Thursday, August 23, 2018

Moral Education

In a recent discussion, I was directed to look at Matt Dillahunty’s claims about morality.

I would like to explain quickly what Dillahunty gets right and wrong on morality.

Dillahunty tells a story of two children who misbehave. We may assume that they are identical twins. One is then threatened with punishment if he should misbehave in the future. The other is sat down as the parents explain the wrongness of his action, asks, “How would you like it if somebody does that to you?” in order to draw on the child’s empathy so as to promote a wrongness in those types of actions.

He concludes that both children will be equally behaved. However, the second child will be a morally better person because he acts for better reasons.

What is true: The second child will be a morally better person because he acts for better reasons.

What is false:

(1) The two children are both likely to behave the same.

Take these identical twins as adults and hire them at a bank. Put them in charge of transferring funds. Hook one up to a device that inflicts an extremely painful shock each time he transfers money into a wrong account. Explain to the other the hardships that may result from doing so. I would trust Person 1 to pay a great deal more attention to detail.

This is a minor point.

(2) The second child acquired his moral attitudes as a consequence of reason.

Dillahunty is ignoring the fact that this lecture is filled with praise for those who refrain from the type of behavior in question, and condemnation of those who do not. This praise and condemnation are not processed through the faculties of reason. They are processed through the reward system.

The factual statements contained in the lecture may accurately describe why people generally have reason to praise or condemn those who perform the act-type in question under those circumstances. However, the factual premises neither entail nor cause the change in sentiment. It is the praise and condemnation wrapped around the factual statements that have this effect.

The reward system takes rewards and punishment and uses it to encode new rules of behavior. Praise is a type of reward; condemnation is a type of punishment. In part, the second child behaves for the same reason the first child behaves (to avoid future punishment, in the form of condemnation). In part, the lecture, as condemnation, encodes a new behavioral rule - an aversion to doing that which resulted in condemnation.

Better Reasons

Of the two types of reasons, the internalized reason (the acquired desire or aversion) is better than the incentive/deterrence value of rewards/punishments.

Primarily, the incentive/deterrence reason vanishes when the agent’s behavior is unobserved. He can neither be rewarded or punished for that which is kept secret. However, the internalized norm - the desire or aversion acquired through activation of the reward system - remains in play even when the agent is unobserved. Because if this, we have reasons to prefer the second type of motive to the first. Which means, we have reasons to praise some conduct and condemn others. The internalized reason is, indeed, the better reason.

Dillahunty simply fails to understand how these better reasons are taught and learned.

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