Friday, November 23, 2007

What Makes Us Moral?

Hot on the heals of reports of a study which some want to interpret as evidence that infants have an innate sense of morality, Time Magazine has an article that attempts to answer, “What makes us moral?” in genetic terms. What Makes Us Moral?

I would like to provide you with a test that will make it easy to spot the nonsense in these types of claims. That test is to look through the article and to find where the authors have used question-begging value-laden language to support the conclusion that morality can in any way be innate.

The Time article actually approaches the question in terms of what separates us from animals, suggesting that morality might fit this bill. However, the question of whether morality is innate, and the question of whether humans are the only creatures with morality, are not the same thing. If morality is learned then, to the degree that animals are capable of learning (and they are), then they are capable of developing moral systems. Morality, after all, is a tool. Animals cannot use tools as efficiently as humans can, but they can clearly use rudimentary tools, which is consistent with the view that they can develop a rudimentary morality.

However, the question that I am concerned with is the question of morality being genetic.

Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community.

Configure it . . . properly?. What is the standard by which we are to judge if a particular piece of moral software is configured propertly? What are the criteria for proper and improper configuration? Until we have a standard for proper versus improper configuration, how are we going to test whether we are talking about ‘moral programming’ or ‘immoral programming’?

Of course, I am going to agree that morality is built on our innate characteristics and that those innate characteristics have been influenced by evolution. If we take the ‘software’ component, it makes no sense to load a ‘moral software’ onto a human system that is not geared to run that type of software. Yet, the distinction between morality and biology is precisely the fact that biology describes the system that morality gets installed on, and morality is that which gets installed. Any talk about ‘innate morality’ confuses this distinction.

Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar—the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone teaches you how to apply it. It's the people around us who do that teaching—often quite well.

By what standards do we evaluate whether that teaching is done ‘well’ or not? How do we determine if teaching has been done well, or done poorly? Let’s assume that we judge ‘wellness’ by the standards that we ourselves have been taught. In this case, teaching ‘well’ simply means teaching the same thing to everybody – regardless of what that thing is. If we have all been taught to value slavery or the extermination of the Jews or to treat women as property, then we are doomed to judge the fact that the next generation has learned the same systems as an example of ‘teaching well’.

But is it?

The brain works harder when the threat gets more complicated. A favorite scenario that morality researchers study is the trolley dilemma. You're standing near a track as an out-of-control train hurtles toward five unsuspecting people. There's a switch nearby that would let you divert the train onto a siding. Would you do it? Of course. You save five lives at no cost. Suppose a single unsuspecting man was on the siding? Now the mortality score is 5 to 1. Could you kill him to save the others? What if the innocent man was on a bridge over the trolley and you had to push him onto the track to stop the train? . . . 85% of subjects who were asked about the trolley scenarios said they would not push the innocent man onto the tracks—even though they knew they had just sent five people to their hypothetical death.

So, is this 85% moral? Or are they immoral? Does this prove that we have some sort of genetic disposition to do the right thing? Are those who in the minority in this case morally inferior to the rest, or morally superior?

What if, instead of these results, 85% of the people said that they would push the person in front of the tracks? Would these researchers then conclude that we have a biological disposition to be evil? Or would they instead assert that pushing the person onto the tracks is good – changing morality to match the findings? If they use the latter option, then certainly they are going to discover that we are biologically disposed to do what is moral, since ‘moral’ is then set to match that which we are biologically disposed to do. If they choose the former option, then by what standard do they determine whether pushing the person onto the tracks is moral or immoral?

These types of theories are not answering any moral questions. They are, in fact, begging the questions that they claim to be answering.

Again, I am agreeing that a moral system has to be installed on our biological reality, and that this reality was molded by social forces. It is important to know the effect that evolution has on us to better understand what can be installed on such a system. However, this is fully consistent with the idea that morality has to do with that which we can change through social forces. Applying morality to that which is outside of social forces is nonsense.

Consider this claim from the article:

The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you.

I agree that humans have a capacity to feel empathy towards others and that the capacity to feel empathy has a genetic component – we evolved this capacity. However, it makes absolutely no sense to claim that this has anything to do with morality.

Let us assume that the ability to feel empathy is determined by the presence of Gene G. People who have Gene G tend to feel empathy towards others; people without Gene G do not.

So, is it then immoral to not have Gene G? Have those people who do not have Gene G committed some type of moral crime by not having this gene? It makes absolutely no sense. The reason that it makes no sense is because applying moral concepts to genetic makeup makes no sense. Morality cannot be genetic for the same reason that squares cannot be round and bachelors cannot be married.

Empathy is not a part of the foundation on which morality is built – at least to the degree that it has a genetic component. It is a tool which is used in the creation of a morality. In making a moral system, we note, “Humans have the capacity to empathy. We can use that. By using empathy, we can build morality.”

However, even without empathy, we can still build morality. All we need are minds that are malleable (that can be shaped by experience), and ‘reasons for action’ for shaping those minds one way rather than another. If there is any malleability at all, and any ‘reasons for action’ at all, we have all we need to construct a moral system.

These, then, represent the true ‘foundation’ of morality – malleable desires, and ‘reasons for action’ that are reasons for promoting some desires more than others. There is no need – and no sense – to getting any more complicated than this.


Anonymous said...

So all we need are malleable desires and reasons for action for morality? So if I have a worm that eats rotten apples or ripe apples, and I shock it when it eats the ripe apples I want, so it no longer wants to eat them, I have changed its desires. Since I have reason to want it not to eat what I consider desirable apples I have reasons for this action. So I now have created a moral system and a moral worm?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

This is one of the best questions you have asked, since it ties directly into a question that I know that I cannot answer.

Assuming that single-celled creatures have no beliefs or desires.

Yet, we do.

At what point along this continuum do beliefs and desires come into existence?

I would hold that morality does not apply to worms because worms have not yet reached the stage at which they are acting on beliefs and desires. The 'maleable desires' criteria has not been met.

However, I cannot give you a hard answer to the question of where desires actually do emerge. As a result, my answer to this question appears ad-hoc and somewhat too 'convenient'.

I hold that this theory explains far more (and with far less complexity) than any contemporary competitor. Yet, I must admit, some questions remain.

This has always been one direction where I end up simply scratching my own head and saying, "I don't know."

Hume's Ghost said...

People lacking empathy are literally (and clinically) psycopaths. While they can recognize the existence of moral norms, they feel no remorse at all about breaking them.

They show almost a pathological inability to behave ethically.

Hume's Ghost said...

Here's a good article on them.

Martin Freedman said...

Alonzo: However, I cannot give you a hard answer to the question of where desires actually do emerge. As a result, my answer to this question appears ad-hoc and somewhat too 'convenient'.
Two rather grandiose analogies:
(1) Newton formulated his laws of motion and gravitational attraction without being able to explain gravity (We needed Einstein for that)
(2) Darwin developed his theories of evolution without even attempting to explain the origin of life nor was it required - contrary to misleading attempts of IDers to criticize his theories on that basis.
Similarly here you have developed a theory of morality based on the reality of desires. Whilst it is desirable(!) there is no obligation for you to also explain the origin of desires. Your theory is sufficient to criticize the weaknesses of other theories and this includes those who do attempt to explain the origins of morality whilst having misleading moral theories.

Do desires really exist as brain states, how and when did they originate in species? Why not just leave these question to the neuroscientists?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, it was my decision to leave these questions to neuroscientists.

I delved into the literature to the degree that I know the theories classifications of theories (e.g., type/type identity, token/token identity). There are those (eliminativists) who argue that beliefs and desires do not exist - and they raise some good points.

I hold that belief-desire theory is a very robust theory for explaining and predicting behavior. We use it every day, without thinking, in ways that make our lives significantly better than they would otherwise be. We use it to explain our boss' past behavior and to predict how they will react to future events, and use this in our decision making to good effect, for the most part.

It is, in short, the most widely accepted theory available today and, even though it has problems, I do not think I can be faulted for using the most widely accepted theory available today.

There will be further advances in neurscience. Those further advances will either require refinements in desire utilitarianism or, potentially, could require throwing the theory out entirely.

All I can do is wait for those advances and see what implications they have for desire utilitarianism.