Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Morality and Questions Belonging to Science

Tracking visits to my blog back to their origin, I often find things that cause me a bit of . . . well . . . frustration?

Baggini vs Krauss on Science, Philosophy, and Morality

In concerns the question of whether all answerable questions belong to science or whether some questions - exemplified in this case by moral questions - belong to the realm of science.

In this field, among these people, it would seem that somebody would start weeding out the nonsense claims. Yet, I continue to find statements that would embarrass a student in Philosophy 121: Introduction to Ethics. If there is going to be progress made in this field, then those who dedicate themselves to talking about this subject need to make some minimal effort to clear out the junk so that the questions can focus on what remains.

On this dispute, I hold that (1) there is at least one question whose answer belongs to philosophy and not science, and (2) moral questions belong to science and not philosophy.

I hold that moral questions concern the acts that would fulfill desires - including those malleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires (and thus which people have reason to promote or inhibit through praise and condemnation). It is entirely an empirical question.

It is a DIFFICULT empirical question in many cases. However, questions that are difficult to answer (e.g., How many protons are there in a human body?) are not, by that fact alone, unscientific.

There are three speakers in this debate. Julian Baggini - the defender of philosophy; Lawrence Krauss - the defender of science; and Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True who wrote about the debate and injected his own comments.

From Coyne:

People's view of what is "moral" ultimately must rest on one or more of three things: an appeal to the consequences, an appeal to some authority (like Scripture), or some innate feeling instilled by our genes in combination with our environment (in other words, morality lies in our neurons).

Clearly, one must recognize a distinction between "People's view of what is 'moral'" from "What is moral" in the same way one must distinguish between "People's view of what is 'true'" from "What is true." The question, "What is true about people's beliefs about the origin of life?" is one question. The question, "What is true about the origin of life?" is a different question. There is a relation - an attempt at least on the part of some to match their beliefs to what is true. However, these are still two different subjects of investigation.

Yet, in morality, people often confuse them. They routinely study and investigate one, while writing as if they are studying and investigating the other. A person writing on this subject should start by being clear as to which question they are trying to answer. "Am I going to write about what is right and wrong? Or am I going to write about people's beliefs about right and wrong?"

As it turns out, I do not think that any of these three options accurately accounts for what is true about morality. They do not even exhaust the options of what people "must rest" or even do rest their opinions on. They represent three theories about the nature of morality. But they do not exhaust the possibilities.

You can have three theories about the origin of the moon (the co-formation theory, the capture theory, and the division theory) without exhausting all of the options available (the collision theory). If you fixate on the first three, declaring that it MUST be one of these three, you blind yourself to other options. Coyne does not present us a mutually exhaustive set. They do not even have the structure of a mutually exhaustive set (e.g., "A", "B", and "Not A or B"). Therefore, Coyne must be careful on his use of the word "must".

I hold that what people are doing when they make moral judgments is determining whether the desires that motivated an action are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit using social tools such as praise or condemnation. There is an element here of evaluating the action. However, this action is only one of many that a particular set of desires can motivate and counts only as one among many in calculating the merit of those desires.

Our feelings count. However, our feelings are as relevant to what is right and wrong as they are to what is true and false. There is a reason for this. Moral claims are capable of being true and false; therefore, basing moral claims on feeling is the same as basing claims about what is true and false on feelings. People have a habit of calling "true" what they want to be true - what they 'feel' is true, and false what they want to be false. However, this is considered a poor justification for a proposition to actually be true or false. The fact that it is commonly done does not make it right.

Here is a fourth thing that can matter in making moral judgments. Even if I am wrong about desirism, it is still a forth option - no worse than the scripture and divine revelation option and perhaps better. Why only three?

From Coyne:

In the end, then, it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine what is moral, simply by investigating the neurological and evolutionary bases of our value judgments.

This does not work.

This is comparable to saying that it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine the chemical structure of Pluto by investigating the neurological and evolutionary basis of those who have beliefs about Pluto.

One cound argue that our beliefs about what is right and wrong are different than our beliefs about Pluto. However, this is an assumption - an assumption that Coyne has not justified and which I hold to be false. Even if it is true, why are we assuming that this is the case without argument? In fact, if there were a burden of proof argument in play here, it would argue for taking claims about right and wrong to be like claims about Pluto as an original assumption. This assumption can be overridden by evidence that they are not alike. There is no such evidence.

Another way of reporting this distinction - and one that philosophers have known about since Hume in the 1700s - is that there is a distinction between the values we have, and the values we should have. It is a distinction repeated in G.E. Moore's criticism of John Stuart Mill - where Moore accuses Mill of failing to distinguish between what we desire and what we should desire - the latter being the concern of morality.

Coyne is providing us a biological account of what values we have. However, he is completely avoiding the question of "What values should we have?

This is what I mean when I write about clearing away the junk. I am not reporting a problem that I have discovered. I am reporting a mistaken inference that has been known in moral philosophy for over 200 years. It is as clear as the distinction between what we DO believe (something we answer by looking at the neurological and evolutionary basis for our beliefs) and what we SHOULD believe.

Krauss has a different view of what matters for morality. Speaking about homosexuality, Krauss wrote:

. . . scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".

Baggini counters this.

There have been claims, for example, that rape is both natural and has evolutionary advantages. But the people who made those claims were also at great pains to stress this did not make them right - efforts that critics sadly ignored. Similar claims have been made for infidelity. What science tells us about the naturalness of certain sexual behaviours informs ethical reflection, but does not determine its conclusions. We need to be clear on this.

Let us not forget that nature invented the predator and the parasite - the killer whale versus the seal cub, the lion that slaughters its step-children, the preying mantis that kills and eats her mate, and the tarantula hawk - a wasp that lays its young on living tarantulas, which the larvae eat from the inside out keeping the spider alive as long as possible.

However, Baggini's response does not handle the harm issue and sidesteps the proposal that, while rape may provide some evolutionary advantage, a visceral reaction to rape may do so as well. These are not mutually exclusive.

There is more that can be said about each of Krauss' criteria for morality.

To begin with, Krauss provides no criteria for something being innately wrong (whatever that means). All of his criteria are extrinsic to homosexuality - evolutionary impacts, harm, commonality among populations. None of these are properties that you can discover about homosexuality independent of its relationship to other things. They describe no innate properties.

Furthermore, none of these effects define morality.

Let us assume that some alien species comes along with an intent to wipe out the whole human race if one homosexual exists. Homosexuality, now, would have negative evolutionary impacts. That would make it wrong, right? Or, let us assume that a segment of the population wants to kill all homosexuals. Again, this would provide a negative evolutionary impact among those discovered to be homosxual. Would such an interest in killing all homosexuals be self-justifying?

On the issue of harm - punishment is harmful. Fines, imprisonment, and execution all deliver harms to other people. Yet, they are not wrong - or they are not wrong simply on that fact alone. A person opens a new store in the neighborhood driving a competitor out of business. That is a type of harm, but not one that identifies the act as immoral. Exposing a lie may bring harm to the liar (e.g., he loses his job). However, it is not wrong.

And there is commonality among populations. Does this imply that if there was only one homosexual in only one species, that this would constitute immorality? It appears to be the case that we are all the descendants of a single mitochondrial "Eve". Meaning, at one time, the qualities that this person had were unique. For several generations, they were rare - found nowhere else in nature. Were they immoral, up to the point where they became sufficiently common?

Let me repeat, I agree with Krauss that moral properties are subject to scientific investigation. However, Krauss is looking at the wrong set of facts. He is looking at evolved dispositions, rather than at the relationship between malleable desires that can be influenced by praise and condemnation and other desires.

More importantly, he is looking at facts that a moment's reflection should tell him do not work as a standard for morality.

Coyne wants to get rid of morality entirely and talk only about consequences since morality requires free will and free will does not exist.

Desirism, actually, does not require free will. It requires determinism. Desires cause actions and, in turn, some desires can be modified by environmental factors such as praise and condemnation. This deterministic ethics accounts for everything from excuses to mens rea to non-obligatory permissions to negligence and so on.

"Free will" entered into the debate as a mistake. People were looking at the fact that praise and condemnation are not reasonably applied where desires are not malleable or where malleable desires did not play a role in the outcome. Primative thinkers dreamed up the entity "free will" to account for these facts. We have been stuck with that mistake ever since.

Still, this dispute between Coyle and myself is a language dispute. If Coyne wants to eliminate moral terms and talk only about using social tools such as praise and condemnation to mold desires through their effect on the reward system so as to promote desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote and inhibit desires people have many and strong reasons to inhibit, he may do so. I find this option extremely awkward.

Furthermore, getting rid of morality not only requires getting rid of "right" and "wrong". It requires getting rid of all of those elements mentioned above and then some - excuses, apologies, obligation, non-obligatory permission, prohibition, just versus unjust law, mens rea, consent, and the like. It is a massive project that we have reason to avoid if we can. Because desirism provides an account of all of these practices in a determined world, eliminating morality is a project we can avoid.

Coyne writes, "But in the end, we aren't responsible for our actions in the way most people think, for they stem from aspects of our biology that we don't understand and can't control."

Perhaps, but we are not responsible for our actions the way most people think we are, but we are responsible for our actions in the way that our moral practices requires us to be, and that is what counts.

Finally, I want to address the overall question - whether all answerable questions belong to science, or whether there is room for philosophy.

I invite you to look at the question itself - the question "Do all answerable questions belong to science, or is there room for philosophy?"

THAT question does not belong to science. To hand that question to science would be to beg the question. It would require assuming the truth of the conclusion as one of the premises.

This implies that the question is an answerable question that belongs to philosophy, or it is not an answerable question. If it is the former, then Krauss is wrong. If it is the latter, then Krauss is wrong. Either way, Krauss is wrong.

More importantly, this answer - "It is either an answerable question that belongs to philosophy, or an unanswerable question" - is an answer provided by philosophy, not by science.

It is also the case that the answer, "Morality belongs in the realm of science," which I hold to be true, is a question whose answer belongs in the realm of philosophy - not to science.

So, yes, there are answerable questions that belong to philosophy and not to science. However, moral questions are not among them.


Anonymous said...

There is a guy who thinks he has atheism debunked


Anonymous said...

^ Don't feed the trolls.

Anonymous said...

I probably should be able to answer this myself - but how does desirism make the gap from 'desires that exist' to 'desires that ought to exist'? I understand that one has reason to encourage desires that tend to fulfill other desires, but isn't that just a subset of 'desires that exist'?

Justin said...

Good post, but you spelled Coyne as Koyne in a large number of places, perhaps you had Krauss on your mind?

Anonymous said...

I beg you to read the following paragraph carefully. If truth offends, I cannot help it. They are not my own words, but of a spiritual teacher in India who was known to have the highest moral standards. Please analyse it carefully.

«Pushed by their own selfish desires, people ("moral atheists") may act morally for some time, but when they think it over, they will eventually sin. They will say to themselves: "O my brother, don't stay away from sense pleasures. Enjoy sense pleasures as you like, as long as others do not know of them. Why not? I do not think the world will collapse because of them. There is no God, an all-seeing God who gives to us the results of our actions. What have you to fear? Just be a little careful, so no one will know. If they learn of it, then you will lose your good reputation, and perhaps the government or bad people will make trouble for you. If that happens neither you nor others will be happy." Know for certain that if the hearts of the preachers of atheistic morality were examined, these thoughts would be found.»

The point I'm trying to make: "If there is no God, there is no point in being moral." Whether God exists or not—that is a different thing. If you are an atheist and think my statement is absurd then please define the 2 words: sin and morality.

God is absolutely the basis for morality. If there is no established standard for morality by an absolute, unchanging authority there is no meaning to morality. Suppose you take admission in a reputed university, can you do whatever you want there? Aren't rules established by the university authorities? Similarly morality is "rules" established by God. The university rules may be relative and imperfect, but God's "rules" are absolute and perfect always because God is absolute and all-perfect. We may not be able to grasp the "mind of God". In short, what God says is right, is right and what God says is wrong, is wrong. Very easy for a theist! Can an atheist define what is right and wrong? It is so difficult for him. There is no sense in denying God. Take the origin of the universe for example. What happened before the so-called big bang? What is the origin of the big bang? An atheist generally accepts that the universe ultimately came from nothing, but refuses to believe that a human being, or an eye, or a wristwatch, or a leaf or a tissue or a living cell came out of nothing. Isn't that nonsense? Everything in the universe has a cause, including the universe. God is beyond the created universe and He created it. You may ask, "Who created God?" God is defined as the "Cause of all causes" in various ancient Vedic texts. The Vedas are authoritative because they themselves originated from God and were not creations of human beings. So by definition: God has no creator, He is the ultimate origin of everything else.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You have not read anything I wrote, I suspect.

Of course not. You already know the right answer - so why burden yourself with considering an alternative view. In this case, the view that people act on desires that, in part, other people cause them to have - and that other people have reason to cause them to have desires that tend to fulfill other desires.

If your post had addressed anything I wrote, then I could say that you considered what I wrote and provided reason to reject it. Instead, it's just spam - the text of somebody who thinks they do not need to understand what others say to declare that they are wrong.

Brian Forbes said...

Alonzo, your answer to two posts ago was emotional. You think he didn't read "anything" you wrote? I read about 5 posts and I have the same question. Maybe you can answer it. Maybe you'll recognize this. There's no basis whatsoever for this from your morality. If there is, don't just insult us, tell us what it is.
1 "Take care! Don't do your good deeds publicly, to be admired, because then you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. 2 When you give a gift to someone in need, don't shout about it as the hypocrites do -- blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I assure you, they have received all the reward they will ever get. 3 But when you give to someone, don't tell your left hand what your right hand is doing. 4 Give your gifts in secret, and your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you. 5 "And now about prayer. When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I assure you, that is all the reward they will ever get. 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father secretly. Then your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you. [...] 16 "And when you fast, don't make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, who try to look pale and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I assure you, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will suspect you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in secret. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.
Why would monks through the generations beat themselves into submission to what they obviously didn't desire to do?

Christian morals make sense of this battle. We have two natures.

Jesse Reeve said...

Brian Forbes--

Humans have many desires, some of which contradict one another. This is not a problem for desirism; in fact it is a basic assumption of desirism. In the sense that you mean it, humans have many more than two "natures."

Desirism provides a model for resolving moral dilemmas that may answer your question. You can find it in the desirism wiki here:

If you're interested in learning more about desirism, I suggest you explore the wiki further. And if you have questions that aren't answered there, that feedback would probably be useful in expanding the wiki!

(An aside: Your quote from Matthew 6 can be summarized as: "do virtuous things privately, not publically." But by saying so in public, Jesus is violating his own injunction against public displays of virtue! What a delightful paradox.)