Thursday, December 04, 2008

Morality and Human Nature

Neuroskeptic wrote the following comment in response to a recent post, The Purpose of Morality.

Do we invent morality? I'm not sure who invented it and when - I always thought it was a natural expression of human nature. If someone says "X is wrong", it's not because they think saying it will bring about a desired outcome, it's generally because they feel that X is wrong.

We invent morality. Morality is a tool that we use to fulfill the most and strongest of our desires. Like all tools, it can be poorly designed, or well designed. And the quality of the design is determined for morality as it is for any other tool, by how efficiently it does the job for which it was invented.

It is true that people often appeal to their own feelings to determine if something is right or wrong. However, when they do so, they often come up with the wrong answer. It is probably the case that every hijacker on 9-11 felt that he was doing the right thing.

We have little reason to doubt that the vast majority of all slave owners, jihadists, crusaders, child abusers of all types, are comfortable with their actions. They use their feelings to judge right and wrong, and their feelings are mistaken.

It is very tempting to use one’s feelings to judge right and wrong. Your feelings will tell you what you want to hear. "Feelings" make the great atrocities of history that much easier, because "feelings" means that whatever one wants to do – whatever one is comfortable with – is right.

The very fact that a person can appeal to their feelings and come up with a wrong answer suggests that morality must be something other than what one feels is right or wrong. If feelings were the actual measure of what is right or wrong – if "what feels right" were identical to "what is right", then it would not make sense to ever say, "X feels right, but it is still wrong."

The very possibility of one's feelings giving a wrong answer means that morality must be "something else" – something that feelings have at least a possibility of not matching exactly.

Also, the idea that morality is some "natural expression of human nature" means that these greatest atrocities in human history might actually be permissible – even obligatory. Racism, for example, can well be a natural expression of human nature. We might have an innate disposition to favor those who look like us and to treat those who do not look like us with hostility. In which case, it would be morally permissible – even morally obligatory – to be racist.

It might be a natural part of a man's nature to engage in rape. It might be quite unnatural to encourage men to refrain from rape.

Morality is not an expression of our nature. Morality is a tool we use to keep our nature under control - to promote those parts of our nature that we have reason to promote, and to inhibit those parts of our nature we have reason to inhibit.

Morality is a tool that we use to take our nature, and to make it better.


Anonymous said...

Alonzo, the problem is you can't have morality without intuitions, which are, essentially, feelings. Morals are (hopefully) reasoned extrapolations of intuitions, but there must be some level at which morals are reduced to feelings, even if not all moral feelings are correct. And if that doesn't provide a coherent ethics for every single person, I can only tell you that the universe doesn't owe us a coherent ethics.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a problem of blurry definitions only. I hate argueing sematics. But....

I believe Alonzo means that a moral system is independant of feelings. It provides the data of what is good/bad and how to maximize/minimize these. This data is objective and not dependant on any person's "feelings" about the jews or whatever. And thus it is a tool.

However moral practice is very closely tied to feelings. This is a founding tenant of Desire Utilitarianism (heck, it's in the name) - that desires are the drivers of action. Desires provide motivation to agents, and thus desires should be shaped to conform to what is good. When people say "morality is based on feelings" what they are often conveying is the opposite - that good is shaped to conform to a person's desires.

So yes, you can't have morality without feelings/desires. But a moral system is independant of an agent's feelings.

Did that make any sense?

Beastinblack said...

We talk about human morals, but at this rate of overpopulation, and in the future, mass starvation due to exceeding carrying capacity, and at the expense of the natural world, the arrogance is beyond belief. Why dont we punish big cats for eating their rival's young? Or what about elephant seals who want the right to mate (rape?) as many females on the beach as possible.

The amount of time whales have existed for, they havent wiped the planet out, but we very nearly have wiped them out.

What is the real difference between morals and sheer arrogance? What gives us the right to take the high ground? Our intelligence? Is the human race as intelligent as it claims? This excess consumerism by the masses and dependance on tools invented by a select few who may show creativity and intelligence does not hint at more intelligence (in terms of the species as a whole) as a primate navigating the rainforest (which itself is being cut down by us to a point of no return). Such a short sighted view of the world our species has, as well as having these supposed morals, doesnt that make us just a bit hypocritical?

Neuroskeptic said...

Thanks for devoting a post to my little comment -

I think the problem we have here is that I wasn't quite clear about what I meant by denying that morality is an invention. What I mean is that, as a matter of historical and psychological fact, it isn't - no-one ever conciously invented morality, and indeed it's not unclear how they could have (if you had an entirely amoral society with no concept of "ought", how would you introduce "ought"?)

This is what I mean by "morality is a natural expression of human nature". We're born to be moral. We are born with the concept of ought and should. The evidence of anthropology suggests that we're probably also born to find certain things morally wrong e.g. there is no society which doesn't have some concept approximating "just punishment".

Now I'm not saying that our moral instincts are necessarily ethically correct. They're not. I'm a determinist, so I consider the concept of "just punishment" to be ultimately meaningless - however I recognise that it's not an invention.

Beastinblack said...

Are we the only species with moral's then? And if so what exactly are they?

Anonymous said...

Beastinblack -

Based on this post I assume that Alonzo believes that all animals with a capacity to learn (including humans) have some form of morality. To quote: "“Can there be a moral system among animals?” - I answer that there can be. All it takes is a system of ‘rewarding’ those who fulfill the desires (with grooming, sex, the sharing of food, play) and the ‘condemning’ of those who thwart the desires of others (through snarls, hisses, a swipe across the nose, and other threats). Animals can very well ‘promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires’ in this way without having even a concept of good and evil.

In fact, I would suggest that this is where morality came from. I would suggest that humans had a concept of morality long before they were able to even dream up the concept of God because, even as animals, they were using praise and condemnation to promote desires that tended to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tended to thwart other desires."

As for "What gives us the right to take the high ground? Our intelligence? Is the human race as intelligent as it claims?" - IMHO - asking "what gives us the right" is the same as assuming there is a being/force that "gives" rights. There are no rights but those we take (IMHO). Currently, no other animal on this planet can shape our desires or aversions with the standard conditioning tools (reward and punishment, and - to a lesser degree - praise and condemnation). Thus they have no effect on our morality. This is probably one of the reasons we eat animal meat (just my opinion).

Neuroskeptic - you say "I'm a determinist, so I consider the concept of "just punishment" to be ultimately meaningless." I am also a determinist, but I find the concept of "just punishment" to be entirely meaningfull, and practical. Can you elaborate on what you mean by "ultimately meaningless"? (honestly interested).

Neuroskeptic said...


Sorry I missed your question. What I meant is that I don't think that the distinction between a "just" and an "unjust" punishment can be defended philosophically. Most people feel that some people deserve to be punished for certain actions, and others are innocent and don't. I think this feeling is probably a universal fact of human nature. However as a determinist I don't think it's ultimately meangingful because no-one is responsible for their actions given that all their actions are the inevitable outcome of circumstances over which they had no control (e.g. the circumstances around their birth).

this isn't to say that a punishment might not be a good idea, if it prevents further crime etc., but it's not a question of being "just".

Beastinblack said...

To simply ensure healthy biodiversity by looking at the impact of our species as a whole is good enough for me. I have aspergers syndrome which makes social intuition very difficult. Am I less moralistic if I dont shed a tear about someone moaning about their divorce?

When you mention intuition, does this mean theory of mind or does it mean being able to play a song after just listening to it once, or the ability to visualise einstein's theory of relativity? I have trouble with theory of mind but does that make me immoral?

Do I not have a morals if I feel that the only way to guarantee the survival of our species and to ensure biodiversity is to implement a mass cull of the exploding asian population? or maybe a mass sterilization? (Not that I really think that should happen, but to used it as an example if it was ever suggested for real). The long term benefits would outweigh the short term pain, but is that 'allowed'?