Sunday, March 06, 2011

Of Morality, Objective and Subjective

by Doug Drake

A funny thing happened at the DC Atheists Meetup the other night. One of the two proposed topics of discussion was “the values we have used to reach our atheism.” I found this rather intriguing. I am not aware that I used any values to reach my atheism. I merely concluded that supernatural beings do not exist. To sound my fellow infidels on the subject, I tossed out the observation that, in my opinion, there can be no such thing as objective morality. The ensuing discussion became sufficiently vociferous to raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded unbelievers in the crowd, and I fear that some of the newbies present may have swallowed their gum. It happened, you see, that a couple of my secular colleagues were decidedly of the opposite opinion. They went so far as to claim that objective morality not only exists, but that it does not rely on any emotional basis, and can be demonstrated scientifically.

Now all this would seem counterintuitive to a superficial observer of the modern scene. After all, Darwin himself had no qualms about recognizing the emotional basis of morality. As he put it (The Descent of Man, chapter 3),

“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable—namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”


“A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.”

Similar examples of his thought on this subject may be found in his “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Given the flood of books on the subject that have appeared in the last decade, it would seem that Darwin’s conclusions regarding the emotional fundament of morality are being abundantly confirmed in our own day. See, for example, Hardwired Behavior by Tancredi, The Ethical Brain by Gazzaniga, The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley, and, regarding Darwin’s observations of a moral sense in animals, Wild Justice by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce. As students of philosophy are aware, Hume came to the same conclusion without sitting on Darwin’s shoulders. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted in his paper “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,”(pdf available online),

David Hume in Particular proposed that moral judgments are similar in form to aesthetic judgments: They are derived from sentiment, not reason, and we attain moral knowledge by an “immediate feeling and finer internal sense,” not by a “chain of argument and induction.”

Even the brilliant John Stuart Mill, that great architect of the moral system of Utilitarianism, balked at accepting such an animal as objective morality. As he put it in Utilitarianism,

The ultimate sanction, therefore, of all morality (external motives apart) being a subjective feeling in our own minds, I see nothing embarrassing to those whose standard is utility, in the question, what is the sanction of that particular standard? We may answer, the same as of all other moral standards – the conscientious feelings of mankind. Undoubtedly this sanction has no binding efficacy on those who do not possess the feelings it appeals to;

and, giving further point to his belief that morality is subjective, not objective in nature,

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of ‘Things in themselves’, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

I point out in passing that Mill was anything but a “Blank Slater,” meaning someone who, after the fashion of the orthodoxy prevailing in the social sciences for much of the 20th century, denies any significant role of human nature as an influence on human behavior. Steven Pinker, who I somehow suspect hasn’t actually read some of the authors he cites, makes that claim in his book, “The Blank Slate.”In fact, while Mill was of the opinion that fully developed moral codes are not innate, he stated quite explicitly that the sentiments that give rise to them are, as can be immediately seen by anyone who takes the trouble to glance through “Utilitarianism,” and he by no means denied the significance of human nature.

Those whose tastes run to more ancient thinkers can look at Plato’s wonderful dialogue, Euthyphro. There we find Socrates conversing in his famous dialectic style with one of the “ethics experts” of his day about the definition of piety. The man was so sure that he knew the “objective good” that he was prosecuting his own father for manslaughter. As Socrates demonstrated, the thing Euthyphro thought he had such a firm hold on was very slippery indeed.

In a word, there is a strong philosophical case, and increasingly compelling evidence based on scientific research, that morality is subjective, not an objective thing that is legitimate in itself, independent of any emotions, sentiments or predispositions in the mind that might seem to give rise to it. Were my fellow atheists at the meeting, then, merely outliers and anomalies? Hardly!

In fact there is a very strong, and perhaps dominant, current among the secular public intellectuals who interest themselves in the subject of morality today according to which the Good exists as an objective “thing in itself,” as Mill put it. This Good is supposed, not only to transcend the subjective minds of individuals, but its existence and legitimacy are deemed scientifically verifiable. It is often identified or associated with “human flourishing,” or something akin thereto. “New atheist” Sam Harris is an outstanding example of this trend. He has a fervent belief in a “moral truth” that he suggests is discoverable using the latest scientific technique. According to Sam, we must “think about moral truth in the context of science,” in order to “maximize human well-being.” He deems it “obvious” that “we need some universal conception of right and wrong.” However, as he sees it, there is an “impediment” in the way of our search for “moral truth.” As he put it in remarks he delivered at a recent conference organized by the Edge Foundation on “The New Science of Morality,”

“…most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people – certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists – have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil. My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy.”

It’s hard for me to understand the basis for such a claim. I honestly wonder what people Harris is referring to here. He claims to have received thousands of e-mails from them, and perhaps they are out there, but I have run into very few of them. Certainly the other two among the “big three” atheist intellectuals, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are both passionately devoted to their own versions of good and evil. Read the blogs of the left or the right with some claim to intellectual heft, and one gets the impression that their authors are much more likely to suffer from pathological piety than any ambivalence about what they consider right and wrong. Be that as it may, Harris assures us that he is prepared to defend claims to “moral truth in the context of science.” And how are we to recognize “scientific moral truth?” According to Harris,it is that which “maximizes human well-being,” and “human flourishing,” presumably as those terms are understood by secular intellectuals in the early 21st century.

And what kind of scientific proof does Harris have in mind to establish the verity of his moral truths.
Read his book, The Moral Landscape, or, if your time is limited, his blog or theonline remarks referred to above, and you will find that it amounts to evoking morally linked emotions in a group of ideologically similar individuals and daring any of them to step outside the ideological box they live in by denying they feel those emotions or that they are not elicited by the kinds of evils Harris evokes. Some examples of his scientific technique:

“In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.”

“Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.”

“I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery.”

And so on. In other words, Harris’ “proof” of the legitimacy of “moral truth” amounts to demonstrating that he can elicit moral emotions similar to his own in a group of like-minded individuals. This is less than compelling evidence of what he proposes to prove. Harris also plays games with the word “values.” For example,

“The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to cut the heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.”

Here, Harris evokes emotion as before, in this case in response to the beheading of adulterers, and then conflates two different definitions of the word “value.” In one case, it is the utilitarian value of doing good science to accomplish some desired end. For example, the technique used to create the atomic bomb was “valuable” in that sense, because the goal was achieved; the bomb went off. Emotion had nothing to do with that fact. It would have gone off whether its creators had strong emotional feelings about the utilitarian “values” they used to create it or not.

In the second case, the “values” referred to are moral values, and while “good science” can be demonstrated with repeatable experiments, good morality cannot. It may be that on occasion the outcomes of moral actions can also be demonstrated with repeatable experiments, but at that point one must answer the question as to whether those outcomes are “really good.” Such questions cannot be answered unless, at some point, one makes a subjective value judgment. What Harris is doing here is simply assuming that what he defines as “human flourishing” is “really good.” Anyone who doesn’t agree with him is consigned to outer darkness, without appeal, certainly a good way to deflect criticism if rather dubious as a means of approaching the truth. “Science” only comes in after the fact, as a means of discovering how best to achieve “human flourishing,” which is accepted a priori as “really good”based on a purely subjective value judgment. Listen to any “scientific proof” of the “objective good,” and such a subjective judgment will inevitably creep in at some point. It’s equivalent to the “miracle happens” step in a “scientific proof” that appears in one of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons.

Does all this really matter? Most definitely so. The fact that there may be unpleasant consequences to belief in the objective existence of things that really have no such existence should be obvious to those familiar with the history of religious wars, the holy inquisition, the murder of hundreds of thousands of women in Europe as “witches,” and the countless massacres of Jews that have occurred over the centuries, not to mention anyone who experienced the events of 911. The same can be said of secular delusions. In their most pathological manifestations, they can spawn secular religions such as “scientific” Communism, whose adherents believed just as fondly as Sam Harris that it would lead to a future of unprecedented “human flourishing.” The mayhem and misery it really led to is documented in the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many others.

And what if I am right and morality is really subjective, having no existence other than as the expression of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains? Will it lead to an amoral society and “moral relativism?” I think not. Our brains are not wired for “moral relativism” for the very good reason that it would not have enhanced our chances of surviving as social animals. The expression of human morality will continue along familiar tracks regardless of the “objective” reasons contrived to justify it after the fact. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in the paper referred to above, “moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.” In my own case, I can testify that I am the least of “moral relativists.” I tend to experience the moral rules I subscribe to as absolutes, and am subject to occasional episodes of virtuous indignation, pious outrage, and the distinct impression that I am morally superior to other human beings. I have merely come to realize that there is no objective basis for such pious buffoonery and self-righteous posing. It strikes me that the world would be a more pleasant place if the strident zealots of the left and right who currently set the tone of debate touching on matters political and philosophical would come to the same conclusion.

Posted for Doug Drake


lucette said...

Please don't spend so much time arguing about Sam Harris. He is the Deepak Chopra of atheism.

Don Wharton said...

The Deepak Chopra aspect of Sam Harris (the "spiritual" aspect) is not at issue here. Even with the flaws that he brings to his arguments he has, with his book The Moral Landscape, by far the largest current audience for the premise that science can answer questions of morality.

Explicit Atheist said...

I agree with you Don.

I have not read the Moral Landscape, but I have read various arguments for and against the thesis of the book. In my view, the critics of that book appear to be insisting on unecessary, impractical and excessive demands for defining morality as some sort of mathematical formula and then on that basis claiming that the Moral Landscape's thesis fails. If we applied some of those same impractical standards to every thesis then almost every non-mathematically expressed thesis would be evaluated to be failure. In all meaningful theories, even those that are expressed with mathematical equations, there must be axioms which are just accepted, as part of the definition of what we are trying to achieve or understand, and defining morality cannot be an exception here.

"Human flourishing" is a good place to start, but it is an incomplete standard for measuring morality. There is no escaping that intrinsic to morality is the recognization of a hierarchy of concerns, with human welfare trumping non-human welfare, with non-human welfare being a significant, though lesser, component of morality, with various factors such as pain, self-awareness, autonomy, being considered to rank the concern between species and within species. Here religions tend to fail us insofar as religions tend to declare humans as sacred and apart from all other life on the grounds that humans alone are made in the image of an imaginary god, instead of part of a continuem of living creatures, so that human life is declared inviolate regardless of the pain, self-awareness and autonomy factors, and/or the moral concern rank is evaluated by faith and belief contrary to reason applied to evidence.

Don Wharton said...

Thank you Explicit Atheist. An objective morality must of necessity become a quasi-economics where values of different forms can be compared. The problem is that we have no way to quantize that economics at this time. That means that we would have to look at the obvious moral inequalities (ie to vaccinate or not) and abstract principles that can be used to compare less obvious moral choices.

I don't see much of problem in placing non-human life forms into a moral context. The fact is that human survival is contingent on a rich complex ecosystem and our lifestyle as it stands will result in the substantial collapse of the wider ecosystem. We are currently losing species at a rate that may be greater than in prior mass extinctions.

A shared agreement concerning moral propositions of necessity is contingent on having the intellect to articulate and agree on those moral principles. There is an evolutionary agreement between pollinating insects (such as honey bees) and the plant life forms that require that pollination. This is vaguely similar to the reciprocal win/win relationship that is typical of good moral reasoning. However, it is not an explicitly articulated and agreed upon moral proposition. The value we place on the wider ecosystem comes organically from our need for the survival of that system and the services we get from that ecosystem.

The religious perspectives basically preclude any analysis of the objective facts. Of necessity, the purported “divine revelation” will be misinformed and an obstacle to objective reasoning.