Saturday, October 31, 2009

Evolution's Morality

Yesterday, I discussed some issues that I had with the concept of "God's Morality,"

Today, I want to talk about some of the same types of problems that exist in a different set of moral theories - those theories that, instead of speaking about God's Morality, speak instead about Evolution's Morality.

Both theories have pretty much the same problems.

A member of the studio audience pointed me to a posting in Pharyngula on this topic.

(See: Pharyngula: Marc hauser - Where Do Morals Come From?)

One of the themes was how people resolve moral dilemmas. He began with a real world example, the story of an overweight woman in South Africa who insisted on joining a tour exploring a cave, and got stuck in the exit tunnel, trapping 22 people behind her. Do you sacrifice one to save many?

Morality has nothing to do with bizarre never-in-a-lifetime-for-the-vast-majority-of-people situations such as these. Morality is designed to deal with the countless everyday encounters between everyday people. They have to do with the lie told a boss to get out of work, the effort to push a stuck neighbor's car out of his driveway on a snowy winter morning, and the decision to return the power tool you had borrowed before moving across country rather than take it with you (though it is a real nice power tool).

We do not design morality to deal with situations in which overweight women get stuck in caves, (or runaway trolly cars threaten to run over people) simply because these are not everyday situations. It would be a waste of effort to mold people's desires so that they act a particular way in these types of situations - particularly since molding a person's desires will also have effects in countless every-day situations as well.

These types of situations may be interesting objects of study if one is curious about how the brain works, but they are not interesting to the study of morality.

Here is one of those way-off-base assumptions that I was talking about.

Imagine a group of people calling themselves 'astronomers'. What they do is they take a group of people and hook them up to machines and asking them questions about planets, asteroids, black holes and dark energy. They declare that one of the most interesting astronomical questions to study is the age of the earth. So, they focus specifically on these questions. They delight in studying the differences between the answers that creationists and scientists give to these questions, and noting what parts of the brain seem to be activated as each group thinks about the process. They note all sorts of interesting regularities and patterns as they think about these questions.

All the while, they claim that they are astronomers, and what they are studying is the age of the earth.

In fact, they are mistaken. They are not astronomers, they are brain scientists. And what they are studying is not 'the age of the earth' but 'thoughts about the age of the earth'.

And it is an absurdity to insist that these are the same thing.

In the realm of astronomy, people seem to be able to tell the difference.

In the realm of morality, a lot of have blinded themselves to this absurdity.

Another absurdity is the idea that when one studies trolley problems or anything similar, that this involves the study of morality at all. These are areas so far out on the fringe of morality that it is possible to argue that they are not within the realm of morality at all.

These are cases where people have a habit of applying moral concepts in a realm where moral concepts do not apply. They are like trying to talk about sunrise and sunset from the point of view of the sun itself.

Morality is an institution created to handle the countless interactions people engage in every day. It is not meant to deal with bizarre situations that very few of us will ever encounter. I have countless opportunities each day to walk off with property that does not belong to me, to lie for personal advantage, or to be lazy and disregard the harmful actions that my actions may cause to others. Others have countless reasons to instill in me an aversion to walking off with their property, to lie, and to disregard the harmful side effects of my actions.

When you take this system and apply them to bizarre virtually-never-in-a-human-lifetime scenarios, you find that they give no clear answer. They were not meant to give a clear answer these types of situations. It is a waste of effort to mold morality to create clear answers in these situations. It is hard enough to mold morality to fit our countless day-to-day interactions.

One of the questions that I would like to ask these researchers is, "So, according to your research, is the proposition, 'Homosexual acts are immoral' true or false?"

This is how we tell the person who is studying thoughts about the age of the earth from those who are actually studying the age of the earth. The person studying thoughts about the age of the earth does not give us any data about the age of the earth - any data at all that answers the question, "So, according to your research, is the proposition, 'The earth is 6,000 years old' true or false?"

They can't help us precisely because they are not studying the age of the earth.

And Marc Hauser and his ilk are not telling us anything about where morals come from. We can't answer that question unless we study morality itself, and we are not studying morality if, what we are studying instead, are thoughts about morality.

I am not saying that they cannot provide useful scientific data. There can collect scientific data by the bucket full. This is genuine scientific data - and the people who conduct the research are doing genuine science. They are not studying morality, but they are still doing science. This is true in the same way our people studying astronomers and creationists concerning the age of the earth are not studying the age of the earth, but they are still doing science.

You are not studying the age of the earth unless you are studying something . . . anything . . . that tells us whether the age of the Earth is 6,000 years old or not. You are not studying morality of homosexuality, for example, unless you are studying something . . . anything . . . that tells us whether homosexual acts are immoral or not. If all you can tell us is that some people judge it to be immoral and others do not - and how their brains differ, then you have given us something that is no different than the person who can tell us that some people judge the Earth to be 6,000 years old and others do not, and how their brains differ.

One of the things that I find easy to imagine is an astromer, who has put a great deal of effort into the study of planets and stars, reading about research being done by so-called 'astronomers' who study brain waves of people who are asked questions about stars, galaxies, and the age of the Earth. He reads about a swarm of people who study this stuff and who insist that they are doing astronomy and that they are discovering astronomical truths. I can imagine him rolling his eyes, as I roll mine, and saying in exasperation, "What in the heck do you think you're doing over there?"

14 comments:

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

"If all you can tell us is that some people judge it to be immoral and others do not - and how their brains differ, then you have given us something that is no different than the person who can tell us that some people judge the Earth to be 6,000 years old and others do not, and how their brains differ."

I think your DU theory predicts that you are somewhat wrong about this, and there is an important distinction here, even if we are left with an albeit fuzzy picture.

Morality happens in our heads and the age of the earth does not.

And our acquired experience as what we might call "natural desire utilitarians" can be an indicator of what might actually be moral, but not tell us what the age of the universe is. Evolutionary success may well have depended on our ability to coordinate our desires efficiently enough into a coherent and functional output, but there's no reason at all to assume it would select for people who could sense radioactive decay or gauge how much original parent elements there were or what the subsequent parent daughter ratios currently are. So your analogy fails for a very obvious reason.

Let me elaborate a little bit:

DU is supposed to have the most credibility because it actually maps out onto real things in the human world. That's a cardinal virtue, right? Well incidentally, it appears that if DU is correct, then not only would it be a prescriptive theory, but it would also be descriptive. Meaning it would also incidentally describe for us what humans as "natural desire utilitarians" are doing with themselves when they are trying to sort out their desires whether they understand what it is that they are doing or not. And we should expect that there should be at least some correlation between a human's natural ability to discern what is right and wrong and what a more rigorously analyzed and defensible moral theory would entail. Doesn't mean people are always good at it, but I don't think you can hope to keep a squeaky clean distinction there. And you are going to lose some common sense ground when you try to over separate. I certainly don't consider this a reason to disown superior reasoning when someone has a gut feeling, but I do think we need to recognize that people do have natural DU abilities and we should expect them to. If they didn't our species probably wouldn't even be capable of producing a moral philosopher such as yourself. ;)

BTW, wasn't this post supposed to be about evolution's morality? You seem to have spent most of your post calling attention to the inane fixation on extreme circumstances. Just curious.

Ben

faithlessgod said...

Hi Ben

""Morality happens in our heads and the age of the earth does not."

No this is quite mistaken. Morality does not happen in our heads. Morality is a social institution whose functioning has material affects on society's constituents - us. Ethics is the study and evaluation of such social institutions.

As part of this, how we think about morality and how the social forces affects our thinking is part of the domain of ethics. Within that context to think that "morality is in the head "is the type of mistake that can be identified as a mistake within ethics and the implications of such mistakes can also be ethically examined and evaluated.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

"No this is quite mistaken. Morality does not happen in our heads."

Morality is the maintenance of our values and whatever external actions are associated with those internal relations are rather incidental.

I can only hope you are joking since even you bring it back to *us.* That "social" institution...made up of people. With heads. With desires. I mean, seriously. You think there's a lot of morality going on without any people heads, do you? Yeah, I don't think so. On the other hand the earth keeps having birthdays regardless.

Although, who knows. Maybe you live in bizarro world where "desire utilitarianism" goes on entirely without the aide of your brain. :p

Ben

faithlessgod said...

Ben

"Morality is the maintenance of our values and whatever external actions are associated with those internal relations are rather incidental.
"
Anyone is free to define any term however they wish, but in order to facilitate communication a common language and usage is preferable.

So you, unlike pretty much anyone who is concerned over moral issues, is not concerned with those moral issues, that is with the voluntary actions and the resultant material effects these actions have. To you this is merely "incidental".

Well if you wish to mislead others in debating moral issues, I am not interested. You certainly now know full well what myself, Alonzo, Luke and others are talking about - the real world.

The rest of your "argument" does not warrant further examination, except for other readers to note that as it is quite clear that desirism is based on... the existence of desires and that denying that "morality is in the head" is quite consistent with this approach. (Since it examines real-world relations between desires and state of affairs - these relations are, trivially, not in the head).

Eneasz said...

Hi War. I think what Alonzo was saying is that when people say "We were evolved to feel that X is moral, and so it must be moral" they are wrong.

As you point out, we come pre-packaged with a number of desires, which is what morality is about. These desires were sufficiently moral to ensure the propagation of the species. However the argument that since evolution gave us these desires they are automatically morally good is false. They were sufficient for survival in the ancestral environment, which is not the same thing.

Ethics isn't about the maintenance of these values, per-se. It's about evaluating these values, strengthening the good ones, and weakening or replacing the bad ones. There are many desires bred into us via evolution that are simply morally bad.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

WAR_ON_ERROR

Morality does not 'happen in our heads'. Thoughts about morality happens in our heads- just as thoughts about planets happens in our heads.

But, let us take another example.

Strokes happen in our heads.

However, we would not study strokes by putting people into brain scans and asking them to think about strokes - and studying what happens as they think about the subject. Here, too, there is a distinction between studying thoughts about strokes and studying strokes.

Eneasz is correct. I object to the inference, "If we evolved to feel that X is moral, and so it must be moral."

In fact, I also object to, "We evolved to feel that X is moral."

If I evolved to feel that the earth is flat, does this mean that "the earth is flat" is true? These are two separate questions. However, the evolutionary ethicist conflates them. He studies whether or not we 'evolved to feel that X is true' but he is completely ignoring the question of whether X is, in fact, true.

faithlessgod said...

Eneasz

Why dont you blog?

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

fg,

"So you, unlike pretty much anyone who is concerned over moral issues, is not concerned with those moral issues, that is with the voluntary actions and the resultant material effects these actions have. To you this is merely 'incidental'."

In general, who cares about material effects unless the proverbial buck returns back again to the head where our concerns and satisfaction are? Since I'm not denying the importance of the relationships our desires have with our environment, and am only emphasizing what is obviously the most relevant aspect to "morality" there's not enough meaningful disagreement here to continue on this point, imo.

I would have thought you'd be with me on my main argument given our discussions on your blog in the past, but perhaps I misapprehended what you had said. Or have you maybe changed your mind since then?

Eneasz,

"However the argument that since evolution gave us these desires they are automatically morally good is false."

I agree and that's why I've tempered my language all along. I wasn't ever advocating that argument in a strict and uncritical sense. But to *completely* disown the mental calibration evolution has begotten in us is foolish, imo. If evolution didn't get us in the ballpark of morality (i.e. make us natural desire utilitarians), moral theorizing by amoral agents isn't going to be fruitful (from nothing nothing comes). So it's not meant to be a seal of approval on everything evolution does, but it is meant to be a recognition of its necessary contribution to the cause.

Alonzo,

"Strokes happen in our heads."

True. So what? It doesn't seem like you are engaging any of the substance of what I've said as though I honestly believed that anything that happens within the volume of a human cranium is by definition morality.

Are you saying desires don't happen in our heads or that they aren't the main players that make our moral reasoning meaningful? You know what your moral theory is called, right? :p

Why do we care about moral questions? Why do we even have a category called morality? Why do we discover human beings participating in these behaviors? Why does the brain generate a reaction people refer to as a "conscience." If evolution isn't the answer to these questions, perhaps you guys are really all creationists? :D These considerations have to be a well integrated part of our moral understanding or we are seriously handicapping ourselves in terms of explaining the human moral condition.

I don't see how what I've said here inhibits in any way the primary moral structure of any of your arguments on your blog. It's more about understanding than application.

Ben

faithlessgod said...

Ben

"In general, who cares about material effects unless the proverbial buck returns back again to the head where our concerns and satisfaction are?"
You might not but I do. When considering what moral facts could possibly mean the scope is everyone, not just you (or me). That is part and parcel of moral evaluations (even as many have abused them, deliberately or otherwise).

If you think it does not matter, or is merely incidental, as to whether and how anyone is materially affected by voluntary actions, then you are not addressing the moral problem that motivates virtually everyone I have ever read or spoken to on such topics. If there were no physical effects due to voluntary and avoidable human interactions then there would be no problem of morality that anyone would bother with.

"...and am only emphasizing what is obviously the most relevant aspect to "morality"
Well it is not obvious to me, please could you provide an argument to make your position clear. How on earth can morality be in the head?

there's not enough meaningful disagreement here to continue on this point, imo."
I disagree

"I would have thought you'd be with me on my main argument given our discussions on your blog in the past, but perhaps I misapprehended what you had said. Or have you maybe changed your mind since then?"
As far as I know I have been quite consistent in this regard but if you can show otherwise I would be interested to see this.

For example in our discussion over Carrier versus Fyfe, I was siding with Fyfe. His is an relational theory versus Carrier's internal state theory and I am in the former camp. As I said happiness is either too narrow to serve as the grounds of morality or when broadened becomes too vacuous and fails again.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

fg,

"When considering what moral facts could possibly mean the scope is everyone, not just you (or me)."

You are correcting me, but I don't see the disagreement. Perhaps you aren't considering that you can convert your rhetoric into my rhetoric by noting the reason humans care about a broader scope of people is because of an individual's altruistic desires to.

"As far as I know I have been quite consistent in this regard but if you can show otherwise I would be interested to see this."

Perhaps we are talking about two different things, but you said in that post:

"Of course I do not ask this of people in general, since I have always argued that if one needs to understand moral philosophy to be moral we are all in a lot of trouble."

And you said:

"4. Ben: 'The reality that we are all naturally desire economists with at least some expertise on the topic (despite our errors) has been there the whole time'

fg: Yes, part for the test for any prescriptive theory is how well it descriptively explains what people already and this is one of the appeals for desirism, since it explains more with less than other descriptive or prescriptive theories."


I'm assuming that maybe you think something else is my "main argument" in this comment section? Sorry for the confusion.

"His is an relational theory versus Carrier's internal state theory and I am in the former camp."

Internal states are dependent to the extent that they are on whatever relations they happen to be about. So again, it's just a matter of converting the rhetoric and I don't see a meaningful disagreement between Carrier and Fyfe either.

Ben

Eneasz said...

Alonzo - I'm sorry for the off-topic post.

Faithless God - I'm really not sure. I get a lot of feedback I seek via the comments sections of other blogs, and via facebook. I have toyed with the idea of blogging now and then, it's kinda resurfaced recently. Do you think I should? I dunno... I think I fear not having anyone give a damn.

faithlessgod said...

Eneasz

I think myself, (and I am guessing that) Alonzo and Luke would welcome others, such as yourself, to present and expose desirism to further exposure and scrutiny. Of course there may be other topics you wish to blog about and I would be interested in what those might be.(The same goes for Kip btw).

I note that often your precision and attitude are far better than mine on this topic, as this comment thread alone indicates.

Ben

I do not see your quotes as challenging what I think is my consistency here. However to pursue this further really would be off topic in this comment thread. With all due respect, the rest is not relevant in this thread either.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

eneasz and faithlessgod

My interest in other people blogging about desire utilitarianism (assuming they think it has merit) is that I do not wish to see it treated as a religion with a prophet, but as an idea to be discussed and debated.

This is not a matter of giving it more exposure in the sense of preaching it to the unconverted.

It's a matter of saying, "I think this is a good idea. What does it have to say about that issue over there? Or what are the implications of this research over here?"

Or, better yet, "It's not a bad idea. However, in spite of Alonzo's blindness to this problem, it IS a problem and here is how the theory can be changed to handle that problem."

faithlessgod said...

Alonzo

...which is why I used the word "scrutiny" as well as "exposure".