Saturday, October 23, 2010

Three Brief Critiques of Reason as a Basis for Morality

Recently atheist discussions have turned more toward morality than the other traditional topics of secular discourse (creation versus evolution being a major one). This is an incredibly important positive development in the modern history of freethought, since many of those other topics are frankly sideshows. The business of organized religion is to propagate itself by dominating behavior and arbitrating morality. Anything we can do to move morality into the realm of individual, rational discourse and away from self-appointed descendants of Bronze Age chieftains is good.

However, there are underlying assumptions of the Enlightenment worldview is that knowing individually and rationally-accessible truth, happiness, and moral behavior are not in conflict; and that we can know and improve or moral behavior and happiness through reason. It would be unpleasant to discover that these assumptions are not true, but I haven't seen an argument explicitly supporting them.

The project of re-grounding, or at least re-understanding, morality is the most important one that rationalists are now undertaking. The following concerns or questions are ones that I think we need to address in the course of this program.

1) Moral sense is experiential. In general, we know something is wrong by a feeling that it gives us, not by propositional thinking in that moment. This is true in exactly the same sense that we have a certain taste in food given to us by genes and experience. In fact even most propositional thoughts, moral or otherwise, are really just recalled impressions of language or reasoning and strictly speaking, when called into short-term memory they are themselves sense impressions. Yet just as people can find the same food delicious or disgusting, there are psychopaths who can hurt others without feeling bad; there are bigots who feel genuine disgust at acts or people in what others would call context-dependent but inappropriate. Practically speaking our moral sense can be re-trained with effort, but how can we decide to be re-trained when our only guidepost is a visceral sense that the act we just witnessed is indeed blameworthy? If some kinds of moral disgust (or lack thereof) can legitimately be subordinated to reasoning about morality, then how do we know when it's appropriate to let reason steer?

Modern moral reasoning most often takes the form of trying to inductively find the principles according to which we're acting and extending them; and rejecting principles that take us into unpleasant territories. If reason is a valid way to find moral truth, on what basis can we do that? We're probably just bigoted.

2. Paleolithic vs. Post-Scarcity Morality If we define "human" as Homo sapiens starting at least before the Renaissance, it is likely that for the majority of human experience, we have been far less happy than we are today; yet, these are the conditions under which we evolved and prospered. A good example is food. Because in some parts of the world we have solved the problem of food scarcity, we are surrounded by salt, fat, and sugar and we gorge ourselves on it until our health is damaged. This is because not only were these macronutrients in drastically limited supply during most of our history, but calories in general were limited too, so like any animal, we were constantly thinking about finding more. Today subjects in calorie-restriction experiments describe the experience as being one of surviving, but constantly thinking about food - exactly as we would have expected our paleolithic ancestors to have done.

Humans today in developed countries are more concerned with their individual happiness than has ever been the case before. Amid this speculation, fertility rates are dropping. Why? This is an absolute Parfitian disaster; with a bright future, this is exactly when according to Parfit, we should be making more. If children make us less happy, that's probably the best explanation. In fact most studies have shown that having children does make people less happy. During the paleolithic, we didn't have the tools psychologically or physically to be concerned about the impact of children on our happiness. Now we're obese and in some developed countries the population reproduces below replacement rate. It is possible that our moral sense's function in an evolutionary psychology sense is not about individual happiness. For example, one evolutionary psychology model of suicide is that it is a response of one family member to his or her own low likelihood of reproduction, and by committing suicide that non-reproducing family member raises the inclusive fitness of siblings by no longer consuming resources. If ideas like this are significantly true, it is unclear to what extent a rationalist approach to morality can resolve the problem of conflicts between what is true, what is moral, and what makes us happy.

3. Godel Statements in Morality This is admittedly an academic point, but if we believe that morality is ultimately an expression of reason and can be codified logically, this will mean there are non-derivable first principles, and/or that there are necessarily internal contradictions.


Philippe said...

Nice post, Mike. Well thought-out.

TGP said...

Regarding Godel statements in morality, why would you assume that a moral system would be complete?

Like science, any moral system has to be open to new data. A moral system needs to be consistent and predictive, but doesn't need to be complete.

Michael Caton said...

TGP, true, but we still have an unsatisfying moral system, at least to the kinds of moral completists who are likely to find a fully elaborated moral logic appeal. That is, we're left at least with a incomplete moral system (one which doesn't describe what to do in every situation) or with one that has an internal inconsistency. Or both.