Yesterday's posting concerned a New York Times article called, "The Moral Instinct". In it, I argued that an inference assumed in the article - that a sense that an instinct to make the judgment P is wrong implies P is wrong - is an invalid inference.
Today, I would like to look at one of the specific examples used in the article and demonstrate this fallacy.
The article reports on some experiments that were performed.
Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?
When presenting this case to people, the researchers point out the fact that they can block any argument that the test subjects give for saying that it is wrong. They can drive their subjects into a situation where the subject says, "I can't argue against anythng that you say. But, I know it's wrong, and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise."
The fact is, I have met people who would say exactly the same thing about interracial relationships - or homosexual relationships for that matter. This is a descriptive fact about how a lot of people think - about how they reach moral conclusions.
However, it leaves an important set of questions unanswered. Is this form of sibling incest, or homosexuality, or interracial relationship, wrong in fact? What does it take for homosexuality (for example) to be wrong in fact?
Is it the case that - if there are people who can be driven to the conclusion, "I cannot argue against anything you say, but I know that homosexuality is wrong and that it is permissible to take actions that harm the interests of homosexuals, and there is nothing you can say to change my mind," then in fact homosexuality is wrong and these people really are justified in harming the interests of homosexuals?
Just because you can find a lot of examples of people doing something, this does not mean that they are justified in doing it. No matter how many instances we find of people committing the fallacy of 'ad hominem' - this does not make 'ad hominem' a valid form of reasoning. No matter how many instances we find of people firmly anchoring their claims that they are justified in doing harm to others on a particular set of personal likes and dislikes, this does not mean that the particular set of likes and dislikes actually justifies those harms.
I think that I can offer an account of what is going on in the case of incest. This research starts off entirely on the wrong foot. It is making the false assumption that morality is primarily concerned with evaluating actions. So, it is trying to get people to evaluate an act of incest. When, in fact, morality is primarily concerned with evaluating desires, and what agents are evaluating in fact is a universal aversion to incest.
They then force their perspective on the subjects - forcing the subject to come up with a justification in terms of acts being the primary object of evaluation. Which the subjects cannot do - because the assumption is false.
Here is how the argument would go if we take desires to be the primary object of moral behavior.
What I am looking at in evaluating this act is whether there are desires or aversions inherent in the situation that people generally have reason to promote throughout a population.
People generally have reason to promote an aversion to incest. Even though there may be a few cases in which incest does not thwart desires, by and large incestuous relationships are ultimately desire-thwarting; they cause a great deal of harm. If everybody has an aversion to incest, then for the most part we would be preventing a great deal of harm, and if everybody has an aversion to incest we would not be thwarting any desires (there would not be a desire to engage in incest for us to thwart).
A universal aversion to incest implies a universal aversion to the type of behavior described in this case.
If I were to say that their behavior were justified, then I would be saying that nobody should have this aversion to incest. However, a culture in which nobody has this aversion to incest would be a culture in which abusive incest would be far more common. We certainly have no reason to create a culture in which abusive incest is far more common. Therefore, we certainly have no reason to say that nobody should have an aversion to this type of situation.
The case clearly states that the couple keep their act a secret, so that it has no affect on society.
However, I am not talking about the act itself. I am talking about the judgment of the act. When you ask me to judge the act as morally permissible or impermissible you are asking me to judge whether everybody should or should not have an aversion to that type of situation. Even if, in this rare case, no harm was done, people generally still have many good reasons to promote an a culture in which people are averse to these types of relationships. People generally still have reason to judge the absence of an aversion to incest negatively.
The researchers who write about these types of cases point out that their subjects generally cannot articulate a defense that the researchers cannot counter. Therefore, they say that all moral justifications are 'rationalizations'. However, that conclusion requires something stronger than saying, "We have been able to counter every response." It requires saying, "There can be no response that we cannot counter."
That, I argue, simply is not true. Try the above response on for size.
If this response fails, then there is still the possibility that there is another response not yet thought of.
If it is the case that all responses fail, then the conclusion is not to say that the prohibition on incest is justified in virtue of some 'moral instinct'. The correct conclusion to draw is that humans have an inherent impulse to do unjustified harm to others in these types of cases. If incest is not wrong in fact, then a moral instinct to treat incest as wrong is, itself, wrong - a sickness driving people to do harm to those that it has no real reason to harm, and to merely imagine that the harms they inflict are justified.
One of the things that I must note is that subjects often cannot give a conscious defense of their moral conclusions. However, this does not require any sort of ‘moral instinct’. A lot of our reasoning is subconscious. Nature does not have a particularly compelling need to make it the case that all reasoning is conscious. Nature is well served by coming to the correct conclusion. Making the method of reasoning conscious is, sometimes, a waste of energy and a waste of time. One of the things about morality is that it must often weigh in on our actions the instant we decide to act. We do not have time to consciously deliberate the morality of every action.
Morality, on this account, is still an object of reason, though some of it is subconscious. When moral reason is done poorly, it yields moral conclusions that are wrong. There is no ‘moral instinct’ or ‘innate morality’ – it is simply a fallacy to argue from the fact that we have certain innate desires to do harm and feel justified in doing so that we are, as a matter of fact, justified in doing so. In order to be justified in doing harm there has to be a fact of the matter – a way in which ‘we are morally justified in doing harm’ can be true as a matter of fact.
Either there is a justification for the harms that we inflict on others under the heading ‘morality’, or the harms that we inflict on others under the heading ‘morality’ are unjustified.