Friday, August 17, 2018

Moral Progress

Moral Progress (20180817)
Alonzo Fyfe

I have been asked to explain moral progress and moral disagreement
I have written this presentation several times. However, I keep learning new things, so, rather than referring back to an original example, I keep hoping that each time I can do it better.

A Theory of Morality

I start with a physics model. I note how physicists, when they seek to explain physical forces, begin by assuming a simplified universe of frictionless surfaces, perfectly spherical bodies, massless strings, or a universe consisting of only two bodies. Once we understand the simple mechanics, we can add in complexities.

Simple Beginnings

My simple universe is a community of beings with only one desire - an aversion to their own pain. This aversion can be expressed as a propositional attitude - a “desire that I not be in pain” that assigns a negative value - a “to be preventedness” to any state of affairs where “I am in pain” is true. In having an aversion to their own pain, each person has a reason to avoid (to prevent or to stop) being in pain.

Some may hypothesize that everybody also has a reason to prevent or stop others from being in pain. On this hypothesis, there is something in the nature of “that entity is in pain” that generates a reason to prevent or stop it from being the case that “that entity is in pain”.

We are going to hypothesize that no such power or entity exists. Each entity has only one reason for action - the prevention of their own pain. This means that if a being encounters a situation where he must choose between (1) a mildly annoying scratch on his finger, and (2) excruciating pain for everybody else, his only reason for intentional action is to avoid the mild irritation on his finger.

However, we will postulate the existence of a reward system. This system processes rewards and punishments (including praise and condemnation) to generate new reasons for action or modify existing reasons. If, by pressing a button, one gets fed, one acquires an interest in pressing the button - not only so that one can get fed, but for its own sake. If, by pressing the button, one gets an electric shock, one acquires an aversion to pressing buttons. This is not just a means to avoid pressing buttons. One will tend to avoid pressing buttons even when one knows it will not produce a shock. One acquires an aversion to (and, thereby, a reason not to) press the button.

So, by praising and rewarding those who refrain from actions that cause pain to others, and punishing and condemning those who do cause pain to others, one can create in others an aversion to causing pain to others. In creating this aversion, others will come to have two reasons for intentional action: to prevent the realization of their own pain, and to avoid actions that bring it about that others are in pain.

In this way, others actually acquire a reason not to cause pain to others. However, it does not arise from the very nature of others being in pain. It arises as a result of rewards (such as praise) and punishments (such as condemnation) acting on their reward systems to create aversions to causing pain.

The effect is the same. As a result, agents come to have two reasons for action that sometimes conflict. Now, faced with a choice between a mild irritation on their finger and excruciating pain for others, the aversion to causing pain to others outweighs the aversion to avoid one’s own pain, and chooses the mild irritation. However, if faced with a choice between excruciating pain for oneself and a mild irritation for another, the agent may still choose the mild irritation for the other.

Explanatory Power

We have now a situation where everybody has a reason not to cause pain to others. However, it does not require the existence of a mystical power of one person’s aversion to his own pain to automatically (magically) generate reasons for others. Furthermore, it explains and predicts the ubiquitous use of praise and condemnation (and other forms of rewards and punishments) in morality.

It explains why punishment and condemnation are the appropriate response to wrong acts. Obviously, punishment and condemnation cannot prevent the action that has already taken place. However, the act shines a spotlight on an area where it would be useful to apply additional reasons-generating punishment and condemnation. It is the person who performed the wrong act who is deserving of condemnation and punishment precisely because there is reason to promote an aversion to doing that type of act. The punishment must be “proportional” to the wrong since the strength of the aversions we have reason to create is proportional to the strength of the reasons we have to create that aversion. We have fewer and weaker reasons to promote aversions to trivial wrongs than we do to massive large-scale wrongs. The theft of $5 deserves less punishment and condemnation than the rape and murder of a child.

The “inherent power to create reasons in others by the very nature of a wrong” cannot account for these features. Instead, these become arbitrary, unexplained elements of the mysterious reasons-generating power. In the same way that this power mysteriously generates reasons for others, it mysteriously generates a rightness to responding to wrong behavior with condemnation and punishment, and it mysteriously dictates the appropriate level of condemnation and punishment, none of which can actually be explained.

Note that it is not a valid objection to this theory to state that it cannot account for moral behavior – for the fact that one person helps another at what would otherwise be a cost to himself, or that a person refrains from taking the property of another even when she can do so without getting caught. It explains this behavior as a consequence of desires and aversion acquired through social conditioning.

A person with a desire to help others has a reason that may well tilt the balance in favor of helping, when all other concerns would have said not to help. A person with a learned aversion to taking the property of others without consent is no more likely to take the property of others when she can get away with it than a person with an aversion to pain is likely to burn herself when she can get away with it.

More importantly, the theory being proposed provides a more sensible real-world account of what those reasons are and how they came to exist. By praising and rewarding those who help, a society creates in others a desire to help that, at times, will tilt the balance against all other concerns. By condemning and punishing those who take the property of others without consent, we create an aversion to taking the property of others without consent, which leaves our property secure even when others can take the property without getting caught.

This system also explains why the reasons different people have do not have the same strength – why some people will not help when other people will not, why some people steal when others (better) people would not.

Part of the reason for this is because the basic biological foundation on which experience works on is not the same for all of us, so identical environments will still not produce identical results. Yet, even with this, we do not have identical experiences. One person may have taken property without consent as a child and gotten away with it, obtaining the benefits (which serve as a reward) without he punishments, thus not developed an aversion to taking property without consent. Taking property may have been essential to survival. As an adult, he teaches his children to take property successfully. This weakens the aversion to taking property in those children. Of course, those children may also experience the condemnation and punishment of others, and are certainly told of the harms of getting caught. Consequently, they may be torn – their feelings pulling them in two contradictory directions.

In the same way, this system explains the cultural variation in attitudes. Different people in different cultures experience different patterns of reward and condemnation, giving them different reasons for engaging in certain types of behavior. Growing up white in a culture of black slavery or white privilege, they experience rewards and praise for racist attitudes, and learn an attitude of contempt towards blacks. Growing up in a culture where homosexuality is condemned, they acquire negative attitudes towards homosexuals and homosexual acts. These are the consequences of rewards and punishments.

The Cost of Error

I have contrasted two theories of morality.

In one theory, the very nature of one person’s suffering generates in others a reason against causing suffering.

In the other theory, the very nature of one person’s suffering and the fact that he is surrounded by people whose brains contain a “reward system” implies that he has reason to use rewards and punishment (including praise and condemnation) to cause others to have aversions to causing suffering – aversions that give others reasons against causing suffering.

Both theories end up at the same point – a reason against causing suffering to others. There is nothing in this reason itself that carries a marker of its origins. All one knows is that one has a reason. It takes theoretical work to try to figure out where it came from.

This means that it is possible for a person who has a reason against causing suffering brought about by the second system to make a mistake and think that it came about through the first system. Such a person believes that the reason they have against causing suffering exists in virtue of being able to correctly perceive an intrinsic reasons-making property in other people’s suffering.

This can be a very costly error.

A person who believes that she is under the watchful eye of a guardian angel who will not allow her to suffer harm may take risks that she would not otherwise take. This could have unfortunate consequences as the act she thinks is safe turns out not to be safe at all.

The person who thinks that reasons come from the nature of things may fail to take steps to create those reasons in others – or to properly advocate that others in the community do the same thing. The result is a community where people are more prone to lie, steal, vandalize, engage in fraud, kill, and engage in prejudiced and discriminatory acts that they would not otherwise engage in if the causes of reasons were properly understood. The advocate of natural reasons is more prone to let the cards fall as they may. After all, the reasons already exist. It is not as if he needs to put any work into creating them.

More importantly, a person with a learned desire that p or desire that not-q who takes their reasons to realize p or prevent q to be in virtue of an intrinsic reasons-generating property is not going to be open to evidence that their attitude should change. His aversion to homosexual acts is taken to be caused by an internal “not to be doneness” built into homosexual acts. Any argument to the effect that this attitude is harmful and should be changed will be met with the response, “But it is wrong by its nature, and your arguments that we would do better with a different attitude are irrelevant.”

The intrinsic reasons-generating property theory is inherently conservative and resistant to change. It takes the learned attitude of the agent and makes it an intrinsic property of that being evaluated. Ultimately, the agent’s own learned likes and dislikes are taken to be a marker of all that which is good and right in the world. He ignores evidence concerning whether having such an attitude – having it himself and having it made universal throughout the community is such a good idea, and insist instead he is seeing intrinsic reasons-making properties that make such arguments irrelevant.

This is particularly dangerous when two people – or two groups – come into conflict. One of them has promoted in their community a desire that p, while the other has promoted a desire that not-p. Members of the first community have reasons to realize p, and members of the second community have reasons to prevent its realization. If each take their reasons to be generated by an intrinsic reason-generating power in p, they have a conflict, and there is no way to resolve this conflict short of war. If, instead, they realize that their reasons are grounded on learned preferences – taught through social customs of praise and condemnation – they can then ask, “Which learned preferences do we really have the most and strongest reasons to promote?” To answer this question, they can enter into debate and discussion.

There is a right answer. The fact that we are arguing about the relative merits of promoting particular sentiments universally (rather than about the intrinsic reasons-making properties of things) does not imply that the answer is merely a matter of individual taste or preference.

Moral Progress

But is there moral progress? Can one culture be better than another?

Let us return to the starting community populated by people with an aversion to their own pain and a reward system. These people have reasons to prefer a community populated by people with an aversion to their own pain, a reward system, and an aversion to causing pain to others. The latter community is clearly better than the former community.

This community might well (falsely) believe that if they promote an aversion to causing pain to others that an all-powerful god will punish all of them with excruciating pain. Suffering from the effects of this belief, they actually condemn anybody who promotes an aversion to causing pain to others. Advocates of this vile philosophy that risks their god’s vengeance are burned alive as a warning to others. Regardless of what they believe, and regardless of the feelings that are generated as a result of this error, they still have more and stronger reasons to form a society that includes an aversion to causing pain to others. They are simply unaware of this moral fact.

Becoming aware of it, and then creating that universal aversion, represents moral progress.

The abolition of slavery, social equality for women, the combatting of child abuse, recognizing the moral permissibility of homosexual relationships, all represent moral progress. They all represent creating sentiments (like the aversion to causing pain in the hypothetical example) that people generally actually have reasons to promote universally.

Moral Argument

This also brings to the surface the possibility of error and moral debate. In the example given above, the people who (falsely) believe that a god will punish them with excruciating pain if they were to reward/praise behavior that avoids causing pain and punish/condemn acts that cause pain are barriers to moral progress. They are wrong. Regarding the reasons for promoting a universal aversion to causing pain to others, they are on the wrong side of the issue, and those who argue for creating such an aversion are on the right side. This goes hand-in-hand with the thesis that there is such a thing as moral progress, and the false believers are standing in the way of progress.

In some cases, it may be difficult to determine what attitudes we have reasons to promote. In the case of capital punishment, the “ultimate punishment” for the performance of certain types of crimes may be useful in promoting even stronger aversions to committing those types of crimes. This would give us reason to promote universal acceptance of – and even a desire for – this type of punishment. On the other hand, capital punishment is killing. Promoting a universal desire to kill may not be such a wise idea.

One might respond, “No, we are only cheering the killing of the guilty!” That might be the intent, but the cheering takes place in the real world and one has to look at the real-world effects. In a population of 300 million people, cheering the killing of the guilty will be internalized in some of the population as killing those who deserve it. They may classify as “deserves it” people who have committed the slightest wrong – who they perceive as having cut them off on the highway, looked at them without a proper acknowledgement of respect, or failed to hand over money the person thought he had a right to take. Attitudes about who deserves killing are going to differ. As a result, cheering killings may create more murders than it prevents.

We can have genuine disputes over issues such as government assistance to the poor, taxation, what to allow people to say and what to prohibit from being said, the treatment of animals, the treatment of future generations, the accumulation of wealth. We may well discover reasons for and reasons against promoting certain attitudes. We may find people claiming that reasons exist that do not, in fact, exist, such as the “vengeful god” referred to in the hypothetical example – the god that would inflict suffering on a community that promotes an aversion to causing suffering.

Disagreement does not imply that there is no right answer. Nor does it get in the way of people saying, “Here are good reasons to promote such an attitude” and backing it up with empirical evidence, and “Those are bad reasons for promoting such an attitude” and backing that up with empirical evidence as well.

Moral Persuasion

So, now, imagine that you have been captured and taken into the woods by somebody who plans to cook you slowly over an open fire and then eat you. You desire that this not be the case. You wish to try to prevent this from happening. What are your options?

According to the theory presented here, you have three options.

Option 1: You can try to point out to him that he already has a reason not to cook you and eat you that he might not be aware of. Perhaps you can convince him that you are riddled with parasites, and he certainly does not want to eat somebody riddled with parasites. Another option is to convince him that you have an all-knowing, all-powerful, invisible friend who will punish anybody who cooks and eats you, causing them endless suffering. This wouldn’t be true, but it might be effective.

Option 2: Change his desires. If you have a pill that causes people to have an aversion to killing and eating others, see if you can find a way to get him to eat it. Failing that, he has a reward system, and it may be that by praising the decision not to cook and eat you, and by condemning the decision to do so, you may effect a change in his desires and create within him an aversion to cooking and eating people. This takes a lot of work though – a lot of time and a string of experience – so it will likely not be effective if he plans on eating you for the evening meal.

Option 3: Prevent him from acting. Kill him, or escape, or . . . better yet . . . do both, in whichever order is most convenient (or possible) in the circumstances.

These are your three options. (1) Convince him that cooking and eating you will thwart a desire he already has, (2) create within him a new desire that would be thwarted by cooking and eating you, (3) make it impossible for him to cook and eat you.

You could try to tell him that, by its very nature, cooking and eating you has its own intrinsic reasons-creating property and that in virtue of this fact he already has a reason not to eat you that he might not be aware of. Personally, I would go with the story of the all-knowing, all-powerful invisible friend. It sounds more plausible.

There is another option, but it requires some advanced planning. If successful, you will not even end up in this situation, so you will not need to ask yourself what to do if you were in such a situation. This is to get together with others in your community and convince them that you all should use your collective powers of reward and punishment, including praise and condemnation, to promote universally an aversion to cooking and eating people.

Given the massive complexities of human society, the massive complexities of the human brain (including other genetic and environmental influences), and the massive varieties of experiences a person may have, one will not eliminate the possibility of being killed and eaten. However, to the degree that one can promote such an aversion, to that degree one can at least reduce the chances.

Once again, I want to remind the reader that, when it comes to “what desires do people generally have the most and strongest reasons to promote universally using these tools of reward (such as praise) and punishment (such as condemnation)” has a right answer – at least in many cases. In our original simple universe, the value of promoting universally an aversion to causing pain was not a matter of opinion. In our society, the value of promoting aversions to lying, fraud, sophistry, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, murder, and the like is not a matter of opinion. There is an objective fact of the matter. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, these desires and aversions by praising those who act correctly and condemning/punishing those who act wrongly.


This, then, is a brief account of the position I have been defending.

There are no intrinsic reasons-creating properties in the natures of particular states of affairs. There is, instead, a set of desires and aversions and a learning system we evolved to have because it was useful in generating new desires and aversions. Once this reward system came into being, it was there for others to manipulate. All they needed to do was to manipulate each other’s experiences – their rewards and punishments – to generate behavioral rules useful to those who were doing the manipulating. With hole communities usefully manipulating everybody’s learned desires and aversions having, in their effect, the (unintended) well-being of the whole group, the institution of morality came into existence.

This system is so simple that animals could use it. If one animal performs an action that is perceived to threaten the interests of another animal – either its own interests or its interest in the well-being of others such as its children, mate, and friends – it has reason to respond with condemnation. This takes the form of snarling, growling, swiping with paws, and making other aggressive gestures. If they perform useful actions, others can reinforce those useful actions using rewards such as grooming, food, sex, or even positive gestures such as a smile or pleasant “approving” noises.

This does not need complex cognition. It needs nothing more than, “If it seems favorable, respond with rewards and praising noises. If it seems dangerous, respond with punishments and condemnation noises”. We become angry, shout, and insult those who perform actions that we perceive as a threat. That this seems so natural is no accident. It is because harm to us does not have any intrinsic reasons-making properties, but we can act on the reward systems of others to create those reasons nonetheless.

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote some desires and aversions universally. This applies to aversions such as lying, theft, assault, rape, and murder. It applies to desires such as keeping promises, repaying debts, and helping those in desperate need. There are right answers to the questions about what sentiments to promote and what sentiments to avoid promoting.

From this, without any need for the existence of intrinsic reasons-making properties, we get objective morality.

No comments: