Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Three Functions of Morality

A moral statement has three functions, which it carries out simultaneously.

(1) To report an objective fact, that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a particular universal desire of aversion. For example, the claim that people should keep their promises is a report that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally a desire to keep one's promises or an aversion to failing to keep a promise.

(2) To praise or to condemn. For example, the claim that people should keep their promises is a statement that praises those who keep their promises and condemns those who do not.

(3) Through the use of praise and condemnation acting on the limbic system of the brain, promote the relevant desires and aversions. For example, praising those who keep promises acts on the limbic system of the brain to promote a desire to keep promises, while condemning those who break promises creates and strengthens an aversion to breaking promises (not only in those praised and condemned, but in others who experience the praising and condemnation).

Philosophers often discuss the first two options. Unfortunately, they often treat these as mutually exclusive options. Either you believe that moral claims are truth-bearing propositions, or you believe that they are expressions of approval or disapproval that are neither true nor false. Generally, asserting the former makes one a moral realist and a cognitivist. Meanwhile, a person who makes the latter claim is an anti-realist and a non-cognitivist.

Yet, there is no reason to hold that a statement cannot do both at the same time.

A person slams his hand on the table, stands abruptly, and shouts at the man standing at the door, "You lied!"

The statement, "You lied" is a truth-bearing proposition. It claims that the other agent reported as true something that agent believed to be false. There is a fact of the matter. Evidence can be brought to bear to prove or falsify such a claim.

At the same time, the speaker is expressing disapproval.

We have here, a truth-bearing proposition and an expression of disapproval rolled into one. 

We can tell similar stories about a person making a claim such as, "You promised!" or "That's mine!"

Elsewhere, I have devoted a great deal of text to demonstrating that moral claims are reports about what desires and aversions people generally have reason to promote universally. I cannot repeat those arguments here. However, for present purposes, the reader can forget that part and simply focus on the fact that a statement can both, at the same time, be a truth-bearing proposition and express an attitude towards that proposition. Debates over whether a moral statement does one thing or the other are a waste of time and effort.

As for the third function, neuroscientists are learning a great deal about how the reward centers of the brain work. A reward triggers the brain to look at what preceded the reward and then builds a desire for that predecessor. A drug addict experiences the reward of a chemical high. Her brain forms a desire to perform those actions that resulted in the high. Consequently, the agent goes through those motions for their own sake and not (or not solely) for the sake of the chemical high.

Similarly, a child shares with others to please her parents. Eventually, she comes to value sharing for its own sake, even when she can expect no praise from her parents.

The mere fact that praise and condemnation has these effects implies that if moral statements are statements of praise and condemnation then they are statements that act on the brain to mold desires. This would be true whether this was a function of moral statements or not.

However, humans long ago noticed the effects of praise and condemnation - reward and punishment - on behavior. As they did, they gained the ability to use this power to mold desires in particular ways.

This brings up the question, "What desires and aversions do we have reason to promote?"

This question returns us to the truth-bearing component of moral statements. A statement that something is obligatory or impermissible or that one has a non-obligatory permission - is a proposed answer to this question. It may be true, or it may be false. It is the type of claim that allows us to bring in evidence - to discover the fact of the matter.

That this is a debate over what desires and aversions people generally have reason to make universal makes sense of the parts of moral debate that ask, “What if everybody acted as you do?” and “How would you like it if somebody did the same to you?” It makes sense of the utilitarian arguments that are found in moral debates – arguments of the consequences of promoting an attitude universally. Mostly, it makes sense of the fact that when we make moral assertions, and when we debate them, we treat them as matters of fact. This is because they are.

Yet, the very facts that we are debating are facts that tell us what people generally have reason to praise and condemn, reward and punish. They are facts that tell us where to direct our anger, and where guilt or shame is appropriate.

A lot of space is wasted in discussions that treat these components as mutually exclusive components of morality. It is like having a debate over whether cows are warm blooded or have hair, as if a cow cannot both be warm blooded and have hair. A lot of wasted discussion can be put aside simply by recognizing that moral claims can serve more than one function at the same time.

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