Friday, April 05, 2013

Steven Pinker and Attaching Sentiments

Steven Pinker has proposed abandoning morality and replacing it with a project of attaching human sentiment to that which promotes human flourishing and minimizing harm.

I have been arguing that we keep morality and understand it as a project of attaching our sentiments to (promoting those desires for) those things that tend to objectively satisfy other desires - for example, promoting desires that create and distribute welfare goods such as liberty, health, clean water, food, and security.

The next question to address is: how do we go about (in Pinker's terms) attaching our sentiments to or (in my terms) or promoting desires for such states?

We must first eliminate an easy source of confusion by recognizing an ambiguity in the term "desire". We use the term both for what we desire as an end (e.g., to not be in pain), and for what we desire as a means (e.g., to take two aspirin).

However, a "desire-as-means" is a combination of "desire-as-ends" (to not be in pain) and beliefs (aspirin is a pain reliever).

When I write about desires, I am almost always writing about desires-as-ends, not desires-as-means.

Consequently, on the subject of attaching our sentiments to - or promoting desires for - some state I am talking about promoting desires-as-ends, interests, or goals.

On this matter, we must note that desires are not subject to reason. There is no set of facts as premises that entail a desire-as-end. You cannot reason anybody into valuing any state as an end in itself. In fact, you can only get a "desire" in the conclusion of an inference if one begins with one or more desires in the premises.

However, because a desire-as-means contains belief elements, you can reason with others about what they desire-as-means. A person who says, "I want to eat this apple" can be talked out of it by pointing out, "But the apple is laced with cyanide". You can point out to somebody that a state is not a useful means - and some other state is more useful. These facts about desires-as-means do not refute the fact that desires-as-ends are not altered through reason.

Instead, desires-as-ends are changed by activating the reward system. By rewarding somebody, you reinforce those desires that contributed to the action that brought about the reward. By punishing somebody, you reinforce aversions that will prevent the types of actions that brought about the punishment.

In this, praise serves as a type of reward, and condemnation serves as a type of punishment. They are among the tools we have available to shape sentiments and to influence the kinds of things those sentiments get attached to (those desires take as an object), as well as the strength of those sentiments (desires).

These effects are not limited to influencing the sentiments of those who are being rewarded or punished. Mirror neurons and the like allow the rewards and punishments inflicted on one person to influence all who witness or hear about the event. In fact, even fictional rewards and punishments on fictional characters have effects on those who are told the story.

People have reason to be concerned with the stories of reward and punishment that show up in works of fiction (though, I would argue that there is a good reason for a strong aversion to responding to words with violence).

This also creates a problem for those who insist that we must keep our debates "civil" and never engage in praise or condemnation. Its material implication is that we must accept all sentiments (desires) as they are, making no effort to promote useful desires or inhibiting desires that tend to promote harm. Conversations get heated precisely because of the fact that, while reasoned discourse is a legitimate tool for addressing a false belief, rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation are the tools for attaching sentiments to the proper objects.

We would be poorly served to do away with these tools.

However, this does not excuse the practice of misinterpreting the words and deeds of a rival tribe so as to manufacture reasons to condemn them. Tribal psychology, where one is disposed to give fellow tribe members the benefit of all doubt and to imagine reasons to condemn non-members has as unfortunate effect of derailing sound moral discussions.

Where Pinker talks about abandoning morality, what we really need to do is to learn to identify and avoid the effects that tribal distortions have on our moral judgments. We must keep the practices of praise and condemnation - and reward and punishment in general. We do not need to continue to have tribal psychology hijack and misdirect the use of these tools. In fact, we should abandon the practice.

1 comment:

arrace said...

Hello Alonzo, I recently found your blog and I hope to follow along regularly, very interesting stuff indeed.

I think the biggest problem with the "primitive" human morality is that we like to find a way to blame people for events that are out of their control. You see it in almost every debate. Homosexuals chose to be gay; poor people 100% chose to be poor; a woman was raped because she dressed provacatively; etc. So yes, I absolutely agree with you that these primitive ways of thinking about morality need to be lost. But I question the ability to plan it out and put it into action as you describe here. Doing away with this mindset is going to be very difficult indeed given how ingrained it is in society. It seems easier to attack it at individual points rather than as a whole. So, for example, we focus on gay marriage and convincing people that gay people did not choose to be gay. That idea is gaining a lot of traction in recent years, at least enough to push gay marriage support above 50% in the USA. It's harder to convince people of the idea that in general, people have less control over their actions than they may think. One has to wonder if free will exists at all, but that is a discussion for another post. I don't know that we'll be able to so easily institute and reward/punishment system. Changing a mindset that is ingrained from birth is not that simple. Hopefully we change people one idea at a time, and then the new mindset becomes commonplace in society.