Sunday, May 2, 2010

To What Extent Does Morality Depend on Reason?

Inspired by a question from everyone's favorite apologists at the Templeton Foundation, Jonah Lehrer asks to what degree morality depends on rational processes; he examines this in the context of psychopaths.

In a fantastic talk he gave to RationalThought@UCSD, Luke from Common Sense Atheism pointed out that the problem of morality's origins was one which atheists don't give enough thought, and I couldn't agree more. As Sam Harris points out, debates like evolution vs. creationism are a sideshow to the central question of how we should live.

Marc Hauser's experiments show that in the U.S. there is little difference between the moral decisions of theists and nontheists, which suggests that either all us atheists are secret Godmongers, OR that religion has nothing to do with morality. In fact I think that most theists that share the same culture as atheists will have almost exactly the same moral sense that we do, and use religion as an ex post facto justification for their actual moral decision-making. This still doesn't answer the question of how we make moral decisions.

I submit that however we're thinking about these things, it has very little to do with reason. Lehrer's article (which links to a paper investigating these questions more rigorously) describes how reason as such in psychopaths works just fine; they just have no negative feedback when they hurt other humans. This seems to bother him because it reduces morality to a hedonic calculation (Kant's worst nightmare). That is: I might tell you that the reason I didn't rob an old lady when I wanted money was because I wouldn't want my own mother robbed or because a system in which people were safe in their persons and effects benefits me in the long run (a rational argument) or because it's one of the Ten Commandments (a theist argument from authority). But what these observations of psychopaths suggest is that the reason I don't rob old ladies is because it would hurt me; I would feel bad about doing it. If I were a psychopath, I wouldn't, so I would be more likely to do it.

I don't see a problem with a hedonic model of morality in and of itself. I've noticed that people tend to get very confused about the moral content of an action when the agent benefits from the act. Case in point: a) a doctor treats a person with a broken bone for free, or b) for a standard reimbursement, or c) for a million dollars. The bone is equally fixed and the pain equally abated in all three cases. Is the goodness of the act any different? (Assume the payment isn't coming from the person.) People often hesitate to call the million-dollar bone-setting moral. Let me blunt: if we lived in a world where every time someone did a good deed, that person got a chocolate bar, a twenty dollar bill and an orgasm, we would live in an awesome world.

But my argument might be pointless if morality really IS just about moral sense as a form of pain and pleasure for the agent, and that moral sense is not programmable by reason. See the problem there? If morality is the ultimate question that we should be addressing, and it's not amenable to reason, then proceeding by argument is not useful. I'm throwing this out to the community for a reaction and will be talking more about it to the RationalThought audience in a couple weeks.

As a thought experiment I've been challenging atheists with a related question that goes one step further, and supposes a conflict between morality and reason (as theists often declare). That is, what if belief in gods really does make people behave more morally - what if there's a conflict between truth and reason on one side, and self-restraint/motivation according to moral principles (even those derived from reason, if that's meaningful) on the other? I don't necessarily think that there is, but just asking this question seems to bother fellow atheists. I've had trouble getting people to entertain it even as a thought experiment or counterfactual, much like theists often won't even discuss the nonexistence of their gods for one sentence as a hypothetical. These are damn important issues.

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