Thursday, February 28, 2013

Public Funding for Space Development

Government Funding for Space Development

This article concerns the case for the public funding of space development - a case that even a Republican should accept.

The main case is quite simple. Clearly it qualifies as national defense to protect the nation from an asteroid impact. It would be odd at best to argue that public funding can be legitimately spent in protecting the country from a missile launched by a foreign government, but not one launched by nature.

There are certain principles in play that argue for the use of public funds to provide for the common defense. The main argument concerns the difficulty in establishing a national defense that protects just those who pay for it, while leaving those who live next door undefended. A fire department can say, "We will not risk saving your house because you did not pay your dues," but the provider of an anti-missile defense cannot help but protect non-payers and payers alike.

In economics, this is known as the free-rider problem. The people who will get the benefit even if they do not pay have little incentive to pay. Their small contribution will not determine whether or not such a system is built, or whether or not their house will be protected. Consequently, there is little incentive to contribute.

To get around this free-rider problem, national defense is treated as a public good. Everybody - or everybody who has a surplus that they can share - is forced to pay "a fair amount" to make sure that national defense is not underfunded. We may dispute what a fair amount is - an equal dollar value for each person, a proportional amount of income, a proportional amount of property, a greater percentage by those with the most income reflecting the diminishing marginal value of their surplus dollars. However, regardless of the specifics, the principle is that the government forces people to make a contribution through taxes to prevent the underfunding brought about by the free rider problem.

The same argument apples to providing for a defense from criminals. A rapist, caught and confined to where they can do no harm, is a benefit for (nearly) everybody. However, it is a benefit whether one pays for it or not. This, too, generates a free rider problem. People have an incentive not to ay and simply harvest the benefits that come from the benefits of others. To ensure that police protection is properly funded, everybody is forced to contribute whether they want to or not.

Protecting the country from a spaced-based threat faces exactly the same free rider problem that we find in national defense. It is just the type of project that would tend to be under-funded as each individual sought to ride for free on the contributions made by those around them.

In fact, this applies to the scientific understanding of all forms of natural disasters. Protecting people from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, sea-level rise, tsunamis, plagues, and tornados also suffers from a free-rider problem comparable to national defense. The government's responsibility to provide for the common defense applies equally to a defense from space-based and other natural (and global man-made) disasters.

The widespread destruction of a city when a hurricane breaches a levy is as much a legitimate cause for government concern as the flooding of a city when a terrorist breaches a levy.

It is important here to recognize that the space program provides protection from things other than space-based threat. Space-based weather monitoring - warning people of hurricane and other forms of extreme weather in time to save lives and property - has already provided a benefit far in excess of its cost. It also helps to inform us of the threat of global warming, and the climatic changes we can expect in certain parts of the world in time to avoid the greatest costs.

The national defense budget of for 2013 exceeds $500 billion. Republicans themselves embrace the arguments that at least some federal spending on a project such as this is legitimate and important. All of the arguments justifying a public national defense are applicable to providing for a public natural defense.

Of course, not everything that NASA spends money on can be defended using this argument. In fact, not everything NASA spends money on can be defended.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Alternatives to Spending on Space Development

Today, I will take up one of the most commonly heard objections to spending money on space development - that we have real problems on earth that deserve the money. The argument I will address says that we should cancel space development and use the money to fight poverty, provide education, clean up the environment, cure cancer, bring peace to the middle east, and accomplish any number of other tasks.

However, if we were to list the things that people waste money on - from most wasteful to least wasteful - we would find space development far down the list.

Here are some items that would be nearer the top of the list:

Video Games: Nearly $25 billion. This is half again as large as the annual NASA budget. While NASA uses the money to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world around us, the video game industry invites people to waste huge amounts of time accomplishing nothing of value. In fact, the greatest cost of the video game industry is not the billions of dollars spent on the games and game equipment. It is in the huge loss of (potential) labor hours and brain power on the part of people who are distracted from real-world issues by these game. They could otherwise have been spending a portion of that time educating themselves on real-world issues and working on potentially intelligent and informed solutions.

Movie Industry: $65 Billion. There is practically nothing in the movie industry that is of real value. Even when it deals with real-world concerns, it often misinformed and presents fallacious arguments - the most often form of rhetoric being an appeal to emotions that themselves are manipulated by editing, music, and other techniques.

Sports Industry: Over $400 Billion. Some of this money goes to promoting physical fitness. Yet, it is hard to deny that the money spent on the tickets to a football game can be better spent finding a vaccine for malaria. I know people who can cite sports statistics with ease who could not locate Afghanistan on a map.

Restaurant Industry: $600 Billion. Stop at the grocery store on the way home, pick up something to eat, save $20, and donate the money to cancer research. This amount wasted on the restaurant industry does not include the health care and other costs of obesity - which not only would include money spent on food one does not need (or food that gets thrown out), but avoidable health care costs as well.

Let's add vacation cruises, gambling, smoking and other forms of drug use, television (particularly sit-coms and "reality" television), cosmetics, jewelry, and food packaging.

There are countless other examples.

Defenders of these industries will often talk about the jobs created and their contribution to the economy. Yet, they seem to think that everybody in their industry would not be able to find work elsewhere. If we move $100 billion from the sports industry and used it to find child health care services instead, the sports industry will suffer a loss of jobs, but the child health care industry would likely have a few new job opportunities.

I will not pretend to be a paradigm of virtue when it comes to the proper use of one's time and money. However, objections that would take this form qualify as "ad hominem" arguments. Desirism admits that a person will aim to fulfill his or her current desires - good and bad. However, it further asks about the quality of the desires, measuring them by their capacity to fulfill other desires. It is almost certainly the case that if people (including me) liked computer games and dining less, and liked contributing to medical research and early childhood health care more, it would be a better world.

Any time and money that I waste on these things does not make false any of the claims that I have made in this post. It does not make it the case that there is any sense to the claim that the fate of the world depends on diverting a few billion dollars from space development - an industry with the potential to save the planet - and move it instead into "something else". There are trillions of dollars out there available to be moved from less useful activities, before one even begins to eye space development as a source of funds for these other projects.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Taking Care of What We Have

A comment on an earlier post represents a common attitude about the space program.

Breakerslion wrote:

Seems a lot easier to take care of what we have.

No argument was presented, leaving a response open.

There are three answers available. The first is that this is not an either-or question. In fact, it is not even possible to "take care of what we have" without a space program. Recall my earlier posts about the threat of asteroid impacts and other space-based threats. The dinosaurs were not particularly abusive of what they had. They also did not have a space program.

Remember, astronomers searching for asteroids are not asking, "Will we be hit?" They are asking, "Which one will hit us next, and how much time do we have?"

The second response is to ask, "What are your plans for taking care of what we have?"

When it comes it harvesting minerals and energy, we have two options - harvest them on earth, or harvest them off-earth. Every act of harvesting resources on earth is an act that cuts into a living ecosystem. Whereas every act of harvesting resources in space involves working in an area without life - without an ecosystem to harm.

Of all of the options available for energy, fossil fuels threaten global warming and oil spills, wind chops up birds, the waste from manufacturing solar cells is toxic, dams drown whole ecosystems. A solar powered satellite in space, built in space from material mined in space damages nothing on earth.

Beaming that energy down to earth might have environmental impacts on earth. However, a large amount of this energy can be used in space as well. Instead of beaming the energy to earth, it could be used to mine an asteroid, refine the metals, and use those metals in manufacturing. The manufactured items can be shipped to earth, saving the planet from the stress of all of the preliminary steps.

Besides, the people living and working in space would also be living and working without putting stress on the earth. Certainly, they will need to be supplied from earth at the start, but they will be working to reduce that dependency over time - if only to save on shipping costs.

In addition, one of the main technologies that will be developed in space will be recycling - recycling the air,the water, the bio-mass. For somebody who wants to "take care of what we have," these technologies would likely be seen as important.

In the future, when there are 10 million people living in orbiting cities, getting their energy from the sun, mining the asteroids, and farming climate-controlled and pest-free farming pods, then there will be 10 million people not putting a stress on the Earth. Then 100 million. Then, a billion.

I imagine the earth itself, someday, becoming an ecological preserve with the dirtiest and most destructive jobs moved off-planet. This is wild speculation - but it illustrates a point. The degree to which we get what we need (including places to live) in the dead of space, to that degree we can do a better job of "taking care of what we have" on earth.

Breakerslion also provided a distopian story and asked:

Extrapolate that to a whole lot of vacuum outside.

But that describes the Earth, too. A place to live with a whole lot of vacuum outside. If somebody has a problem living in a biosphere surrounded by vacuum, that is a very serious problem indeed.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Harvesting Asteroids

What is the carrying capacity of the asteroid belt? By this, I mean that irradiated vacuum-packed collection of rocks and gravel equalling 3 percent of the Earth's mass that orbits mostly between Mars and Jupiter?

It is probably in the trillions.

It has the capacity to be used to generate orbiting communities with a land surface area greater than that of 10,000 climate-controlled earths.  Growing areas can be made perfect for growing crops - with perfect temperatures, sunlight, and nutrients - all free of potential disease or pests.

It begins by taking an asteroid and using its material to build a shell in space. For simplicity, imagine a tin can kilometers in diameter and kilometers long.

Much of the mass for such a structure is its 1 meter thick shell - used to shield those inside from cosmic rays. This shell can be made of anything. There is no need to look for any type of special construction materials. All that us needed us mass - enough mass to stop most of the cosmic radiation that hits it.

This mass does not need to be set spinning. It simply floats in space. In fact, you would not want it to spin. Spinning that much mass will only create forces that will try to tear the cylinder apart. 

It's occupants will likely want an artificial gravity, however. That can be simulated by setting the structures inside spinning - like a roller coaster car on a track on the inside of the can. Made large enough, nobody will perceive the motion.

Physics being what it is, a spinning interior will transmit angular momentum to the exterior over time. This problem can be solved by having sections in the living area turning in opposite directions. For a 12 kilometer city, one could have the first three kilometers and last three kilometers spinning one direction, and the middle six spinning the other direction.

Constructed in this way, the material in the asteroid belt contains enough material to create the surface area equivalent of over 10,000 earths.

Each square kilometer of surface area on the Earth is supported by 2000 cubic kilometers of material beneath it. In space, a city constructed as described will require less than 0.002 cubic kilometers of material per square kilometer of (interior) surface area. Undoubtedly, much of that material will go to things other than creating surface area. Half? 90 percent? Using just 1 percent of this material to create surface area means the equivalent of 300 earths.

Furthermore, the earth is made up largely of oceans, mountains, deserts, jungles, and other inhospitable places. The inside of a space city is built the way it's inhabitants want it to be built. The temperature, humidity, are all determined by public will.

This will also be true of the farming pods. There will be no drought. No plague of locusts. No"growing season" bounded by harsh winters where the land must sit idol. Not only are we talking about the surface area of 300 earths. We are talking about earths that are made up, 100 percent, of the best land in the best climate for living or growing food.

Consequently, we are talking about earth-equivalent of land areas that can hold far more than the 7billion people of Earth itself.

So . . . . 

300 earth-equivalent land area * 20 billion people per earth-equivalent (which is far less crowded than our current land area on Earth) = 6 trillion people.

Which is the carrying capacity of a collection of airless, radiated rocks in space.

And any asteroid turned into space cities is an asteroid that is not going to hit earth.

The value of a space program is found in the desires that it fulfills - the propositions P that are true in the program itself and the effects of that program. 300 earth-equivalents of living space is available as a consequence of the space program. It can be used to fulfill a lot of desires.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Space Impacts

What is the value of a space program?

Value is determined by a relationship between what is true of a state of affairs and its consequences and what people desire - combined with a second order evaluation of whether those desires themselves are malleable desires that people have reason to promote or inhibit.

Yesterday, I wrote about the desire-thwarting potential of an asteroid impact.

The main conclusion of yesterday's discussion is that there is a near-certainty of a future impact that it would be worth over $1 trillion to avoid. It is a mistake to think that astronomers are looking at asteroids to answer the question, "Will we get hit?" They are looking at asteroids to answer the question, "Which one will hit us next and when?"

However, the "present value" of avoiding an impact far in the future may be very low. Even if we were mathematically certain of an asteroid impact 1 million years from now, it scarcely warrents a lot of investment today. We are, for example, quite confident in predictions that the earth will be destroyed in about 5 billion years - but that does not justify any sort of panic today.

We will certainly need a space program at some time. It's worth will be in th hundreds of trillions of dollars. But maybe not today.

Yet, asteroid impacts are not the only threats we face from space.

Another is the threat of long period comets - comets whose orbits are measured in tens of thousands of years. Comet Hyukatake was discovered 53 days before passing within 10 million miles of Earth. It may have been discovered 53 days before hitting earth. Here, too, the threats of an impact are exceptionally low, but not zero.

Another potential threat comes from rogue planets. These are planet-sized objects that either formed in space like very small stars, or formed around a star but was ejected into interstellar space by the gravity wars with other planets. Astronomers estimate that there are more rogue planets than stars. They are difficult to see. Furthermore, they do not need to strike the earth to cause significant problems. Their mass would affect all orbits within the solar system. We may have cleaned out our orbital ring to some degree over the past 4.5 billion years, but it will not likely stay clean.

There is also the issue of a near flyby of another star. Fortunately, since stars glow brightly in the dark, they are easier to see. This, in turn, makes it easier to predict any stellar fly-bys. GL710, currently not even visible to the naked eye, will be one of the brightest stars in the sky in 1.4 million years as it passes a little more than 1light year away from the sun. It will have an effect on the Oort Cloud, potentially sending long-period comets into the inner solar system.

Of course, this easily qualifies as "too far in the future to worry about today."

While we are on the subject, I would like to mention another future impact - when the Andromeda galaxy collides with the Milky Way. This will throw the orbit of everything into chaos. This is worth mentioning, not because it justifies taking steps to protect our descendants from this collusion today, but to illustrate an obvious but often overlooked fact about space events compared to terrestrial events. It is a threat we did not even know about 100 years ago.

Space events are potentially very, very large. And the earth is very, very small. No earthquake, super-volcano, hurricane, or winter storm can carry the destructive (desire-thwarting) potential of events in space. Furthermore, the universe, like a lumbering giant in a field of ants, cares nothing about who lives or dies. If we want to survive, it is up to us to determine where the giant will step next and make sure we are not standing where it happens to be stepping.

The way we do that is with a space program.

This is at least some of the value of a space program.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Cost of Asteroid Avoidance

The value of a space program, like the value of anything, is determined by the desires it fulfills or thwarts.

The meteor impact in Russia injured approximately 1500 people and caused tens of millions of dollars worth of damage. The asteroid that narrowly missed the Earth on the same day was three times the length - potentially 27 times the mass - of the Russian meteor.

The asteroid that missed us was approximately the same size as the one that created Meteor Crater in Arizona. However, the composition of the meteor is also important. Meteor Crater was created by an iron-nickle asteroid likely to survive its trip through the atmosphere in one piece. The meteor that hit Russia was a stoney meteor likely to burst in the air.

Of course, the composition of the meteor is also important. The meteor that created Meteor Crater in Arizona was the same size as the asteroid that narrowly missed on Friday, but was a nickel-iron meteor that tends to survive the atmosphere and hit as a solid chunk. The Tunguska Comet that hit in 1908 and destroyed over 2000 square miles of forest. It could ave destroyed 2000 square miles of buildings.

Unfortunately, as an argument for or against a course of action, these types of facts can be deceptive. Humans do a poor job at risk assessment. They tend to read numbers like this, measure the emotion generated by the numbers, and use that as their guide about what to do. This method is not only highly fallible - it is easy manipulated.

Those who have a stake in motivating others to act on the threat have a stake in presenting these facts in a context of, "OH MY GOD WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!" while those who do not want money devoted to addressing the threat will focus on the low odds and, "You are more likely to be hit by lightning - or shot" (ignoring the fact that it is far less likely that a lightning strike or a gunman can wipe out the human race).

These types of decisions are not wisely trusted to the gut instincts of people reacting to a hyped up news event. It is a decision best made by a calculated decision of the risks and costs.

An example of the type of decision model I am talking about rational decision model for mitigating an asteroid impact can be found

This paper reports that the potential harm of all known threats are so unlikely that they justify no more than $10,000 in response. However, it does not address the question of the value of discovering a threat we do not yet know about - one that would justify a response in the range that exceeds hundreds of millions of dollars.

There is a nearly 100% chance that we will someday discover a potential impact worth a response in the range of hundreds of trillions of dollars (over several years). We have had several such impacts in the past, and it is almost certain that we will experience similar impacts in the future.

That is to say, if we were to map all of the asteroids and plot their moves well into the future, we will identify the next big impact worthy of a multi-billion (multi-trillion) dollar response. It is out there, waiting to be found. One of those big rocks out there will hit us someday. We just do not know which ones, or when. While many people probably think about this problem in terms of "Whether we will be hit," and answer, "Probably not," professionals in the field are asking, "Which one will hit us next, and when?"

It will be interesting when they announce, "The next big impact will be Asteroid A in on (date)"

Yet, even here there is an issue of applying a discount rate - representing the lower present value of things in the future. If we assume a 5% discount rate - a number I pulled out of the air but which illustrates the concern - a $100 trillion expense 500 years from now only has a present value of less than $800 dollars. There are moral issues concerned with discounting future interests; however, another interpretation of the discount rate is that we simply do not know what resources or interests a future generation will have (or even whether the future generation will even exist).

We may want to include in this the uncertainty over whether people in 500 years will have a space program. However, we are involved in assessing the value of having a space program. There would be a problem with arguing that "we should not invest money in a space program because we assume that future generations have a large and effective space program."

This post illustrates some of the types of concerns associated with determining the value of a space program. As in many things involving risk, gut feeling is not to be trusted. We spend huge amounts of money - and even spend lives - avoiding a very small chance of being killed by terrorists, while devoting significantly less money to avoid the much larger chance of being killed by the next pandemic or asteroid.

It is enough to say that those who think that investment in space development is a waste of time, and those who think it is clearly worthwhile, are - in many cases - both irresponsibly jumping to unjustified conclusions. It will take a fair amount of effort to determine the answers to these questions. It is not the type of issue where simple moral intuition is going to be a useful guide.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How is that space program coming along?

Last week's cosmic coincidence - the meteor airburst in Russia that injured over 1000 people and damaged property across thousands of square kilometers, and the near miss by an asteroid with over 20 times the mass - invites us to ask, "How is that space program coming along?"

Remember, if the odds against something happening are a billion to one in a given year, it has already happened four times in earth's history, and we are waiting for the fifth (on average).

Space development is something that I have spent some time studying. I would like to share some of those thoughts.

At the same time, I would like to use this as an illustrative example of how to look at a matter of public policy in the light of the theory of value I have been presenting in this blog. After all, the relevant question is: Should we have a space program, and - if so - what should it look like?

In this case, this is a particularly important question. We could well be discussing whether the human race survives, or whether all that remains is a collection of artifacts, perhaps to be discovered by a more successful species from some other planet.

All true value claims relate states of affairs to desires. To ask whether we ought to have a space program is to ask, "What reasons for action exist for the exploration and development of space?" Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Therefore, to answer that question, we need to ask about the various "desires that P" and look at the propositions P that space development makes or keeps true - as well as looking at the propositions P it will make or keep false.

We also need to look at the moral dimension. For these various "desires that P", we have to ask whether the desire itself is malleable. Can the desire be strengthened or weakened and, if so, what reasons for action exist for strengthening or weakening it?

In other words, can a space program give us what we want and, more importantly, can it give us what we should want?

One argument I sometimes hear says that we should not explore space because the heavens belong to god and we ought not to be trespassing. The puzzle of property rights in space is an interesting one and our potential relations with other species is an interesting one. Furthermore, it is likely that there are resources in space that we have reason to think of as already owned by creatures not of earth. However, there is no god and our actions do not trespass against any imaginary being.

In a related argument, some argue that we do not need a space program to prevent any large scale disasters because god the creator would never allow us to be destroyed - not unless it was a part of a plan, in which case it would be wrong for us to interfere. Both of these claims are claims of pure fantasy. We have no magical divine protection against forces of nature with the potential to destroy the planet - or at least all human life. All that we have is our own ability to learn about them before it is too late and to prevent or weaken their effects if possible. If the human race does suffer a violent end due to some cosmic event, it will not be due to a "divine will" but bad luck potentially augmented by basic human ignorance or foolishness.

Another claim I sometimes hear is that an untouched asteroid, moon, or planet has intrinsic value. As soon as humans touch it, this value is destroyed and can never be restored. However, nothing has intrinsic value. The untouched moon only has value to the person who desires it. Here, we need to ask whether we have reason to promote or to inhibit this desire for untouched asteroids. Given that untouched asteroids have no desires of their own, and no living thing on them has desires, and given the large set of human desired thwarted by an aversion to putting marks on moons and asteroids, this "desire for an untouched moon" counts as an evil - as a desire we have many and strong reasons to condemn.

On the other side, there is no intrinsic value in exploration either. Exploration has value only insofar that, for some desires that P, P is true in the act of exploring or its consequences. On this measure, the desire to explore likely has value. It has fulfilled other human desires in the past and will likely do so in the future. It is a desire to be encouraged through praise, not discouraged through condemnation.

However, space exploration costs money. The resources spent in making or keeping P true through space exploration for any desires that P are resources not being spent on making or keeping Q true for any desires that Q. Famine, drought, poverty, disease, the ravages of war and criminal activities, other natural disasters, all thwart a great many desires. The argument can be made that the resources spent on a space program would be better spent on a health program, or an energy program, or a peace program.

That might actually be true - though no other program would be worth much if the human race itself were to be destroyed. But, then, what are the odds of that happening?

So, these are the types of considerations that are relevant to space development. They will help to tell us not only whether we should have a space program, but what form it should take. They also tell us something about how to apply desirism to an actual policy issue. I will look at these types of considerations in some detail in the posts that follow.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Non-Religious, Non-Evolutionary Account of "Ought"

I have spent a couple of weeks now arguing that the claim that evolution cannot account for (prescriptive) morality is no myth. I wish to conclude this series by offering an account of (prescriptive) morality that requires neither a god nor evolution.

It begins with a community of two or more creatures that act to realize ends or goals and that has at least one malleable end. They may have evolved. They may have been created. They may simply popped into existence. None of that matters.

Person A says to Person B, "You ought to do X."

Person B asks, "Why?"

The only legitimate answer to this question, “Why should I do X” is to provide a reason for intentional action that exists.

If A gives an answer that is not a reason for intentional action this - by definition - will not identify a reason for B to do anything. It is just an empty fact.

If A gives an answer that identifies a reason for action that does not exist (e.g., "because it is intrinsically bad,") then this fails to provide a real reason to perform a real action. B can answer, "That is not true. There is no god to displease."

People give a lot of reasons for intentional action that do not exist. They point to what they call divine commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, the will of the impartial observer, the opinions of imaginary people behind an imaginary veil of ignorance. None of these are real. None of these provide a real-world reason to perform or refrain from a real-world action.

Desires provide the only reasons for action that exist.

Desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say, a "Desire that P" is a piece of programming in the brain that motivates an agent to act (that is to say, provides an agent with a reason to act) so as to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. The agent takes making or keeping P true as an end, consults his belief, and makes a plan for realizing P (or preventing the realization of not-P), if possible – assuming that more and stronger desires do not outweigh this particular interest.

So, let's go back to answering B's question, "Why?"

The answer must tie the recommended action to one or more desires (a reason for action that exists). It must take the form, "Because P is either true in X or some consequence of X" for some desire that P.

One distinction we must make is a distinction between the reasons for action that exist, and the reasons for action that a particular agent (in this case, Person B) actually has.

A significant difference between these two types of reasons is that B will only be (directly) motivated by any desire (reasons for action) that he has. In fact, any action motivated by a desire that is not B's desire is not his action. It belongs to the person whose desires motivated it.

If A relates X to a desire-that-P that B has, then B – as soon as he realizes the truth of A’s claim, has a motivating reason to do X. However, if A relates X to a desire that Q that C has, then B is open to answering with a shrug of the shoulders and, “So?”

This “desire that Q” that C has is not a direct motivating reason for B to act to realize Q. However, it is a motivating reason for C to take action to cause B to choose that which would bring about Q.

C can pay B – “If you act so as to realize Q, then I will act so as to realize P where you desire that P.”

C can threaten B – “if you do not act so as to realize Q, then I will act so as to realize not-P, and you don’t want that.”

These, then, provide two "reasons for action that exist" for B not to respond to “You ought to do X” (where C has a desire that Q that is either true of B doing X or some consequence of B doing X) with a shrug. This fact tells B that he is potentially in a position to obtain a reward for doing X or to suffer a cost for not doing X.

A third option is for C to alter B’s interests or desires so that B wants to do those things that would result in realizing Q – assuming that C has some method available to do this.

More specifically, where B has malleable desires, C has a motivating reason to change B’s desire-that-P into a desire-that-P’ where the desire that P’ (unlike the desire that P) will motivate B to act in ways that realize Q.

B can still answer the claim, "You ought to do X" with a shrug - up to the point where C is successful in modifying B's desire-that-P into a desire-that-P'. After that conversion takes place, B has a motivating reason to do what he ought.

Let us assume that B has a reward system, where a reward can cause in B a desire that P’, and a punishment can cause on B an aversion to not-P’. C has a motivating reasons to use reward and punishment to cause B to have a desire that P’ (or an aversion to not-P’).

Let us then add that praise works as a reward, and condemnation works as a punishment. Now, C has a motivating reason to use praise and condemnation as tools for promoting in B a desire that P’.

Finally, let us build praise and condemnation into the meaning of this specific sense of 'ought'. In this sense, “You ought to do X” means, in part, “Praise be to those who do X .” and “Those who would not do X are hereby condemned”.

Finally, we will add one more stipulation - that this "ought" refers not to C's desires alone, but to what people generally have reason to praise or condemn. In this sense, where A says to B, "You ought to do X", he plants a flag and says, "People, look here. Among you are many and strong reasons to praise those who would do X, and condemn those who would not do X." If this is not true, his claim would be false.

Now we have built a sense of “ought” – tied to praise and condemnation – where “you ought to do X” says nothing about what B has a reason to do, but instead refers to what people generally have reason to praise and condemn. B can still shrug his shoulders and say, “So?”. However, B cannot deny the fact that people generally have reason to praise those who do X and condemn those who do not. That is to say, he cannot deny, “I ought to do X” even though he may not care.

Furthermore, B does have a reason to be somebody that others have reason to reward praise and avoid being somebody that others have reason to condemn. More generally, he has reason to be somebody that others have reason to reward and to not be somebody that others have reason to punish. Consequently, a shrug of the shoulders and an answer of, “So?” to “You morally ought to do X” may be possible, but rare.

We can also add that, for many possible desires, there are those that even B has reason to promote (using reward and punishment) – such as an aversion to acts that cause pain, an aversion to lying, and a desire to keep one’s promises. In these cases, A and C can honestly assert, “People generally - even you - have motivating reasons to promote a desire to tell the truth and an aversion to lying."

Here, then, is a sense of “ought” that is not necessarily tied to what an agent does desire, but very often does have some links to an agent’s actual desires. Instead, it is tied to what an agent “should desire” – that is to say, what people generally (often including the agent herself) has many and strong reasons to cause people to desire using the social tools of reward (such as praise) and condemnation (such as punishment). Statements using these terms not only report these facts but, at the same time, attempt to mold those desires by building praise and condemnation into the very terms themselves. Thus, "You ought to do X" works directly on the reward system to promote that which is praised and inhibit that which is condemned.

How much of this does evolutionary psychology account for?

Actually, at its most basic level, evolution accounts for none of it.

Even in a universe in which no living creature exists, it would be true that IF there was a creature with a desire that Q, and a second creature with malleable desires, then the first creature has a motivating reason to cause the second creature to acquire a desire that P' where Q becomes true in realizing P'. No evolutionary history – no chain of evolutionary facts – would change this.

Of course, evolution has a great deal to say about the fact that there exists a creature with a desire that P, and a second creature with malleable desires, the specific strength and object of the desire that P, and the mechanisms through which other desires can be changed. Consequently, evolutionary psychology has a lot to say about desires people actually have the most and strongest reasons to promote or inhibit.

Think of the eye. How much is evolution responsible for he principle of optics that govern how light behaves as it passes through matter with different densities? Answer: none. How much is evolution responsible for the development of an organ that uses these principles - however imperfectly - to provide an entity with information about its surroundings? Answer: A great deal.

The proposition that evolution cannot account for morality is no myth; it is a fact. However, the proposition that evolution created beings capable of using morality is not a myth. It is a fact.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Evolution and "Descriptive Morality"

Before we get lost, let's go back to where this series began.

It began with yet another example of an error that permeates the atheist community in which the evolutionary account of what David Pinsof in previous comments has called "descriptive morality" is proof against the theist claim that evolution cannot account of objective prescriptive morality.

This is an equivocation - one that evolutionary psychologists seem to invite - or at best to have little interest in confronting. I suspect it is because of the disappointment of having much of their fan club - made up of those hungry for an atheist answer to religious arguments about the source of objective morality - disappear that they eagerly blind themselves to this equivocation.

The fact that so many atheists rush to commit this fallacy to defend a cherished belief also stands as proof that they are not as disposed to embrace logic and shun unreasoned support for cherished beliefs as they claim to be.

In my last post I recommended that evolutionary psychologists combat this misunderstanding by adopting another term for descriptive morality. Another possibility is for them to actually use the phrase "descriptive morality" - clarifying at least once in each article that "by this I mean the study of moral judgements regardless of whether they are correct or incorrect, potentially including such things as a moral objection to interracial marriage and to questioning religion, and the moral approval of genocide, slavery, and conquest."

That would help.

In comments to my last post I came to realize that what Pinsof has called "descriptive morality" is what I have long called "sociological 'morality'" - with the term 'morality' in scare quotes to indicate that this term being mentioned is not being endorsed or used.

A couple of decades ago, sociology was dominated by extreme forms of subjectivism (e.g., post-modernism) that took morality to be nothing more than the opinions of a person or culture. They built this philosophy into their use of moral terms, asserting that the term "morality" itself meant nothing more than the opinions of a person or culture.

At that time, people argued, "You can't actually argue against the holocaust or slavery. You can't say they are wrong in any objective sense. All you can do is express your disapproval. But your disapproval is objectively equal to the approval of the Nazi or slave owner."

We still see these arguments today, and ideas such as this do not die easily and become almost like a secular religion in some circles, where it will always be embraced regardless of any evidence brought against it.

Of course, religious groups at the time took this extreme subjectivism as proof that the academic community had lost its collective mind. Which, indeed, it had. Liberal academics lost a great deal of credibility. It grew worse as this extreme subjectivism found its way into history, literature, psychology, and anthropology.

It even started to challenge the objectivity of science and logic - claiming that scientific views and logical proofs were also mere opinions - objectively equal to all other mere opinions or ways of thinking.

(Ironically, many religious organizations embraced this branch of subjectivism because it allowed them to argue that creationism and other religious beliefs were just as valid as any claim made by scientists.)

Moral philosophers had a great many arguments showing that this view was incoherent. Moral philosophers were, in fact, coming out of a subjectivist phase where they were rejecting the claims of emotivism and non-cognitivism.

Pinsof's "descriptive morality" is - unfortunately - a continuation of the use of this sociologist's 'morality'. As such, I cannot argue that it is not used - or even that it is not widely used.

I can and do continue to argue that this use of the term is responsible for a great deal of misery and suffering. It gave a moral permission for any evil one can imagine - allowing the perpetrator to rationalize, "Your objections are no more valid than my desire." It continues to haunt public discussion where we hear that views on evolution, climate change, and the age of earth are all grounded on equally valid opinions that have a right to equality in schools, courts, and law. My objections to its use and my invitation to people (such as evolutionary psychologists) to invent a better language is not affected by how widely the term is actually used - only by its ill effects.

However, the religious community (and many moral philosophers) never embraced this extremely subjective account of morality. When they (we - meaning those who object to using the term 'morality' in this extremely subjective sense) complain that evolution cannot account for morality, the complaint is not that evolution cannot account for mere moral opinion. Indeed, if an evolutionary account of morality showed that there were no conditions under which humans could wipe out whole populations - men, women, and children, enslave others, rape and murder, kill people who hold opinions other than their own, and the like, then that account would have to be considered a failure because these types of events do exist.

The religious community (and many moral philosophers) are challenging evolution's ability to account for the fact that some of these things are wrong regardless of the moral opinions people are able to form.

Indeed, evolution cannot account for this. It is no myth. It is a fact. It is only argued to be a myth about evolution by people who equivocate between sociologist's 'morality' and morality.

I also hold that religion also fails to answer the challenge of accounting for objective morality.
However, atheists are mistaken to think that the answer is found in the evolutionary psychologist's account of "descriptive morality". The evolutionary psychologists has answers, but those answers belong to an entirely different set of questions. It is easy to confuse the questions the evolutionary psychologists are answering with the questions the religious community is asking because evolutionary psychologists have embraced a confusing terminology (itself having its source in a philosophy of extreme subjectivism).

But it is a mistake nonetheless. It commits the fallacy of equivocation - a logical mistake - a type of mistake that many atheists claim that people have a moral obligation to avoid making. They should practice what they preach.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Immorality of "An Evolutionary Basis for Morality"

One of the tricks that evolutionary psychologists use to defend the claim that they have an evolutionary basis for morality is this:

They take a bunch of things for which they have an evolutionary account, draw a circle around it, and call it "morality". They then brag to each other, to the press, and to the world that they have found an evolutionary basis for morality.

In calling this a "trick", I am not saying that there are evolutionary psychologists sending secret emails back and forth that say, "I know how we can fool the public into thinking that our work is more important than it is." It is a trick in the same sense as, "My eyes are playing tricks on me." it s as much self-deceptive as other-deceptive.

Evolutionary psychologists like to think of their work as important - all researchers do. Consequently, they want to believe themselves that they are studying morality. Furthermore, there is enough similarity between what they study and morality to let the mind wall-paper over the cracks.

Common powers of rationalization then come into play to protect the illusion. These include simply ignoring objections. The agent does not allow them to effect one's thinking on the subject. Instead, they psychologically dismiss these objections while business goes on as usual.

It's the same techniques theists use to protect their belief that there is a god. They do not question their belief, and simply dismiss objections with the passive thought, 'Obviously, they are wrong, but I am not interested in spending the time thinking about those things right now. It is much more exciting and interesting to think about these other things."

The crack that this verbal wallpaper covers is the fact that evolutionary psychologists cannot tell us anything about what we ought and ought not to do. While morality, properly so called, is the study of "ought" statements. Consequently, what the evolutionary psychologist studies is not morality. It is something else - related to but different from morality - that they call "morality" because it makes them feel good.

Unfortunately, this trick has some harmful side effects.

When the evolutionary psychologist steps in front of the public and claims to have discovered an evolutionary basis for morality, the public at large hears this as a claim about an evolutionary proof of the truth of "ought" claims.

Evolutionary psychologists do almost nothing to prevent this misconception precisely because this is the error that is responsible for much of the interest the people have in their work.

This has two effects.

There are those who see through the error, who then see evolutionary psychologists as delusional and dismiss everything else the evolutionary psychologist says. This error feeds into - and thus feeds - a set of beliefs that seek to dismiss evolution itself. "Evolutionary psychologists do not see this obvious crack; we can infer that there is a host of other obvious cracks that the evolutionary theorist has wallpapered over as well."

And there are those who do not see the error who then think, "My evolved dispositions tell me what I ought and ought not to do." They then read into evolution their own likes and dislikes and do as they please, thinking, "Because evolution disposed me to be this way, it must be good and right."

A few who truly understand the field will admit, "Oh, what we are studying does not tell people what they ought and ought not to do." However, I do not know of any who thinks it worthwhile to go to the effort to oppose these mistakes - fighting the misunderstanding where people take, "The evolutionary account of morality is not an evolutionary proof of ought claims." They admit this only in the obscure corners of discussion and in exclusive discussions among themselves, or as a passing comment while they quickly move on to "the important stuff".

There is a moral dimension to this willingness to confuse the public on matters of morality. This type of behavior is morally negligent - it ought not to be done.

Causing people to be confused about what they ought and ought not to do cannot help but cause people to do what they ought not or not do what they ought. It causes them to misdirect the course of their lives in ways that are harmful to themselves and others.

To prevent this, the morally responsible evolutionary psychologists would want to invent a different set of terms - a set that does not invite this confusion between morality and eat the evolutionary psychologist studies. The best way to avoid this confusion is for the evolutionary psychologist to come up with a different term for what they study - a term other than "morality" - and to disavow the claim that they have found an evolutionary basis for morality.

The evolutionary psychologist can answer, "I don't care to go to the effort of preventing these consequences - they mean nothing to me." However, that is the essence of negligence. The negligent person simply is one that lacks concern over the harms her actions may cause others and takes no steps to prevent those harms.

Or the evolutionary psychologist can say, "I have searched my feelings and note that my evolved sense of empathy simply does not motivate me to take these effects into consideration; therefore, your claim that I ought to consider them must be rejected."

To this, I answer, "Thank you for illustrating my point."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Evolved Sentiments and Moral Content

My point, rather, is that evolutionary psychology contributes far more to our understanding of morality than the mere fact that we are intentional agents with reward systems.

David Pinsof made this claim in response to my last post.

It is true, as I turns out - but not in the way he describes it.

My original claim was that multiple intentional agents with malleable ends is all that is required for morality. Wherever we find these properties, we will find (with a few highly technical exceptions) moral facts.

However, the precise moral facts we find there depends on the desires of the agents that make up the community, which desires can be changed, he far they an be changed, the types of activity that cause change, the costs of that activity, and the like.

In other words, if you tell me that there is a planet X with intentional agents having at least some malleable ends, I am not going to claim the ability to deduce every right and duty to be found on Planet X. In fact, I do not think I can name one (non question-begging) right or duty. Before I answer what duties actually exist, I will need to know some things about the creatures on Planet X.

Evolutionary psychology will have a lot to say that will be relevant to the moral facts that do exist on planet X. Evolutionary psychology will provide us with a lot of facts useful in determining what the moral facts are.

However, nowhere in deducing the rights and duties on Planet X will I claim that there exists a particular right or duty merely because the people have evolved a disposition to approve of it.

Perhaps they evolved a disposition to kill any being that develops green fur. There may be an evolutionary reason for this fact (green fur was indicative of a parasitic infection and communities that evolved a disposition to kill those who acquired it were saved the ravages of the disease). But I am not going to go from this to, "Oh, then on Planet X, people who acquire green fur deserve to die."

Here on Earth, we have a disposition towards a strong aversion to pain. Also, some desires are malleable - we mold the desires of others in such a way that they are less disposed to engage in behaviors that result in experiences of pain in others. The aversion to pain provides the motivating reason to mold desires in this way, and the facts of the "reward system" where desires are molded explains how to go about it.

The evolutionary psychologist can fill in a lot of facts about the pain system and the reward system - relevant in molding desires in useful ways.

Nobody is going to fully understand the pain system without understanding the fact that we are evolved beings. Nor are we going to have a complete understanding of the methods available for promoting an aversion to others in activities resulting in pain experiences. In this area, an understanding of evolutionary psychology is useful in determining the specifics of how to go about promoting these aversions to activities contributing to pain.

However, even animals can acquire enough of an understanding to note that growling and snapping at those whose behavior inflicts pain, and rewarding those who cause no pain such things as food, sex, grooming, and protection, will make pain experiences less common.

Yet, when the evolutionary psychologist claims to be able to read moral content directly from evolved dispositions - to explain "People with quality Q deserve to die" entirely from "We have evolved a disposition to kill those with quality Q" (or any other inference in this same family), they have overstepped their bounds.

You cannot read moral content directly from an evolved disposition.

People do have a habit of using their own likes and dislikes as a measure of moral quality. That is to say, people have a habit of going from, "I have a feeling of disapproval towards X" or "I feel justified in inflicting harm on those who do X" to "X is wrong." However, the mistake the evolutionary psychologist makes is in taking this common mistake and building a whole subfield of study on the assumption that it is legitimate.

Regardless of how often we see people make this leap, it still amounts to nothing more than, "I (evolved a disposition to) like hurting people with property P; therefore they deserve to be harmed." Nothing the evolutionary psychologist tells us will ever successfully complete this logical jump. Everything we find in evolutionary psychology that includes this inference is garbage.

And we find a lot of it.

Evolutionary psychologists might be able to explain the sentiment that people use on the near side of this leap, but they will never be able to justify the step that goes to the far end of this leap.

Consequently, the evolutionary psychologist cannot "account for morality". It can account for certain evolved likes and dislikes that will, in turn, be morally relevant. But the idea of reading moral content directly from evolved preferences is nonsense.

Not only is it nonsense, but - like most religion - it is very dangerous nonsense that will ultimately cause a great deal of unnecessary harm unless it is checked.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Evolution, Altruism, and Morality

Today, I want to add some specificity to the claim I have been defending recently - "evolution cannot account for morality" is no myth. It's a fact.

I will start by specifying what does account for morality.

Morality is accounted for by the fact that we are intentional agents - we have goals (ends) and we create and execute plans to realize those ends. Plus, those goals or ends are malleable. Our interactions with the environment can change those ends.

From this we get the fact that agents, in the pursuit of their goals, can change the ends or goals of others by altering their environment. Agents, in the pursuit of their goals, have reason to alter the environment in ways that cause agents to have ends (goals) that help to promote their own ends.

We humans have desires - expressed as propositional attitudes of the form "desires that P" - where"desires that P" provides a motivating reason to realize any state of affairs in which P is true.

Yet, our "desires that P" are malleable. Interactions with the environment can strengthen or weaken a desire, alter it's object (change a desire that P into a related desire that P'), or create or destroy desires. We have a "reward system" that makes this possible. By rewarding and punishing others, we can alter their malleable desires, promoting useful desires and inhibiting harmful desires.

A critic can assert at this point, "Well, evolution accounts for the fact that we are intentional agents with a reward system." This is true. However, it is not a recent and exciting discovery. This is not what those who claim that recent research shows that evolution can account for morality are claiming. They are claiming something more direct and specific.

Clearly, evolution can account for our ability to use language. However, this is different from claiming that evolution can account for Russian literature. Without the capacity to read and write in a language there would be no Russian literature, but a full account of Russian literature requires more than evolution alone can provide.

It is important to note that the account given above focuses on malleable desires - desires that are not fixed by evolution or any other means. This provides the sharpest break between what evolution can explain and morality.

To the degree that evolution fixes our desires, to that degree those desires reside outside of morality. What is account for here is not even a basis for morality. The very fact that evolution accounts for these desires is sufficient to show that moral terms do not apply to them.

For example, one argument states that evolution accounts for morality because evolutionary forces, under common circumstances, will select for altruism at the individual level. Some assert this itself to be evidence, even proof, that evolution can account for morality.

I do not deny that we have evolved a capacity for a certain types of altruism. However, this tells us nothing about morality.

I hold that it is almost certainly the case that evolution favored mothers who took care of their children, raising them to become biologically successful adults - qualities that their children then inherited.

However, we can also note - looking at statistics on child abuse and neglect - that these natural sentiments have their limits. There are many and strong reasons to promote an interest in the welfare of children that is stronger - far stronger - than evolution itself has provided us with. That is to say, to the degree that interests that affect the well-being of children are malleable, we have reason to promote those with interests that contribute to the well-being of children and inhibit those whose interests are harmful to children. Among the tools we have available is to offer rewards, such as praise, to those whose behavior helps children and punishment, such as condemnation, of those whose behavior harms children.

To the degree that the care for children is evolutionary determined and fixed, automatic rather than learned, moral terms are not even applicable.

Let us imagine that nature gave us a perfect universal disposition to care for children. It would not follow from this that nature has given us perfect virtue - all of us equally deserving of the highest praise and the greatest pride. In fact, praise and pride would be entirely misplaced and unjustified. Evolution, in this case, would remove child care out of the realm of morality entirely.

Moral terms will not be applicable precisely because praise and pride are not applicable - precisely because the interests are fixed and not learned.

We can make the same point about altruism generally. Evolution has almost certainly caused us to have a certain amount of empathy contributing to the well-being of others - to treat others as we are treated.

However, browse through the news headlines on any given day, or just recall your past and expected future interactions with other humans, and you will quickly see that natural altruism has its limits. Nature might have (in fact, did) give us a certain amount of altruism, but not nearly as much as we have reason to hope for.

Since we have reason to want more empathy and more kindness than nature alone provides, and empathy and kindness can be learned by interaction with the environment, we have reason to reward items and condemn selfishness. It is this additional empathy and kindness where praise and condemnation are applicable. It is this additional, learned, empathy and kindness that fits within "morality".

That portion of altruism that evolution accounts for is not morality. That portion of altruism where praise and pride are applicable is a portion that evolution does not account for.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The "Necessity" Of an Evolved Moral Sense

"Evolution cannot account for morality" is no myth. It is a fact.

This week, I am responding to a statement calling the proposition, "Evolution cannot account for morality" one of ten myths of evolution".

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

It should be sufficient to show, "We have evolved a disposition to punish those who do X" does not imply "X is wrong" (which can be done with a long list of counter-examples). This shows that we cannot, in fact, account for wrongness in terms of an evolved disposition to punish - even if it were true that we had an evolved disposition to punish.

But what of this claim that we have an evolved disposition to punish?

The quote above states that "It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense." This is a lot like saying that life could not have come into existence without a designer. It requires a lot of faith.

Ant colonies exist. Yet, I have not seen the proof that they could not exist unless ants had a moral sense. While it is true that they are not a primate species, they at least show that cooperation without a moral sense is possible.

If one want to suggest that ants have a sense of duty, then let us look at the human body - with its many and different organs, as an example. Many different cells in the body all work together to promote the survival of the whole, yet none of them operate on a "moral sense".

The rich and varied animal life in any wilderness also continues to survive, with different parts of the system contributing to the welfare of other parts and obtaining benefits in return - again wholly independent of any type of "moral sense".

I remind the reader that the quote says, "It would not be possible. . . " Declaring impossibility is a very big claim - particularly in a universe where we have clear examples of different types of possibilities.

Next, let us look at this claim that we have an evolved disposition to punish

Let us assume that, in place of this evolved disposition to punish liars, we merely had an evolved disposition to harm liars. Clearly, to punish is not synonymous with to harm. A hurricane can harm property on the coast without punishing it.

Yet, in evolutionary terms, to harm would accomplish everything that to punish accomplishes. There is, in fact, no need to have an evolved disposition to punish. In every case where a person asserts such a need, we can substitute a disposition to harm and reach the same ends without all of the moral baggage.

It is relevant to note that to punish has a moral component - that it is a moral term, while to harm has is amoral. In fact, when the defender of the thesis that evolution can account for morality applies the concept to punish, she is actually begging the question - sneaking the moral concepts in through the back door. "How do you determine that this is an evolved disposition to punish, and not just an evolved disposition to harm?

Look at our ant colony. Ants do not need to punish ants that engage in behavior harmful to the colony. They only need to kill those ants - no "moral sense" is required.

As another example, take a mother's disposition to care for her child. No "sense of duty" is required to bring about this behavior. It is sufficient that the mother evolve a disposition to like taking care of her child - or to like those things that result in her child being better off. We do not need a sense of obligation to avoid pain. And, I assure you, I can be biologically driven to eat chocolate without suffering any pangs of guilt at not doing so.

There is no behavior that requires a moral sense. In every case, there is a set of likes and dislikes that will accomplish the same results. We do not need a sense that lying or adultery deserves punishment - all we need is a taste (a fondness, like the fondness for chocolate) for harming liars and adulterers.

In fact, this brings up another problem with the idea that an evolved disposition to punish is necessary for survival. Really, for every evolved disposition to punish we can substitute an evolved distaste for the type of behavior being punished. If people reacted to adultery and lying the way they react to the smell of a rotting corpse, an evolved disposition to punish would not be necessary at all.

Like I said, the claim that a primate species needs a moral sense for survival is a very big claim to make - and one that is far from being proved.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Evolution, Morality, and Objective Values

I am using this week to answer comments concerning my post on the relationship between evolution and morality.

I am responding specifically to what atheist resources claims to be one of ten "myths of evolution".

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

This is no myth. Evolution, in fact, cannot account for morality.

What is it that makes lying, adultery, and stealing wrong?

It isn't wrong because we evolved a disposition to harm those who do it. If it were, then it would be equally valid to argue that homosexuals would deserve to die, if we evolved a disposition to kill homosexuals and feel justified in doing so. We would have to argue that murdering or raping one's stepchildren, or slaughtering those who looked different from us (because that is taken as a sign that the share fewer of our genes than those who look like us) would be moral - if we evolved a disposition to do these things.

The implications are totally invalid. You cannot account for the wrongness of things by looking at what we have evolved a disposition to punish.

Interestingly, this is the Euthyphro argument atheists use against religion turned against evolution. If X is wrong because we evolved a disposition to harm those who do X, then anybody who we might have evolved a disposition to harm would deserve it on those grounds alone. Many atheists ridicule and condemn theists for ignoring the Euthyphro argument when applied to God, yet at the same time prove equally capable of ignoring it (and deserving of just as much ridicule and condemnation) when it is applied to evolution.

If it is possible for something to be permissible even though we evolved a disposition to harm those people, then we cannot account for morality in terms of an evolved disposition to harm (or punish). We have to find something else to account for the wrongness.

God, perhaps?

Well, no. This option does not work either. However, these two do not exhaust our options. Proving that Sally did not kill Jim does not prove that Ralph killed him. Not if there is a their option that is neither Sally nor Ralph.

In the comments on this debate there are those who make gestures towards the idea that there is no objective wrongness to account for.

I disagree with this position. However, even if it were true, it certainly cannot be used to defend the claim that "evolution cannot account for morality is a myth". In fact, if true, it would support the hypothesis that evolution cannot account for morality.

Evolution cannot account for angels. Evolution does not need to account for angels because angels do not exist. Because of this, a list of myths about evolution would not and should not include, "evolution cannot account for angels." It is no myth.

Similarly, if objective moral values do not exist, then "evolution cannot account for morality" is fact, not myth.

However, this argument from "objective values" - even though it supports my position - is fatally flawed itself.

I have found that those who argue that there are no objective moral values use a distorted sense of "objective". Their defense of this claim is almost always a defense of the claim that intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist - as if intrinsic prescriptivity and objective values mean the same thing.

Science, which is said to provide the paradigm of objectivity, does not allow the fact that a property is not intrinsic to imply that it is not objective.

The property of "orbiting the sun at an average distance of 150 million kilometers" is not intrinsic to the earth. Yet, it is objectively true. Proving that it is not an intrinsic property (which is easily done) is not proof against it being an objective fact.

Nor is it the case that a claim ceases to be objective when we are talking about brains. "Jim's brain weighs more than 1 kilogram" is objectively true (or false), even though it could not be true in a universe in which Jim did not exist.

Even statements about beliefs and desires are objectively true or false. "Jim is an atheist" or "Susan would really like to visit Greece" are not matters of opinion, even when spoken in the first person. "I would like to go to Greece " spoken by Susan is as true (or false) as "I am 42 years old" spoken by Susan.

So, the denial of objective value not only fails to support the claim that "Evolution cannot account for morality," it fails to be supported by the claim that there are no intrinsic values.

I, for one, hold that there are no intrinsic values - but that there are moral facts as objectively true or false as any claim in science.

I also hold that "We evolved a disposition to punish those who lie; therefore lying is wrong," is an entirely invalid argument. If we want to account for the wrongness of lying we will not account for it in terms of an evolved disposition to punish (evolution cannot account for morality is no myth). Furthermore, we cannot account for it as a intrinsically prescriptive property (intrinsic prescriptivity is a myth). Nor will we find our answer in the existence of some diety (because no such deity exists).

But there are a lot more places where we can look.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Evolution and Two Conceptions of Morality

I am using this week to answer comments concerning my post on the relationship between evolution and morality.

I am responding specifically to what atheist resources claims to be one of ten "myths of evolution".

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

This is no myth. Evolution, in fact, cannot account for morality. It presents some facts that are morally relevant - but, then, so does chemistry, physics, and astronomy.

This does not imply that we must postulate a god. Evolution also cannot account for the fact that water ice floats on water. However, this does not imply that we must postulate a god to explain this fact. It is simply assigned to a field of study other than evolution.

Some people have responded to my objections by saying that there are two different definitions of morality. One concerns the prescribing of rights, duties, obligations, virtues, vices, justice, and injustice. The other is a purely descriptive account of what goes on in the brain during events that share some elements in common with moral thinking - descriptions that say nothing about what is right or wrong.

However, this does not save the quote above. If we employ this distinction, then the correct answer to the challenge that evolution cannot account for morality would be:

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: Actually, this is no myth. It is true, evolution cannot tell us what we ought or ought not to do. However, let me point you to something else that we have decided to also call 'morality' where evolution has some interesting things to say.

Instead of getting this honest answer, we get equivocation between the two definitions of morality. These answers contain a verbal sleight-of-hand, slipping from one definition to the other when convenient, admitting only when challenged that these are two different things that the descriptive "morality" that evolution can talk about is not the same thing as the prescriptive "morality" that evolution cannot account for.

I will go so far as to say that atheists embrace this new definition of morality precisely because it is useful in generating these verbal sleights-of-hand when discussing morality with theists. This is not to say that atheists do this consciously. A theist can believe in god because of the promise of an afterlife without admitting it, even to himself. Similarly, an atheist can embrace an awkward second definition of morality because of its use in verbal sleights-of-hand without admitting it, even to themselves.

Let's look at the awkwardness of this alternative definition.

Imagine that a group of scientists have decided to adopt the project of studying what is going on in the bodies of agents as they engage in the practice of astronomy. They take brain scans of astronomers thinking about planets and stars. They present accurate descriptions of the eye and the paths that signals take as it travels from the telescope and through the eye and into the brain. They study what parts of the brain lights up as these observations are taken either to support or falsify a belief - say - about planet formation.

All of this represents a real and perhaps important field of study. Yet, it would make no sense at all to say that these people are, themselves, "astronomers." Astronomy concerns the study of planets, stars, and galaxies. These people are not studying planets, stars, and galaxies. They are studying brains.

If these people tried to call themselves "astronomers", we would have reasons to discourage them - reasons grounded on the confusion this would generate.

Similarly, much of the research being done on "morality" has to do with studies of people as they think about moral terms or engage in moral debate. It is even admitted that these studies are not looking at rights, duties, justice, injustice, vice, and virtue themselves - but at brains of people contemplating these terms.

For these people to claim that they are studying morality is like the first group of scientists saying they are astronomers. In the case of astronomers, this leads to the false impression that the researchers are studying planets, starts, and galaxies. In the case of these researchers into "morality" it leads to the false impression that these people are studying actual rights and duties.

Perhaps a clearer way to express this problem is to ask whether the researcher looking at these brain states qualify as "ethicists" - people to go to when wondering "What should I do?". The researcher into brain states has cannot answer this question - it is not her field of study. She can make assumptions about what certain duties and obligations are, but she cannot prove whether those assumptions are correct.

Of course, language is an invention – and people are free to invent a new language. The scientist can take this study of what happens in the brain while the astronomer uses astronomical concepts and call it “astronomy” if he wants. Or he can take the study of planets and stars and call it “biology” if he wants. He can invent his own language and write all of his papers in that language. It violates no law of nature to do this.

However, these types of inventions create problems. They make language decidedly inefficient. They create all sorts of confusion as people slip back and forth from this new invented use to the traditional use – particularly when the researchers themselves constantly claim that their term IS the traditional use – when researchers into brain states of people thinking about stars and planets make the false claim that their study is, in fact, "astronomy" as traditionally understood.

The study of morality is, in fact, the study of what is, in fact, right and wrong, good and evil, virtuous and vicious, obligatory and prohibited, just and unjust. It is the study of who deserves to live free and who deserves to go to jail.

To the person who says that "evolution can't account for morality" is a myth - here us your challenge:

Take what you know of evolution and prove one - just one - moral principle. Prove the principle of the separation if church and state. Describe the types of observations predicted by this hypothesis that we can then test for, and the experiments and observations that would disprove this hypothesis.

Until you can do this -and I am confident that you will never succeed - then "Evolution can't account for morality" is not yet shown to be a myth - except through a verbal sleight-of-hand that tries to substitute one definition for another without being noticed.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Concerning Evolution and Morality

I am going to spend this week going over some of the comments made to my post last week about the relationship between evolution and morality.

Namely, I objected to the claim that we can respond intelligently to the challenge, "Evolution cannot explain morality" by saying that evolution gave us a moral sense without which we would not have survived as a species. The specific quote, in a posting on 10 myths about evolution, says:

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

I offered a number of objections to this post, including the fact the response ignores 10,000 years of human history filled with horrors beyond imagining, that evolution also invented the concepts of predator and parasite, that our evolved dispositions also contribute to such things as racism and rape, that while evolution can explain some of our altruism it cannot explain why altruism is good, and that it makes no logical sense to say "I have evolved a disposition to kill people like you and feel justified in doing so; therefore, you deserve to die", and that it makes no sense to ground moral responsibility on genetic makeup.

Ben Pace responded:

[A]n understanding of evolutionary psychology can be helpful in figuring out our desires, but if we did know our desires perfectly well, then it would not be required.

This is entirely true. Nothing I wrote should be taken to imply that evolutionary psychology is not useful. It helps us to understand the desires that we are disposed to have and how our (widely different) interactions with the environment help to shape those desires. This, in turn, gives us useful information about how to arrange the environment in which people live (society) in order to promote virtue and reduce villainy.

This is an important truth, and I will return to this at the end of this post.

However, Ben Pace also wrote:

[T]he response contained in the post above is not the most charitable reading of the quoted passage. The quotation appeared to be responding to (something like) the following argument: "Evolution does not explain why we have such incredibly powerful moral emotions/why an objective morality exists, therefore God exists and science is wrong" or something else equally confused.

Actually, I think that there is no more than a handful of people actually concerned with explaining "why we have such incredibly powerful moral emotions" - particularly given that those moral emotions also "justify" the horrors mentioned above.

The real concern with those who interested in the relationship between evolution and morality on the one hand, and god and morality on the other, is a very simple and pragmatic concern.

"How are you going to keep me, my family, and those people I care about safe?"

In the face of this question, the answer, "Evolution" can be seen as . . . well . . . jaw-droppingly stupid.

Are you saying that, thanks to evolution I do need to worry about people doing harm to me and those I care about because we evolved to be perfectly kind and altruistic creatures? Because I can think of few things so idiotic.

Seriously, this is how the quote above reads - as if to say that we have no reason to worry about evil because we are evolved to a point to have eliminated it.

Or is it your plan to do nothing and let natural selection eliminate this villainy slowly over time?

My suggestion is that we answer the question asked - not change it to a different question we can answer.

The worry behind the question is not over the evils we avoid because of our evolutionary history, but with the evils that obviously continue to exist in spite of our evolutionary history.

We see in the news a mass shooting at a school or movie theater. Parents live in fear of their children being raped or murdered - or ending up on drugs or with some deadly venereal disease. We see whole populations living in fear and poverty under a dictatorship.

The accusation that evolution cannot account for morality is the claim that evolution fails to prevent these things - an accusation that is entirely true.

At least the theist has a potential answer to this problem. It is to teach people to value the love of a god where that love is dependent on their good deeds, as well teach them that their rewards and punishments in an afterlife is determined by their behavior in this life. It is not a non-sensical response. In fact, it is a response that evolution has made possible.

We point go on from here to point out the failures and the costs of this proposed solution. We can discuss how the theistic plan stifles learning, that its lessons come from the imaginings of fallible and substantially ignorant human and are substantially wrong, and that they have been taken over and reinterpreted by self-serving individuals who have and who continue to use it as a tool of exploitation. We could continue to point out the historical fact that, rather than protect people from harm, religion has been used to justify harm.

That is to say, we can try to change the subject. However, the objection still stands - no matter how skillful we get at misdirection.

Besides, the theist can sensibly blame atheists as one of the reasons for the failure of theism. Atheists are constantly sabotaging efforts to provide for safe community by undermining the beliefs and attitudes that the theist thinks will keep them and those they care about safe. Evolution threatens public safety the same way.

This is the story behind the message that removing prayer from school and from government is a threat to society. A society in which everybody is properly concerned with pleasing God in this life and avoiding punishments in the next is a safe and secure society. Undermining those beliefs and attitudes undermines that security - or so the argument goes.

At this point, I want to return to Pace's first comment and how it gives us a real answer to the question asked.

Our plan is to use science to figure out how to organize society in such a way so as to reduce these types of threats.

We know that some desires are learned - they are acquired through an interaction between the brain and the environment. By altering the environment we can reduce the prevalence of harmful desires and promote useful desires. In doing so, we can create greater safety for you and those you care about.

Towards this end, evolutionary psychology has some useful things to say about the desires we tend to acquire and how different environmental factors influence those desires. Also, given the fact that we do not all interact with the environment in the same way, perhaps we need different environments for different people. Evolutionary psychology will help us to figure this out.

One of the best things about this method is that we can improve over time. As we learn more we can do better. This is different from religion, which keeps us locked in a primitive and substantially ignorant mindset. The difference between these two options is like the difference between modern medicine (and the information that evolution provides to this field of study) and believing that everything Hippocrates wrote on the subject more than 2000 years ago is literally true. The second option is decidedly NOT our best option.

In this, we have a positive answer to the concerns that are at the root of questions about the relationship between morality and evolution. We are not going to say that evolution has already made us virtuous and we have no reason to be concerned. We are going to say that evolutionary psychology gives us information useful in organizing society in such a way so as to promote virtue and reduce vice.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Evolution Accounts for Morality?

I get discouraged from time to time.

I would like to see the atheist community embrace reason and evidence-based conclusions. Many claim to value this as a virtue. Yet, "You know them by their deeds." By that standard, they fail.

My most recent disappointment - one that has recently caused me to throw up my hands and ask, "Why do I bother?" - is this entry concerning the top 10 myths about evolution at

10 Evolution Can’t Account For Morality: As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

The fact is, evolution can't account for morality.

Neither can religion, by the way. This is not an either-or question. Evolution cannot account for the size of the Earth or the existence of the moon, but this does not imply that we must turn to scripture to find the answers. There is a third alternative.

Morality requires a community of two or more individuals engaged in intentional behavior (beings acting on beliefs and desires). It requires that some desires are malleable - they can be changed through interaction with the environment.

Once you have these elements, then you have a situation where one member of the community has reason to alter the environment in such a way so as to cause others to acquire desires useful to an agent. A community engaged in using environmental factors (e,g., praise, condemnation, reward, punishment) to promote desires generally useful and inhibiting desires generally harmful is a community with a moral system.

One can say that evolution accounts for the fact that we are creatures that engage in intentional action, and the fact that some of our desires are malleable - which is everything that morality needs. But that is far different from what is claimed above.

For one thing, this "deep sense of right and wrong" is often wrong. People have - or have had - a deep sense that interracial marriage or homosexual relationships are wrong. Many Muslims have a deep sense that creating depictions of Mohammed are wrong. They kill their own daughters in "honor killings" out of a deep sense that their daughter's behavior was wrong.

These facts - and a huge list of similar facts all conveniently ignored by the "evolution accounts for morality" crowd - tell us two things about this "deep sense of right and wrong". First, that its objects are learned. Second, if it did have an evolutionary explanation, it provides us with no way to distinguish between evolved evil and evolved goodness.

Nobody can think that this is a sensible answer to the question of morality without turning a blind eye to huge portions of human history - a history in which this much-vaulted evolved "sense of right and wrong promoting reciprocity and condemning selfishness" cannot be found, and a "sense of right and wrong promoting war, slavery, rape, conquest, and genocide" can be found in its place.

Seriously . . . look at any great evil that was done in human history. Take, for example, the Holocaust. Did evolution prevent it? Answer: Obviously not. Can we count on evolution to prevent something like that from happening in the future? Answer: Of course not. If you wanted to try to prevent something like that from happening in the future, does "evolution accounts for morality" say anything useful? No. It's not even relevant.

In its ability to ignore inconvenient facts, people tied to the view that evolution accounts for morality prove to be just as adept at any theist. They see that there are circumstances in which evolution favors altruism and cry, "evolution accounts for morality!" They utterly ignore the fact that evolution also invented the parasite and the predator - and perfected organisms for these roles as well.

Evolution accounts both for some of our altruism, and for some of our predatory and parasitic behavior. Under some conditions, predatory and parasitic behavior is just as useful or better than altruism and a highly evolved liar, rapist, or thief can have a great deal of evolutionary success.

If we are honest about the facts of the matter, this deep sense of right and wrong is easily attached to behavior that is predatory or parasitic. Rape and racism - tribal bigotries targeting people who do not look like us - the disposition to slaughter or dominate them and take their resources - or to take them and use them as resources (for sex or for forced labor) are all perfectly comfortable with the fact of human evolution. And they have all been found in certain moral codes.

Let's grant (as I think we must) that evolution accounts for some altruism. This falls far short of accounting for the fact that altruism is good. Evolution accounts for chins and male nipples, but it does not force the conclusion that they are good.

Religion - unlike "evolution accounts for morality" is actually an attempt to account for the goodness of altruism. Evolution can merely acount for a portion of its existence.

Ironically, it is also the case that the altruism that evolution does acount for is entirely amoral. If Jim's altruism can be attributed to some genetic disposition, then it makes absolutely no sense to say that Jim deserves praise or is in any way responsible for those altruistic acts. That would be as senseless as saying that Jim is responsible for and should be praised for his genetic makeup.

Furthermore, if morality is in our genes, why do we need to reward reciprocity and punish excessive selfishness? Isn't it supposed to be the case that reciprocity and selflessness are accounted for by our genes?

This, in turn, brings up a logical problem with the idea that evolution accounts for morality. If it were true that evolution accounts for morality, then, "I evolved a sense that you should be put to death" implies "you deserve to die." What actions are wrong? Well, those actions that we evolved a disposition to punish. Is homosexuality wrong? Well, to determine this we need to look at whether humans evolved a disposition to kill homosexuals and feel justified in doing so. If they have, then homosexuals deserve to die - at least according to the thesis "evolution accounts for morality."

There is much more that I could say on this issue - but this post is too long already. Yet, what I said so far should be - should have long ago been - more than enough to discredit the idea that evolution accounts for morality.

I really wish and hope that the atheist community would be one that respects reason and evidence. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the atheist community is made up of human beings, and humans (not just religious humans but all humans) are disposed to grasp onto ideas and embrace them in the complete absence of reason and evidence. Though I still hold out hope - sometimes badly shaken but always present - that, slowly, some group of people can actually adopt these attitudes.

Do you want an answer to the objection that "evolution cannot account for morality?"

Here it is:

Evolution does not have to account for morality, any more than evolution needs to account for the boiling point of water. Morality is fully and adequately accounted for by the fact that we are intentional agents with malleable desires. From this, it follows that there are dispositions that intentional agents generally have reason to promote, and have an ability to promote by altering the experiences of others (through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment). Nothing more is required. Specifically, people have reason to promote through praise those interests that tend to help others, and to diminish through condemnation those harmful to others. Evolution accounts for the fact that we are intentional agents with malleable desires. Therefore, evolution accounts for all of the prerequisites for morality.

This view is fully compatible with the fact that there has been and continues to be a lot of evil out there that was not or is not being prevented. It tells us how we can identify moral error and make moral improvements. It does not justify punishment in terms of, "I have evolved a disposition to feel justified in killing you; therefore, you deserve to die." It answers the real-world concerns of those who look to religion to answer moral questions - to prevent the evil that continues to exist and that our evolved history fails to prevent.