Friday, December 28, 2007

E2.0: Discussion 1: Necessary False Beliefs

This is the forth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

After Edward Slingerland's presentation, which I wrote about last week, , the host of the Beyond Belief 2 conference, Roger Bingham, opened the session up to comments from the audience.

Those comments basically contained two responses to Slingerland's thesis.

Slingerland: Doing Harm for Make-Believe Reasons

Slingerland had argued that all philosophies, including Enightenment, must postulate entities (sacred values) that do not exist, but which we must pretend to believe in.

These 'sacred values' are the reasons we give for doing harm to others. When we do violence to others we are compelled, somehow, to seek justification. We find this justification in metaphysical entities such as human rights. These entities are not real, but we are irresistibly drawn to drawing on these fictions to justify the harms we do to others.

To take on the Enlightenment 2.0 stance requires a kind of dual consciousness. It requires a recognition that the values and the cherished entities that populate our world are not real. . . . We also have to recognize though . . . that we can't help continuing to feel that they are real.

These values and cherished entities - these reasons for killing and doing harm to others - are not real. Yet, we cannot help but believe that they are real, and we cannot help but to kill and otherwise harm others based on that feeling.

To Slingerland, this is all okay. This is a sign of psychological health. To Slingerland, the person who is not killing and otherwise harming others on the basis of entities that we are disposed to make up is psychologically unhealthy.

In the comments that followed, members of the audience offered two types of responses to Slingerland's thesis.

Lee Silver: Doing Harm for Genetic Reasons

One of the two sets of responses to Slingerland’s thesis is one of my favorite dead horses – the claim that moral sentiments have a genetic explanation. Unfortunately, even though I keep beating this dead horse, a lot of people talk as if it is still very much alive.

Lee Silver commented in response to Slingerland:

Human rights in my mind, part of it is natural human instincts. We, as a species, have instincts that are expressed to a greater or lesser degree by different people and evolved attitudes that lead to human rights at some level . . . There is probably this instinctual basis for these feelings that we have so we don’t have to go all transcendental. You can inside, into our genes, . . .

The last time I beat this dead horse I described the activity in my post, “The Genetic Morality Delusion.”

Briefly, evolution can explain such things as our desire for sex, high-calorie food, our aversion to pain, thirst, hunger, preferences for certain atmospheric temperature, and the like. These are our likes and dislikes, or what Slingerland called our Type 1 evaluations.

However, there are a lot of problems with trying to explain moral evaluations this way. As Slingerland said, these values are inherently intolerant – they are values that we seek to impose on others, by force if necessary. We appeal to them to justify doing real harm to real people.

What does it mean to say that A deserves to suffer? If there is a genetic morality, this merely means, “I am genetically disposed to wish to cause you to suffer and claim that I am justified in doing so.” If this proposition is true then, according to the hypothesis of a genetic morality, you deserve to suffer.

For example, what does it mean to say that homosexuals should be killed? Under the hypothesis of a genetic morality, this means that if people are genetically disposed to view homosexuality as immoral and to feel justified in killing homosexuals, then homosexuals deserve to die. These genetic factors do not merely explain the deaths of homosexuals among such creatures. It further claims that the homosexuals deserved their fate – that they deserve all of the condemnation and disgust that the rest of the community is genetically disposed to inflict on them.

This is, at best, a bizarre conclusion. It is even more bizarre in light of the fact that this type of genetic disposition seems completely pointless. A simple desire to engage in a particular activity is sufficient. It serves the evolutionary purpose without all of the excess baggage.

To see this point, consider the evolution of lions. Lions can either evolve a disposition to kill and eat antelope. Or it could evolve a disposition to view antelopes as entities that deserve to be killed and eaten. The first requires simply the evolution of a desire. The second requires a complex set of mental states involving moral judgments and moral emotions. What reason would nature have to go to all the work of generating all of the complexity of the second set of operations, when the far simpler first set works just as well.

We can look at the same issue from the antelope’s point of view. Evolution can either give the antelope an aversion to lions – a desire to run away from anything that suggests the presence of lions. Or evolution can give the antelope an aversion to being killed and eaten and the capacity to recognize that lions have a tendency to kill and eat antelope. It is far simpler for evolution to simply teach the antelope to run from lions. It does not need to develop all of this extra baggage.

Ultimately, Slingerland can take Silver’s evolution claims and plug them directly into his thesis. Slingerland merely argues that we have a these desires to do harm to others, to feel a need that they are to be justified by appeal to some sort of metaphysical entity, and to make up the metaphysical entities that we use to justify the harm. Slingerland’s thesis is perfectly compatible with the idea that we evolved the disposition to view the world in this way. We evolved a disposition to harm certain people, a need to see our harmful behavior as justified, and a tendency to make up those justifications.

So, Silver does not offer a solution that solves the question of morality or one that provides any objection to Slingerland’s proposal.

Finally, Silver did include that culture plays a role. Culture plays a role in what we believe; however, what role does culture play in what we should believe (or what is true) about morality. Inquisitors, slave owners, conquistadors, crusaders, jihadists, and concentration camp guards were all the products, in part, of their culture. So, it is difficult to make the case that even though culture shapes our moral beliefs, that the moral beliefs that one acquires as a result of their culture are immune from criticism.

Patricia and Paul Churchland: Doing Harm for Practical Reasons

Patricia and Paul Chuchland offered an alternative answer to Sliverland’s make-believe reasons for doing harm. They claimed that these reasons are not make-believe at all. They are practical reasons. Patricia said:

I think that human rights, to the degree that that can be given a concrete description, is something that works pretty well in a sheerly pragmatic way. . . . Human rights matter to me because by and large if you have a system that works according to those principles you do better than if you have a tyrant.

Paul added:

If you think of human history . . . over 10,000 years, you are looking at a series of experiments on how best to organize human affairs . . . and over that period we have had a fair amount of wisdom emerge about how things are best organized. If one wants to take an objectivist view of the ground of morality, it is better to look at human history and what it teaches us over long periods of time than to made-up metaphysical things.

Slingerland can respond to these practical considerations in two ways.

First, Slingerland is free to argue that these appeals to make-believe reasons for doing harm are practical. In order to have the best society where humans can thrive, we need humans who are disposed to look for these metaphysical reasons to justify doing harm to others. Without them, society would fall apart.

Second, if morality has value as a means to some end, then Slingerland is still free to ask about the value of those ends. A hammer has value because it is useful for building a house – but where does the house get its value? Following Aristotle, every chain of value has an end – something that gives its value to all of the means that are useful for bringing it about. Patricia and Paul’s ‘practical morality’ says nothing about how these ends get their value. He is free to assert that the value of ends is this make-believe value that he was talking about.

Either way, the practical morality hypothesis does not give us any reason to abandon Slingerland’s thesis. He is still free to say that we are creatures that assign make-believe value to ends and who appeal to these make-believe entities to justify the harms that we find ourselves wanting to do to others.

Daniel Dennett: Doing Harm for A Combination of Reasons

Daniel Dennett offered a modification to Silver’s proposal that combines these two responses. Dennett agreed that we have some genetic dispositions, but added that we have the capacity to learn about them and correct them – that they can be mistaken.

He used the example of myopia to explain his claim.

Myopia is a . . . we’re stuck with it. No we’re not, we can wear eyeglasses. One of the things we have with human culture . . . is to recognize the shortcomings and defects in our evolved nature and then find corrections.

I have already agreed that we have desires, that those desires have undergone a fair amount of evolutionary pressure, and that desires reflect what Slingerland called Type 1 values.

However, our Type 1 values – our desires – are not fixed. They are malleable. This means that there is room for us to ask as to which changes we should make in our evolved nature. Our Type 1 values (desires) give us reason to make modifications in our other Type 1 values (desires). We do not have to go into strange metaphysics. We can evaluate our Type 1 values according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires (Type 1 values).

Using this method, we can determine how best to correct our Type 1 desires. Using this method, we can decide on the best prescription for what Dennett called the “eyeglasses of the soul” that correct our evolved natures for the better.


All things considered, we can keep Slingerland’s distinction between two different types of value. Type 1 evaluations ask about relationships between objects of evaluation and the desires that we have. Those desires, in turn, have been influenced through years of evolution so that they tend to pick out states of affairs that bring about our own genetic replication.

However, the desires that make up our Type 1 evaluations are malleable. This gives us an opportunity to make Type 2 evaluations. How do our Type 1 evaluations stand in relation to each other? To what degree do we have reason to promote or strengthen some desires and to inhibit others? From this, we can ask questions about how objects of evaluation stand in relation to desires we should have - the desires we have reason to promote and to discourage.

On this model, we do not need strange metaphysical entities. We do all of the work postulating only Type 1 evaluations – desires – some of which are malleable – and some of which we have reason to promote and inhibit in virtue of their relationships to other type 1 values.

Justifying the harm we do to others by appeal to things that we simply make up may well be common. However, that does not make it right. We can only provide real justification for our actions – particularly our decision to act in ways that are harmful to others – by appealing to reasons for action that are real. Of these, we need to appeal to not to the reasons for action that we have, but the reasons for action that we should have. We can make perfectly good sense of ‘reasons for action that we should have’ without entering Slingerland’s realm of make-believe.

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