Friday, March 23, 2007

Discussion: Susan Neiman's Science and Morality

As regular readers know, I spend my weekends discussing the presentations at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference. This is the ninth weekend devoted to this project.

One of the reasons I do this is to show that I can stand up to some of the best thinkers in the field of morality, science, and religion.

Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine honored me recently by putting in the magazine that:

I recently found this blog summary of my lecture at the Beyond Belief conference at the Salk Institute November 5–7, 2006. I wanted to call it to your attention because this is the only account I have seen thus far that understood what I was saying about the necessity for compromise between science and religion if we have goals beyond the scope of the realm of these two enterprises (which I do). All of the press accounts of the conference simply quoted the most extremist positions in short sound-bites, missing out entirely on much of the subtle discussions that went on. - Michael Shermer

After Susan Neiman's presentation, which I discussed last weekend, there was a question and answer session that focused on the relationship between science and morality. (name) made the claim during her presentation that we cannot have a science of morality because ‘ought’ is necessarily separate from ‘is’. Paul Churchland and (name2) from the audience raised some objections to that view.

Naturally, I have some objections of my own.

To illustrate her point, Neiman drew upon two examples which she was eager to call “moral progress”. This was the Neiman abolition of slavery, and the prohibition on torture. She argued that these changes represent an honest improvement in our moral culture. However, she argues, she could not see a change in attitude as being represented in a mere fact. For example, when she spoke about Bush’s endorsement of torture, she called this moral regress, but she could not think of any mere fact that could be taught to Bush to change his thinking.

Morality as a Biological Phenomenon

Before I address Neiman's examples, I want to point out that these examples of slavery and torture create an insurmountable problem for those who assert that there is a direct relationship between biology and morality. Scientific theories are to be evaluated by their ability to explain and predict observable phenomena. However, the theory that morality is grounded directly on biology cannot explain and predict phenomena like the spread of anti-slavery and anti-torture attitudes through a population. These changes are much more like the changes in learned properties than in inherited properties.

In other words, morality is a biological phenomenon, then we would expect changes in moral attitudes to move through a population like changes in other biological properties. For example, if we were to link hostile attitudes towards slavery to some biological property, then we should expect to see a population to change from being pro-slavery to anti-slavery the same way that it may change from being light skinned to dark skinned, or from blue eyes to brown eyes.

Yet, this is not what we see. When we examine changes in moral attitudes spreading through a population, we see a pattern that is much more like a cultural change than a biological change – more like changes in hair style than changes in (natural) hair color.

This gives the advantage to theories that hold that moral attitudes are learned, not inherited.

However, biology still has a great deal to say how we learn – whether it involves learning math and logic to recognizing faces and shapes. If we apply this to morality, it says that there may still be (and, I would argue, there are) important links between biology and meta-ethics, not between biology and ethics itself.

I have held throughout this blog that morality has a lot to do with relationships between desires and other desires. The desires we have, their relationships to other desires, how cultural forces affect our desires (how we learn to like some things and dislike others) are all important questions that biologists can help answer. However, the biologist is making a serious category mistake if he thinks he can find a gene for, “Homosexuality is immoral”.

Morality as Learning New Facts

In a way, I have agreed with Neiman's statement that a change in moral behavior is not merely limited to a change in beliefs. The shift in attitudes regarding slavery and torture – and the future changes in attitude to be hoped for regarding homosexuality and voting for atheist candidates – are not merely changes in beliefs. They also represent changes in desires.

If you give more and more facts to a person with a desire to torture young children, the effect will not be to cause that desire to go away. The effect will only be to make him more and more efficient at fulfilling his desire to torture young children without thwarting other desires he may have. Facts are not directly relevant to selecting ends themselves; they are only relevant to selecting the means to ends.

A person’s desires are like his weight. You can fill a person with facts from now until Thursday, but that that alone will not change his weight. However, those facts can show him that he has reason to change his weight. It gives him reason to take actions that will, some day, cause him to have a different weight. However, at any time, he will weigh what he weighs and not an ounce more or less.

You can fill a person with facts from now until Thursday but that alone will not change his desires. They may teach him that he has reason to change his desires. However, until those desires actually change, he will continue to act on those desires. A society will not suddenly acquire an aversion to slavery simply because that aversion can be shown to be a good idea. It must undergo a period of hard work over time while that new aversion is cultivated.

So, (name) is looking for the moral equivalent of a set of facts that can directly and immediately cause a change of desires – that can generate an aversion to slavery where none was before. She is correct to state that she cannot imagine what such a fact will be. There are no facts that will instantly cause a change in desires. However, there are facts that will show that people have reason to grow such an aversion in others.

What are some of those facts? We can start with the fact that if people are not averse to slavery, then there is no telling who they might decide to slave. The northern factory workers were not far from slavery. (Name) even suggested that they were in a state not much better than slavery. However, as long as a society has no aversion to slavery, there is a risk as to who they may decide to enslave next – if not in this generation, then the next. An effective way to secure oneself and one’s children from slavery is to cultivate an aversion to slavery in society as a whole. People, seeking to fulfill their desires given their beliefs, will then be less likely to enslave others.

The moral issue is not one that is limited to slavery. The Constitution contained a long list of rights that all people were supposed to have, and no person was to take from another. The Constitution itself, and the philosophical foundation on which it was built, created its own growing aversion to a whole list of wrongs, many of which directly focused on slavery. A population that was sincerely devoted to protecting people from those wrongs was a safe population to live in. However, a population that cast those wrongs aside when it was convenient or profitable to do so was a dangerous society to live in, and to put one’s children in.

Growing an aversion to slavery is like growing a desire for exercise and for healthier food. All of the facts in the world are not enough to bring about change. However, those facts are relevant to determining if there are reasons enough to work for change.

The same argument applies to the Bush Administration’s view on torture. There are arguments that torture does not work and that we are better off trying to get prisoners to voluntarily side with us. However, this only tells us whether a specific instance of torture is a bad idea. We have another argument to make suggesting that promoting a general love of torture is a bad idea. Bush’s administration has likely had the affect of weakening the aversion to arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment, and torture around the world. This means that people around the world are now at greater risk of suffering these ills than they would have been in a society that was generally averse to this type of behavior.

An example of this comes from Egypt, as reported in Newsweek, "Actors in a Play of Democracy", where the ruling government is forcing through a set of constitutional changes that opposition parties say is designed to give the ruling party absolute power. Among these:

The most controversial aspect of the amendment package is a new antiterrorism law that will replace the heavy-handed Emergency Law--in place since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat--which had been used for the past 25 years to repress political opposition to the regime. The new law, capitalizing on a slew of terrorist attacks in Egypt over the past few years, would enable the government to violate civil liberties in the name of national security. “The responsibility of safeguarding security and public order in the face of the dangers of terrorism,” the new amendment reads, “cannot be hampered by the measures stated in the articles…[about] the private life of citizens.” The legislation also allows the president to bypass traditional courts and to refer terror suspects to military tribunals whose rulings cannot be appealed.

The concerns in Egypt are, of course, over who the government will eventually call a 'terrorist'. People in power have a notoriously poor ability to identify as 'enemies of the state' any who would protest their absolute power.

This is what it means to say that these things are wrong. Not that we do have an aversion to these activities, but that we have reason to promote an aversion to these activities. It may be quite natural to look at what we have an aversion to in order to judge what we should have an aversion to. It is natural, but it is still filled with error. Just because we do not like something, this does not prove that it is a good idea that we (and others) not like it.


So, Neiman was partially right. She was correct in pointing out that there often is not a set of facts that will, by themselves, cause a person to act any differently. A person will act to fulfill his desires, given his beliefs. Facts will only allow him to fulfill his desires more efficiently.

However, facts may also tell him that it is not a good idea that people generally desire the things they desire, and that there are reasons to bring about socially strong desires for things they do not currently desire.

When this happens, it tells an agent that he has reason to work for a change in attitudes. Those attitudes will not change immediately. It will take time and effort. However, the fact that something takes time and effort is no proof that it is not a good idea.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Isn't it also a fact that telling the child torturer facts about how other people feel about his desires might change those desires? I am worried about the fundamental individualism of this post. Granted, you talk about people trying to change other people's behavior, but that is an individual-against-individual situation. The child torturer might indeed desire to torture, but he invariably also desires to please other people and to fit in to society.

People can be directly influenced by (facts about) what other people think of them. These facts (knowing that, say, mother does not approve) can change their actual emotional makeup and make them desire something else. We needn't assume that people are emotional islands that can only be forcefully changed from the outside. People are also hard-wired to care about what others say and think. We do, after all, usually feel bad about being upbraided.