Thursday, January 17, 2008

Summary Conclusion on Moral Instinct

Since I have spent the week on this ‘moral instinct’ theory, I thought I would finish it up by stating my core objection to ‘moral instinct’ or ‘moral sense’ theories or any form of moral intuitionism.

I see it as being simply a replacement for religion.

One of the reasons that people have invented gods is to give legitimacy to their immoral impulses. Do you want to take over some piece of land that somebody else occupies? Claim that God has given you title until the end of time, and that this gives you the right to kick anybody and everybody else off of it, regardless of harm done.

Are there people in your own community who are not like you – who like things that you do not like? Then tell the world that God commands the death of such people, and you can then feel justified in rounding them up and killing them, or at least driving them into the closet.

Do you want to assert that you and your people have a right to rule and that all others have a duty to obey, then assert that God has personally selected you to be the person who rules, so that anybody who disobeys you disobeys God, and all of society will suffer his wrath if this is allowed to continue.

‘Moral instinct’, ‘moral sense’, and all other forms of intuitionist moral theories play the same role. We simply get rid of the idea of a God writing moral truths on our soul, and replace it with the idea of genes writing moral truths into our brain structure.

All a person in ante-bellum South needed to do was to recognize that the thought of owning slaves did nothing to tickle his conscience – that he actually found it somewhat pleasing to be ‘master’ to somebody else’s ‘slave’ without a twinge of guilt. If he senses no wrongness in owning slaves, then there must not be any wrongness in owning slaves for him to sense.

The person who wants to rape a woman appeals to his moral sense. He then listens as his moral sense tells him that women actually enjoy rape (because it allows them to have sex without feeling guilty), or that they deserve to be raped. The act of rape, in this latter case, becomes an act of imposing justice – something his ‘moral sense’ tells him ought to be done.

Ultimately, intuitionist moral theories are the ultimate expression of the idea, “If it feels good, it must be right.” Since moral claims are intimately linked to punishment or other forms of harm to others, they actually take the form, “If it feels right to do this harm to others, then it is right to do this harm to others.”

I grew up among people who knew that interracial relationships were wrong. They knew this because they relied on their moral sense to tell them this. If they saw an interracial couple engaged in public displays of affection, then their moral sense went off to tell them, immediately, that they were in the presence of wrongness and something should be done to prevent this.

They were not faking or lying about their feelings of disgust. Those feelings were genuine. The problem is that they did not reflect any ‘moral sense’ or ‘moral intuition’. What they reflected was the agent’s own learned aversion to these types of relationships.

What difference would it make to discover that this aversion was universal, or that it might have had some evolutionary explanation? Evolution could very well have made us into people who tend to favor those who ‘look like us’ and to have an adverse reaction to those who ‘look different’. This could have been an effective way of determining whether the ‘other’ has similar genes (and should be favored), or different genes (and should be disfavored).

In fact, when a set of mutations came along that made a significant contribution to what we are as human, it may well have included this type of favoritism. Since others with these new humanity-making genes would ‘look like us’, then such a trait may well have been responsible for our genetic success – the fact that our biological ancestors were busy helping those who ‘looked like them’ at the expense of members of other tribes where this mutation did not appear and whose members did not ‘look like us’.

We can even imagine an evolutionary case in which these sentiments became universal. With a slight adjustment to our evolutionary history, we may have become a race that ‘felt’ perfectly justified in enslaving others who did not look like us and forcing them to work (without compensation) for those who did ‘look like us’. People who claim that their study of our moral intuitions is a study of morality cannot rule out the possibility that they are assigning ‘justification’ to just this type of phenomenon. The claim that the universal nature of the desire to enslave those who do not look like us gives it legitimacy is absurd.

An innate disposition towards a racist morality that imposes slavery on those who do not look like us, no matter how well backed up by an evolutionary story, and no matter how universal, does not imply that slavery is, in fact, morally legitimate. It might explain racism and slavery, but in doing so it would be explaining a tendency to do evil. It would not be explaining the moral legitimacy of slavery.

All of this suggests that there is a moral goodness that is independent of our moral instinct – that to determine the difference between right and wrong we must appeal to something other than a ‘moral intuition’ or whether something ‘feels right’.

Once we have made that appeal, once we know the real difference between right and wrong, then we can look at our intuitions and determine whether they are calibrated correctly. However, we cannot calibrate an instrument without having a standard that is independent of the instrument being calibrated. We cannot calibrate our moral sense without having a moral standard that exists independent of our moral sense. That is where we must go to discover the true difference between right and wrong.

In saying all of this, I recognize that there is a complication drawn from the fact that intrinsic value does not exist. The only reasons for action that exist are desires, and desires are mental states. We must investigate desires to investigate reasons for action. However, we must be careful never to give a mere desire the status of a ‘moral intuition’ no matter how it may feel to us. The inclination to enslave those who do not ‘look like us’ is a mere desire, not a moral intuition, regardless of how it feels. It is merely one of many desires.

And it is a bad desire at that, given that it is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. To the degree that this desire exists, then some desires must be thwarted. Either the desires of the slave owner are thwarted by a prohibition on slavery, or the desires of the slave are thwarted by allowing slavery. On the other hand, if this desire did not exist, then there would be nobody with a desire to own slaves, and no slaves whose desires are being thwarted.

Ancient civilization took these bad desires and assigned them to a God to give them legitimacy. They claim that God wrote these moral truths into their sole. So, when they talk about these attitudes they hold that they are not talking about mere desires. They are talking about something that is greater than a desire – something that justifies whatever violence may be necessary to fulfill those interests.

More ‘enlightened’ thinkers invent special legitimacy for those desires to act in ways harmful to others by inventing things like a ‘moral instinct’, ‘moral intuitions’, or a ‘moral sense.’ However, this is just another way of saying, “Moral truths written onto the human sole by .” In fact, these entities do have one thing in common with God – none of them are real. They are just convenient entities that one can point to in order to excuse desires to do harm to others.

If there is no independent justification to measure our moral instinct against, then our moral instinct is simply an urge to do unjustified harm to others without feeling guilty about it. If there is an independent justification to measure our moral instinct against, then we do not need a moral instinct – we can just go with the independent justification.


Martin Freedman said...

Well I both agree and disagree with this summary.

I agree to the extent it is a correct argument against those who claim "genes did it" which is no different to those who claim "god did it". This applies here to a moral instinct and in general with a "genes of the gap" - some gene was adaptvely evolved to explain X - being no better than equivalent "god of the gaps" etc. There is no question that readers of Pinker and Dawkins etc. often do take this approach and they should be criticized for it.

I disagree to the effect that this is an uncharitable interpretation of the enterprise that Pinker was reporting on here. Once you have dealt with the above as a danger in this enterprise there is still much data of value here. Anyway didn't Pinker say in this article Morality, then, is still something larger than our inherited moral sense, and the new science of the moral sense does not make moral reasoning and conviction obsolete.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Yes, Pinker said that morality is, in effect, 'genes plus something else' (or A and B).

What I am claiming is not that Pinker failed to acknowledge that there is also 'something else' (a B part of morality to consider) - but that there is no A.

All of morality can be found in B.

A is some type of (genetic) moral sense or moral instinct. B is an independent justification for moral claims. As my final paragraph says, any appeal to A counts either as an unjustified urge to do harm, or can be jusitifed by an appeal to B.

So . . . no A.

Anonymous said...

Why does one need a justification before doing something, anyway? Lions don't need justifications. Viruses don't need justifications. Hurricanes don't need justifications. Songbirds don't need justifications. Honeybees don't need justifications. However, many people do offer justifications for their actions.

The need for a justification seems to have its basis in the need to function within a society of other people. If you go around harming people, other people might get angry at you and retaliate in the hope of deterring future harms. If your justification is convincing, however, you have a better chance of getting away with it. For example, why do people tolerate tax collectors and not armed bandits? Justification! ;)

I think I had a point but I can't remember what it was.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

One does not need a justification for doing something. If I should go downstairs to get a soda as I write, I need no justification . . . because I am not making a statement.

However, moral claims are proposition. The statement 'abortion is wrong' is a claim about the world. As such, one needs to demonstrate whether it is true or false. (There are theorists who dispute the idea that moral statements are propositions capable of being true or false, but I see no merit to their arguments.)

The proposition, 'X is wrong' requires some reason to believe it is true.

Rob said...

You assume without justification that Pinker commits the naturalistic fallacy. He doesn't.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Pinker writes about others, such as Jonathan Haidt.

And Haidt says, for example, "Morality is a natural phenomenon that can and should be studied by the methods of science."

I happen to deny that 'the naturalistic fallacy' is a fallacy. I agree that morality is a natural phenomenon that can and should be studied by the methods of science.

I don't think that these people have the right phenomenon.

One of the arguments that I needed to make to defend this position was to explain why I reject The naturalistic fallacy.

Which I do in a post called, The Naturalistic Fallacy

Rob said...

I'm referring to the naturalistic fallacy more specifically meant as the "is-ought problem." You wrongly assume that Pinker and Haidt commit this error.