The New York Times has an article called, “The Moral Instinct”.
I hold that there is no such thing as a “moral instinct”.
In fact, “moral instinct” serves the same role in morality as “God”. People invented God because they wanted to assign their prejudices to an entity that gave them more legitimacy than they had in real world. The inference, “I want you dead; therefore, you deserve to die,” is transparently an invalid inference. So, people introduced a God element into the equation: “God wants you dead; therefore, you deserve to die.”
For those who do not believe in God this transference no longer works. The next move is to invent a God substitute. This is ‘innate morality’, ‘moral instinct’, or ‘genetic morality’ – take your pick. They all function the same way. “My innate morality wants you dead; therefore, you deserve to die.”
Death is just one element of morality that this form of reasoning applies to. We can make the same case for:
“I want you to suffer; therefore, you deserve to suffer.”
“I want you as my slave; therefore, you deserve to be my slave.”
In the case of women in most culture, “I want you to obey; therefore, you have a duty to obey.”
Or, “I want your land and your property as my own; therefore, I have a right to take your land and your property as my own.”
Primitive people attributed these to God. “God says that those who do X should suffer; therefore, I may make you suffer.” Of course, this was merely the agent’s own desire to see others suffer assigned to a God that he invented. Modern scientifically-minded people attribute this to ‘innate morality”. “My innate morality says that those who do X should suffer.; therefore, I may make you suffer.”
It may well be the case that evolutionary forces have influenced our desire – causing us to want to kill, make suffer, enslave, or oppress others under certain circumstances. Evolutionary forces certainly gave these desires a certain desire or subjective sensation.
But where did we get the idea that, “If I have a subjective sensation S associated with my desire to do harm to others, then those people deserve to be harmed?”
According to the article:
Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
However, what none of these studies seem to address if the fact that you can draw moral intuitions out of an Islamic jihadist, an ante-bellum Southern slave holder, a crusader, a Japanese Kamikaze pilot, a child rapist, a drunk driver . . . you can draw moral intuitions out of anybody. But how do you justify the inference; “These people have a moral intuition that P is wrong; therefore P is wrong?”
What does “P is wrong” mean within the context of these experiments?
The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. One can easily say, “I don’t like brussels sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them,” but no one would say, “I don’t like killing, but I don’t care if you murder someone.
I have absolutely no trouble handling this observation without any type of reference to a ‘moral instinct’. There are certain desires that people generally have reason to promote in everybody; and there are certain desires that people generally have reason to promote to everybody. Morality is just the term that we use to refer to these questions. The fact that morality is ‘universal’ is no more of a mystery than the fact that circles are ‘round’. We recognize that there are desires and aversions that would benefit us if universally held, and we call those ‘morality’ in the same sense in which we recognize that some shapes are round and we call them ‘circles’.
There is no ‘felt’ element to this at all. If we ‘felt’ that there should be a universal prohibition on eating with one’s left hand, for example, would this make it the case that eating with the left hand is, in fact, wrong? That those who do so should be punished? Or is it the case that our felt judgments are mistaken – because we are calling for something to be universally prohibited that we have no reason to call to be universally prohibited?
The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral.
The tools that we have had for molding desires are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If we have reason to make a particular aversion universal, and the tools for making it universal are condemnation and punishment, then we have reason to use condemnation and punishment. If we have reason to make a particular desire universal, and the tools for doing so are praise and reward, then we have reason to use praise and reward.
There is no deep dark mystery here.
What about homosexual acts? According to this ‘innate morality’ theory, the wrongness of homosexual acts is to be determined by whether or not people have an innate disposition to do harm to homosexuals. If they do, then homosexuals deserve to be harmed. Whatever we do, we cannot judge homosexual acts by the qualities of the acts themselves – whether those acts thwart desires or cause harm to others. We must look at the people who want to harm homosexuals. If they have a ‘moral instinct’ to do harm to homosexuals, then the homosexuals are just out of luck. They deserve to be harmed an no good and just person would stand in the way of those wanting to do (moral) harm.
The logic behind this avenue of moral investigation is absolutely bizarre.
But it is not difficult to explain. It is “religion without God”.
It is taking the function of religion – to provide an excuse for doing harm to others by assigning the legitimacy of that harm to some supernatural entity – and coming up with a substitute.
Because, where we have these desires to do harm – where we want to inflict suffering on others – the last thing we want to consider is that there is no justification for doing harm and the entities we summon to try to give them legitimacy exist only in the realm of make-believe.
The Times article itself is filled with data that contradicts the concept of a ‘moral instinct’ It lists a number of things once thought to be immoral which are now ‘amoralized’ (e.g., divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother). While new ‘immoralities’ are being argued for (e.g., disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls.)
So, what happened? Our moral instincts changed?
Are there any reasons for these changes, or are they just haphazard fads that come and go like clothing styles?
In fact, when we debate what should and should not be on the moralized list, people are expected to provide reasons for considering something moral or immoral. One of the things that is not considered a legitimate reason for a moral claim is “because I feel like it.” Some subjectivists have tried to reduce morality to feelings, but they have never been able to make it past this hurdle. How can a feeling justify the conclusion that another person deserves to be harmed? It can’t. In order to justify doing harm to others we need reasons, not just feelings.
The real problem with ‘moral instinct’ or ‘innate morality’ theories is that, even though they may come up with causal reasons for doing harm to others, they have a hard time coming up with justification for doing harm. In fact, the very instant one of these moral researchers put on their lab coats, they seem to forget that morality has to do with justification. They do all sorts of research on causation, but how do you look at a brain scan or the results of a questionnaire and assert, “Because these people engaged in this type of behavior, those people over there that these people would harm deserves to be harmed?
Please explain how you can get deserves to be harmed out of a lab experiment that looks only at the fact that the person doing harm really wants to and thinks that he would be right to do so.