Wednesday, August 17, 2016

John Makhail on Universal Moral Grammar

377 days until the first day of classes - my return to graduate school at a ripe age of 57.

I have been putting a lot of effort into brushing up on my general understanding of philosophy. Recently, this has involved going through the Philosophy Bites podcast - a series of 15 to 20 minute episodes interviewing a philosopher on some interesting topic. There are over 250 episodes in the podcast, but I have been easily going through 25 per week. Many are review, but some present new ideas - at least to me.

In the first episode on today's set, John Makhail discussed universal moral grammar. This is the thesis that we are born with a set of moral codes - a set of attitudes common among humans the world over.

This has always frustrated me because I consider this a clear waste of time, yet I never hear anybody ask some fundamental questions that should quickly demonstrate these problems.

One of the pieces of evidence that Makhail presented was a nearly universal agreement on what to do in "the Trolley problem".

For any who have not encountered this thought experiment, it involves a runaway train that is about to run into and kill five people. However, the agent can pull a switch, sending it down a different track where it will only kill one person. Is it permissible to pull the switch?

The punch line is that there is almost universal agreement that this is permissible.

Almost universal agreement.

Ninety percent agreement.

Here's my question.

Are the 10 percent wrong?

If they are wrong, why are they wrong? What is it that makes them wrong?

What if 90% were reluctant to pull the switch and were more comfortable just letting nature take its course. Would they still be wrong? Is it the case that morality is always right?

If the majority is always right, then whatever the majority feels comfortable about is moral. If they are comfortable executing all of the homosexuals or enslaving blacks then, under these assumptions, homosexuals would deserve to die and blacks deserve to be slaves - these would be the right thing to do. If men were comfortable with rape and limiting women to domestic chores, then women should have no right to refuse sex and a duty to perform domestic chores.

If, instead, the rightness and wrongness of actions depend on other things, then the trolley problem is useless in answering moral questions. It tells us what people believe, but not what is right. Surveying people about trolley problems is as irrelevant to answering questions in ethics as a survey on the origins of life would be to questions in biology.

This latter is my view. The Trolley Problem is a waste of philosophical space, like taking a survey on whether ghosts exist or whether humans have actually landed on the moon.

Makhail is comparing the making of moral judgments to the making of grammatical judgments. However, there is a significant difference between moral judgments and grammatical judgments - the matters of life, death, and suffering that are at stake. Whatever grammatical judgments we make and mutually agree to - that determines what is right and wrong with respect to grammar, and no serious consequences come of the decision. It is like the decision as to whether to drive on the right side or the left side of the road. The result does not matter, as long as everybody agrees.

However, in morality, what if our moral grammar tells us to commit rape, to favor people of our own race (as a sign of genetic similarity) and to - where possible - kill and take the resources of different races (as a sign of genetic difference), to kill and/or rape our stepdaughters. In morality, is it truly the case that our moral grammar does not matter so long as we all agree (or, at least, all of those with the power to enforce their decisions agree) on the principles involved?

In other words, the Trolley Problem, and a "Universal Moral Grammar" are irrelevant when it comes to determining what is right or wrong as a matter of fact. We need a way to determine what is right and wrong as a matter of fact to even know whether this universal moral grammar is giving us right or wrong answers.

I have yet to hear anybody ask those who show enthusiasm for these ideas, "Are they right? Are the people who answer the question this way to that way right or wrong? And what is it that makes that answer the right answer or the wrong answer?"


Anonymous said...

"I have yet to hear anybody ask those who show enthusiasm for these ideas, "Are they right? Are the people who answer the question this way to that way right or wrong? And what is it that makes that answer the right answer or the wrong answer?""

Have you ever read Michael DePaul and William Ramsey's "Rethinking Intuition"? They seem to be interested in questioning the role of intuition in philosophy in general, including in ethics.

What do you think about Thomas Nagel's answer to your last question? It is geared more towards the moral skeptic, but I think it might still apply. He writes, "The true culprit behind contemporary professions of moral skepticism is the confused belief that the ground of moral truth must be found in something other than moral values. One can pose this type of question about any kind of truth. What makes it true that 2 + 2 = 4? What makes it true that hens lay eggs? Some things are just true; nothing else makes them true. Moral skepticism is caused by the currently fashionable but unargued assumption that only certain kinds of things, such as physical facts, can be “just true” and that value judgments such as “happiness is better than misery” are not among them. And that assumption in turn leads to the conclusion that a value judgment could be true only if it were made true by something like a physical fact. That, of course, is nonsense." (This quote taken from Nagel's review of Sam Harris's 'The Moral Landscape' at: )

Another way to interpret your questions is as a request for a more general theory or set of principles which those answers can be derived from. In that case, isn't the entirety of normative ethics devoted to answering these questions? From what I can tell, the majority of philosophers begin with some "common sense" moral intuitions, and try to develop a theory which accounts for and explains our most plausible or obvious moral intuitions whilst not conflicting with other obvious intuitions. In other words, they offer an explanation of "what makes X right/wrong", and argue whether this explanation is correct or incorrect based on conceptual analysis with respect to some "obviously justified moral beliefs".

The real underlying issue here is the role of intuition in philosophy (and ethics, in particular). If ethical intuitions (or "intellectual appearances") can justify ethical beliefs, like the "obviously justified moral beliefs" that many people think they have, then it seems the usage of things like the Trolly Problem and conceptual analysis of ethical theories based on "obvious" moral beliefs is well founded. If not, then the whole affair may be, as you suggest, a waste of time. (Note: the Ethical Intuitionists often view ethical intuitions similar to other intellectual appearances, like principles of logical inference or basic mathematical concepts, etc. On their view, relying on these intuitions is less like appealing to widespread public agreement on biological beliefs, and more like relying on empirical sense data when evaluating scientific theories.)

Anyways, is your own theory Desirism free of the use of intuition at any point in the "chain of justification" for a moral belief? Or free of the use of intuition in the justification of the Desirism system itself?

Unknown said...

Desirism states that there are objective facts about morality. It does not rely on intuition for those facts being true or false. However, due to the issues of limited resources and ignorance of the state of other's minds, often we use intuition in our judgments. However, that is a "best guess" scenario and may not accurately reflect the real state of affairs.

Regarding Thomas Nagel, he is incorrect. While some things may be "just true" (I take issue with this as well, but I'll leave it for now), there is no reason other than intellectual laziness and bias to believe that "happiness is better than misery" must be among then. There are many reasons to believe that this is not "just true". Being happy is just one desire among many competing desires.

Nagel also makes an analogy from the facts of "2 + 2 = 4" and "hens lay eggs" to how moral skepticism is incorrect without ever making the connection to show how they are analogous.

BTW, Harris was incorrect as well. Increasing well-being is one desire among many, albeit a popular, perhaps even universal, one. But that IS based on a physical fact of humans, and not to be just assumed axiomatically.

I also throw red flags whenever I see a phrase like "of course" ("That, of course, is nonsense"). It is similar to "it's obvious" "everyone agrees", or "it seems". These kinds of phrases are spoken by people that want you to agree with them without thinking too hard on the subject. They wouldn't be necessary if their argument was otherwise well supported.

As far as your "request for a more general theory or set of principles which those answers can be derived from"; are you are new to this blog or Desirism in general? If so, I suggest some resources to help you get up to speed:

The point here is that Desirism doesn't start with any moral intuitions and then proceed to explain them. In fact, it works the exact opposite. It provides a framework for what morality consists of, then derives answers to things like the "trolley problem".

The framework requires:
1. Some agents have desires of varying strength.
2. Desires are the motivating reason for action.
3. Some desires are malleable.
4. Other agents are directly or indirectly able to influence change of those malleable desires.

That's basically it.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

(cont'd from previous)

In humans, the "indirect" actions to change desires are the use of some emotionally-charged words. Many words have the ability to cause hormonal reactions in other beings, such as the release of dopamine, serotonin, etc., which in turn can change how a brain is wired. (This is exactly how reward-based systems of behavior modification work.) For example, hearing how proud our parents are of us makes us happy (causes a release of "pleasure" hormones), which in turns makes it more likely we will perform that act again in the future for the reward. Eventually, we are no longer doing it for the reward, but because the act itself makes us happy. It has gone from a desire-as-means to desire-as-end.

This relationship between our desires and the actions produced by other's desires gives us reasons to use emotionally charged terms in the public spaces in order to change desires in ways that make it more likely our own strong desires will be fulfilled. The end result is that we predict we will observe people using social tools of praise and condemnation in order to promote or inhibit other people's desires and hence their actions.

It is important to note that this theory does not assume any intrinsic value of anything, be it life, happiness, etc. It only states that people will value things based on their own desires, which in many cases, comes pre-wired at birth. This is completely compatible with evolution and naturalism in general.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thank you, David, for your response.

A presentation that I attended recently has given me reason to add some detail to my concerns about moral intuitions. I have posted them under Against Moral Intuitions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I would like to say something about the "happiness is better than misery" idea.

There are some terms that have the fulfillment or the thwarting of desires built into their meaning. "Health", for example, is mental or physical functioning that fulfills the desires of the agent, while an "illness" or an "injury" is a change in mental or physical functioning that tends to thwart desires. Thus, it is, in fact, axiomatic that health is better than injury/illness. However, this is not a simple fact - it can be reduced to facts about relationships between the functioning of the mind or body and the desires of the agent.

"Happiness" and "Misery" also have desire-fulfillment and desire-thwarting built into their meaning. A state is not called a state of being happy unless it fulfills desires, and misery must (by definition) thwart desires. In this way, happiness is always better than misery. Or, more precisely, an agent always has a (desire-based) reason to realize his own happiness and avoid his own misery.