Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Moral Sense and Moral Nonsense

There ain't no such thing as a ‘moral sense’.

An earlier posting on "The Problem of Faith?" evoked a response from Boelf that employed the concept of "our sense of morality". Specifically, he wrote, I think our sense of morality comes partly from evolution in that we inherently support our group. It also comes from lessons learned as we built great civilizations.

Argument against a Moral Sense

My first reaction whenever I see the phrase “moral sense” in any moral argument is substantially identical to my reaction when I see the word “God” mentioned. Such an entity does not exist. The phrase or term refers to something invented to give an imagined legitimacy to a set of propositions or inferences that would otherwise be illegitimate.

I know how the sense of sight works. Photons coming off of things enter the eye and travel through a lens where they are directed onto a retina where the photon sets off an electrochemical signal. This signal is transmitted as a cascading wave of electrical potential up the optic nerve to the brain where it is processed into the idea of a thing in the real world.

I know how the sense of touch works. Differences in such things as pressure and temperature on the skin alter the chemical equilibrium of nerve endings just below the skin. Those changes trigger a wave of changing electrical potential across the membrane of the neuron until the signal reaches the brain where it, too, is processed.

However, I must ask, how does this “moral sense” operate? Where is the sense organ, what type of input does it take, and how does it relate that input to the output that it generates?

The most bizarre property of this “moral sense” is that it is supposed to give us output in the form of ‘ought’ propositions. The eyes, ears, and fingertips tell us something about what the world is like. This ‘moral sense’ is supposed to tell us something about how the world ought to be. How is it possible for any “sense” organ to generate this type of output?

One objection to this would be to say that I am taking the concept of a “moral sense” to literally and, in this way, I am creating a straw man. Yet, the person who believes in a “moral sense” as a metaphor for something else still needs to explain that “something else.” I await anybody attempting to build a man out of something other than straw to fit this concept.

The Real Moral Sense

I believe that the real-world event that people are actually talking about when they use the phrase “moral sense” involves an appeal to their own likes and dislikes. The short version of the story is that each person knows what he likes and what he dies not like. In order to get what he wants he may have to do harm to others. The concept of “moral sense” (like the concept of God) is an invention that allows him to make the logical leap from, “I like X" to "I am morally permitted to harm others to bring about X." By means of a “moral sense” he can simply see the moral legitimacy of his actions.

Now, I know that we do not typically identify all of our likes and dislikes with some sort of moral sense. We have likes and dislikes that we are not willing to harm others to bring about. We call these ‘preferences.’ However, we have other likes and dislikes where we do discover within ourselves a willingness to do harm to others to bring about. Here is where we make appeal to the concept of a ‘moral sense.’

We sense in ourselves a desire for X and a willingness to harm others to bring about X. We call this combination of desire and willingness to harm others an object of our ‘moral sense’. Because we perceive an object of our ‘moral sense’ we then claim that harming others in order to bring about X is justified. In short, we derive the moral permission to harm others to bring about X from our perceived willingness to harm others to bring about X.

I have no doubt that the 9/11 hijackers "sensed" that they were doing great and noble things when they flew their airplanes into those buildings. I have no doubt that a large percentage of suicide bombers, before they detonate their bombs, are measuring their actions against their ‘moral sense’ and finding that they pass with flying colors. I have no doubt that almost all slave owners in the early 1800s were good fathers and loyal friends who found no objection to slavery when they searched their ‘moral sense.’

Richard M. Hare: Archangels and Proles

The British philosopher R.M. Hare came up with an idea in the middle of the last century that described something like a ‘moral sense’ that still did not give it any of the pretend legitimacy that most who speak of a ‘moral sense’ tend to give it.

Hare argued that there are two levels of moral reasoning. The "prole" appeals to his immediate sense of right and wrong to determine the moral quality of his actions, as well as his other passions and sentiments. The “prole” does not have the time or the knowledge to engage in any type of in-depth moral thinking. He acts at the moment with a direct appeal to his sentiments.

Hare identifies the second level of moral reasoning with the “archangel.” The moral “archangel” has perfect knowledge and flawless reasoning capability. He is also completely impartial and as is as equally concerned for everybody’s welfare, putting nobody else’s welfare above his own and his own above nobody else’s. In short, the archangel is the ideal act-utilitarian.

Human beings are not, in fact, archangels so a morality for archangels is not suitable for human beings. There is an element of the Prole in us and, insofar as this is the case, humans must appeal to Prole principles to make day-to-day decisions.

Desire Utilitarianism

Desire utilitarianism has something very similar to Prole’s distinction between Proles and Archangels and, as such, has room for something like a ‘moral sense.’ However, it is not the type of ‘moral sense’ that says that a principle is justified merely because one can ‘sense’ it. Our senses themselves have to be calibrated using some sort of outside measure.

Desire utilitarianism begins with the fact that, at the moment of action, an agent will act to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. If you leave your digital camera on your desk at work, and a janitor walks by at night, and taking that camera will best fulfill that janitor's desires given his beliefs, your camera will be gone.

How do you protect your camera?

By creating a culture in which it is extremely unlikely that taking the camera will best fulfill an agent's desires, given his beliefs. One way to do this is to create a strong universal aversion to taking the property of others. If the Janitor comes into the room with a strong aversion to taking the property of others, then taking the camera will not best fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires given his beliefs, and your camera will still be there in the morning.

The desire utilitarian counterpart to Hare's Prole is realized in the actions that we make every day. It is realized in my decision to write on the subject of moral sense while I take the bus to work and back today. It is realized in my decision regarding what I will eat for supper, what I will watch on television, and what I will say to my wife. None of these actions will be taken with any regard whatsoever to what will "maximize utility." I will simply perform that action that best fulfills the more and the stronger of my desires given my beliefs.

However, when we debate moral issues we leave the realm of the Prole and enter the realm of the Archangel. At this level, we look at the sentiments and the rules of thumb that the Prole employs and we evaluate them on a separate criteria – on the criteria of maximizing utility (or, specifically, on the criteria of fulfilling the more and the stronger of all desires regardless of whose they are).

The archangel comes up with the ‘rules of thumb’ that are to be recommended to everybody to use in their Prole moments of making day to day decisions with limited time and limited knowledge. These will include rules like ‘do not lie’, ‘do not kill except in self-defense’, and ‘do not take property that belongs to other people’.

Except, these ‘rules of thumb’ take the form of desires. Our job at this level is to select those desires that Proles should have so that, when they act to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires given their beliefs, the will, at the same time, tend to fulfill the desires of others rather than thwart the desires of others. An aversion to taking property that belongs to others is a good aversion for the archangel to assign to everybody. The same is true for such things as an aversions to killing (except in self-defense), a desire for truth, an aversion to bearing false witness, a desire to help those in need, an aversion to doing harm, and an aversion to doing things to others without their consent.

The tools that we use to mold these desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. In archangel mode, where we are picking the desires to give people, we must keep in mind the costs and the benefits of using these tools. It is a waste to try to promote desires that we cannot promote or to inhibit desires we cannot inhibit. It is also a waste to spend more time and effort molding desires through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment than we can expect to get back in terms of better behavior.

Summary: A Sensible Moral Sense

On this model, there is room for a ‘moral sense’ of sorts. However, it is not so difficult to explain. Our ‘moral sense’ is the set of prejudices we learned in society – those taught to us through the application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment which we experienced, which we witnessed when applied to others, and which was threatened but never applied.

However, this ‘moral sense’ is not something that is automatically right. A person cannot justifiably say, ‘I sense that I may harm those who do X; therefore, I am justified in harming those who do X.” Our moral sense itself needs to be justified, and they are not justified by any type of appeal to ‘moral sense’. They are justified by an appeal to the ‘reasons for action’ (desires) that exist. They are justified according to how we answer the question, ‘Given the reasons for action that we have, and the set of possible ‘moral senses’ that we can create through our actions, which possible ‘moral sense’ is most compatible with the more and the stronger of our ‘reasons for action.?

What this means is that a person’s ‘moral sense’ can give him bad answers – as it did when it said that there was no objection to slavery, or that it is permissible or even obligatory to fly airplanes into skyscrapers on 9/11. We cannot simply assert that something is consistent with our ‘moral sense’, and then say that our work is done and our justification is complete.


Derek Scruggs said...

I don't know about moral sense per se, but certainly you agree that there is such a thing as instinct? A baby calf "knows" that it "ought" to suckle from it's mother. A bee "knows" that it "ought" to do a strange dance to mate. Researchers have shown over and over that we have weird instincts which support or sometims undermine morality. Economics researchers, for example, have shown that investors tend to punish deceptively companies far out of proportion to the economic loss. This implies a righteous moral instinct.

And while 9/11 hijackers' moral sense may draw directly opposite conclusions from atheists working on Wall Street, certainly there's a genetic mechanism that underlies the fervor with which those beliefs are held.

Hellbound Alleee said...

I think such cultural morality is a fantasy. Morality has little to do with likes and dislikes: if you think your morality is based on that, you're doing it wrong. Morality is the study of causality as it relates to human action. What you do has an effect, no matter what--it's called causality. "Your likes" in another way of saying "your values." These values can be judged, evaluated rationally. In this way, we wouldn't want to call it a "moral sense," if it causes that sort of discomfort in those who imagine morality as a sort of belief system. There is no morality in belief. Morality is the reality, irrational values are the beliefs.

I say bull to cultural morality because culture is not a reality. There is no true definition of a culture, and no individual is owned by one and only one culture. Since a culture cannot be truly defined, it cannot define a morality. State force has nothing to do with morality, any more than religious threat does.

Hellbound Alleee: The War on Relativism "Carnival"

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Derek Scruggs

Of course we have desires that have been molded through evolution. However, there is no 'ought' associated with these desires. There is as little 'ought' associated with the calf suckling from its mother than there is with the buck mating earlier -- and as little as we find with humans mating, or the preference in taste for the high-calorie food that kept our biological ancestors alive. There are no 'oughts' associated with any of these.

As you say, some of these basic drives support, and others undermine morality. In addition to an evolved disposition towards altrusim, we may also have an evolved disposition towards racism and rape.

Not everything is genetic. I have a belief that I am in Colorado. Certainly, nobody expects to find a "belief that I am in Colorado" gene. Certainly, genetics plays a role in creating the basic structure for learning -- but what is actually learned is caused by interaction with the environment. What we desire is heavily influenced by interaction with the environment as well, where individual differences in our environment result in individual differences in our beliefs and desires.

In all of this there is no 'moral sense'. I see no need to postulate the existence of such an entity.

Boelf said...

I certainly haven't given this as much thought as you have Alonzo. In the end I think our differences are more a matter of definition that substance.

The moral sense is I feel real. It is derived from our biology (evolution if you like), our education, our experience and even our introspection. This sounds a lot to me like your revised idea of moral sense toward the end of your post.

A moral sense like any basic sense can be wrong. Therefore it would be insufficient by itself to justify an action or inaction. However if a quick decision is needed or the matter trivial it might do.

Personally I don't consider a moral sense in play if my sense of right and wrong and my basic desires correspond. It’s when they are at odds that alarms sound and I feel the need to take more time if possible to discern the right thing. (And yes I can self justify with the best of them but that would not be a case of a convenient moral sense).

A moral sense is not an absolute guide to right and wrong. But since it necessarily guides many of our urgent and minor matters it is well worth developing.

So Alonzo do you think we are that far apart?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hellbound Alleee

I am afriad that I cannot tell what you are directing your comments towards.

I do not think that they can be directed at me because I am an opponent to all types of "common moral relativism" and have argued against these systems repeatedly. In fact, this post is derived from comments that I made objecting to, among other things, common moral relativism.

So, perhaps you wrote this in order to support my position. However, all value has everything to do with likes and dislikes. Indeed, a "value" is a relationship between a state of affairs and a set of desires (likes and dislikes). Without likes and dislikes -- without desires -- there is no value. However, desires are real, so values are real -- as real as the people who do the valuing.

So, I need some clarification as to what your objections are.

I have a long history of opposition to any type of "cultural morality". I believe in an objective right and wrong.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I hold that it really makes no sense to tie morality in with evolution. Morality has to do with the desires and aversions we create through social conditioning. The desires that we have acquired through evolution (e.g., the appetities such as hunger and sex, maternal affection, pair bonding) are background conditions on which morality operates, like the laws of physics. The laws of physics are not moral laws. The laws of evolution (and the consequences of evolution) are not moral laws.

You state that you do not take the time to discern the right thing except when the moral alarms go off.

I suggest that the greatest evils are committed by people who follow that example. Slave owners, Nazis, and religious zealots in a Crusade or Jihad, I wager, typically do not hear any moral alarms going off. They should, but they do not.

One of the questions that we need to ask ourselves is whether our moral alarms are properly set. Perhaps they are not going off when they should.

Personally, I do not trust my moral alarm at all.