Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Irrelevance of Moral Sentiments

When some people hear that somebody is going to discuss ‘morality’, they jump to the conclusion that the discussion must be about ‘the moral sentiments’. They then jump to a set of conclusions about what is obviously true about ‘morality’ – that different people have different moral sentiments, that cultural factors play a heavy role in determining a person’s moral sentiments, that genetics also plays a role in the moral sentiments we have and how we acquire them, and that the sentiments are internal to the agent – not an intrinsic part of that which is being evaluated.

From this they assert some form of moral subjectivism and that any claim that morality can be objective as utter nonsense.

Given this definition of ‘morality’, I would have to agree with them. However, ‘morality’ as these people define it is not what I write about in this blog. I am writing about a different subject – also called ‘morality’, but substantially and importantly different from the study of moral sentiments.

Thinking of morality as the study of moral sentiments is a mistake – very much like thinking that ‘astronomy’ is the study of beliefs about things above the atmosphere.

Imagine somebody claiming to be an astronomer. However, his research involves doing brain scans on people while he asks them to consider certain aspects about things in space. The bulk of his research involves publishing the results of experiments where he describes the differences between people’s brain function and their beliefs about things in the cosmos. For example, he publishes articles where he compares and contrasts the brain functions of those who believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old to those who believe that the earth is 4.55 billion years old. When he talks about his research he proudly boasts that he is involved in the study of theories of planetary formation.

Given the way this researcher is defining ‘astronomy’, he too would discover that different people have different astronomical beliefs, that cultural factors play a role in the beliefs that people have, that genetics probably plays some role in how people acquire and change their beliefs, and that these beliefs are internal to the agent.

However, if he were to then conclude that any claim that astronomy can be objective is utter nonsense. However, this result comes from the fact that he has defined ‘astronomy’ as the study of brain functions and beliefs about what is in space. Most astronomers are not, in fact, people who study beliefs about things in space – they study things in space. As such, they are involved in something quite different from what this researcher has decided to call ‘astronomy’.

Language is an invention, and there is nothing inherently wrong with having more than on definition osf ‘morality’ any more than there is something wrong with having more than one definition of ‘star’ (e.g., the hydrogen type versus the Hollywood type). However, we encounter practical problems when two different definitions are so close together that people cannot tell when they are using one definition or the other. This invites people to equivocate between the two meanings, taking claims that are true about morality-1, and asserting that they are also true about morality-2, when they are not true.

I am writing this particular post to bring this confusion to the forefront so that we can recognize it and do a better job of avoiding it. Whenever I write about ‘morality’ I am not the least bit concerned with what a person would find if he studied our moral sentiments, any more than the astronomer is concerned with what would be revealed by a study of our beliefs about things in space. I am not concerned about ‘sentiments’ of right and wrong, but with right and wrong itself, just as the astronomer is not concerned with beliefs about stars and planets, but with stars and planets themselves.

You do not study stars and planets by looking at brain scans and studying the beliefs of different people in different cultures at different times.

You do not study morality by looking at brain scans and studying the sentiments of different people in different cultures at different times.

In the realm of morality, I will certainly admit that these sentiments will affect what a person will claim to be the case regarding right and wrong. However, in the realm of astronomy, it is also true that these cultural elements will affect what a person will claim is true about stars and planets, We can hardly expect that a person who grew up in ancient Greece would be able to present us with a theory of dark matter. Furthermore, people 2500 years from now (if there are people 2500 years from now) will be talking about theories that we cannot imagine. These factors do no more to prove that we cannot have a science of morality than they prove that we cannot have a science of astronomy.

The sociologist will point out that no astronomer can ever build his theories out of whole cloth. Astronomers borrow from their culture, reading what others believed and picking up cultural norms governing the ways in which astronomical beliefs are considered to have been proven. The astronomer who thinks that he can fully separate his own beliefs from these cultural and individual influences is wholly mistaken. The astronomer will answer, “So what? Please explain to me how these facts indicate that I should do my astronomical research by looking at brain scans and surveys of people’s claims about things in space. How do you justfy those conclusions from the premises you provide?”

Similarly, when somebody claims that we draw our moral beliefs from our culture and none of us can construct morality from whole cloth, I answer that this does not prove that morality is nothing more than the study of brain scans and that we must take all moral sentiments at face value. It is still a different field of study.

So, what are the differences between the study of morality-1 (brain states; moral sentiments), and the study of morality-2? What is morality-2 anyway?

I have written much of this blog discussing a theory of morality – the fact that people have desires-as-ends reasons to promote certain desires in others and inhibit certain other desires. Against this theory, anybody who points out that moral sentiments are subjective simply is not engaged in the same discussion. I can easily agree with everything that such a person may say about moral sentiments – other than the inference, “We have a moral sentiment that P; therefore, we should have a moral sentiment that P,” and still hold that such a person has not yet said a word about morality.

At this point, I typically encounter the claim that we have ways of resolving differences of opinion regarding astronomy. However, we have no such method for resolving differences in morality. Your view of right and wrong is different from mine and there is no way to prove that either of ours is correct.

Well, I have two responses to say to this.

First, if there is no way to demonstrate that A is a better answer than not-A, when what business does anybody have for choosing A? If both options are truly equal, with no reason available for accepting one over the other, then this (I would argue) suggests that anybody who then chooses one over the other is making a mistake.

Second, the response begs the question. It is effectively stating that morality cannot be about anything other than moral sentiments because our moral sentiments are subjective. The fact that moral sentiments have this problem of being unjustifiable does not prove that morality is unjustifiable unless one assumes that which is under dispute, that ‘morality’ is concerned with moral sentiments.

Ultimately, the point of this post is to clarify why I hold that facts about moral sentiments are not relevant to morality. If somebody comes to me with all sorts of information about our moral sentiments – particularly the fact that they are subjective, culturally influenced, and are different for different people in different cultures – I am going to answer that all of this is fine, but it simply is not about the same thing that I am writing about. “You might as well be talking about the molecular composition of an orange for all of its relevance to morality – to the question of what we should and should not approve of or disapprove of.

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