Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Experience of Ought

A member of the studio audience objected to my statement,

We cannot even argue that evolution, over time, would favor desires that contribute to well-being and shun desires that avoid well-being.

Before I look at the specifics of that objection I would like to state why I wrote it.

Evolution is concerned with only one thing - genetic replication. Even here, saying that evolution is "concerned" with something is misleading. The phrase presupposes that evolution is an entity with its own desires - its own concerns. This, of course, is false. Evolution has no concerns. It is a blind force. It replicates certain qualities in a given environment, and drives others to extinction.

The reason that evolution does not necessarily favor desires that contribute to well-being is because well-being is not identical to genetic replication. Evolution favors desires that lead to the genetic replication of the individual. If we also want to say that evolution favors desires that contribute to the well-being of the individual, then we have to equate the well-being of the individual with its genetic replication. We have to define well-being in such a way that only a being engaging in successful genetic replication is well-off, and any being that is not engaged in successful genetic replication is not-so-well off by definition.

If you wish to measure your neighbor's well-being, then you need to measure his success at genetic replication.

On this measure, we would come to the conclusion that the people in many of the most impoverished nations of the world, where disease and poverty are rampant, are better off than those who are living and working in the more developed countries.

Why is this?

Because populations are expanding faster in impoverished countries. Their descendents are making up a larger and larger percentage of the overall population, while the population of more developed regions are holding same or in decline (except insofar as they are fed by immigration from the poorer countries, which is consistent with the overall conclusion).

This would, at best, be an odd account of well-being.

Now, the member of the studio audience wrote:

[B]iologically defined moral emotions like empathy, kin altruism, guilt, righteous indignation, and willingness to risk injury and death to defend family and friends exist, as you mention, because they increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors.

I have a question.

On what basis do you choose these qualities as "moral emotions" and not, for example, the aversion to homosexuality, a disposition to rape, or racist and tribal instincts?

What quality is it that distinguishes righteous indignation from other kinds? What makes kin altruism 'moral' rather than a form of prejudice in the same way that race altruism is considered immoral? Why is empathy moral, and selfishness immoral?

Why is it the case that, in listing our moral emotions, you did not include the general disgust with respect to homosexuality, rape, and, and tribalism or racism?

These qualities also have an evolutionary story behind them. The very same evolutionary story that explains how some of us acquired a sense of guilt or shame and feelings of empathy also hs to explain why some people also morally object to homosexuality, engage in rape, or favor 'those who look like me' over 'those who do not look like me'.

So, by what criteria do we distinguish the 'moral' qualities from the 'immoral' qualities.

This is the question that a moral theory has to answer. Yet, this is exactly the question that those who try to link morality with evolution jumps right over.

When I hear these types of claims, I am often reminded of a Steve Martin comedy routine in which he tells his audience, "You can make a million dollars and never pay taxes."

The punch line to the joke is, "First, get yourself a million dollars. Now, when the tax man comes..."

Whoa, Steve, how do I make a million dollars. You said you would tell me how I could make a million dollars and never pay taxes. You skipped over the part where you tell me how I can make a million dollars.

In the same way, I have to say, "How do we tell the difference between moral emotions and immoral emotions? Before you start labeling things 'moral' and 'immoral' you need to tell me what the difference are, and why some of these qualities warrant the label and others do not."

The answer may well be that we are simply in the habit of calling some qualities moral and others immoral.

That's not good enough. We were once in the habit of thinking that the Earth was the center of the universe, that the Earth was flat, and that some consequences can be attributed to a God. That we are in a particular habit does not justify anything.

So, before you start telling me about moral emotions, please give me a theory of morality that justifies the labels that you are attaching to things.

Our pre-cultural ancestors were not motivated by rational thought to act on their moral emotions as listed above. They were motivated by neurotransmitters and hormones which automatically triggered the characteristic unselfishness associated with each behavior. Their experience of ‘oughts’ was fully internal and automatic.

Here, again, what justifies your claim that this is an 'experience of oughts'. We eat, we drink, we seek and obtain sex, we even care for our young as a result of these neurotransmitters and hormones as you say. However, none of this counts as an 'experience of ought'.

I do not eat the raised donut sitting in the kitchen at work because I have an 'experience of ought-to-eat-the-donut'. I like to eat donuts, so I eat them.

I do not flinch at the thought of putting my hand in a bed of hot coals because I have an 'experience of ought-not-to-put-hands-in-hot-coalness'. My aversion to pain is sufficient.

I am not denying the subjective experience that one is pointing to in talking about an "experience of ought." However, calling it an "experience of ought" requires a huge leap. It may well be the case (and I would argue that it is the case) that this "experience of ought" is much like the "experience of God" that some people report. The experience is genuine, but you need to do a lot of work to justify your assertion that you are experiencing "oughts" or "God".

How do you know that what you are experiencing is an 'ought'? What is an 'ought', and how do 'oughts' emit qualities that can be experienced? We know how our eyes and ears work. We know how our tongues and noses sense chemicals in what we eat or smell. Tell me how this ought-sensor works, and how we are to determine when it is functioning correctly as opposed to when it is detecting ought-illusions?

I deny that we have any kind of ought-sensor, or that we ever have an experience of ought. We have likes and dislikes - that is all. Some of these likes and dislikes are culturally learned. Some of them area associated with guilt and shame. Yet, all of this is possible without making the leap that any of this is involved in an "experience of ought".

Another relevant point to bring up against this "experience of ought" is that a great many people have claimed to have such an experience on things where the presence of an ought is questionable. Many of those who opposes homosexuality, like those who opposed interracial marriage, claim to do so on the basis of ought-experiences. Many religious practices are also accompanied by a claimed "experience of ought" associated with whatever one's interpretation of scripture is thought to demand.

Perhaps these are not genuine "experiences of ought" at all.

Also, if there is an experience of ought, we would have to ask where this experience was at when whole societies thought nothing of slavery, or of denying women a right to vote or any say at all in governmental affairs. How did an "experience of ought" that did not seem to exist at all in some parts of the country in one generation, be so wide-spread in that same society just two or three generations later?

The only thing we actually experience are our own likes and dislikes. Of course, we have an incentive to conceive of them as an experience of oughts. This gives them a special right – a special command that they be fulfilled and a special authority to demand that others act so as to see that they are fulfilled. It is the same thing that happens when people assign their prejudices to God. “It’s not me who hates homosexuals, it’s God. If you have a problem with it, take it up with God.” Or, if one does not want to postulate a God, one can still postulate an ‘experience of oughts’.

Another thing that these two forms of arguments have in common is that they both appeal to entities or powers of perception that do not exist.


rvkevin said...

"Evolution favors desires that lead to the genetic replication of the individual."

I'm not convinced this is true. Evolution deals with the propagation of species, not individuals. Imagine a species whose one and only desire was reproduction. The species would not continue to exist very long when the next generation becomes victim to predation. For this reason, other moral values are necessarily selected for, such as taking care of young, protecting the group, etc.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am aware of a dispute among evolutionary biologists as to whether group selection is possible. The dominant view has been that it is not, though a small handfull still defend the idea.

Still, it is irrelevant to the points being made here. All of the arguments I made above are just as relevant.

It may well be the case that there is an evolutionary story to tell behind taking care of young and protecting the group. Yet, there is still an evolutionary story to tell about hostility towards other troops, racism, sexism, rape, and genocide.

rvkevin said...

My objection is not dependent on group selection (genetics). Group selection could be impossible and there could still be behaviors (memes or "morals") that help propagate species and therefore species that have those adapted behaviors are more likely to propagate (be selected). So the question becomes, is rape, murder, racism, etc. adaptive at the group or species level? You seem to be suggesting that they are, and this is the point that I am questioning.

In the first hit when I search "coyne rape": "A theory that rape has its origin in evolutionary biology is seriously flawed." and "The evidence that rape is a specific adaptation is weak at best. In keeping with the traditions established early in the evolution of sociobiology, Thornhill and Palmer's evidence comes down to a series of untestable "just-so" stories."-Jerry Coyne

There seems to be a dispute on that topic as well. Ultimately, stories are nice, but they are not evidence or substitutes for evidence; they have to actually correspond with reality for them to have any weight.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


So the question becomes, is rape, murder, racism, etc. adaptive at the group or species level?

Really? This is the question?

Judgements as to whether it would be permissible to torture you are going to be made identical to judgments as to whether or not torturing you would be adaptive at the group or species level?

How is it that being adaptive at the group or species level acquired the property of being "the question"?

EH said...

Very well done. I'm a moral nihilist, but I have no issues living as if objective morals exist. I still make judgments on other people and I still see to it that my self-interest is sought. This includes the well-being of others.

Now, the problem I think posed to moral nihilists is, "well, why ought you make judgments on other people?" The biggest issue here is that you are presupposing that I ought to be objectively correct before making a judgment on another! So, moral nihilism doesn't entail shrugging your shoulders and saying, "what Hitler did was fine and I don't care about it."

"Morals" are just preferences, only with an increase of importance because it involves other individuals. I agree with humanist ideas, just not in any objective sense.

rvkevin said...

It would be the criteria under an evolutionary view of morality of what is and is not acceptable.

"What quality is it that distinguishes righteous indignation from other kinds? What makes kin altruism 'moral' rather than a form of prejudice in the same way that race altruism is considered immoral? Why is empathy moral, and selfishness immoral?"

So, the question becomes, is rape, murder, racism, etc. adaptive at the group or species level? You seem to be suggesting that they are, and this is the point that I am questioning.