Sunday, February 19, 2006

Morality and the Use of Analogy

In these postings I have had a tendency to make heavy use of analogy and what may be construed as appeals to emotion in order to make a moral point.

In “A Perspective on the Pledge” I sought to illustrate the case against having “one nation under God” with a story about a pledge to “one WHITE nation.”

To discuss faith-based initiative, I wrote, “Faith Based Initiatives” where I asked the reader to imagine a club in which the leader takes $1000 each from all of its citizens then splits it up and gives back $1250 to the 80% of the members who sign a religious oath as a condition of employment.

To explain the problems with the Bush Administration’s definition of “good science” I suggest imagining a 13-year-old given a set of random numbers and being told to work the questions in his math book until he comes up with those answers. Then I compare the structural soundness of the building he would design with the policy soundness of Bush science when “good scientists” must come up with answers that match the Bible.

To show the problem with giving the President the authority to suspend the 4th Amendment on a whim, I compared it to an executive order suspending the 4th Amendment right requiring a warrant before conducting a search such as eavesdropping in on conversations in the name of national security and one suspending the 2nd Amendment for the same purpose.

I want to make some comments explaining the use of these types of arguments in moral debate.


As I argued elsewhere, morality is primarily concerned with promoting good desires (desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others) and inhibiting bad desires (desires that thwart the desires of others).

For example, a recent posting discussed the issue of atheists stopping to help somebody by the side of the road. Why would an atheist do such a thing?

Just as an atheist would install a smoke detector in his house or wear a seatbelt while driving (and demand that his children to the same – because he cares about them) or establish a fire department in his community, he has reason to create a society in which people help others when finding those others stranded along side the road. It is an efficient way to make sure that one gets help as a last resort when a person finds himself stranded on the side of the road.

The only way to get other people to provide help is to get them to want to help. To do this, an atheist has reason to use praise and reward to promote a desire to help those on the side of the road, and to use condemnation and punishment to promote an aversion to leaving other people stranded.

These tools are more efficient if he can solicit others to use them as well. So, he solicits his community to praise and reward those who help others, and to condemn and punish those who leave others stranded. Meanwhile, that same community is using those same tools on him, making him into a person who desires to help others and who is averse to leaving others stranded. Thus, when he sees a stranded motorist, he wants to help. Those who drive past feel guilt and shame associated with the aversion to leaving others stranded.

Moral Argument by Analogy

I am not the person who invented this form of moral argument. It is an inherent part of the practice, as preparing food is a part of the practice of cooking.

When a parent scolds a child for misbehaving, he is likely to say something like, “How would you like it if somebody did that to you?” He may also say something like, “What would it be like if everybody did that?” This is simply an analogy that attempts to force the child to realize the benefits of promoting a society in which certain people have particular aversions – namely, promoting an aversion to people “doing things like that to you.”

We see the same things in common moral dictums such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule dominates the moral landscape.

For example:

Egyptian Book of the Dead (1580-1350 B.C.): He sought for others the good he desired for himself. Let him pass.

Confucius (about 500BC, where it became known as “The Golden Rule”): What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do unto others.

Buddha ((Siddhartha Gautama, c. 563 - c. 483 B.C.): One should seek for others the happiness one desires for himself.

Isocrates(436-338 B.C.): Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.

Indeed, it would be hard to conceive of a system as a moral system if it did not contain this element, any more than it would be possible to conceive of a set of actions as cooking if it did not involve preparing a meal.

Desires as General Persistent Entities

In this quest to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires, we must pay attention to the fact that desires are general, persistent entities.

To say that desires are general means that a person who develops an aversion to something (call it ‘X’) is going to have an aversion to anything that is relevantly similar to X. A person who hates liver is going to hate anything that tastes like liver. A person who enjoys solving logic problems is going to enjoy solving a range of different logic problems. A person who likes to help stranded motorists is going to want to help any stranded motorist.

To say that desires are persistent entities is to say that one cannot turn them on and off like a switch. We would not expect a person who is eating liver to very much enjoy his 1st, 5th, 6th, and 9th bite, while hating his 3rd, 4th, and 7th bite. Some desires to change in intensity over time. There are some desires that become stronger over time, until satisfied, at which time they weaken again, only to grow stronger over time. We call these desires “appetites” – such as desires for food, water, and sex.

This is not to say that reactions to different events cannot differ. A mechanic with a desire to help stranded motorists and a fear for her own safety may experience personal conflict if she comes across a large, muscular unkempt motorist on a dark and seldom-traveled road at night. Wanting to help, and yet also wanting to protect herself, she may drive on and use her cell phone to alert the police. The same mechanic traveling with a companion may stop to help a young couple with children on the side of a well-traveled highway – telling her companion to stay in the car with the motor running just in case.

An aversion to deceiving others (which is generally a good aversion to promote among people who recognize the costs of living in a society of deceivers) may come into conflict with the desire to save innocent lives when the Nazis come looking for the Jews that one has hid in the attic. Yet, where the desire to save innocent life is stronger the home owner will lie to the Nazis.

Nor does this deny that desires cannot disappear entirely over time, or that new desires cannot come into existence. Desires change – it would be senseless to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires if this were not the case. Yet, for the most part, they do not flash on and off like emotional strobe lights. Differences in situations will bring a number of different desires into play. Yet, each of those desires is a general, persistent entity that will come into play at any relevantly similar event in the future.

The Flaw in Action-Based Moral Theories

The problem with action-based moral theories is that they do not give due consideration to the fact that actions are caused by desires, and desires are general and persistent entities.

If we say to a person in a specific situation S1, “Do X”, there is only one way that this is possible. It requires that the agent have those desires that will make him want to do X (or want to do it more than anything else he may want to do). Yet, if he has those desires, and those desires are general and persistent entities, it will have an effect on what he does in other situations.

The desires that are necessary for him to “Do X” in a specific situation S1 will govern his actions as well in situation S2. Situation S2 may be far more common, and “Doing X” may be generally destructive. To rational people, these are reasons against telling the agent to “Do X” in S1. We do not want to encourage people to become the type of people who will tend to “Do X” in the far more common situation S2, where it is destructive.

So, it is extremely relevant in moral discussion to ask whether a person who does X in S1 will behave generally in a way that is helpful or harmful to others. It is extremely relevant to identify other situations that are like S1 and ask, “Are they more common?” and “Would doing X in those situations tend to be constructive or destructive?”


These are the types of analogies that I look for when I write my posts.

I identified the generally destructive sentiments behind a pledge to “one nation under God” by comparing them to the desires that would motivate people to support a pledge to “one white nation”. I also use this analogy to point out that the argument that removing “under God” is anti-Christian is as bigoted as the argument that removing “white” in the analogous case would be anti-Caucasian.

To identify the basic unfairness in faith-based initiatives, I created an analogy that illustrated the basic unfairness of what amounts to a tax on those unwilling to sign a loyalty oath to a church and a subsidy of those who would be willing.

To warn people that faith-based science creates risks that will ultimately get good people killed; I compared it to the effects of using faith-based math in the construction of a building.

Whereas those who tend to favor Bush’s arbitrary suspension of the 4th Amendment tend to be advocates of a strong defense of the 2nd Amendment, I asked them to consider whether they like the idea of a future President having the power to suspend the 2nd Amendment and to collect all private guns in the name of national security.

Elsewhere, I attempted to illustrate the inherent evil to be found in the way the Bush Administration deals with prisoners by asking readers to consider how they would react to those images where the prisoners were American and the guards were Arab.

Moral analogy of the form “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you,” and “What would it be like if everybody behaved in that way,” are two of the most significant tools available for determining if the desires that motivate a particular act, as general and persistent entities, will tend to make our lives better or worse.

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