Monday, May 07, 2007

The Genetic Morality Delusion

One of the things that tempers my dislike for theists and their sometimes absurd beliefs about right and wrong is the fact that many atheists also have some rather foolish beliefs about right and wrong. They hold onto these beliefs with religious tenacity, cherry-picking the available evidence to support their cherished views.

One recent example of this is an article I read this morning; Blumner: Biology, not faith, is the source of human morality by Robyn Blumner. In this article, Blumner attempts to defend the idea that morality has a genetic explanation, rather than an explanation through scripture.

Before I start my criticism, I want to make it clear that I believe that moral facts can, at least in part, be reduced to biological facts. The system of morality that I defend in this blog holds that value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral value is found in the relationship between malleable desires and other desires. Desires are brain states. Brains are biological organs that came about through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The study of desires is the study of brains – of the way that genes interact with environment to create gray matter of a particular structure.

The dispute is over which biological facts best explain moral properties.

Universal Intuitions

In this particular defense of genetic morality, Blumner wrote:

[Marc] Hauser [a Harvard professor of psychology, organismic and evolutionary biology and biological anthropology] gives the example of five people who are in need of organ transplants and a healthy man walks into the hospital. Nearly everyone, asked if it is morally acceptable to kill the healthy man to provide life-saving organs to the five others, answers no. But in another example, where a trolley is racing down a track and about to kill five people, most people agree that it is permissible to flip a switch and reroute the trolley so that it will kill only one person.

The outcomes are the same, one person sacrificed to save five others, yet people of all types of backgrounds come up with the same contrasting judgments for the two examples and they often can't explain why they have drawn a distinction.

Humans have an inherent sense of fair play and the idea that hurting someone intentionally, such as strapping them down and harvesting their organs, is worse than doing so as collateral damage to a larger rescue (hence the use of that phrase by modern warmongers).

So, tell me, am I supposed to believe that my biological ancestors, way back before they could read and write, were continually running into situations regarding trolley cars and organ transplants? Should I believe that these encounters were common enough and important enough that evolution had an opportunity to select for a ‘do not kill and distribute organs’ gene, and a ‘throw the trolley car switch’ gene?

That seems unlikely.

Even though this conclusion is not the intended implication of the view that moral facts are reducible to genetic facts, it is in fact what such a theory implies. The absurdity of this conclusion tells us about the absurdity of the premises that give rise to it.

Moral Luck

The quote above gives a classic attempt to defend one theory over another by showing its superior ability to account for a particular observation – the answers that people give to these two cases. Traditional moral theory, it says, cannot account for this difference because “The outcomes are the same, one person sacrificed to save five others.”

Yet, if the outcomes are the same, then it is just as difficult to appeal to evolution to explain the difference. In order for evolution to play a role, the different outcomes must have a difference that plays out in terms of genetic survival. Otherwise, nature would have nothing to use in selecting one or the other. Either that, or the difference is merely an accident of nature – a genetic trait that happened to become universal even though it serves no evolutionary function, and which could have easily been different.

So, what makes organ harvesters evil and deserving of the wrath reserved for murderers, while the switch throwers are forgiven? It is merely an accident of nature. With a different flip of the genetic coin, it could have been otherwise.

However, that is not the most important problem.

Moral Disputes

Blumner says that “nearly everybody agrees” that it is not permissible to harvest organs in the one case, and “most people agree” that it is permissible to throw the switch.

But not everybody.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that 97% of the population has a “do not harvest organs” gene, and 3% of the people have a “save as many lives as possible” gene. What does this tell us about the morality of harvesting organs?

Are we to conclude that harvesting organs is wrong for 97% of the population, but permissible, even obligatory, for the other 3%? If so, this would go against one of the basic elements of what people generally know about morality – that moral principles are supposed to be universal. To say that raping a child is wrong is to say that no person may rape a child. It does not mean that those with a “rape child” gene may rape children, while those with an “aversion to the rape of children gene” may not do so.

So, at what point does harvesting organs becomes universally wrong. What if the “do not harvest organs” gene was present in only 70% of the population? 60%? 50.01%?

What does “wrong” even mean under this theory?

The theory of genetic morality ultimately says that ‘X is wrong’ means (or can be reduced to ‘the most powerful elements in society are disposed to do harm to those who do X’. That is it.

If the most powerful elements in a society were disposed to do harm to those who ate with their left hand, then eating with one’s left hand would be ‘wrong’.

‘X is wrong’ also means ‘those who do X deserve condemnation and punishment.’ It is not just a descriptive phrase that those who do X will be harmed. It is a prescriptive phrase that says that those who do X should be harmed, that they deserve to be harmed, that they are at fault, and that punishment is appropriate in such circumstances.

How do we get from, ‘the most powerful people in society are disposed to do harm to those who do X’, to ‘those who do X deserve to be harmed’?

David Hume would argue that those who would draw such an implication owe us an explanation as to how we derive such an ought from the ‘is’ premises that give rise to it.

(Note: I believe that one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, but only from a specialized set of ‘is’ statements, some of which involve the malleability of desires by social forces, which are ‘is’ statements not available to the genetic moralist.)

Is homosexuality moral or immoral? Well, what we need to do is determine if people have a genetic disposition to do harm to those who engage in homosexual acts. If people have such a disposition to harm homosexuals, then homosexuals deserve to be harmed – harming them is a good thing.

The Euthyphro Argument

Ultimately, all I am doing here is using Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’ argument against the genetic moralist. However, I am rephrasing the question somewhat.

“Is X morally good because it is loved by the genes? Or is X loved by the genes because it is morally good?”

For a point of clarification, my view is that neither are true. There is no necessary connection between what is loved by the genes and what is morally good. It is quite possible for something to be loved by the genes that is down right evil.

If the genetic moralist takes the first horn of this dilemma, she falls into a trap of saying that the most horrendous acts can be good. A genetic disposition to kill everybody in an ‘out’ group, take their property and their land, and use it for one’s own tribe would make ethnic cleansing a moral commandment. All these many decades we have been bemoaning that ethic cleansing was immoral when all along it was morally commanded by our genes.

If the genetic moralist takes the second option, then we are still missing an account of what ‘wrong’ is. On this option, morality does not come from our genes. Morality comes from ‘something else’ – and whatever that ‘something else’ is, that is where our genes direct us. Here, the genetic moralist has an additional problem that the divine command theorist could avoid. The genetic moralist also has to explain how evolution managed to pick up this good and selected for it, when genetic survival is going to have a far stronger effect on evolution than this hypothetical, independent ‘good’.

The genetic moralist might want to answer, “Well, if we had this disposition to wipe out another race, then we would be justified in doing so and they would deserve to be wiped out merely because we had this disposition.”

He could say that, but he should be careful what he says the next time he hears a theist say, “If God commands us to torture young children for pleasure, then it would be a good thing for us to do so.


Anonymous said...

Say there were five people needing transplants and one healthy pig walks into the hospital. Would they strip that pig of parts?
Say there are five Iranians needing transplants and one healthy American walks into the hospital?
Say there were five homosexuals and one male child walks into the church?

Depletion of life is a peculiar thing.

olvlzl said...

I don't know if it's been pointed out here but the idea that "morality" or "religious belief" , so far not backed up with any real science, I point out in passing, is somehow "found in the genes" could lead to places you might not suspect. It should first be pointed out that what is commonly meant when these words and phrases are used can't be identified as discreet entities. What is meant by just the two above can be easily analyzed as composites of different phenomena, some of strikingly different appearance. In the talk about "religion" and what that means the enormously varied official teachings of different "religions" alone would, if honestly talked about, lead to the conclusion that there really isn't any such thing as "religious belief". And the term "morality", encompassing many of the aspects of "religious belief" and multiplying those through individual beliefs and, most important of all acts, soon shows that there really is no discreet "thing" that is called out of convenience "morality". Finding a genetic or physical basis for that would require a distortion or selection from the entire universe mentioned above in order for genetic loci "causing" the behaviors and ideas to be found.

I put "causing" in quotes because, of course, that is ultimately a philosophical question and not a scientific one. Science can only go to the edge of what can be observed and analyzed in the physical universe. It can't go any farther. A possible cause outside of that universe could exist but it couldn't be "known".

More practically for non-believers and, I'm sorry to have to point it out, religious fundamentalists and Calvinists, finding "religion genes" would lead them to the conclusion that a God who wished to be known by human kind existed and he wrote the proof of his existence in our very genes. A recessive or latent expression would fit quite nicely into the doctrine of predestination, I'm afraid.

Alonzo, your analysis would be a lot more secure than this kind of reified and conflated "science". Your instincts are better than the reductionists, you should go with yours.

Anonymous said...

I read the article you referred to and failed to see what you seem concerned about. I think you are confusing is and ought. In this case the is of feelings about right and wrong, and the ought of what is morally correct.
Let’s take a different example. We have a genetic tendency to be frightened by big, noisy things. Our genetic wiring tells us these things are likely to be dangerous. Children cry and are frightened by these things. That has nothing to do with whether or not a particular big noisy thing presents a real danger. Sensing danger does not mean danger exists.
We feel danger, we react fearfully in an unthinking way to certain stimuli. This has had strong survival value. But it doesn’t mean this proves these things are dangerous or that we can’t learn to react differently in time.
The same is true of morality. There is strong evidence we are wired to react to certain things or situations as right or wrong. That doesn’t mean those feelings are necessarily correct or appropriate in a given instance. Nor does it mean we can’t come to a different intellectual evaluation or learn to change our feelings over time. But to deny we have evolved these feelings because they don’t fit into an ideal moral theory is to confuse the is of who we are with the ought of who we might want to be.
Whether I have some instincts that lead me to have an unthinking feeling that something is right is a completely unrelated question to whether I can use desire utilitarianism or another theory to come to a reasoned evaluation of the moral correctness of it.

Anonymous said...

olvlzl - I find I agree with many of your posts which center on practical matters, such as campaigning and drug-law reform. But many of abstract opinions boggle me. For example - it seems that you are saying that just because there is confusion about what is moral, and the term morality encompases quite a bit, that means that there's no such thing as morality? Are you honestly saying that there is no right and wrong? Or that, since there are so many religions out there, that therefore religious belief doesn't exist? Am I misunderstanding you?

Also, in an unrelated (I believe) comment you said -
< Science can only go to the edge of what can be observed and analyzed in the physical universe. It can't go any farther. A possible cause outside of that universe could exist but it couldn't be "known".>

You posit something beyond the universe. You claim that it's non-physical, and can't be known. First - what is the point of even contemplating something which is non-physical and can't in any way be known? If it can't be known, it can't have any effect on the universe we actually know exists. If it DOES have some effect, then it CAN be known, at least in part.
Second - by even stating that such a universe exists, you are saying at least one thing about it, and therefore it seems at least somethings about it can be known.

Atheist Observer - I believe that is exactly what Alonzo is saying. That just because some genes can cause you have have a predisposition to something (such as killing an out-group and taking thier stuff) does not make it right. And therefore a theory of morality that says "That which our genes makes us feel is right/wribg is what defines what is right/wrong" is terribly flawed.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The idea that we are wired so as to jump to moral conclusions that are possibly incorrect (just as we are wired to perceive certain optical illusions or to, as you say, get a fear reaction from something that is not dangerous) is substantially consistent with my claim that morality is independent of our (genetic) reactions.

The idea that we can be wrong requires that there is a right answer - an answer that is independent of our reactions (and independent of our genes).

Genetic moralist tend not to say that we are hard-wired for moral reactions that are possibly incorrect. They claim that our morality is identical to those reactions, which prohibits the possibility of error.

olvlzl said...

eneasz, the easiest way to make the point about conflation and reification is that just because we come up with a word for something doesn't mean that it has an existence as one thing. When the phenomena is something relatively intangible, "religious belief", for example, we use one word for what are clearly different behaviors and presmably mental processes. The range of those is undetermined. To take that and suggest a "genetic basis" for it, is a mighty big leap. To take a word or words and to suddenly make them flesh, as it were, is rather putting the rocket before the horse. You will notice that the act of giving something like that a name also runs to risk of "identifying" something that might not be something that has a truely discreet existence. You can talk about "patriotism" but does that mean that there is really a "thing" there? The problem becomes particularly acute when biological determinists start talking about these things as if they have a physical cause that will, somehow, someday be found in a single or, more likely, a set of genes. In the meantime they have the unfortunate tendency to create myths to "explain" how they "evolved", all without any fossil record or other physical basis.

I've got to run or I'd say more. Just say that even if I hadn't brought up the "cause", others certainly have. For the sake of the argument, I'll borrow theirs without being able to define what it might be.

Anonymous said...

olvlzl, ok, I understand what you're saying. I just don't see how anyone here has made any such claim. Unless I'm mistaken, no one has said anything that implies "these concepts are an actual THING you can point to". That would be a ridiculous statement. Seems to be a bit of a strawman to accuse someone of claiming something like this and then demolishing it. And a bit of a non-sequitor to do so in the comments section of a post that didn't touch on anything like that.

Anonymous said...

The primary flaw with Blummer's original argument involving the people awaiting organ donation and the oncoming train is that the situation with the train requires that someone is killed. Obviously, most people would choose for one person to be killed, rather than 5. On the contrary, the hospital scenario ignores the fact that people die every day, and can provide organs to those in need. It is not required that any of the people in that scenario die. It is these minor flaws in arguments that often ruin an entire sociological thesis.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

max frank

I believe that your assessment is exactly right.

In other context, I have given this same answer in the context of desire utilitarianism. An aversion to killing is a desire that we can fulfill in virtually all circumstances. However, an aversion to people dying is unfulfillable, since (so far) by necessity everybody will die. So, we have more and stronger reason to promote an aversion to killing than an aversion to people dying.

Good job.

olvlzl said...

Eneasz, actually, I was sort of supplementing what Alonzo said, or that was my intention, at least. You mustn't mind my stringent manner, I get like that sometimes.

In order to associate a traits of "behavior" with the actual physical objects, genes, it would be necessary to know that there was a trait as a discreet phenomenon (I haven't gotten into the matter of the necessary boundaries and definitions of this propose "trait", which, though extrememly difficult to achieve, would, nonetheless, be entirely necessary) and not just an amalgum of phenomena lumped together by a process akin to folklore. Then there would be the problem of identifying genes allegedly carrying the "trait".

I think I might have said here once that the fact that these people want to research so close to the edge of what could be hoped to be known wasn't my fault, but the difficulty they've chosen for themselves should be a motive for questioning, not a reason to have pity on them. I don't and I won't.