Sunday, November 25, 2007

Refining the Concept of 'Virtue'

Today, I wish to address another question from the studio audience, this one from Atheist Observer responding to my previous post on The Trolley Car Absurdity. It is actually a series of questions, that I will address one at a time.

I’d like to go back to a theme you’ve addressed in several previous posts: that of genetics in morality. Am I correct in the following analysis?

The Impossibility of Genetic Evil

A sociopath who commits all kinds heinous deeds because he is genetically unable to feel empathy and gets pleasure from causing pain is not evil because these desires were genetically determined.

In itself, this description would be incomplete. A person who is genetically unable to feel empathy is not necessarily going to harm others. Even though he lacks empathy, the desires he does have may be desires that tend to fulfill other desires, which would not make him evil.

However, let us assume that a person has Gene B, and that people with Gene B necessarily go around doing harm to others. Science shows us that Gene B creates a particular set of connections in the brain and that beings with those connections will do harm to others.

This person would not be evil.

We would still have reason to restrain his actions. Insofar as he will act to thwart the desires of others, others have a reason to act to prevent that thwarting. In this case, the proper response would be to lock the individual up in a mental hospital – to call him ‘sick’ rather than ‘evil’. He must be restrained, but he cannot sensibly be blamed – not unless he somehow had a choice and opted to have Gene B.

Of course, for the same reason that genetic 'evil' makes no sense, genetic 'virtue' also makes no sense. Just as a person deserves no blame for having a bad gene he could not choose, he deserves no credit for having a good gene he could not choose.

Virtues have the capacity to be genetic in the same sense that squares have the capacity to be round. In other words - it makes no sense at all.

The Moral Relevance of Physical Impossibility

I am going to take Atheist Observer’s question out of context. His first and last examples straddle an interesting middle area. Consequently, I first want to fix the end points, and then concentrate on the middle. One end point, discussed above, is the impossibility of genetic evil (which, by the way, ties in with the impossibility of genetic virtue). The other end point concerns the moral irrelevance of physical impossibility.

A person who has many bad desires, but due to fear or selfish reasons, always acts in ways we have reasons to promote, i.e., always acts in ways to benefit others, is the truly evil person because he has malleable bad desires, even if these bad desires are never expressed.

Let’s take the case of a person with a great desire to torture and kill children. Indeed, he has spent his life torturing and killing children. However, he is captured (in a country that has no death penalty), and locked in jail. Deprived of an opportunity to torture and kill children, he devotes himself to other interests. It turns out that he is an intelligent person, he spends his time in jail reading peer-reviewed biology publications and makes significant contributions to biology and medicine.

Locking him up does nothing to change his moral character. A vicious person who is knocked unconscious, or who is sleeping, or who has become paralyzed in an automobile accident and is no longer capable of doing that which he wants to do – that which harms others – does not become a ‘better person’ as a result. He remains just as evil, in spite of limitations imposed on his ability to act on his desires.

Indeed, we cannot sensibly report that the agent has reformed – that the agent is, in fact, a better person unless he has reached a state in which the restraints could be removed (released from jail, his paralysis removed, he regains consciousness) without being a threat to others.

Now, if we are to assume a person who is free to act in the world, but who never behaves in ways harmful to others, in this type of case what reason do we have to say that he is a bad person? A bad person is a person whose desires dispose him to act in ways that is harmful to others. Yet, the way this question is set up, we are talking about a person who is not disposed to act in a way that is harmful to others. Yet, we are also told that he has evil, that he has bad desires. This, I would argue, is nearly incoherent. If an agent never chooses to act in ways that are harmful to others then he most certainly has desires that will dispose him to act in ways that are not harmful to others.

Changing Malleability

The interesting ‘third case’ that seems to fit somewhere between these two is the case of the person whose desires were once malleable but have become fixed. Childhood minds are much more malleable than adult brains. It is quite possible that ‘bad desires’ get programmed into a child’s brain by bad parenting. Then, at puberty, this bad wiring solidifies – it becomes fixed.

A person who has a genetic disposition to harm others, but is not compelled to do it (the desires are malleable) and is treated badly in childhood such that he develops non-malleable bad desires is not evil because these desires are no longer malleable, but would be if they were.

The process here is not significantly different than that of genetics giving a person a bad desire. A child has no more choice over what parents to have or how they treat him than he has over what genes to have and their influence on the structure of his brain. It would seem then that such a person, like the person with genetic evil, should be treated as sick, but not evil.

However, let us go ahead with the assumption that the agent has a particular desire that P, and desires that P tend to thwart the desires of others (people generally have a reason to inhibit the desire that P). However, in some cases, the desire that P becomes fixed.

We still have an important confounding element to consider. Is there a malleable desire that Q, where Q implies not-P, and can the desire that Q be made stronger than the desire that P? Or, perhaps, a desire that P is a desire that thwarts other desires under conditions C, and a desire that Q inhibits instances of conditions C.

Where a desire that P is desire-thwarting, there are reasons to weaken or inhibit the development of any desire that P. If the desire that P turns out to be fixed, these same reasons still argue for promoting the desires that Q described above. A fixed ‘desire that P’ is not sufficient to make an agent morally blameless – not if other, potentially conflicting desires are still malleable.

People tend to react differently to abuse as a child, and many people who were abused as children and start off down a bad road are able to turn their lives around. What they need to do so is a motivation to do so. To the degree that we promote ‘desires that Q’ that motivate agents to work against the bad desires they acquire as a result of abuse, to that degree more people will try to overcome those difficulties, and more people will succeed.

By the way, this also applies to the first case, to cases where agents have a genetic ‘desire that P’ that is harmful to others. Even if these desires are genetic – if they are fixed by some biological process – we still have reason to ask if malleable desires remain that can be put against those desires. In these cases, the agent is not evil for having a desire that P that tends to be harmful to others, but for not having a competing (malleable) desire that Q that is sufficiently strong to prevent actions that fulfill the desire that P.


So, there is still room for using the term ‘evil’ in both of the ‘genetic badness’ and ‘learned badness’ cases that Atheist Observer presented. As for the person who is evil, but never acts evil, we have two options. If the absence of bad behavior is due to some internal constraint, then we have to ask in what sense this person is evil – if he does not have desires that tend to cause him to act in ways that are harmful to others. If the absence of bad behavior is due to some external constraint (e.g., being locked in prison), we do not change a person’s moral character by limiting his ability to do bad things, only by limiting (or counter-weighing) his desire to do so.


Anonymous said...

So, there is still room for using the term ‘evil’ in both of the ‘genetic badness’ and ‘learned badness’ cases that Atheist Observer presented.

You could say that all evil is both as genes never operate in isolation: all behaviour is a combination of genes + environment. Just as physical tendencies can fail to be expressed because of lifestyle, mental tendencies can be curbed or retrained. So it is hard to say that anyone is 'born evil'; more correctly, they have a tendency towards it.

As for the person who is evil, but never acts evil, we have two options. If the absence of bad behavior is due to some internal constraint, then we have to ask in what sense this person is evil – if he does not have desires that tend to cause him to act in ways that are harmful to others.

It is a religious concept that we will be judged on our thoughts. In society we can legislate only to control or punish actions, not thoughts.

We all have less than noble thoughts. Most of us choose not to act on them either because we fear the consequences (social or legal) or because we don't really want to inflict something bad on someone else once we calm down. To call someone evil because they have 'bad thoughts' is to risk falling into the religion trap. They might need monitoring to make sure their envirnoment doesn't change to make their inherent anti-social behaviour become expressed, but they cannot be tagged 'evil'.

I'm not sure the word 'evil' is very useful anyway as it's impossible to separate it from its religious sense.

Traverse said...

Of course, we could do away with the term good an evil and couch our debate in rational terms. Good and evil are value judgments, and not even close to being absolutes. Many things that I do not consider morally bad are considered bad by others, while some things that I consider to be very morally negative (teaching a specific religion to young children for example) are considered good in other peoples minds. Just ditch the evil and good thing and focus on the effect of a set of actions, it makes more sense (so someone who does no harm is benign, someone who does harm should be restrained from doing further harm...)

Biological Evil Writer said...

Hi Alonzo,

First, I've browsed your blog some and you seem like an interesting person to talk with. You are struggling with ethical issues just as I am and come at it from a somewhat similar perspective. Also, I like how you set the goal of leaving the world better than it would have been had you not existed. This is a very provocative goal and of course raises all sorts of questions which I'd enjoy exploring.

So feel free to check out my site and get in touch if you'd like to talk more.

As for this post, which brought me to your blog, I realize it's an old one but a few comments.

I've written a huge series that relates to this very issue, which is introduced in this blog post:

Four Pages Regarding a Biological Basis of Evil: Introducing My Most Important Work to Date

In writing it I had to deal with some of the same things you raise here and this is what I think.

1) Obviously we have to define the word evil very clearly before we can most constructively discuss whether something is or is not evil. How it should best be defined is a useful question in itself. Here you take it to be a statement of a person's character. Some might define it in terms of its consequences. Others view evil more as a general force in the world that sometimes manifests through particular people. But simply insisting on a definition before the debate begins can help a lot.

2) I'm not sure, even if you apply good and evil to specific people, that it is useful to think in terms of absolutes. Perhaps it's more useful to talk about the degree to which a person is good or evil. That may alleviate some of the problems you raise in this post.

3) Unfortunately, evil is such an emotionally loaded word that, sometimes, attempts to define it precisely can just derail conversation indefinitely. So, in those cases, as Traverse mentioned, we might just use more specific, objective words such as "malice," "sadism," "neglect," "harm," and "destructiveness" to keep the conversation focused. When people talk to me about the series I wrote, I often switch to these words when I can see that they're getting hung up on the definition of evil and it's keeping us from getting on with the much more important conversation of what would be our best strategy to address the harm and injustice in the world to try to improve it effectively.