Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Moral Instinct and the Analogy of Nutrition

I have been spending the last few days looking at an article that appeared in The New York Times proposing that we have “A Moral Instinct.” I have raised some objections to the ideas presented in that essay.

Steven Pinker, the author of the article, obeys his intellectual responsibilities and considers some objections to his position at the end of his article (a habit that I wish some faith-based hate-mongers would pick up). I would like to take a look at those considered objections.

One of the objections that Pinker considers is the implication of putting our evolved ‘moral sense’ in front of morality.

Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is . . . a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Pinker considers an alternative – putting God in charge of our morality rather than our mental wiring.

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

If Plato has made short work of a divine command theory of morality, then he has also made short work of any genetic ‘moral instinct’ theory of morality. Is X good because it is loved by our genes, or is X loved by our genes because it is good?

If we go with the first option, then anything loved by our genes would be good. Male lions, when they take over a pride, kill all of the children. If humans had evolved a disposition to kill their step-children, would this imply that the killing of step-children could be morally permissible? Even obligatory? Genetic moralists often provides us with stories about how altruism could have evolved. However, predators and parasites are also products of evolution.

If we go the other way, if we say ‘X is loved by our genes because it is good’, then (1) we need a theory of good that is independent of our genes or ‘moral instinct,’ and (2) we need a theory that will explain how our ‘moral instinct’ actually came to line up reliably with that moral goodness. In other words, the ‘moral instinct’ theorist who takes this route has already conceded that what is right or wrong in fact is independent of our ‘moral instincts.’ This argument says that there is something else, something quite independent of our moral instinct, that defines right and wrong and, at best, our ‘moral instinct’ reliably points out what the answer is.

We can’t even address the second option until we know what morality is, because we cannot tell if our moral instinct is accurate until we can see the target. Without a theory of morality separate from our sentiments, we can only guess at the relationships between our moral sentiments and what is truly moral.

One way to illustrate these problems is by making an analogy to food.

There is a difference between the foods that we like and the foods that are good for us. Now, evolutionary theory will tell us that we will tend to like those foods that kept our ancestors alive long enough to genetically reproduce in the types of environments they encountered. So, we have a taste for high-calorie food. However, our environment has changed. We are surrounded by high-calorie food, and we eat far more than we need to.

The ‘moral sense’ theorists are doing the equivalent of feeding people different types of foods and measuring which types of food are universally liked and which seem to be local or individual preferences. They are feeding people these foods while they are hooked up to MRI’s and other brain imaging devices in order to determine which foods light up different parts of the brain. They are taking note of the fact that evolution has disposed us to like those foods that kept our genetic ancestors alive long enough to reproduce.

They are then taking all of this data and publishing it in peer-reviewed journals under titles where they claim that they are involved in the study of nutrition – the study of what foods are good for us in fact.

Now, the study of nutrition has nothing to do with the study of what foods we like and dislike. In fact, it is quite possible to have a science of nutrition that never even looks at our tastes in food. The study of food preferences is irrelevant. The data may be useful – it may provide some insights on where to look. However, the study of nutrition can get along just fine without the scientists in their lab coats running MRIs on agents given different flavors of ice cream.

Similarly, when scientists measure the attitudes that people have to certain moral situations, they are studying our tastes and preferences. They are correctly noting that evolution disposed us to prefer the taste of those things that allowed our ancestors to reproduce correctly. However, when they claim that they are involved in the study of morality, this is no more true than the taste-scientist’s claim that he is involved in the study of nutrition.

We can say that the study of nutrition is the study of foods that it is good for us to like – a study of foods we should grow a fondness for or an aversion to eating (to the degree that our food tastes are malleable). To the degree that we are successful, then to that degree our tastes will motivate us to eat that which is also (independently) good for us.

Similarly, morality is also the study of what it is good for us to like – a study of qualities that we should grow a fondness for or an aversion to bringing about (to the degree that our desires are malleable). To the degree that we are successful, then to that degree we will like to bring about that which is also (independently) good for us.

But the study of morality is no more closely linked to the study of personal moral tastes than the study of nutrition is to the study of tastes in food.

While I’m on the subject, I suppose I should address the issue of how Desire Utilitarianism handles Plato’s argument. After all, if ‘good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question’, let’s ask, “Is X good because we desire it? Or do we desire it because it is good?” If the former, then if we desire the torturing of young children, then torturing young children would be good. If it is the latter, then (1) what is this ‘goodness’ that is independent of our desires, and (2) how is it that our desires (influenced, as they are, by evolutionary pressures) happen to reliably pick out that which is good?

It turns out that neither of the horns of this dilemma can be satisfied. It is neither the case that things are morally good because we desire them, nor is it the case that we desire them because they are morally good. It is quite possible for what is morally good to be substantially independent of what we desire in fact.

Returning to the food analogy, it turns out that it is neither the case that, strictly speaking, we like things because they are nutritious (meaning that our likeness is directly and inerrantly fixed on their nutritional value). Nor is it the case that things are nutritious because we like them. Rather what is nutritious is something independent of what we like and dislike, though we have evolved a disposition to favor things that kept us alive.

Moral goodness = that which it is good for us to desire, the way nutrition = that which it would be good for us to like (in terms of food).

This goodness is not fully independent of our desires. A ‘good desire’ is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. However, this theory breaks any direct connection between our desires and moral goodness. We can’t get from ‘I want to torture a young child,’ to ‘torturing a young child is morally good’. We have to take the desire to torture a young child and compare that to other desires. We need to determine if people generally have reason to promote that desire, or to discourage it. If nobody desired to torture young children, no desires would be thwarted. Whereas, if everybody desired to torture young children, desire-thwartings would be rampant in that either the desires of those who want to torture, or the desires of those who would be tortured, have to be thwarted. These desire thwarting give people generally reason to prefer that no desire to torture children exists.

So, we have our answer to the question of what is ‘good’ that is independent of our desires. Or, at least, a good that is not directly dependent on our desires. It is consistent with the view that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, but respects the fact that our desires – our ‘reasons for action’ – are reasons to act so as to promote some desires and inhibit others.

At this point, a slightly different example may be worthwhile. Just as nutritionists have been able to do a fine job of studying the science of nutrition without studying brain scans of people as they chew and swallow food, logicians have been able to do a fine job of studying logic, and mathematicians have been able to do a fine job of studying math, without studying brain scans of people as they chew on and swallow logical or mathematical propositions. Similarly, the ethicist can make a perfectly valid study of ethics without studying brain scans of people chewing on and swallowing moral claims.

The study of brain scans is simply not the same area of study as the study of nutrition, logic, math, or ethics.


Anonymous said...

Nitpick: It goes without saying, but in choosing your example of a desire that, when fulfilled, thwarts other desires (a desire to torture young children) you didn't actually say that the young children have the desire to avoid being tortured. ;) Given a hypothetical world in which young children have no desire to avoid torture (for example, a world in which young children have no desires at all because they don't yet have a brain capable of forming desires) would such a desire necessarily be a bad desire? (On the other hand, does "torture" stop being torture if it doesn't thwart the desires of the one being tortured?)

Interestingly enough, masochists exist in the actual world, so there are people that do have a desire to experience pain under certain circumstances... is the desire to cause pain to masochists a bad desire?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Techically, I do not need to worry about "a desire to avoid being tortured." I need to worry about "desires that are thwarted by being tortured." This would include such things an an aversion to pain.

The only type of being that has no interest in avoiding torture is a being that cannot be tortured - a being that has no desires that can be thwarted. By talking about the torture of a being we are necessarily talking about a being with very strong desires (desire to be free from pain) that the torture would thwart.

Masochists exists in the real world, but they are people who have a desire to fulfill that is stronger than the desires being thwarted. Typically, this is a sexual desire, or guilt in the form of a desire to punish the guilty and a belief (rational or irrational) that the agent himself deserves to be harmed.

We have reason to promote an aversion to causing others pain. We are safer that way. If we try to build exceptions for the sake of masochists into the system we risk having the willingness to cause pain (or the weaker aversion to causing pain) spill over and affect others.

Anonymous said...

In other words, if it didn't thwart desires, it wouldn't be torture.

I'm reminded of a scene in one part of the Hitchhiker's Guide saga; to avoid the ethical problem of eating meat, aliens created an animal that wanted to be eaten and was quite vocal about it. The end result was rather disturbing...