Saturday, September 09, 2006

Morality from the Gut

I had originally thought to title this posting, "Why Osama Bin Laden is still alive." I meant to suggest that, perhaps the Bush Administration is not putting as much effort into capturing or killing him as they could be, because they find it more useful to have him alive and free than dead or captured. If he were dead or captured, people would indeed have a sensation of “mission accomplished,” focusing their attention less on terrorism and more on other concerns. The Bush Administration will be less able to offer the bargain, “Give me unquestioned obedience, and I will give you security.”

Now, I do not believe in conspiracy theories. I would not argue that a bunch of government officials huddled together in a dark room and said, “I know . . . let’s destroy the World Trade Center!” Nor are they meeting in the corridores of power and saying that, even though they have Bin Laden in their sites, they should let him go because it is politically expedient to keep him alive. I am suggesting something far more sublte than this.

The Fundamental Problem with Morality from "The Gut"

President Bush has stated that he makes his decisions from the gut. For all practical purposes, his moral philosophy seems to be one that says that God speeks to him through his gut (his sentiments). He asks God what he should do, and God gives him a "feeling" for the course to take. He prays for guidance. Yet, he is the one who must interpret the signs.

As is always the case, people will read into the signs what they want to see. So, Bush -- when he wants to attack Iraq -- will read into the signs that God wants him to attack Iraq. When he wants ease up on the attack on Bin Laden to focus on other things, he reads into the signs that God wants him to ease up on Bin Laden and do other things. To ignore those feelings -- those "signs" -- is to ignore (to slight) God. If the evidence contradicts their “feelings”, then the evidence is flawed and must be re-examined.

It is a very useful moral philosophy to have -- precisely because one can always read into the moral or divine 'signs' their own wishes. So, they always get to do what they want. And if others suffer, then this too must be a part of God's will.

A few weeks ago, in a post called "Fact-Based vs. Fiction-Based Policy," I wrote a post about how a person who depends on “his gut” to tell him what is true and false cannot tell the difference between a glass of clean water and a glass of poison. I suggested that this might not be the best way to determine what to drink and what to leave. I suggested that it would be better to listen to the scientists to determine whether the contents of the bottle are healthy or poisonous.

This post concerns a similar mistake. Instead of going from sentiment to conclusions of the form, "X is true" or "X is false," they go from sentiment to conclusions of the form "X is permissible" or "X is obligatory." The inference is as absurd either way. The only thing that sentiment can tell a person -- the only inferences one can legitimately draw from sentiment -- are conclusions of the form, "I like X" and "I do not like X." Yet, this has as little to do with X being permissible or obligatory as it has to do with X being true or false.

Many slave owners in the 1800s let their conscience be their guide, and found nothing unconscionable in slavery. When a person consumed by hate appeals to his ‘gut’ or his ‘heart’ to tell him what to do, he finds an advisor that is shouting as loudly as it can, “Kill them all!” Hate comes from the gut.

In fact, every major moral attrocity committed -- from slavery to genocide -- was committed by people where a substantial portion asked their "gut" if their actions were permissible or obligatory and got back an answer of "Yes" -- particularly when a "yes" answer was politically or economically useful for them.

Other Expressions of Morality From "the Gut"

There are a lot of atheists who are just as guilty of making this fallacious inference as the members of the Bush Administration. This is the way of thinking for common moral subjectivists. They think that the words 'permissible' and 'obligatory' are really nothing more than another way of stating that one has a particular 'gut' feeling. It is as if to say that if one's 'gut' says that it is permissible to burn infidels at the stake, then it is permissible 'for you' to burn infidels at the stake. It does not mean that I have to enjoy it -- but I cannot condemn it as something that it would be 'wrong for you' to do.

We also find this fallacious inference in evolutionary ethics. This group does not say, “I should listen to my gut because it is the voice of God.” They say, “I should listen to my gut because it is the voice of evolution.”

Yet, they fail to explain what it is about evolution that allows one to say that, "If our interest in doing X came through evolution, then we have a real obligation to do X." Can a person not have an evolved disposition to do something immoral? After all, evolution created the categories of ‘predator’ and ‘prey’. Evolution created all sorts of beings that survive – not through cooperation with others, but by living at the expense of others.

We also have some popular phrases describing this piece of advice. “Let your conscience be your guide,” and “Follow your heart,” are among the more popular. Yet, it is absurd to believe that the 9/11 hijackers, for example, refused to let their conscience be their guide and were not following their heart. In their case, their conscience and their heart (and their gut) all said to carry out the attack.

How Use of Gut Feelings Might Keep Bin Laden Alive

I suggest that one of the reasons that Bin Laden lives is because President Bush’s ‘gut’ gets nervous whenever Bush thinks about how he is going to rule the country without the ability to use Bin Laden to target peoples’ fears. Since Bush listens to his gut, thinks of his gut as speaking for God, Bush thinks that it is God telling him not to worry about Bin Laden just yet – not until after he has taken care of some more important things later.

On this model, Bush never needs to consciously consider the possibility that he is keeping Bin Laden alive and free for political purposes. If anybody accuses him of this he can sincerely assert that he is genuinely interested in seeing Bin Laden killed or captured. It’s just that . . . well . . . being President is hard work and he can’t do everything at once. So far, killing or capturing Bin Laden just has not happened.

We can think of this in terms of an alcoholic who, intellectually, knows that he should quit drinking. Only, he wants that drink. He ‘listens to his gut’ which tells him that getting the drink is a good idea. So his ‘head’ comes up with excuses for drinking. ‘I can’t give up drinking now – I have all of this pressure on me and I just can’t add one more stress to my life. I will give up drinking once these other stresses are taken care of.”

Or, “I will finish the job of capturing or killing Bin Laden once the Iraq situation is taken care of.” Then, “I will finish the job of capturing or killing Bin Laden once the Iran problem is taken care of.” Then . . . well, I’m certain that the President can come up with a long list of ‘urgent issues’ that command his attention before he can afford to devote his time to an all-out effort to capture Bin Laden.

The alcoholic can always come up with just one more excuse. We may listen to him for a while. However, after a few years have passed and he has not found the opportunity to quit drinking, it eventually makes sense to suggest, “Maybe you don’t really want to quit drinking?” Of course, the alcoholic will get angry at us for suggesting such a thing. He will feel genuine outrage over the idea that we do not understand or appreciate his situation. Doctors will speak of these defense mechanisms using terms like “denial” and “rationalization.” They are very real, and they are very powerful forces. They can keep an alcoholic drinking even when he knows he should stop. They can distract a President and keep him from committing the forces he needs to actually kill or capture Bin Laden.


Whenever you hear of somebody who bases his moral judgment from “gut feeling” or anything similar, you have reason to be worried. Things might be fine. Perhaps he is somebody who was raised correctly – raised so that his “gut” tells him that he does not want to kill innocent people, take property that belongs to others, lie, or rape. Perhaps his he was raised so that his “gut” lacks the bigoted sentiments that have plagued the bulk of humanity throughout history.

Then again, maybe not. Remember, every major atrocity ever committed has been committed by people who were morally very much at ease with their actions. They, too, listened to their “gut,” and we can easily see what their “gut” told them to do.

Heck, we can see the process operating in President Bush. Whatever he does – torture, rendition, the acquisition of unrestrained power – we can bet that he does them with a clear conscience – with a “gut” that tells him that what he is doing is right (no matter how wrong it is). This is the reliability one can expect from listening to one’s “gut”.

1 comment:

Sheldon said...

"They say, “I should listen to my gut because it is the voice of evolution.”
Yet, they fail to explain what it is about evolution that allows one to say that, "If our interest in doing X came through evolution, then we have a real obligation to do X." Can a person not have an evolved disposition to do something immoral?"

Indeed they can according to some evolutionary psychologists. One argument is that rape is an evolutionary "adaptation" by low status men without other reproductive oppotunities. Of course this is open to the criticism of being a "just-so story", and what about rape by higher status men?

However, I think that you may be missing the mark on this evolutionary ethics issue in that you are criticizing the weakest and most simplistic version. I myself need to read and investigate the issue further.

Have you read Shermer's book the Science of Good and Evil or this article?

Shermers book and the linked article are a bit rusty in my mind. But I don't think the stronger arguments linking evolution and morality are neccessarily asserting that specific morals are evolved. Instead the argument is that morality in general is a by product of our social intelligence.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of a possible evolved basis for morality is that of "in-group morality" which extends ethical behaviour to one's perceived "tribe" or "race" etc.. Yet, this still leaves us free to reason in the direction of human universality in our moral codes.

This is not necessarily in contradiction to your arguments for reason based ethics and morality.

Anyway, I know you have responded to my challenges before. But perhaps there is not a contradiction?