on the opposition between moral realism and moral nihilism, though I come down on the side of nihilism. This is not to say I for one moment ignore my moral intuitions. I don't think there's any virtue in adhering to them, because virtue itself is sheer construct, but I feel a lot happier doing so. Which brings us back to rationalism again. (I also find it aesthetically pleasing to pretend that they represent something real.)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Andrew D

    I have plenty of feelings about how I should behave, and how I'd like other people to behave...

    Suppose you are Davros (which I concede your are probably not) and get to decide what feeling your people are going to have from now on. What do you base you're decision on?

    ReplyDelete
  17. I think the problem here is much more fundamental than much of the discussion so far has recognised:

    The difference here is between those of us who think that if you believe in morals at all, you must believe that morals are magical, like the Key to Time: things which are there because they are there and can't be further analysed; and those who think that people worked them out or divided them or constructed them based on something else. Do you say that you should follow the Golden Rule because you should follow the Golden Rule because it is a good rule and you should follow good rules because it is good to follow good rules; or do you say that the Golden Rule is a sort of approximation, based on trial and error, of the kind of behaviour which will, all things being equal, make you and those around you fairly happy, most of the time, probably.

    I would say the real difference is between people who accept the notion of "should" at all, and those who (being materialists and following that axiom to its bitter end) reject the notion entirely. Material science is all about what is. And there is simply no way to get from is to should. It's not one of them is beyond the other; it's that they're at right angles.

    (BTW., quite a lot of people who reject the notion of "should" on philosophical grounds still feel it's wrong to kill children. I am not quite sure what to make of that observation.)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Dammit, yet again I forgot to click the "Email follow-up comments to..." checkbox. Why the heck can you only subscribe to comment stream when commenting?!

    ReplyDelete
  19. It's not so much "Can't get from 'is' to 'should'" as that "You should do X." is an incomplete sentence fragment. The complete sentence is "You should do X if you want to achieve Y."

    Frequently the second half is assumed. If you're trying to put up shelves and someone says "You should use a hammer." then you can be fairly sure that what they mean is "You should use a hammer if you want to put the shelves up more efficiently."

    The problem is that when it comes to moral matters, people don't spend much time talking about what they are actually implying in the second half of that sentence.

    So to me, the second half is "...if you want to make the world more like the awesome one in my head where people are happier."

    For some people it's "...if you want God to let you into Heaven."

    For others it's "...if you want to stick to the rules my parents/teachers embedded in me as a child."

    And for others it varies dramatically. But very few people actually examine what they themselves mean by it.

    So that second half is something that the vast majority of people take for granted is shared between us, when it's really not.

    ReplyDelete
  20. It’s a standard explanation, evidenced by the increase in the number of children fathered by men who have killed among Yanomamö populations, among other things.

    You will find I regard most sociobiology as pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, "just so" stories to justify every little detail of human behavior. I realize that the Dawkins/Hamilton crowd has taken over evolution, but I side with Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. I am a pluralist, not an adaptationist. It is far more likely the moral sense is a spandrel than that all the contradictory impulses which exist in all of us were carefully selected for.

    I haven’t made a claim that empathy is the only explanation for moral intuitions, so called, but that it goes a good way to explaining one kind of moral intuition.

    You will find I granted that possibility in my response to you.

    What you’ve failed to offer so far is an argument for the existence of a physical or abstract property of morality, or the mechanism by which out minds might be able to intuit it. Your argument seems to be that since we do intuit morality, it must exist. That argument stumbles if we’re able to provide alternative origins for those intuitions.

    I have explicitly analogized morality to mathematics and I would explain them both the same way. Some people argue that mathematics is empirical. This is clearly wrong. There is a large difference between the conclusion "all ravens are black" (empirical) and "2+2=4." In the former, we know we might be wrong, that we have only established it probabilistically. In the latter, we have no doubt, not just that it has held true every time we've tested it, but that it will always be true and has always been true. We may, as a child, discover "2+2=4" through empirical investigation, but to argue therefore that mathematics is empirical is a simple mistake. I believe that, in addition to mathematical laws of the universe which we intuit, there are also moral laws of the universe which we intuit.

    Do I occasionally think "isn't it possible I have simply been programmed by evolution to believe 2+2=4 and it doesn't really"? Sure. Do I occasionally think the same about morality? Sure. But, if those propositions were true, my reason can't be trusted about anything anyway and it's not even true that "I ought to believe only what is true" so there's really no harm in ignoring that possibility and pursuing the reasonable options.

    ReplyDelete
  21. And you consider this syntactic hair-splitting simpler than the explanation from empathy?

    Not necessarily simpler. Just more plausible. If empathy ends up being the answer to all of this, then we are all in very deep trouble, since I absolutely believe that's just another path to moral nihilism.

    I suspect just as few people would be willing to pull that second lever as to push him off the bridge.

    I think you're probably wrong there, but in any event there's no question that trolley problems are "hard problems."

    This is not to say I for one moment ignore my moral intuitions. I don't think there's any virtue in adhering to them, because virtue itself is sheer construct, but I feel a lot happier doing so. Which brings us back to rationalism again.

    As I have often remarked, the moral nihilists get to have it both ways. They get to imagine themselves as "hard men" facing "tough truths," but in the end they always recoil from their philosophy. For what it's worth, I also believe the philosophy does very real harm. Not that the moral nihilist ought to care about this, since in the moral nihilist's view, there is literally nothing he ought to do, but generally he still tends to do so since the moral nihilist is rarely the monster he pretends to be.

    I'll leave you with a quote from David Stove on his great philosophical teacher John Anderson.

    "Anderson’s influence was bad in some other ways too, I now think. The accusations against him of 'corrupting the youth' were an unfailing cause for derision from him and from us when we were the youth concerned. I now think that these accusations were true in some cases. To give an example: as undergraduates and even later, some of my circle, who would not have done so but for the influence of Anderson’s philosophy of morals, took up shoplifting, or the obtaining of money on false pretences. This was not very terrible; but it was not very trivial either. Anderson knew nothing of these goings-on, and I think he would have been horrified if he had known. Nor do I suppose that he would have admitted for one moment that he was in any degree responsible for them. But as to that, the people I am speaking of were in a far better position to judge than he was.

    "It may be advisable, in order to prevent misunderstanding, for me to say that I believe that any philosophy of morals whatever is more or less likely to have some bad effects on the behaviour of those who accept it; especially if they are young. As Samuel Butler said in his Notebooks, the foundations of morality are like any other foundations: if you dig around them, you are likely to bring the building down. But it is perfectly obvious that Anderson’s philosophy of morals was far more likely than most others to have bad effects on the conduct of those who accepted it. If you convince the intelligent young that the very notions of 'wrong' and 'right' are 'confused' and 'illogical' — well, what would you expect?"

    ReplyDelete
  22. Mr. Ducker: But when you say, "You should do X, if you want to do Y," you can always ask, "But should you want to do Y"? And if you respond, "you should want to do Y, if you want Z," I can respond again "should you want Z"?

    Eventually - if you're going to justify your behavior, you need something you should do for its own sake, but your philosophy will never get you there.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Actually, I think you'll find that I can ground it at stage 1. As I said in my comment:
    ===
    So to me, the second half is "...if you want to make the world more like the awesome one in my head where people are happier."
    ===
    And if you asked me why I would want that, the answer is that I _do_, and digging further is an interesting question from a psychological point of view, but unnecessary from a personal moral one.

    After all, you can build a moral system on any root principle, and then have it grow branches of necessary or forbidden acts - but the choice of that root is going to be down to what feels moral to a particular individual.

    ReplyDelete
  24. And if you asked me why I would want that, the answer is that I _do_, and digging further is an interesting question from a psychological point of view, but unnecessary from a personal moral one.

    You are very fortunate. I was, once upon a time, a juvenile delinquent - a charming rogue, but a rogue nonetheless, utterly careless about the feelings or property of others. (Fortunately, I am not cruel by nature, or I can't even imagine what I would have been like.) Having studied Descartes, I had been impressed by his argument for skepticism and unimpressed by his proposed solution (this is still the case, actually). So I became a moral nihilist, but, unlike so many, a consistent one. Since there was no reason not to do exactly as I pleased, I did in fact do exactly as I pleased (obeying the Eleventh Commandment, of course). People would always tell me "you should do X" and I would respond "Why?" They responded, "you just should." I cheerfully ignored them.

    Then I discovered G.E. Moore. His argument - that skeptical arguments depend on philosophical intuitions that we have considerably less reason to accept than the common sense propositions they refute - had a force which I could not deny. I despaired to find that all the clueless adults around me who had said, "You just should" were, in fact, quite right, though they had not had the philosophical acumen to explain why.

    I had always had the same moral intuitions as everyone else, of course. But why obey them when they conflict with my self-interest? (I am, even to this day, largely a guilt-free person, so I didn't even really have guilt motivating me. I am not proud of my former delinquency, but I also neither feel particularly ashamed nor guilty about it.)

    And so you can imagine the recognition I had when Steven Moffat penned the lines:

    "Good men have too many rules."

    "Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many."

    ReplyDelete
  25. I had always had the same moral intuitions as everyone else, of course. But why obey them when they conflict with my self-interest?

    It sounds like, as with most people, you had conflicting drives (social ones, and selfish ones), and that when you were younger the selfish ones were stronger than the social ones, and now that you are older the social ones are stronger than the selfish ones.

    Also, not everyone has "the same moral intuitions". At a very basic level, some people lack the wiring:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130424161108.htm

    Had a quick look at the philosopher you mentioned, and while three minutes on Wikipedia is insufficient to understand someone who was clearly very smart, his idea seems to boil down to "I feel moral goods, therefore they exist externally to me, because otherwise I'm just feeling my own internal wiring, and that would make me unhappy."

    I can see no reason why our sensing of acts as good/bad should be any less subjective than our taste of brocolli as being good/bad. In both cases the thing we're interpreting exists (the act/the food), and in both cases we experience something, but I've never heard an explanation that explained why our our preference for/against brocolli was subjective while our preference for acts was not.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Andrew Ducker says:

    It's not so much "Can't get from 'is' to 'should'" as that "You should do X." is an incomplete sentence fragment. The complete sentence is "You should do X if you want to achieve Y."

    Ah, no. That is just a pun on the word "should". It has entirely different meanings in the two sentences. In the former (which is the one I meant when saying you can't get from is to should) the "should" to a moral imperative. In the latter, "should" just means "an effective way to achieve your goal".

    So you can say "if you want to give £100 to charity every month, then you should set up a standing order". That's how you achieve the goal that you've chosen. But if I say "I should give £100 to charity every month" I am choosing what the goal is to be. In other words, I am not talking about what's effective, but about what is right.

    (I wonder if discussions like this go more easily in languages that use two different words for these two different ideas.)

    ReplyDelete
  27. [Also: could you please please stop all being called Andrew? It's terribly confusing.]

    ReplyDelete
  28. It sounds like "Should(1)" = "Should(2), in order to be moral"

    Although let's not get too far into semantic arguments, or this will go on forever :->

    Oh, and myself, our host, and Mr Hickey were once accused of all being the same person, acting as sock puppets. Which indicated a certain level of insinuation that the person behind these three personalities had a completely lack of imagination when it came to names!

    ReplyDelete
  29. It sounds like "Should(1)" = "Should(2), in order to be moral"

    That is true; but it's a classic example of begging the question. What we're trying to determine here is whether or not morality depends on an external source. If you just say "... in order to be moral" you are essentially conceding that it does. Which I am pretty confident was not your intent.

    ReplyDelete
  30. It sounds like, as with most people, you had conflicting drives (social ones, and selfish ones), and that when you were younger the selfish ones were stronger than the social ones, and now that you are older the social ones are stronger than the selfish ones.

    Can we agree that I have a better idea of my own motivations and personal history than you do? Reading Moore's argument was a Road to Damascus moment in my life, not at all consistent with your theory of gradual maturation. I realize that people like me are rare, but there are some people who take philosophy seriously.

    Also, not everyone has "the same moral intuitions". At a very basic level, some people lack the wiring

    True and false. If you've been reading my arguments carefully in both threads, you will find A) that I am one of those people who seems to lack empathy and B) crucially, I can still make the conventional/moral distinction (knowing the difference between what is wrong by social convention and what is wrong, full stop). I do concede that there seem to be some people who lack that ability and I would say that it is those people whose moral intuition is impaired and do not have the same intuitions as other people.

    Had a quick look at the philosopher you mentioned, and while three minutes on Wikipedia is insufficient to understand someone who was clearly very smart, his idea seems to boil down to "I feel moral goods, therefore they exist externally to me, because otherwise I'm just feeling my own internal wiring, and that would make me unhappy."

    I would urge you to read him carefully. That is not even a good parody of his views.

    I can see no reason why our sensing of acts as good/bad should be any less subjective than our taste of brocolli as being good/bad. In both cases the thing we're interpreting exists (the act/the food), and in both cases we experience something, but I've never heard an explanation that explained why our our preference for/against brocolli was subjective while our preference for acts was not.

    Perhaps you are one of those people who can't make the conventional/moral distinction, since most people do see a great deal of difference between these two things. Should we react to Jeffrey Dahmer by saying, "Well, you know, some people like to eat broccoli and other people like to kill and eat people. There's no accounting for taste"? If a Nazi says, "Adolf Hitler was a great man," it would seem impertinent to disagree with him if all he's doing is reporting his subjective opinion on the matter.

    Straightforwardly, you seem to be saying "If I approve of X, then X is good." (I.e. what you mean by X being good is that you approve of it.) This leads to true propositions such as:

    "If I approve of starvation, then starvation is good."

    And I simply don't agree.

    This is actually another pun, by the way. That we use the word "good" in two different senses, one moral and one aesthetic. We call a painting "good," but we don't mean it's morally right.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Is the a good book on all this that good be understood by a non-specialist reader who has read a bit of Descartes, a bit of Plato, a bit of Hume, a lot of Freud and a lot of literary theory?

    ReplyDelete
  32. Mike, I can't see any way in which saying that indicates that I think morality is external. Can you explain why you think that?

    Andrew, when you say "Should we react to Jeffrey Dahmer..." then you're asking a question which makes no sense to me, because, as I've already said, that's either a moral question (and thus subjective, IMHO), or an incomplete sentence.

    Like you, I also had a conversion, by the way. In which I realised that I believed that some things were good and some things were bad, but that this had no root in anything outside of my own moral sense - it's purely that I find Dahmer's actions abhorrent, a matter of (severe) taste.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Mike, I can't see any way in which saying that indicates that I think morality is external. Can you explain why you think that?

    I think this may be one of those if-you-don't-see-it-I-can't-explain-it points. What you posit "Should(1)" = "Should(2), in order to be moral" you are bringing in an external concept of morality to adjudicate your shoulds. That obviously presupposes an external concept of morality. Which is OK for many purposes, but not if the problem you're trying to solve is the meaning of morality.

    All of this would be much easier to hash through over a pint, of course.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Aaah, I see where the confusion has occurred. I was speaking purely syntactically.

    What I meant (to expand) was:
    By your alternate definitions of should, earlier in the conversation, the second meaning of "should" is equivalent to the first meaning of "should" plus "in order to be moral"

    So you saying "You should save those children from the burning building" you mean "You should save those children from the burning building in order to be moral", using should(meaning #1) in the second case and should(meaning #2) in the other.

    I certainly wasn't saying anything about my assumptions about shoulds, etc. Just attempting to expand on what you'd said, in order to check my understanding.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Mr. Rilstone: I'm not sure what you mean by "all of this." I could point you to books which defend my own position, ethical intuitionism (or moral intuitionism - the two terms are interchangeable).

    If you want the classics there is G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica (1903), which can be hard going and ultimately I disagree with the moral philosophy he ends up with (ideal utilitarianism), though I believe my own deontological morality can be transformed into ideal utilitarianism with the right weights (and probably into a semi-Stoic virtue ethics as well, if viewed a different way).

    Then there's W.D. Ross's The Right and the Good (1930), which is the moral philosophy that I most agree with. Not easy to read either, though. Ross's theory is based on what he called prima facie duties. I regard this terminology as misleading and tend to call them pro tanto duties instead, since he meant they were "overridable" when confronted by a higher duty. Contra the utilitarians, he rejects the argument that our only relationships to each other are as potential beneficiaries of each other's actions. He believes, for example, that I have a special relationship to my three year-old daughter which I don't have to other people and which other people don't have to her. This relationship is the foundation of a pro tanto duty, as are other special relationships such as neighbor to neighbor, promiser to promisee, lender to debtor, etc. In my view, this captures how people actually live out morality in a way most academic moral philosophy seems to miss.

    For a modern look, Robert Audi's The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value (2005) is a great modern defense of the view. He takes W.D. Ross's view and makes certain refinements to it (based on Kant) and calls the resulting view Kantian intuitionism. I'm not sure I agree with all of his refinements, but at this point we're just quibbling. His view is much closer to mine than anybody else's expressed in these comment sections. I think it's a great book. I think it is also the one most understandable to an educated layman, but keep in mind that, while this isn't what I do professionally, it is my primary avocation, so I've been steeped in this stuff for decades.

    On the other hand, none of those authors are as anxious as I am to dissociate moral intuitions from empathy, since this comes about from auto-biographical details (most seriously, because my own experience shows the view that these intuitions come from empathy to be at least largely false). I am forever hearing "empaths" slander people like me as "born evil" or "bad by nature" and the like and so I am sensitive to this claim. See the Science Daily article Mr. Drucker linked above. It's actually remarkably non-alarmist for examples of this type, but its headline says, "Prisoners who are psychopaths lack the basic neurophysiological 'hardwiring' that enables them to care for others." Whatever it is they lack, they are not "disabled" from caring for others. One need not possess an "empathic concern" in order to "value the well-being of others," which is also strongly implied in the article. And it is the view that morality is essentially irrational and emotional which leads to this sort of slander. If morality must stem from empathy, then people with low empathy must be immoral. Better round them up and put them in camps!

    ReplyDelete
  36. More seriously, though, it seems to me that the problem with grounding morality (or anything else) in emotion is that one's emotions change from day to day. I am confused by how a morality based on, or dependent on, emotions can possibly be an objective one. Of course, most of the "empaths" making this argument don't believe morality is objective, so this isn't a problem for them.

    Like you, I also had a conversion, by the way. In which I realised that I believed that some things were good and some things were bad, but that this had no root in anything outside of my own moral sense

    See if this argument looks familiar:

    "We can know things only as they are related to us under our forms of perception and understanding / insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes, / etc. So, we cannot know things as they are in themselves."

    As Alan Olding said, this translates to "we have eyes, therefore we cannot see; we have ears so we cannot hear; we have a nose so we cannot smell." Your version would be "We have a moral sense so we cannot know morality." Yes, your moral beliefs are ultimately rooted in your moral sense. I believe your moral sense is actually sensing something.

    By the way, the problem with the argument above? The conclusion simply doesn't follow from the premise. David Stove would say (in his highly impolitic way) that this is all based on covert Calvinism. We are such dirty, filthy creatures, you see, that nothing of ours can be trusted.

    "The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no other reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed."

    ReplyDelete
  37. Of course our senses cannot be _fully_ trusted. We have overwhelming evidence that our brains take small amounts of data and manufacture a worlview around it.

    And the problem with intuitionism is massively obvious: if there was something common to intuit then we would expect a shared intuition of it. There are examples that are _common_, but they are largely extreme - there are many, many more examples where people constantly disagree.

    When we have people who intuit that homosexuality is morally abominable and should be banned, and others who intuit that speaking out against homosexuality is abominable and should be banned, what are they both intuiting?

    When we have people who find racism appalling, and people who find cross-race marriages appalling, what are they both intuiting from?

    When we have people who believe that inequality is perfectly natural and part of karmic balance, and people who believe that inequality is a terrible thing that only psychopaths would put up with, what common source are they both gaining their moral intuitions from?

    You and I can both look at an object, and barring a defect of eyesight, see the same colour. And, additionally, I can point a multitude of colorimeters at it, and have them produce the same results each time. But when it comes to morals, each person sees their own thing. It is exactly as with Marmite - one person loathes it, one person loves it, and it is clear that the Good and Bad are not in the Marmite, they are in the person.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Mr. Ducker, I'm sorry. It only now occurs to me that you probably have not read the previous comments section to the Doctor Who episode "The Rings of Akhaten" and I have been assuming in this comments section that everyone was up to speed on that one. In the last comments section, I addressed the so-called "argument from disagreement" when it was brought up by Mr. Burrows. I don't wish to waste time and space here repeating it. Please check that comments thread, do a find for "argument from disagreement" and then read my two comments on that issue. If you then have any questions or objections, I'd be happy to address them.

    One thing I may not have made clear in that comment is that I don't regard moral intuitions as infallible; I regard them as prima facie (but defeasibly) justified.

    ReplyDelete
  39. One other thing I should probably address is "what counts as an intuition?" Intuitions are a priori moral beliefs. People do not have intuitions that "homosexuality is wrong" or "abortion is wrong" or "racism is appalling." All of these beliefs are built up from moral reasoning using empirical facts (and often non-facts, but which are believed anyway) combined with moral intuitions.

    If I were to make, for example, a case against abortion, I would say:

    1. All else being equal, killing an innocent person is wrong. (Moral intuition)
    2. A fetus is an innocent person. (Factual premise)
    3. Abortion consists of killing a fetus. (Factual premise)
    4. Therefore, abortion is wrong. (Conclusion)

    The pro-choice argument is usually a straightforward denial of 2 - the factual premise.

    I don't know if I can as easily draw up a sympathetic argument against homosexuality, but let's give it a try.

    1. Unnatural sexual acts are wrong. (Moral intuition)
    2. Homosexual behavior is an unnatural sexual act. (Factual premise)
    3. Therefore, homosexual behavior is wrong. (Conclusion)

    Is that a fair summary of the argument? Here I have to say I simply don't have the moral intuition being claimed here. I wonder if anyone has it or if it's more a case of "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." Or, more charitably, perhaps it is built up from some other intuition and "unnatural sex acts are wrong" is a conclusion of some process of moral reasoning. I might also quibble with premise 2, though I might actually grant it for the right definition of "unnatural sexual act."

    "Racism is appalling" might be built up with the following argument, though I'm going to change merely "racism" to "virulent racism" and define the latter as hatred for all members of another race.

    1. It is appalling to hate people for something they cannot control. (Moral intuition)
    2. Race is something people cannot control. (Factual premise)
    3. Therefore, virulent racism is appalling. (Conclusion)

    I'm not actually sure I have that moral intuition or whether it can properly be called an intuition, but anyway, the argument would go something like that. I imagine the "virulent racist" would probably respond by denying that his racism is for this reason. He would say, "I hate them because all people of X race are detestable trait Y." The answer to him would then probably turn to denying his factual premises. ("Not all people of X race have trait Y" or "Trait Y is not detestable" or whatever.)

    Anyway, it's hardly shocking that people's moral reasoning often goes wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  40. It's not so much "Can't get from 'is' to 'should'" as that "You should do X." is an incomplete sentence fragment. The complete sentence is "You should do X if you want to achieve Y."

    Yes, exactly.

    And the question that the branch of philosophy called 'ethics' is trying to answer is, 'What ought we be trying to achieve?'

    So, what would we be trying to achieve? Only once we've decided that can we can start asking how we should best be trying to achieve it.

    ReplyDelete
  41. SK -- And you know that the response is "And how do I work out the answer to the question 'what ought I being trying to achieve'?" And what happens when someone says "You're actions are correct if you want to make you country prosperous, but you SHOULD be more interested in making your citizen happy / spreading the word of god / educating people about science / safeguarding your personal honour / exterminating all other life forms and becoming the supreme creatures in the universe."

    ReplyDelete
  42. You will find I regard most sociobiology as pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, "just so" stories to justify every little detail of human behavior. I realize that the Dawkins/Hamilton crowd has taken over evolution, but I side with Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. I am a pluralist, not an adaptationist. It is far more likely the moral sense is a spandrel than that all the contradictory impulses which exist in all of us were carefully selected for.

    There is no argument in this paragraph—merely a description of your position. Which is all well and good, but no more useful than my saying that I disagree with Richard Feynman on quantum electrodynamics.

    Regards the standard model of evolution, it would seem to me that it is a more likely explanation for the state of our brains than it is for the state of our bodies. With so many neurons in such a small space, and so many connections between neurons, random mutations have so much less work to do in making fundamental changes that might prove adaptive. (This might be reflected in the supposed acceleration of human cognition around 50,000BC.)

    I have explicitly analogized morality to mathematics and I would explain them both the same way. Some people argue that mathematics is empirical. This is clearly wrong. There is a large difference between the conclusion "all ravens are black" (empirical) and "2+2=4." In the former, we know we might be wrong, that we have only established it probabilistically. In the latter, we have no doubt, not just that it has held true every time we've tested it, but that it will always be true and has always been true.

    I don’t really disagree with this, insofar as I have a view on it. Where I would differ with you is regards your suggestion that since mathematical intuitions can be wrong while also pointing to something ‘real’, moral intuitions can also be wrong while pointing to something real. I would suggest we have very few mathematical intuitions, and that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ isn’t one of them. We have a basic grasp of cardinality (up to around the number three; past that we’re forced to group—consider that even the most intuitively rhythmic musicians group 5/4 time into two pulses of two and three beats); perhaps a basic idea that things can be added and subtracted, though no a priori idea of what the results may be; and we’re pretty free-wheeling which ordinality, though we have to group numbers into recursive bases in order to keep track). Beyond that it’s down to heuristics and the ability to hold strings in short-term memory. By contrast we have dozens of moral intuitions, from the idea we should respect our parents to the idea that our brother and sister shouldn’t fondle each other. (I suspect you might say that the latter intuition is an elaboration of the idea that we should attempt to minimise the harm to our offspring, but on an intuitive level I doubt we associate sex with reproduction.) And when we work on up from mathematical first principles, we don’t run into contradictions at every turn. (Putting set theory aside for now.)

    Do I occasionally think "isn't it possible I have simply been programmed by evolution to believe 2+2=4 and it doesn't really"? Sure. Do I occasionally think the same about morality? Sure. But, if those propositions were true, my reason can't be trusted about anything anyway and it's not even true that "I ought to believe only what is true" so there's really no harm in ignoring that possibility and pursuing the reasonable options.

    That the accepted results of mathematics are probably true is reflected in the fact the bridges don’t fall down; but whether ‘thou shalt not harm’ has a truth value of one is impossible to gauge. In the first case we might imagine that our perceptions are wildly wrong, and that bridges do fall down or simply don’t exist. In the second case we do not even know what the consequences of the statement being correct might even be.

    ReplyDelete
  43. When we work on up from mathematical first principles, we don’t run into contradictions at every turn. (Putting set theory aside for now.)

    Wait, what? Are you saying set theory yields contradictions?!

    ReplyDelete
  44. Not necessarily simpler. Just more plausible. If empathy ends up being the answer to all of this, then we are all in very deep trouble, since I absolutely believe that's just another path to moral nihilism.

    You’ve travelled from plausibility to desirability in the space of one paragraph. We may all be in deep trouble if a large asteroid is heading toward the Pacific Ocean, but I hope our astronomical boffins are using telescopes, not their sense of metaphysical aesthetics.

    As I have often remarked, the moral nihilists get to have it both ways. They get to imagine themselves as "hard men" facing "tough truths," but in the end they always recoil from their philosophy. For what it's worth, I also believe the philosophy does very real harm. Not that the moral nihilist ought to care about this, since in the moral nihilist's view, there is literally nothing he ought to do, but generally he still tends to do so since the moral nihilist is rarely the monster he pretends to be.

    I think here you’re exchanging one non-existent ‘ought’ for another. Just as I can have an intuition about murder that compels no action, I can draw a conclusion about my intuitions about murder without that knowledge compelling any action, either.

    I understand the very human need for moral intuitions to reflect something more potent than the outcome of two million years of adaptive biology. By the same token I wish aesthetic judgements had intrinsic correlates. But they either do or they don’t. What I’d like to be true doesn’t enter into it.

    ReplyDelete
  45. There is no argument in this paragraph—merely a description of your position. Which is all well and good, but no more useful than my saying that I disagree with Richard Feynman on quantum electrodynamics.

    Yes, it is common for sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists offering unverifiable and unfalsifiable hypotheses about the evolution of such and such to lean on physics for its authority as if all scientific theories had the same amount of rigor. This may work on the rubes (and the argument has been greatly helped by evolutionists having had to fight Creationist twaddle for decades), but Richard Feynman's theories on electrodynamics have actually been empirically verified. The sociobiologists' hypotheses have not only not been so verified, but cannot even be so in principle. Now I am fine with my theory being in competition with theirs. In terms of scientific rigor, mine obviously has no more of it. But you don't get to claim the mantle of science for these theories when they aren't even scientific by anybody's definition. Anyway, if you want the pluralist view defended against the adaptationists, Stephen Jay Gould did a better job of it than I could.

    With so many neurons in such a small space, and so many connections between neurons, random mutations have so much less work to do in making fundamental changes that might prove adaptive.

    The complexity of the brain is also the reason why spandrels and genetic drift, rather than adaptation, could easily have changed the species.

    I would suggest we have very few mathematical intuitions, and that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ isn’t one of them.

    In this and the ensuing discussion, it's not clear to me that you have understood what I am taking an intuition to be. Of course, as a small child, you are not born knowing "2+2=4." You must be taught this. So your mother showed you two things and added another two things and you counted them and came up with four things. You may have done this many, many times. Eventually though, you saw the concept behind the physical objects. At that point, through intuition, it became much more than merely a series of empirical observations. Eventually you saw that 2+2=4, not just in the cases you've observed, but that it would always be true in all possible cases.

    By contrast we have dozens of moral intuitions, from the idea we should respect our parents to the idea that our brother and sister shouldn’t fondle each other.

    I don't have either of these intuitions. Both of these are the results of moral reasoning. If you go up and read my post where I gave arguments against abortion, homosexual behavior, and racism, perhaps you'd have a better idea of which moral beliefs I think are intuitions and which moral beliefs I think are the products of moral reasoning.

    ReplyDelete
  46. And when we work on up from mathematical first principles, we don’t run into contradictions at every turn.

    Done correctly, obviously I don't believe moral reasoning leads to contradictions. I actually don't doubt that I am a poor enough moral reasoner that I personally probably do hold contradictory moral beliefs, but this is due to error. I am a professional mathematician and yet I still sometimes get my mathematics wrong or I suppose you would say that I run into mathematical contradictions all the time.

    That the accepted results of mathematics are probably true is reflected in the fact the bridges don’t fall down; but whether ‘thou shalt not harm’ has a truth value of one is impossible to gauge.

    I agree with this. I was giving mathematics as an example of "mysterious" knowledge which is gained through a "mystical" faculty of intuition and analogizing it to morality (which you were criticizing on those grounds) to show that you too believed in mysterious knowledge arrived at through a mystical faculty. I 100% agree that morality is not and cannot be as well confirmed as mathematics. I was not attempting to lean on the authority of mathematics for my arguments - I absolutely agree that morality is not as certain as that; the analogy was made simply to dismiss the claim that moral knowledge is mysterious in some unique way.

    You’ve travelled from plausibility to desirability in the space of one paragraph.

    The last sentence was merely an observation, not part of the argument.

    Just as I can have an intuition about murder that compels no action, I can draw a conclusion about my intuitions about murder without that knowledge compelling any action, either.

    I'm afraid I'm not sure where in the paragraph you quoted I said otherwise.

    I understand the very human need for moral intuitions to reflect something more potent than the outcome of two million years of adaptive biology. By the same token I wish aesthetic judgements had intrinsic correlates. But they either do or they don’t. What I’d like to be true doesn’t enter into it.

    Obviously I agree with the last sentence. It is possible the correct moral philosophy leads to mass suicide. By the way, I actually do believe some aesthetic judgments have intrinsic correlates. An overall judgment on a work of art is subjective, but standards of craftsmanship are objective enough. If you told me your twelve year-old nephew wrote better plays than Shakespeare, I wouldn't be inclined to say that's just your opinion, I'd be inclined to say you were wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  47. I would like to make the matter of "2+2=4" as an intuition a bit more explicitly since it might help explain what I'm driving at in moral intuitions.

    Salisbury is certainly correct that there is a more general underlying intuition involving addition which is at work which helps us see not just that 2+2=4, but that 1+1=2, 2+1=3, etc. So instead of an infinite amount of mathematical intuitions, we have a single intuition which accounts for all of them. Similarly, we see an act and immediately sense its "wrongness." (Social scientists have shown that people are vastly more likely to agree on the morality of specific acts than they are on theory.) When we see enough such acts (or reflect on possible such acts), the moral philosopher's job is to systematize those intuitions and see if he can discover the underlying intuitions which make a whole group of disparate acts wrong. Virtually everybody, pre-philosophically, agrees that Jeffrey Dahmer's actions were wrong, but there might be a thousand different theories on why they were wrong.

    Regardless of what the underlying intuition turns out to be, though, I am going to argue that we do know Jeffrey Dahmer's actions were wrong. Even the moral nihilist (probably) knows they are wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  48. And you know that the response is "And how do I work out the answer to the question 'what ought I being trying to achieve'?"

    Yes, because that's how ethical philosophy starts: by coming up with ideas about how to answer that question.

    And what happens when someone says "You're actions are correct if you want to make you country prosperous, but you SHOULD be more interested in making your citizen happy / spreading the word of god / educating people about science / safeguarding your personal honour / exterminating all other life forms and becoming the supreme creatures in the universe."

    Ethics is one of those things where it's very difficult to work out what answer is true, but rather easier to spot answers which are false: if you take a given set of premises and, working from them, derive that something which is pretty obvious wrong is right -- or vice versa -- then either your reasoning or your premises are faulty.

    So when somebody says that, you look at their premises and see if they lead to wrong conclusions; if they do, you point this out.

    Of course even if they don't lead to wrong conclusions you don't know they are correct, but who can be sure about anything in this world?

    ReplyDelete
  49. I understand the very human need for moral intuitions to reflect something more potent than the outcome of two million years of adaptive biology. By the same token I wish aesthetic judgements had intrinsic correlates. But they either do or they don’t. What I’d like to be true doesn’t enter into it.

    By the by, a key point here is that you're stealing a premise. Why ought we to believe what is true rather than what we want to be true? By your own philosophy, there is no reason - your preference is an irrational one with nothing motivating it other than your own subjective desires. So it seems more than a little odd that you would criticize somebody else for not sharing those desires and preferring to believe what they want to be true rather than what you think is actually true.

    ReplyDelete
  50. Richard Feynman's theories on electrodynamics have actually been empirically verified. The sociobiologists' hypotheses have not only not been so verified, but cannot even be so in principle.

    I’ve already mentioned the correlation between killing and offspring among Yanomamö men; that’s as testable a hypothesis as you’re likely to find.

    Anyway, if you want the pluralist view defended against the adaptationists, Stephen Jay Gould did a better job of it than I could.

    It’s probably better we don’t get into a battle of the experts. (I’ll see your Gould and raise you a Ronald Fisher.) I’ll just say that part of Gould’s argument clearly arises from a distaste for the idea that things like intelligence might be heritable.

    The complexity of the brain is also the reason why spandrels and genetic drift, rather than adaptation, could easily have changed the species.

    This doesn’t really help your case, though. I think you want to get to a point where the moral sense is there for a 'good' reason. Whether it’s due to selection pressures, a by-product of other selected-for traits, or just hanging around like a bad smell, there’s no ‘ought’ behind our having the sense itself; and I think that’s just a fundamental to moral rationalism as the ‘oughtness’ of moral rationalism’s claims about moral acts themselves.

    In this and the ensuing discussion, it's not clear to me that you have understood what I am taking an intuition to be. Of course, as a small child, you are not born knowing "2+2=4." You must be taught this. So your mother showed you two things and added another two things and you counted them and came up with four things. You may have done this many, many times. Eventually though, you saw the concept behind the physical objects. At that point, through intuition, it became much more than merely a series of empirical observations. Eventually you saw that 2+2=4, not just in the cases you've observed, but that it would always be true in all possible cases.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not sure ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is derived empirically, either. It probably has to do with our tendency to think in spatial metaphors, mapping cardinality (amount) onto ordinality (a mental number line). But I am, I imagine like you, fascinated by why we have an intuition that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is necessarily true. By way of answer, I can only suggest the intuition that ‘dog = chien’ as necessarily true.

    I don't have either of these intuitions. Both of these are the results of moral reasoning. If you go up and read my post where I gave arguments against abortion, homosexual behavior, and racism, perhaps you'd have a better idea of which moral beliefs I think are intuitions and which moral beliefs I think are the products of moral reasoning.

    I saw the post. You won’t be surprised to find I disagree with your reasoning. For one, I suspect that in the mind’s eye, the verb ‘to murder’ is transitive, so to speak. We can’t imagine a murder without a thing being murdered. So while I think you’re right, pro-lifers picture a baby being killed, what’s key is they picture a baby being killed. They don’t have a first-order conception of abstract harm onto which they attach a ‘fact’ (a baby or a bunch of cells). The intuition (visualisation) is quite literally a model or map of an external event; a complete package, which might then be rationalised, as you do in your examples. (There are probably other moral intuitions around hedonism and responsibility involved, which may be closer to the real difference of opinion, but I’ll leave that for now.)

    (I have a bunch of work on at the mo, so subsequent responses might be delayed.)

    ReplyDelete
  51. I believe that my philosophy is literally 400 years out of dates. But I understood that 2 + 2 = 4 is true by virtue of what me mean by "2" "addition", and "equals": once you've defined those terms, you can't say "2+2 = 5" any more than you can say "this triangle has four sides". (Granted there may be a lot of hidden assumptions which are obvious to a mathematician and not me, e.g "You are counting in base 10" and "You are operating in a three dimensional universe".

    Language is different, isn't it: "Dog = chien" means "People in London have all agreed that the shape of the letters d-o-g should refer to a certain kind of animal; people in Paris have agreed that the shape of the letters c-h-i-e-n should refer to the same kind of animal; so "chien means dog" is a reasonable short hand for that." But's that all a bit fuzzy -- we have to kinds of animal, "mouse" and "rat" where the Italian (IIRC) only have one, the Welsh don't distinguish between "jumping" and "skipping" and just because you can call an English sailor a "sea dog" it by no means follows that "chien mere" would be understood by a member of the French Navy.

    No amount of reasoning can tell you what "dog" means if you don't know the English language; and we could all decide to stop calling them dogs tomorrow, and after we'd got over saying that it was political correctness gone mad, everything would carry on before.

    ReplyDelete
  52. Let us imagine that there was a debate on the internet between two parties that did not become at all long-winded. Let us further imagine that every time Party A weighed in against Party B the criticisms seemed compelling to the point of being unarguable. Yet every time Party B responded, his comments about Party A seemed likewise. I imagine the phrase “excluded middle” would start to appear in people's minds.

    For example...

    Salisbury, surely you must be aware of the hostage to fortune you are giving by bringing up the Yanomami. If they prove anything at all it's the inconsistency of anthropology. Anthropologists seem unable to agree over what anthropologists have done while visiting them, let alone come to any general conclusions about their culture.

    But even if we were to accept the findings of one set of anthropologists above another, a legitimate question would be “so what”? Why should we then go on to not just generalise but universalise from their particular example? I'm not convinced they'd even be representative of other tribal groups, let alone able to tell us anything salient about ourselves.

    ...by which of course I am echoing the good Mr. Stevens point about sociobiology. If it wants to be treated as a science it needs to demonstrate how it behaves like one, by advancing provable or disprovable hypotheses. Shouting “you can't handle the truth” didn't work for Jack Nicholson either. And “I have seen a red car therefore cars are red” is not an argument based on empiricism. And the only difference from that here is that we cannot be sure you have seen a car which is red.

    For another example...

    Let us imagine that overnight some nasty Nazi types seized power. And their first act was to round up the Bulgarians/Bulgarian gypsies/Doctor Who fans/insert blame group of choice. If history is any kind of precedent, a sizeable number of people would immediately acquiesce.

    Some might rationalise this. “So it was the Bulgarian gypsies who really caused the international banking crisis! I knew it all along!” Or “Doctor Who fans are all asexual. They would have died out in a few generations anyway. Gassing them now just cuts out the middle man. It's probably for the best.” Others might say “oh bloody hell, better keep my head down.”

    The first group, of course would be adhering to the four-point schema you outline above, and building a bypass so they don't officially cross their first principle. The second group would simply be hiding in the wardrobe. But the difference is merely a formal one. There's no meaningful distinction to be made there.

    Your description of your own personal experience are interesting, and of course I accept them as accurate. But I can't help wondering if they're your personal Yanomami. You're universalising from an experience which is relatively unusual. Certainly I relate more to Andrew Ducker's description of a slow acclimatisation into society. In fact I am somewhat astonished at the neglect with which socialisation has been treated here, in the bifurcated rush to psychological hardwiring or Platonic absolutes.

    Overall, I'm not sure morality is much of a useful term at all, partly because it's such a mishmash built up from multiple, shifting sources but then presented like some kind of hard rule. But I won't go into that or things may get long-winded...

    ”Oh, and myself, our host, and Mr Hickey were once accused of all being the same person, acting as sock puppets.”

    I have it on good authority that Andrew Ridgely out of Wham, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julie Andrews are all sock puppets of Mr. Rilstone. You will notice, for example, that Julie Andrews and Andrew Rilstone are never found to be blogging about Doctor Who at the same time. Further research into Saint Andrew and Prince Andrew are ongoing...

    ReplyDelete
  53. Actually, it was Jack Nicholson alone who was doing the shouting. Didn't mean to suggest anybody else was...

    ReplyDelete
  54. I believe that my philosophy is literally 400 years out of dates. But I understood that 2 + 2 = 4 is true by virtue of what me mean by "2" "addition", and "equals": once you've defined those terms, you can't say "2+2 = 5" any more than you can say "this triangle has four sides".

    Four hundred years later, it’s less a question of philosophy than of neurology. Whatever ‘two’ and ‘and’ and ‘equals’ actually are in the ontological sense, we know they have to be represented in the brain in some way. We can do this cardinally—that is to say, we can visualise an amount equal to two. We can also, it seems, visualise three, but the evidence we can visualise even four oranges isn’t clear. Mentally, it’s likely we break four into two chunks of two. Much past that, the brain gives up and just gives us ‘lots’.

    But cardinality isn’t the only way the brain represents number. We seem to be able to visualise a mental number line—a special metaphor. (There’s another sense in which out sense of number is primarily linguistic, as in when we memorise our times tables. This is the same way in which we memorise the alphabet.)

    So when we talk about an intuition that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is inviolate, it likely that’s because our brain can’t represent it any other way. We picture either two apples being placed next to two other apples, or we picture moving two further places along the number line. Our mental model only allows for those outcomes. So it seems to us as though it could never be otherwise—and in a very real sense it can’t.

    The important point here is that we don’t reason about basic addition; we model it. My larger claim is that exactly the same thing is true of morality. We model it, running scenarios in our heads and stopping short when we reach something we don’t like. We find ourselves feeling not great but okay when we visualise pulling the lever and diverting the trolley. We feel awful when we picture pushing the fat man off the bridge. We abhor the contradiction, look for what’s different, call that difference morality.

    Of course we don’t just assign any old difference. We don’t decide it’s okay to pull but not to push. We look for reasons that seem substantial, or at least not likely to be contradicted easily. It’s (a) permissible to as a consequence of a beneficent action cause a lesser malevolent one; but (b) not permissible to perform a malevolent action even if it has greater benevolent consequences. But then we find an example of (a) that also feels wrong, and we split the hair again. At some stage it starts to look like something other than a set of 'laws' is at work.

    But's that all a bit fuzzy -- we have to kinds of animal, "mouse" and "rat" where the Italian (IIRC) only have one, the Welsh don't distinguish between "jumping" and "skipping" and just because you can call an English sailor a "sea dog" it by no means follows that "chien mere" would be understood by a member of the French Navy.

    Apparently there are some populations with no individual words for numbers over three. I’d be interested to see whether they could be taught higher numbers, or whether there’s critical age-range beyond which the required neuro-anatomy can’t form. Similarly, does the word ‘dog’ carry certain connotations among the English that the French, generally speaking, don’t get? (When we think of a sea dog, the metaphorical ‘dog’ is probably closer to an undomesticated mongrel than a noble hunting hound.)

    No amount of reasoning can tell you what "dog" means if you don't know the English language; and we could all decide to stop calling them dogs tomorrow, and after we'd got over saying that it was political correctness gone mad, everything would carry on before.

    Likewise no amount of reasoning will tell you what siete means if you don’t know Spanish. (Though you might work it out if you speak Italian.)

    ReplyDelete
  55. ...by which of course I am echoing the good Mr. Stevens point about sociobiology. If it wants to be treated as a science it needs to demonstrate how it behaves like one, by advancing provable or disprovable hypotheses. Shouting “you can't handle the truth” didn't work for Jack Nicholson either. And “I have seen a red car therefore cars are red” is not an argument based on empiricism. And the only difference from that here is that we cannot be sure you have seen a car which is red.

    The hypothesis is easily nulled. Let’s say we found a chance relationship between homicides and offspring. The theory would be on thin ice. It turns out we find an above-chance relationship. We then see if courage runs in families. If it does we try to rule out environmental causes. Studies of birth-separated monozygotic twins have been done. Following the chain isn’t easy but the chain is there.

    It’s true that the Darwinian model of the mind’s development may never be as ironclad as the behaviour of electrons. All electrons are the same, after all; no two human beings are even close. But there are just as many disputes about what constitutes ‘science’ in the esoterica of physics as there are in sociobiology and its cousins. Just ask Lawrence Krauss about string theory.

    The irony here is that the competing theories are just as unscientific, and probably moreso. In practice it’s hard to test the idea that courage is adaptive, because it’s hard to isolate the variable ‘courage’. But what’s the competing theory? That it’s learned? Okay, we’re’s the model of the mind that shows how we adopt behaviours we’re exposed to? There isn’t one. We do, on the other hand, have a demonstrated and highly scientific theory of replicators (genes) being passed on to offspring. We accept this as far as height and eye colour go; yet many of us seem to baulk at the idea that the same mechanism might determine our sexual behaviour, or our social norms.

    I can respect that hesitation in a person of faith. I respect it much less in Stephen J Gould, who was contemptuous of intelligent design but just as muddle-headed as any creationist when the evidence pointed to a model of the evolution of the mind he found personally repugnant.

    ReplyDelete
  56. By the by, a key point here is that you're stealing a premise. Why ought we to believe what is true rather than what we want to be true? By your own philosophy, there is no reason - your preference is an irrational one with nothing motivating it other than your own subjective desires. So it seems more than a little odd that you would criticize somebody else for not sharing those desires and preferring to believe what they want to be true rather than what you think is actually true.

    You're confusing me with Bertrand Russell. (He said, wishfully.) That the truth is the truth irrespective of one's feelings about it doesn't mean one actually ought to pursue it.

    ReplyDelete
  57. I think you want to get to a point where the moral sense is there for a 'good' reason. Whether it’s due to selection pressures, a by-product of other selected-for traits, or just hanging around like a bad smell, there’s no ‘ought’ behind our having the sense itself; and I think that’s just a fundamental to moral rationalism as the ‘oughtness’ of moral rationalism’s claims about moral acts themselves.

    This one's easy. The moral intuition arises for the same reasons as the mathematical intuition. It begins as helpful to its possessor (or at least to the genes of its possessor). In the case of mathematics, it is vastly overpowered. There is no survival reason why anybody needs to be able to do calculus, yet we can. In general, this isn't harmful to the chances of the possessor's genes survival, just indifferent. In the case of the moral sense, it can actually be harmful. Even arch-adaptationist Dawkins admits that non-kin altruism is a result of "misfirings, Darwinian mistakes." There is no way to argue that the lives of Albert Schweitzer, Florence Nightingale, or Mother Teresa are anything else. There is no possibility that their behavior is the result of adaptation.

    By way of answer, I can only suggest the intuition that ‘dog = chien’ as necessarily true.

    I take it by this that you're arguing that mathematical truths are analytic rather than synthetic (to use Kant's terminology). There are a large number of reasons why I believe this fails, but the arguments are all highly technical.

    I saw the post. You won’t be surprised to find I disagree with your reasoning.

    I was doing no reasoning. All of those arguments were for illustrative purposes only; I wasn't necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with any of them.

    For one, I suspect that in the mind’s eye, the verb ‘to murder’ is transitive, so to speak. We can’t imagine a murder without a thing being murdered. So while I think you’re right, pro-lifers picture a baby being killed, what’s key is they picture a baby being killed. They don’t have a first-order conception of abstract harm onto which they attach a ‘fact’ (a baby or a bunch of cells). The intuition (visualisation) is quite literally a model or map of an external event; a complete package, which might then be rationalised, as you do in your examples.

    This isn't right though, is it? You appear to be arguing that pro-lifers are not aware that a few days' old embryo is a bunch of cells rather than a fully formed baby. I find this to be an incredible assertion; of course they are. Ergo, they are reasoning. In the abortion debate, I have always found it fascinating that nearly everybody has approximately the same empathic reactions. The pro-life side, despite its rhetoric, doesn't really get all worked up about first trimester abortions and the pro-choice side, despite their rhetoric, is clearly queasy about late-term abortions. Nevertheless, both sides allow their reasoning to overcome their empathic reactions.

    I imagine the phrase “excluded middle” would start to appear in people's minds.

    Not in my mind. I assume you're using the term poetically. In logic, the whole point of the excluded middle is that it's excluded. A proposition is either true or it is false. There is no third alternative. Now, in this particular debate, we're probably debating more than one proposition so there are other alternatives. However, I regard non-cognitivism as untenable for very good reasons.

    ReplyDelete
  58. In fact I am somewhat astonished at the neglect with which socialisation has been treated here, in the bifurcated rush to psychological hardwiring or Platonic absolutes.

    You are essentially (and unsurprisingly) on Salisbury's side in this debate, even if the two of you might argue about the specifics. This is hardly shocking. Modern culture is as wired to the dogma of materialism as medieval culture was wired to the dogma of theology. I regard both dogmas as mistaken.

    Of course we don’t just assign any old difference. We don’t decide it’s okay to pull but not to push. We look for reasons that seem substantial, or at least not likely to be contradicted easily. It’s (a) permissible to as a consequence of a beneficent action cause a lesser malevolent one; but (b) not permissible to perform a malevolent action even if it has greater benevolent consequences. But then we find an example of (a) that also feels wrong, and we split the hair again. At some stage it starts to look like something other than a set of 'laws' is at work.

    Not at all. This is why I favor the first order moral philosophy of pro tanto duties. This is what we actually do when we're making moral decisions. We weigh competing duties against each other and one duty doesn't always win out over the other.

    The irony here is that the competing theories are just as unscientific, and probably moreso.

    You will note that I already conceded this above for my own theory and I will likely agree with you on other theories as well. However, you were defending your position by analogizing it to electrodynamics and you don't get to make that particular argument from authority for this theory.

    We do, on the other hand, have a demonstrated and highly scientific theory of replicators (genes) being passed on to offspring. We accept this as far as height and eye colour go; yet many of us seem to baulk at the idea that the same mechanism might determine our sexual behaviour, or our social norms.

    For what it's worth, I don't balk at this nearly as much as you probably think I do. But the adaptationists take it way too far, coming up with far-fetched explanations for things which are pretty clearly maladaptive. E.g. there are plenty of theories on how homosexuality could be adaptive, but none of these theories are particularly plausible. Homosexuality is almost certainly not genetic, even for those people who believe (and I accept their self-reports) that they were born homosexual. It is far more likely that it is environmental in origin, through sex hormones in the womb or possibly epigenetic factors. I would make a similar argument for a great deal of morality.

    You're confusing me with Bertrand Russell. (He said, wishfully.) That the truth is the truth irrespective of one's feelings about it doesn't mean one actually ought to pursue it.

    Many times in this thread you have expressed contempt (as with Gould above) for people believing things for reasons other than the truth. This is a moral position. My opinion is that you believe (as I do) that one ought to believe only what is true on such a deep level that you can't really get away from it, no matter how hard you try.

    ReplyDelete
  59. This one's easy. The moral intuition arises for the same reasons as the mathematical intuition. It begins as helpful to its possessor (or at least to the genes of its possessor). In the case of mathematics, it is vastly overpowered. There is no survival reason why anybody needs to be able to do calculus, yet we can.

    This is an interesting tangent. I could probably spend a week responding to it alone. But I’ll try to stay brief.

    First, I’m not sure that we can do calculus in quite the way this suggests. I can. You certainly can. (You’re a professional mathematician, yes?) But I suspect the vast majority of humanity can’t, and certainly not much past the rote rule application of basic differentiation and integration.

    And knowing, say, that the differential of mx^n is obtained by the formula nmx^n-1 is, in and of itself, not much more than the use of memory to recall and apply a rule; the application of similar algebraic (and non-algebraic) rules has all sorts of adaptive consequences, especially once man’s brain gets large enough and social enough to start trading goods and favours. Performing algebra is certainly an exaptation of a part of the brain designed for something else (possibly the part that allows us to apply game theory to social tit-for-tat relationships), but the something else is very likely adaptive.

    Secondly, the human brain has been in the same approximate evolutionary state for around 52,000 years. Calculus (in its modern form) was absent for the first 51,650. What allowed it ever to be conceived is culture, which might be best described as an emergent phenomena arising at a critical point some time after the brain reached its present capability, allowing us to preserve and share (and therefore develop) knowledge in a way that has turned almost zero growth into an exponential function. We don’t so much have a cognitive exaptation as an anthropological one.

    Third, it’s important to remember that evolution is a statistical phenomenon. This is no better demonstrated than with Leibniz and Newton, who to the best of my knowledge didn’t leave an above average number of heirs (a cursory Wikipedia search informs me none). There will always be outliers on the bell curve; but abilities that don’t increase evolutionary fitness are generally lost in the wash. Similarly, the average height of an adult man is around 5’10”. A man of 6’3” is therefore in some sense taller than he needs to be, but we don’t doubt that the average height is a product of the standard model of evolution.

    In general, this isn't harmful to the chances of the possessor's genes survival, just indifferent. In the case of the moral sense, it can actually be harmful. Even arch-adaptationist Dawkins admits that non-kin altruism is a result of "misfirings, Darwinian mistakes." There is no way to argue that the lives of Albert Schweitzer, Florence Nightingale, or Mother Teresa are anything else. There is no possibility that their behavior is the result of adaptation.

    Case in point. Non-kin altruism might well be maladaptive or just a bit pointless in evolutionary terms. But that’s why the population isn’t overrun with Schweitzers and Nightingales and Mother Teresas. And as a side note, I think what distinguished Flo and Mother T was an excess of altruism – I’m not sure either had a particularly sophisticated moral calculus.

    ReplyDelete
  60. First, I’m not sure that we can do calculus in quite the way this suggests. I can. You certainly can. (You’re a professional mathematician, yes?) But I suspect the vast majority of humanity can’t, and certainly not much past the rote rule application of basic differentiation and integration.

    Hmm. I shall have to consider. I regard calculus as elementary mathematics, fairly easily apprehended. (There is plenty of mathematics which I can only understand with a huge effort and feel like I at best half-understand it even then, but calculus is not among these.) It has long been my opinion that I could teach calculus pretty easily to almost anyone of average intelligence, if only so many people did not have a mental block about mathematics (which I have normally traced to poor early math education). You are arguing that, actually, people like us are the unusual ones and the block is what is natural. I confess this had never occurred to me and I have to concede there is a strong possibility that you are correct.

    Performing algebra is certainly an exaptation of a part of the brain designed for something else (possibly the part that allows us to apply game theory to social tit-for-tat relationships), but the something else is very likely adaptive.

    Well, yes, this is what a spandrel is. I am arguing that a great deal (though not all) of normal human morality is a spandrel. The moral sense evolves because it is helpful, but then our ability to apprehend moral law (due to our big brains, adapted for other reasons) turns out to often be maladaptive (on an individual level certainly and in many cases on a genetic level as well). Of course, I agree the faculties which allow us to do this evolved out of adaptation to something else.

    Non-kin altruism might well be maladaptive or just a bit pointless in evolutionary terms. But that’s why the population isn’t overrun with Schweitzers and Nightingales and Mother Teresas.

    Absolutely! But here's the real nub of it: why do we admire them? Shouldn't we think they're just stupid Darwinian failures? It's easy to say why there are so few Mother Teresas, Florence Nightingales, and Albert Schweitzers; evolution predicts that there would be very few. What is much more puzzling is why our moral sense tells us that they are, in important ways, better than normal people, rather than worse.

    My theory is that, in at least some cases, our moral sense is at war with our evolved instincts. We may very well, even usually, succumb to our evolved instincts, but we never deep down doubt that our moral sense is what is correct. If both our cowardice and our courage are purely the result of adaptation (and, on some level, I do agree that both are, but not in the "every tiny bit carefully selected for" philosophy of the arch-adaptationists), why does everyone agree that courage is better? If both our altruism and our selfishness are purely the result of adapatation, why do we all agree that altruism is better? (Leaving Ayn Rand aside, but you don't have to read her all that carefully to realize she didn't really believe the startling claims she made in favor of selfishness.) Even Professor Dawkins believes this, as his writings make clear. And he should know better!

    ReplyDelete
  61. Moreover, while Schweitzer, Nightingale, and Mother T are rare, a great many people, possibly an outright majority, would dive into a cold river to try to save a drowning child completely unrelated to him/her. This is maladaptive and I don't believe it's at all rare; I think it's common. The situation may not come up very often (if at all) in the average comfortably middle class person's life, but situations like that were much more common once.

    To stress again, the crux of my argument against yours is simply this: your argument leads to the conclusion that all moral claims are false. Your argument, however, is fiendishly complex, a very, very long chain of reasoning and it all rests on certain fundamental assumptions such as the unproven assumption of materialism (if we can call people materialists who believe in fields and quarks and possibly string theory and whatnot). I have to ask myself, which is more likely: that materalism is false or that "it is wrong to torture a little child just for the fun of it" is false. Since, like the once arch-materialist Quine, I am reasonably convinced that abstract entities known as numbers exist, this is an easy decision for me. (If you believe that the number three was prime before there were any humans to think about it, then you're not really a materialist either.) I realize that you believe you disagree and that you do think materialism is more likely to be true than "it is wrong to torture little children just for the fun of it," although I am certain that in every practical way, you act exactly as if "it is wrong to torture little children just for the fun of it" is true. Unfortunately, the only way to try to resolve this is for me to try to convince you that my premise is more plausible than yours, both by undermining yours and shoring up mine. I do agree that my view leads to metaphysical problems. My response is that your view also leads to metaphysical problems and I believe some of those to be all but insoluble.

    ReplyDelete
  62. I take it by this that you're arguing that mathematical truths are analytic rather than synthetic (to use Kant's terminology). There are a large number of reasons why I believe this fails, but the arguments are all highly technical.

    Not quite. I’m not persuaded by the distinction itself (also for technical reasons) – but close enough for purposes of the present discussion.

    This isn't right though, is it? You appear to be arguing that pro-lifers are not aware that a few days' old embryo is a bunch of cells rather than a fully formed baby. I find this to be an incredible assertion; of course they are. Ergo, they are reasoning.

    This is a tricky one to explain. I’m suggesting that the moral conclusion that abortion is wrong is an instinct formed in a similar way to the instinct ‘faeces is inedible’. The processes within the brain forming that impression are different to the processes that perform abstract cost-benefit analysis–style reasoning, and it almost certainly involves a form of sensory memory activating an emotive state we feel uncomfortable with. (We picture a child, or perhaps we hear its cries in the mind’s ear—the result is a complicated emotional response steeped in the urge to protect.) This is clear in expressions like, ‘An emotionally charged debate.’ (Ours, by contrast, is highly analytic—though not in Kant’s sense).

    The pro-life position, I would argue, derives not from a position that a foetus is a collection is cells, but from moral instincts (I’ll call them that for now) around bodily autonomy. People have been shown to vary on the degree to which they value autonomy, and the correlation between that trait and the pro-choice position is also well noted. The fact that a foetus is (or appears to be, depending on your bent) a bunch of cells is important insofar as it’s possible to visualise a foetus in a way that doesn’t trump bodily autonomy.

    On the surface this might seem another way of describing the position that we all agree on certain moral facts (avoid harm), but not on the concrete facts that accompany them (is a foetus a thing that can be harmed?). I think it’s quite a different idea. The brain simulates a scenario (thanks to our over-developed pre-frontal cortex), reacts to that simulation, draws what we call a moral conclusion. The question is more around what each of the participants is simulating. The death of an innocent or the surrender of one’s agency.

    In the abortion debate, I have always found it fascinating that nearly everybody has approximately the same empathic reactions. The pro-life side, despite its rhetoric, doesn't really get all worked up about first trimester abortions and the pro-choice side, despite their rhetoric, is clearly queasy about late-term abortions. Nevertheless, both sides allow their reasoning to overcome their empathic reactions.

    I’m not sure that that’s true. In the United States, for example, abortion has been legal for some time, but late-term abortions are still a matter of strong debate, illegal in many states. What this suggests to me is that the median position is very much governed by the extent to which the foetus resembles a newborn. (Laws are instigated based on viability, but I suspect they’re exactly the sort of post-conclusory rationalisations I referred to earlier – a three-month old infant isn’t ‘viable’ left to its own devices. And of course there’s a correlation between ‘viability’ (in the medical sense) and resemblance to a newborn.)

    What’s perhaps more interesting is that the abortion taboo is relatively recent, and is particularly Western – in less abundantly resourced societies infanticide is not uncommon under particular circumstances of hardship, though never undertaken without considerable distress and reservation.

    ReplyDelete
  63. Not at all. This is why I favor the first order moral philosophy of pro tanto duties. This is what we actually do when we're making moral decisions. We weigh competing duties against each other and one duty doesn't always win out over the other.

    Do people really do that, though, outside of these sorts of thought experiments? When Churchill declared, ‘Slavery is worse than war. Dishonour is worse than war,’ was this the conclusion of long nights of thought, or an unshakeable gut feeling? When I decide to prioritise my daughter’s needs above the needs of my neighbour’s twins, am I acting from deep ethical consideration or a perfectly sensible set of preferences evolved such that I have a strong urge to protect the carrier of half my genes?

    For what it's worth, I don't balk at this nearly as much as you probably think I do. But the adaptationists take it way too far, coming up with far-fetched explanations for things which are pretty clearly maladaptive. E.g. there are plenty of theories on how homosexuality could be adaptive, but none of these theories are particularly plausible. Homosexuality is almost certainly not genetic, even for those people who believe (and I accept their self-reports) that they were born homosexual. It is far more likely that it is environmental in origin, through sex hormones in the womb or possibly epigenetic factors.

    No doubt many of the explanations from sociobiology currently offered are wrong. What's more important to my way of thinking is the method of explanation, rather than the immediate specifics.

    Just for note, the best genetic explanation we currently have–-backed by studies of male homosexuality in families–-is that what expresses as homosexuality in 50% of male carriers expresses as a slightly higher number of viable offspring in their female siblings. Evolution being statistical, this explains how a non-adaptive trait in individuals can still be adaptive for the species. Female homosexuality we know much less about, and the in utero explanation may be more persuasive.

    I would make a similar argument for a great deal of morality.

    What really interests me he is your position on the numinous ought of morality. Is it a variation on Kant (a somewhat tautological ‘it is irrational to act irrationally’), or something else? And beyond that, how does your conception of the ought sit with the possibility that humankind seems to have stumbled on its allegiance to it by accident?

    Many times in this thread you have expressed contempt (as with Gould above) for people believing things for reasons other than the truth. This is a moral position. My opinion is that you believe (as I do) that one ought to believe only what is true on such a deep level that you can't really get away from it, no matter how hard you try.

    I have an urge to truth and a contempt for hypocrisy, ‘tis true – but neither of these feelings have any value outside my skull. I feel it on a deep level, but I believe what I feel to be nothing but cognitive vapour.

    ReplyDelete
  64. Not quite. I’m not persuaded by the distinction itself (also for technical reasons) – but close enough for purposes of the present discussion.

    If you're talking about Quine's argument (and I assume you are), I regard both Searle's and Putnam's responses to him to be correct, particularly Searle's.

    This is clear in expressions like, ‘An emotionally charged debate.’

    I have argued before, and I will do so again, that you are confusing the emotional responses to violations of moral beliefs based on moral sense or reasoning with the cause of those beliefs. What is odd about your reasoning about where morality comes from is that you don't seem to be applying the notion to yourself (you don't appear to be arguing that your own moral beliefs come from your emotional responses), just to other people. I regard this as prima facie an invalidation of your view. I can take seriously a David Hume who finds morality in the sentiments, since he at least seems to be self-reporting. But you don't seem to be doing this, so I can't honestly take a view seriously which you are exempting yourself from.

    In any event, I can absolutely assure you that my own opinions on abortion are both A) a result of my reasoning and have little, if anything to do with my empathy for either mother or child and B) is also not accompanied by any strong emotional response which is probably why I am not an activist on one side or the other. I believe how I arrive at moral beliefs is also how most people (even David Hume!) get there, even though they might include evidence (such as the Bible) which I would reject or if their logic is muddled (as I'm sure mine is on issues I haven't thought deeply about) or whatever.

    My view is often called "common sense moral intuitionism." Other moral theories (such as Kant's) seem to believe that nobody except philosophers knows anything about morality. I think then that it is strange that almost everyone has such a strong interest in it and continues moral traditions despite knowing nearly nothing about the subject. I am arguing that common folk who don't even reflect much philosophically nevertheless enjoy a large amount of moral knowledge. Personally, I believe that greater reflection would lead them to be correct more often, but nonetheless Churchill was expressing a profound moral insight when he said "Slavery is worse than war. Dishonour is worse than war," even if this just came from his gut-level common sense rather than long philosophical reflection. I actually think most moral philosophers tend to hopelessly muddle themselves up anyway. Most moral philosophy is so stupid only an intellectual could believe it.

    What this suggests to me is that the median position is very much governed by the extent to which the foetus resembles a newborn.

    This actually follows from what I was saying. The pro-life side has empathic reactions to the baby and applies this in cases (early term) when the fetus does not actually resemble a baby. The pro-choice side has empathic reactions to the mother and allows that empathic reaction to override their empathic reactions to the fetus, even when it more and more resembles a baby. The middle position doesn't want to do the reasoning involved in choosing one side or another so is simply governed by their empathic reactions.

    What’s perhaps more interesting is that the abortion taboo is relatively recent, and is particularly Western – in less abundantly resourced societies infanticide is not uncommon under particular circumstances of hardship, though never undertaken without considerable distress and reservation.

    Sure, though the exact same thing is true about slavery as well as infanticide. There isn't a single ancient Greek philosopher who argued against slavery (except when it meant enslavement of fellow Greeks). This is a modern thing - morality is to some extent a "luxury good."

    ReplyDelete
  65. Do people really do that, though, outside of these sorts of thought experiments?

    I certainly do. And, yes, I believe most people do the same. If you're arguing whether Churchill or whoever did so as reflectively as, say, I might. Well, I agree that he probably didn't. So what?

    When I decide to prioritise my daughter’s needs above the needs of my neighbour’s twins, am I acting from deep ethical consideration or a perfectly sensible set of preferences evolved such that I have a strong urge to protect the carrier of half my genes?

    Genes are clearly not the whole story here. Or do you deny that adoptive parents, who know full well their children do not carry any significant proportion of their genes, love their children as much as natural parents?

    Just for note, the best genetic explanation we currently have–-backed by studies of male homosexuality in families–-is that what expresses as homosexuality in 50% of male carriers expresses as a slightly higher number of viable offspring in their female siblings. Evolution being statistical, this explains how a non-adaptive trait in individuals can still be adaptive for the species.

    Surely, this is arguing for my point, isn't it? Some explanations, such as homosexual males protecting the children of their siblings, would have shown that male homosexuality was adaptive for the genes of its possessor. However, this explanation foundered on the facts (homosexual males are not any more likely to protect or provide for the children of their siblings than heterosexual males). However, this explanation, the one you're proposing, shows that the gene, in women, may be adaptive, but, in men, is a spandrel, a non-adaptive or maladaptive consequence of an adaptation. I have read the research you're referring to and I find it interesting, but the result can easily be explained by more likely epigenetic factors. (I.e. there probably is no gay gene, but some genetic patterns are more likely to be "activated" by non-genetic factors than others, which would help to explain this result and why homosexuality seems to run in families.)

    What really interests me he is your position on the numinous ought of morality. Is it a variation on Kant (a somewhat tautological ‘it is irrational to act irrationally’), or something else?

    Put yourself in my place. Assume that I have determined, through a rational process, that I have come to believe "I ought to do X." If somebody were to ask me, "But now that you've determined that, ought you to do X?" I just wouldn't understand how the question is possible. Of course, I should. That's a consequence of the simple meaning of the words. So, yes, the origin is tautological. You ought to do what you ought to do.

    ReplyDelete
  66. And beyond that, how does your conception of the ought sit with the possibility that humankind seems to have stumbled on its allegiance to it by accident?

    I'm not sure what you mean by this. I regard moral facts as brute facts. I'm not sure what the word "accident" means in this context.

    I suspect you're asking a question which I rarely get from atheists, but which I often get from Christians. I.e. if there is no lawgiver, why should we care about the laws? This seems a strange question to me. I suppose there's no reason for me to pay attention to the laws of physics or mathematics either (and, indeed, without moral laws, there wouldn't be). It is part of the nature of moral laws that one of the laws is we should pay attention to them and this really would mean greater good. It is true, of course, that no one is compelled to obey them. You simply ought to obey them.

    If Divine Command Theory was true (things are good and bad, only because they accord with God's opinion), then I'd be confused about why I should obey them. Let us say that God exists and issues certain commands, and nothing is either intrinsically good or bad (including obeying God's commands), then why should I pay the slightest attention to his opinions? Certainly he's more powerful than I am, but then so are a lot of people and I take little notice of their moral opinions. You could argue that I should do so because of his extreme goodness or extreme intelligence or whatever, but this only applies if he is explicating moral truths which exist independently of him. (I don't wish here to rule out Aquinas's solution to the Euthyphro dilemma. They might be "dependent" on him by being part of his nature or some such, but objectively independent of his commands.)

    Contra Mr. Burrows, I am not a Platonic realist about universals. I am an immanent or Aristotelian realist. I don't believe universals exist apart from in their instantiations. It seems clear to me that goodness, rightness, etc. inheres in states of affairs. We ought to be trying to increase the rightness and goodness in states of affairs.

    ReplyDelete
  67. I have an urge to truth and a contempt for hypocrisy, ‘tis true – but neither of these feelings have any value outside my skull. I feel it on a deep level, but I believe what I feel to be nothing but cognitive vapour.

    I did also want to show how this is evidence for my position. We have argued over whether moral beliefs cause emotions or whether emotions cause moral beliefs. What emotion, what empathy is causing this "urge to truth"? It seems to me like the contempt for hypocrisy is consequent to that. You believe, as all rational people do, that "we ought to believe what is true," but no emotion that I can name is motivating this. However, when people break this moral code, this arouses your contempt. It is my opinion this is always the way of it. We feel sad or angry at injustice because we think injustice is bad; we don't think injustice is bad because it makes us sad or angry.

    ReplyDelete
  68. Moreover, while Schweitzer, Nightingale, and Mother T are rare, a great many people, possibly an outright majority, would dive into a cold river to try to save a drowning child completely unrelated to him/her. This is maladaptive and I don't believe it's at all rare; I think it's common. The situation may not come up very often (if at all) in the average comfortably middle class person's life, but situations like that were much more common once.

    I think you’re right – most people would dive in that river. But I’m not sure it has to be maladaptive. There’s more to diving in that river than saving a child. There’s the social contract and the need to appear to be the sort of person who would put yourself out. This is less important today than when we were evolving in bands of around 150 individuals, and our survival was largely group dependent. Human brains have evolved to trade favours and keep track of favours, but you’re only going to trade favours with me if you think you can trust me.

    The best way to assure you of that is to actually be the sort of person you can trust. And 99 times out of 100 that’s not going to do me any harm. I’ll do little things like look after your child while you’re sick, assuming you’ll do the same for mine. One time out of a 100 it’s going to be World War I and I’m going to have to dive on a hand grenade, but, as always, evolution is statistical: what’s good for the gene can occasionally be bad for the individual carrying it.

    I should stress that this would lead to a genuine feeling in the person diving into that river that it is the right thing to do. The unconscious isn’t doing any subliminal math, either – the calculation has taken place over evolutionary time.

    To stress again, the crux of my argument against yours is simply this: your argument leads to the conclusion that all moral claims are false. . . . My response is that your view also leads to metaphysical problems and I believe some of those to be all but insoluble.

    I should probably say that I haven’t reached my conclusions casually, or without considerable disappointment in their consequences. I’ve been poring over this for twenty years, though unfortunately twenty years hasn’t changed my mind. I would much prefer moral absolutes existed than not. And this is not just true of my moral conclusions. Contra Dawkins, I don’t the beauty of a spiral nebula more wondrous than the possibility a hypothetical divine being. I recognise that I have evolved to respond to (more often than not an artist’s impression of) a spiral nebula as an ultra-normal stimulus, to use VS Ramachandran’s term, that there is nothing inherently wondrous about it; and I find this idea troubling, to say the least. Likewise I would like to believe that Steven Moffat really is a better writer than Mark Gatiss; and that one ought to dive in that lake.

    ReplyDelete
  69. I have argued before, and I will do so again, that you are confusing the emotional responses to violations of moral beliefs based on moral sense or reasoning with the cause of those beliefs.

    Not sure what you mean here. The ultimate causes of emotional (moral) responses are random mutations in DNA bases. Their incidence is determined by natural selection. Their proximate causes are neurochemical changes driven by environmental cues. The beliefs themselves are derived from the mind’s intuitive narrativism (propensity to create ‘this because that’ stories about itself). This narrativism too has been selected for, but the parts of the brain and the brain processes involved are different.

    What is odd about your reasoning about where morality comes from is that you don't seem to be applying the notion to yourself (you don't appear to be arguing that your own moral beliefs come from your emotional responses), just to other people. I regard this as prima facie an invalidation of your view. I can take seriously a David Hume who finds morality in the sentiments, since he at least seems to be self-reporting. But you don't seem to be doing this, so I can't honestly take a view seriously which you are exempting yourself from.

    I have no idea how you got that impression. Let me be clear: I regard my own moral urges as no different in quality than those of others. There is no ought for me or anyone else.

    In any event, I can absolutely assure you that my own opinions on abortion are both A) a result of my reasoning and have little, if anything to do with my empathy for either mother or child and B) is also not accompanied by any strong emotional response which is probably why I am not an activist on one side or the other. I believe how I arrive at moral beliefs is also how most people (even David Hume!) get there, even though they might include evidence (such as the Bible) which I would reject or if their logic is muddled (as I'm sure mine is on issues I haven't thought deeply about) or whatever.

    It would be churlish of me not to take you at your word. What I would like to know is how you go about your reasoning. What if any axioms have you established, and what operations do you apply to those axioms?

    Most moral philosophy is so stupid only an intellectual could believe it.

    Well we’re certainly in agreement here. But just on this idea of common sense moral intuitionism; should an idea like ‘common sense physical intuitionism’ be equally worth taking seriously? Our intuitive physics are approximate over a narrow band of typical scenarios, but shocking once the problems get slightly hard (what falls faster, feathers of rocks?). Likewise our supposed economic common sense has been blown apart by Kahneman and others.

    This actually follows from what I was saying. The pro-life side has empathic reactions to the baby and applies this in cases (early term) when the fetus does not actually resemble a baby. The pro-choice side has empathic reactions to the mother and allows that empathic reaction to override their empathic reactions to the fetus, even when it more and more resembles a baby. The middle position doesn't want to do the reasoning involved in choosing one side or another so is simply governed by their empathic reactions.

    I take your original point here to be that the ‘empathic sense’ is in competition with the moral sense, and when there’s less to empathise with, the moral sense tends to win out. It seems to me much (infinitely) simpler to suppose the moral sense and the empathic sense are one thing, and when there’s less to empathise with, the moral intuition is felt less strongly. Thus less opposition to early terminations. And when emotions are in high gear, the strength of moral force qua the value of life is heightened—thus greater discomfort with third trimester abortions all round.

    ReplyDelete
  70. I certainly do. And, yes, I believe most people do the same. If you're arguing whether Churchill or whoever did so as reflectively as, say, I might. Well, I agree that he probably didn't. So what?

    This reflects back on your earlier (it might have been another comments feed) counterargument to the suggestion that if individuals have different moral intuitions, they must all be wrong. You noted that the same defective reasoning is evident in mathematics, without invalidating mathematical truth. I agree your counterpoint here is sound.

    What I would argue, though, is that moral reasoning isn’t reasoning in the way mathematical reasoning is reasoning. I may have difficulty visualising or even conceptualising Cantor’s higher-order infinities, but I can agree on the axioms and operations involved and decide whether they have been applied correctly at each step. In the case of moral reasoning, we can’t even agree on the axioms. When a duty like ‘cause no harm’ almost immediately clashes with ‘promote weal’, we can only conclude that the moral intuitions on which these duties, pro tanto or otherwise, are based are on so shaky ground that it would be dangerous to rely on them for anything much at all.

    Genes are clearly not the whole story here. Or do you deny that adoptive parents, who know full well their children do not carry any significant proportion of their genes, love their children as much as natural parents?

    Investigate the Westermarck effect in regards to sexless arranged marriages in parts of Asia, where the bride is often ‘adopted’ by her in-laws from a young age. There will always be cases where circumstances render adaptations non- or maladaptive (see also: taste for saturated fat; IQ in Cambodia).

    However, this explanation, the one you're proposing, shows that the gene, in women, may be adaptive, but, in men, is a spandrel, a non-adaptive or maladaptive consequence of an adaptation. I have read the research you're referring to and I find it interesting, but the result can easily be explained by more likely epigenetic factors. (I.e. there probably is no gay gene, but some genetic patterns are more likely to be "activated" by non-genetic factors than others, which would help to explain this result and why homosexuality seems to run in families.)

    Once it runs in families, it’s in a position to be selected for, and will be if it proves adaptive. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a single gene, although genes are the only replicators we know. (There are certainly environmental factors involved, as male homosexuality is only 50% heritable.)

    ReplyDelete
  71. I'm not sure what you mean by this. I regard moral facts as brute facts. I'm not sure what the word "accident" means in this context.

    Let’s say it is true that we ought not steal. If moral intuitions came about through sheer chance, then it would be possible to have a sapient, reasoning species that felt theft was perfectly okay, or at least had no qualms about thieving. Here is a thing they ought not do, but they have no access to the information that they ought not do it.

    The fact that it’s possible to be unaware of moral oughts seems to me to make our relationship with morality deeply precarious. If the urge to care for our neighbour’s children is maladaptive or a spandrel, then we know about its rightness only through sheer chance, and may well have turned out to be neutral on the subject or think the opposite. Having no access to moral truths would no doubt limit our culpability, but what does it say about the oughtness of moral action if it is only through the whim of chance that we have any idea what moral action is at all?

    Remove the ought and this problem goes away.

    ReplyDelete
  72. I did also want to show how this is evidence for my position. We have argued over whether moral beliefs cause emotions or whether emotions cause moral beliefs. What emotion, what empathy is causing this "urge to truth"?

    To backtrack, my suggestion that the moral intuition ‘killing is wrong’ may have its basis in the activity of mirror neurons is an explanation for one (though probably more) moral intuitions; not all moral intuitions. The intuition that truth is valuable is no doubt cognitively complex, and I don’t claim to know what its neurological explanation might be. (This would be equally true if moral intuitions have a separate life in the mind to emotional responses.) But to say, ‘What emotion is causing your urge to truth?’ is like saying, ‘What emotion is causing your hunger for chocolate?’ The hunger is the emotion; the urge likewise.

    It seems to me like the contempt for hypocrisy is consequent to that. You believe, as all rational people do, that "we ought to believe what is true,"

    I’m not sure all rational people do always believe that, unless your statement is deliberately tautological. I think it’s fairly clear from Gould’s heated writing on the subject under discussion that he believed, though of course he would never had put it so plainly, that one ought to believe what is fair and just, and that the truth ought to work around that.

    ReplyDelete