Sunday, January 13, 2008

NYT: The Moral Instinct

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.

14 comments:

eenauk said...

i didnt read Pinker's NYT article as making _any_ claim that a discovered instinct had moral value. All he is saying is that some of our moral instincts evolved and are probably transmitted genetically. He never claimed, as far as i can remember, that even if everyone agrees that something is instinctively bad that it _is_ necessarily morally bad. he's doing science, not ethics.

Doug S. said...

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?

In other words, if every Klingon believed that eating with one's left hand was wrong, would it, in fact, be wrong for a Klingon to eat with his or her left hand? If you asked such a Klingon if eating with one's left hand was wrong, then that Klingon would say that it was, even if he or she couldn't give a coherent justification. If you asked a human, they'd say the Klingons were wrong, but if you asked a human, then they would say that the Klingons were wrong.

The assertion is not "My innate morality wants you dead; therefore, you deserve to die" but rather "My innate morality wants you dead; therefore, I will argue that you deserve to die."

Consider the following argument a Klingon might offer:
We define our morality as an axiomatic system. Your morality, as well, can also be modeled as an axiomatic system. From within each system, we can declare the other to be defective, but there is no way to construct a system of "morality" that cannot be modeled as an axiomatic system, and one of our axioms is that it is wrong to eat with one's left hand. Our moral disagreements have as much basis in fact as two mathematicians have over whether to accept the Axiom of Choice; we both agree on the theorems of Klingon morality and human morality, but we disagree on which axioms and rules of inference we accept.

How would you answer the Klingon? Would you give the Klingon the same answer you gave Hateful Craig? Would you tell him that you just don't mean the same things when you say "morality" and that, therefore, discussion is pointless?

Also, consider this reasoning:

"My innate aesthetic sense judges this painting to be beautiful. Therefore, this painting is beautiful." Is that valid? Is that fundamentally different reasoning than most people use to decide what they believe to be moral?

Matt M said...

I agree with eenauk.

I read the Pinker article as purely descriptive - he's arguing that moral instincts exist, not that they should be considered valid.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

eenauk

You are going to have to explain to me what the difference is.

The idea that we have a 'moral instinct' that is responsible for right and wrong is the idea that, if our instinct says X is wrong, then X is wrong.

One could argue that there is an 'X is wrong' that is independent of our instinct, and our 'instinct' is like a moral sense-organ that identifies this external morality. However, this requires a theory of 'X is wrong' that is, in fact, independent of our 'moral instinct'. It requires something in the world called 'moral rightness' and 'moral wrongness' and a way of transmitting that information into the brain to be sensed. The article does not even hint at the possiblity of such an external moral entity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

You have a Klingon that beieves that eating with one's left hand is wrong.

What is it that he believes? What does "eating with one's left hand is wrong" mean?

If somebody believes that tigers are a member of the cat family, I can give you an account of what the proposition, "tigers are a member of the cat family" means and, from that, determine if it is true or false. From that, I can determine whether the person who believes that tigers are a member of the cat family is right or wrong.

More technically, a 'belief that P' is a propositional attitude - an attitude that the proposition 'P' is true. So, a Klingon who has a belief that P, where P = "Eating with the left hand is wrong" holds that he proposition, "Eating with the left hand is wrong" is true. What does this sentence mean, and what are the conditions under which it is true?

Or, back to the question, what is it that the Klingon who believes that eating with the left hand is wrong - what does this Klingon actually believe?

The assertion is not "My innate morality wants you dead; therefore, you deserve to die" but rather "My innate morality wants you dead; therefore, I will argue that you deserve to die."

On what basis are you going to make that argument. What set of propositions are you going to offer me that actually do imply "you deserve to die"? Are you saying that the proposition, "You deserve to die," can be argued for (and proved to be) true independent of an appeal to moral instinct? If so, what is that argument? More importantly, what (according to Pinker's NYT article) make something wrong in fact? Does he even offer any? If he did, then I did not see it.

Consider the following argument a Klingon might offer: We define our morality as an axiomatic system...

I don't care how you 'define your morality'. If we are talking about defining morality than we are talking about language, not planet.

This is like an astronomer coming along and saying, "I define a planet to be anything that is round in virtue of its own gravity. You define a planet that is anything that is round in virtue of its own gravity that has swept away all competing bodies in its orbit." These astronomers are not doing astronomy any more. They are simply talking about language. They are not talking about planets. They are talking about the word 'planet'.

It is a mistake to argue, 'X is true of the word 'planet'; therefore, X is true of planets." For example, 'Planet' has six letters. No planet has six letters. Planets are spherical. The word 'planet' is not spherical.

The same thing is true about claims of how we define 'morality', and claims about morality. We must take care to distinguish between what we say about a word, and what we say about objects in the world - and not to infer that what is true of a word is true of things in the world.

Now, an axiomatic system of morality is a system of 'let's pretend' - a system of making things up and pretending that they are true.

If, 'Eating with one's left hand' is not true, then it is false. If it is true within an 'axiomatic system of morality' whose principles are arbitrary, then it is true in the same way that 'Santa Claus lives at the north pole' is true. To live one's life as if a make-believe proposition is true in the world is to live a lie. Are these Klingons living a lie, or can they show that 'eating with one's left hand' is wrong in fact?

Also, consider the reasoning: "My innate aesthetic sense judges this painting to be beautiful. Therefore, this painting is beautiful." Is that valid? Is that fundamentally different reasoning than most people use to decide what they believe to be moral?

I'm going to ask the same question. What does, "The painting is beautiful" mean?

If it means, "My direct experience of the painting causes in me sensations S1, S2, S3, . . . Sn," then we have a proposition that can be objectively true. However, it would be a mistake to make any inference from the statement, "X is beautiful" that cannot also be inferred from the proposition, "My direct experience of X causes these sensations."

But, then, from the experience of a painting one does not infer propositions like, "Those people deserve to die?"

If moral sense is like aesthetic sense as you describe it, then the inference, "Those people deserve to be harmed" does not follow from it. Yet, it is said to follow from a 'moral sense', so what does a 'moral sense' consist of that it can justify this type of inference?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Matt M

Explain to me what it means to say that 'moral instincts exist'?

The proposition "moral instincts exist" is purely descriptive.

However, it is describing an entity which, in turn, is a prescriptive entity.

How can such a prescriptive entity be real? How can an 'instinct' that prescribes harming others actually make it the case that others deserve to be harmed?

Matt M said...

As I read it, Pinker's idea of a "moral instinct" seems to be this:

When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture.


Which would seem to be a set of - fairly universal - preferences upon which we tend to build moral rules.

How can an 'instinct' that prescribes harming others actually make it the case that others deserve to be harmed?

I don't think that it does.

The type of thing that Pinker is describing would explain why people believe that certain things are wrong, but provide no reason for other people to accept these beliefs as valid.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Matt M.

People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters.

There was a time in which a person could reasonably assert that, "people everywhere, at least in some circunstances, believe that supernatural entities exist." Many people at the time held that this was proof of a 'divine instinct' - an awareness of God that is built into the brain. They still argue that this sense of God exists - that even atheists have it - but that atheists simply deny that what they are sensing is 'the divine'.

These types of arguments carry no ontological weight.

What we have to do is look at what 'it's bad to harm others and good to help them' means and then, once a meaning is assigned, ask whether it is true.

An 'instinct' to hold that a proposition is true simply does not imply that the proposition is true. That is a wholly invalid leap of logic - a leap of faith, if you will.

Now, I hold that the 'instinct' to hold that one should reward benefactors and punish cheaters is actually no different than the 'instict' to hold that circles are round and bachelors are unmarried. Morality is the institution of rewards and punishments.

What is a cheater? A cheater is by definition one that there are reasons to punish in the same way that circles are, by definition, things that are round. The real moral question has never been 'should cheaters be punished' but 'what types of behavior count as cheating?' which is the same as 'What type of people deserve to be punished?'

The same is true about helping and harming others. What is 'harm'? What are the criteria for determinng whether the proposition, "A has harmed others?" is true or false. It follows by definition that if A harms others, then others have reason to prevent A's action. This is not a matter of 'instinct'. This is a matter of it being true by definition that 'harm' is that which people harmed have reason to prevent.

The type of thing that Pinker is describing would explain why people believe that certain things are wrong, but provide no reason for other people to accept these beliefs as valid.

So, what Pinker is describing is, in fact, invalid reasoning in support of a desire to do harm to others. Which means that he is not discussing morality at all. He is discussing a sham imitation of morality, but something that ultimately does not work, because it does not, in fact, justify doing harm to others.

If that is what he is saying, then I agree with him. Yet, his article seems quite clearly to indicate that he is thinks he is writing about morality, not a sham pseudo-morality.

Miguel Picanco said...

Here's the problem: There are entire scientific fields that are dedicated to morality in the sense that Pinker is describing.

If you're going to convince anyone that their sense of morality is actually pseudo-morality, I think you will have to do much more than philosophically wag a finger at them. Where do their scientific claims improperly leap the is-ought gap?

Given the nature of the other commenters, I almost wonder if they simply leave all the leaping to their readers. They don't tell you they're doing ethics - only that they're performing research on the factors of ethics. It's completely up to you whether or not you use their research to justify your actions.

It's almost like selling herbal remedies that merely suggest general benefits - or merely describing what god prefers you to do and leave it up to you to connect the dots.

Again, these are bold assertions against entire fields of supported science research. Can you think of any experimental studies that could lend weight to your complaints?

Miguel Picanco said...

Looks like the NYT had already published something somewhat along those lines just this past December:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/magazine/09wwln-idealab-t.html

"You might have supposed that whether we judge an action to be (say) blameworthy depends on whether we think it was intentional, and the nature of intentional action is something philosophers have had plenty to say about. But the so-called Knobe effect suggests that — oddly enough — it may not be clear to us whether an action is intentional until we’ve decided whether it’s good or bad."

martino said...

This article seems to be a summary of work mostly popularized by Haidt and Hauser. You will be reviewing Haidt shortly so lets (try and) leave him out of this.

Hauser's works is to show that there is a Rawlsian creature with moral intuitions distinct from a Kantian rationalist and and Humean emotivist (Haidt makes no such distinction - Hauser's intuitionism is Humean as far as Haidt is concerned). In particular he is look for a moral "grammar" module akin to a language grammar module. Pinker seems to be jumping on the bandwagon and calling it a "moral instinct" akin to his language instinct - work which Hauser draws from. A vicious or a virtuous circle? :-)

As a summary it has omitted some key points, the fundamental one being the distinct and main evidence for a moral instinct or grammar - a la a language instinct - being the principle of double effect which is claimed has a purely moral function and is innate - due to poverty of the stimulus - and one which people know intuitively but most are unable to verbalize. (Double effect being the difference between sacrificing a person - as means not an end - directly and so intentionally for serving a "greater good", versus
sacrificing a person indirectly as a foreseen side effect for serving "a greater good"). At this stage I am unconvinced of this argument (that this indites that there is a moral instinct). I would be interested to know the DU approach to "double effect" regardless of the key omitted argument in this article.

Another key point not really emphasized there was the fact that one's moral responses to these experiments is independent of one religious moral education. This is surely an important clue in deciding what are socially malleable desires which is key to DU? So surely you would be interested here in what the experiments can tell you are socially malleable forces? Indeed reviewing the experiments listed in Haidt's or Hauser's books within a
DU framework as opposed to theirs would be very illuminating I think for all of us.

Whilst the points you make are also correct - that none of this about what people should do - to dismiss all this work as sham-morality is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you, correctly, argue that morality is about socially malleable desires then all this is data to improve how you apply DU. Now why would you avoid doing this?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

martino

My claim that this research is not the study of morality is not the same as the claim that this research is not useful or that it does not have value.

Indeed, I agree that it can provide information that is quite useful in determining moral truths - but only if it is used correctly.

The 'moral instinct' claim that I am arguing against invites a false inference - 'I view X as being immoral; therefore, X is immoral."

This is especially true since these researchers tend to find the moral strength to be strongest where justification is the most lacking. It is exactly where we can't provide justification for our actions that these researchers want to throw in a 'moral sense' - a kind of a 'god of the gaps' hypothesis for morality.

Anonymous said...

for me Pinker's article just rang true in terms of personal experience: there is a whole nuther mindset that kicks in when an issue is cast in a certain light - let me call it "outrage" rather than "morality," to remove any connotation of any larger legitimacy than personal passion.

(this word 'morality' seems to provoke an outrage i sense behind the grippy logical outpourings here on atheistethicist... methinks protest amuch) Pax

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous

I am not denying that the article accurately describes what many people actually do. I am denying that the fact that this is an accurate description of what people are doing implies that they are justified in doing so.

Every rape, murder, and robbery has an accurate description of what the rapist, murderer, and robber did. However, the existence of an accurate description does not imply that no moral crime was committed.

The inferences that the article describes are rationalizations - false premises and invalid inferences that people embrace because it allows them to do harm to others without feeling guilty. The claim that it is moral (that it is 'morality') to invent fictions to justify doing harm to others absurd.