Monday, September 26, 2011

Causes vs justifications of morality

Have I ever mentioned that I am in SANE, the UC Berkeley secular student group?  Anyways, in an earlier meeting there was some sort of moderator fail, and we spontaneously started talk about all the most trite atheist topics imaginable.  Case in point: "Where do your morals come from?"

Among the many answers, there were the usual ones claiming that we evolved morality.  I think this is a fairly reasonable claim (though possibly incorrect), and there are several possible mechanisms for the evolution of morality.  However, I am far from an expert on the subject, and would only offer a link to Wikipedia.

Instead, I would like to talk about why I think this answer misses the point.

It's easy to miss the point of the question, because its wording is ambiguous.  If I ask where something comes from, it's perfectly reasonable to think that I am asking what causes it.  But I think in this case the point of the question is to ask for a justification for morals.  Not, "What causes you to have morality?" but "Why should you have morality?"

I believe the question gets misinterpreted because its "correct" interpretation is kind of senseless.  When you ask why you should do something, you are asking for a moral or ethical justification.  Thus the question is asking for a moral justification for morals.  It's asking for something circular.  I don't think anyone, religious or otherwise, could possibly answer the question in a satisfactory way.

In my mind I'm imagining several fictitious conversations...

"Why should you be moral?"
"God wants us to be moral."
"Why should you do what God wants?"
"Because God created us."
"Why should you do what your creator wants you to?"
"Because it is good to honor one's creator."
"Why is it good?"
"You can't just keep asking why!  At some point you'll hit the bottom!"

(My mind's Christian is probably not very accurate, by the way.)

"Why should you be moral?"
"To go to heaven to be with God."
"Why should you try to be with God?"
"Because God will give us eternal happiness."
"Why should you try to achieve that?"
"Wouldn't you like to be happy forever?"
"Yes, but why should I try to get what I like?"
"This is pointless!  You can ask why about anything!"

I imagine many atheist answers failing for similar reasons.

"Where do your morals come from?"
"We evolved a sense of morality."
"Yeah, but why should you try to get what evolution wants?"
"It's not what evolution wants.  It's what evolution caused me to want."
"But why should you try to get what you want?"
"I misspoke: it's not what I individually want, but what we collectively want."
"There's still the same problem.  Why should you try to get what people collectively want?"
"Would you argue that something is good even though it goes against what everyone wants?"
"That's not a justification."

The evolution answer misses the point, because all straightforward answers miss the point.

And lest this post be all about tearing things down, let me suggest a better question, a pragmatic one.  If I think someone else is doing something evil, how can I convince them that it is evil?  To use persuasive moral reasoning, we must have some sort of common basis, even if it is not a fundamental basis.  So what is that basis?

16 comments:

miller said...

Suddenly I feel bad that my only post mentioning SANE mentions a meeting I didn't like. In general, SANE is a great student org.

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

I always assumed whenever someone says that we evolved morals the implication is that morals are relative. As such why should you behave morally surely comes down to a combination of being happy with one's actions and not being a social pariah.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

First, what precisely do you mean by "moral"? Most constructions seem to beg the question: morality is what we "should" do; thus, we should do that which we should do — an uninteresting tautology.

miller said...

I would define "moral" as that which we should do, which is why I see the question as asking for the impossible: a deeper justification for a tautology.

I haven't given much thought to what the question would mean if we defined morality differently. Isn't it sort of a loaded question, implicitly assuming that we should be "moral", whatever that means?

miller said...

I'm not sure how one would get from evolution to relative morals. That would be interesting to hear.

HappyEvilSlosh said...

OK well I sort of go by analogy. I don't think anyone but the most hard core platonists would argue that there was a perfect form of a cat right? As in a cat is an objective fact in the sense it exists but it's specific form is relative to ancestry and environment (and that's not even starting on the difficulties of defining species).

So with that in mind I don't get how someone can both argue morals have an evolutionary basis and be a moral realist. Because surely the argument is that morals have evolved as things which aid in survival and thus are relative to the same sorts of things as products of natural evolution (albeit possibly easier to change having a memetic rather than a genetic basis). I've seen papers that argue things like altruism are evolutionarily beneficial *in certain circumstances*, and it's the part in the *'s that says to me it follows that it must be relative.

Do you get where I'm coming from? Do you think it reasonable?

miller said...

HappyEvilSlosh,
I see. I think my own thinking is on entirely different wavelength though. I see evolution as a cause for some moral tendencies, but that which has evolved is by no means the same as that which is moral. For example, we evolved to like eating a lot, even when this is unhealthy.

HappyEvilSlosh said...

Sorry I wasn't trying to imply that every meme that has evolved in such a way is a moral statement. Although at the boundaries it might become fuzzy, the memetic equivalent of a kline perhaps?

I do find the idea compelling however (as far as evolutionary phsychology goes with it's lack of evidence ;P). That there are moral views that don't aid in survival today could be explained by either it's a view that used to be adaptive but is no longer, or the memetic equivalent of genetic drift followed by fixation.

Now, as to the morals not arising out of such a process usually the people who make such a claim also claim some sort of moral realism which I generally find the arguments for unconvincing. However, I'm now getting away from areas I pretend to have expertise in so perhaps a conversation for another day, when I can read up on whatever you throw at me. :)

HappyEvilSlosh said...

Sorry, that should be cline, not kline.

miller said...

"Now, as to the morals not arising out of such a process..."

By "such a process," you mean biological evolution plus memetic evolution, right? Isn't every idea ever expressed a part of memetic evolution?

Also, I think "arising" is ambiguous. Do you mean that the process causes us to behave in moral ways, or that it causes us to express certain moral values, or that it causes that which we express to be moral, or something else?

To be clear, I don't pretend to have any expertise in this matter either. I'm not trying to seriously challenge your view, I'm just trying to think and explore.

HappyEvilSlosh said...

Oops. Sorry, didn't mean to engage in drive-by commenting. Just got a little sidetracked. Conferences and the like.


By "such a process," you mean biological evolution plus memetic evolution, right? Isn't every idea ever expressed a part of memetic evolution?

Yes, but occasionally I have come across people who have advocated a mixture of causes for moral statements. It gets frustrating because they'll say something along the lines of 'yes, fine for some morals but what about these objectively true ones over here' (I'm paraphrasing slightly but you get the idea). So I was trying to say this can explain at least some... potentially... and I haven't heard any other good explanations for any it couldn't, should any exist.

Also, I think "arising" is ambiguous. Do you mean that the process causes us to behave in moral ways, or that it causes us to express certain moral values, or that it causes that which we express to be moral, or something else?
OK I mean the things that we consider to be moral sentences (and so I guess by extension all those other things :P). So... ughh I hate how much this relies on data free evo psych... however let's say there's some action X that you consider to me immoral. If it happens to increase average survivability it seems not impossible that it would be cemented as an idea that is good in the general population. So, I have cause to think it's not actually the case, but let's say the burka helps in survival in deserts because you're not constantly being exposed to the sun. You might end up with a statement that it is moral to wear a burka due to that (or equivalently that it's immoral not to). However that doesn't mean that the explanation for it will be good (and in fact I think it's fine to say in this framework that religion piggy backs on morals rather than the other way around) nor that it will be appropriate at all places and times (gotta get enough vit D at the poles). Additionally back in the day when transport wasn't as easy probably this view wouldn't have been challenged - ie not selected against.

Now I guess you could ask why wouldn't people just drop the moral if it turned out to be wrong in certain circumstances. To that I guess I might point to something like sunk costs bias, especially if it's attached to a collection of morals in which you feel obligated to believe all and believe the alternative is to believe none.

To be clear, I don't pretend to have any expertise in this matter either. I'm not trying to seriously challenge your view, I'm just trying to think and explore.

Good of you to say. :) I've found the discussion of the epistemology of ethics among skeptics to particularly lend itself to quite bitter arguments. My opinion is that it's because skepticism can attract the type people that think science is the be all and end all in knowing what is true. Or it could just be the way I talk about it. ;)

miller said...

Having some more distance now, I am no longer sure that my earlier comments make sense.

Right now I'm thinking of morality as having multiple causes, some which are more proximate or distant. I think of evolution as a more distant cause of morality, and memetic evolution as a more proximate cause, and personal will and motivations as an even more proximate cause. Evolution causes people to instinctively be altruistic because those who weren't altruistic tended to die out. The memetic evolution is molded by biological evolution and additional processes. But when people act morally, it's not because they're consciously thinking, "This is evolutionarily adaptive behavior", or "The idea that this is moral is a successful meme", it's simply that they think they should.

But I feel like none of that has any bearing on whether morals are relative. To say a moral is relative/objective to speak of its rational justification, not of the physical process that lead us to think the moral is true.

Though I think I see your point too. The physical processes that lead to our beliefs about morality are highly contingent processes. So if there is indeed an "objective" justification for morality, this objective morality is unlikely to align with our particular beliefs about morality.

Godboy said...

Your behavior either reflects that of a perfect being more closely, or it does not. But for this to be fact rather than opinion, there must actually be a perfect being. Then by not modeling this behavior, it would be factually true that you are less like a perfect being. (Similarly, the more you sing off-key, the less you are like Elvis, and because Elvis really existed we know this to be factually true.)

On alternative, non-theistic views of morality, paradigmatic accounts of people are imagined and based not on any real paradigm of personhood. Rather, morally-neutral phenomena, such as physical and emotional health, is observed, and it is assumed, absence of any experience, that a perfect being would act so as to promote these things.

miller said...

I think it's naive to think that the nontheistic approach to morality just like the theistic one with some trivial modification (ie replace an actual perfect being with an imagined account). Not even all theists think of morality in that way.

"Your behavior either reflects that of a perfect being more closely, or it does not. But for this to be fact rather than opinion, there must actually be a perfect being."

I don't think it is possible to avoid value-judgments (what you call opinion) in this way. One must still make the value-judgment that the perfect being is in fact perfect.

Godboy said...

miller,

I think any approach to morality minimally involves an ideal of personhood.
Presumably, you will tell me that I ought not promote the greatest possible suffering; thus, your paradigmatic account of a person includes not promoting the greatest possible suffering.

I really don't know what meaning deontic statements have apart from this. Otherwise, you are doing nothing other than stating factual, non-deontic propositions, such as "If you lie, then you will suffer more." Fine, but that doesn't tell me whether I'm better or worse off if I lie, only that telling lies will for me produce certain physical and mental states that, for non-moral reasons, I'd prefer not to have.