Saturday, December 2, 2017

Rationalists Should Take Moral Questions Much More Seriously

Morality is not fully rational. A basic foundation of any system of rational decision-making is that the utility of different options be comparable. Yet normal non-psychopathic humans do not permit this. We have sacred values, that is, in the broad sense that we do not permit them to be questioned. For example, if someone asked you if they could kill your child for a certain amount of money, your reaction, I hope, would not be "Well let me compare the utility I would lose from the killing of my child, to the utility I would gain from the money they're offering." Furthermore, I'd wager you're not interested in hearing meta-arguments that you SHOULD be willing to entertain such comparisons. And you also wouldn't compare between different sacred values, e.g. - a Bond villain who makes you choose between killing puppies or the end of American democracy; these are things that are just bad, bad, bad, and mustn't be measured or traded against each other. They're just off limits, and the limits are beyond discussion, period. If you were fully rational, you would not feel that way.

I think as a rule atheists undervalue the importance of the output side of the input-output arc. We focus very much on epistemic rationality - knowing the truth - but not nearly enough on instrumental rationality - our decision-making, and whether what we do with that true knowledge achieves our goals. We especially don't focus enough on moral decision-making. Furthermore, I would argue that many of us are actually quite overoptimistic about even the capability of humans to be rational, and furthermore overoptimistic that increasing individual rationality will in every case immediately lead to more happiness and flourishing; in this sense, we are rationality fundamentalists. (Much like market fundamentalists insist that the market always improves the human condition, and/or if it doesn't, well that condition wasn't worth improving.) I would like increasing rationality to always immediately lead to more happiness and flourishing, and I don't see an alternative, but the potential problems of this, after all, brand new worldview are worth taking seriously - especially because we seem to be succeeding in the long run in making humans more epistemically rational. One potential pitfall is the erosion of (again, sensu lato) sacred values. That is to say, people may actually be becoming more rational, including in their moral decisions, which means they ARE willing to put a dollar value on those "sacred" things, including human life and suffering.

If such a prospect leaves you jumping for joy, consider that the values you still hold sacred may be exactly the ones the other guy has an established exchange rate for. It's worth pointing out that the super-authoritarian young Trumpers are not evangelicals, but rather are better characterized as the secular right - the red pill crowd.

If you're not convinced, a paper in Cognition is showing exactly that. We rationalists should take the problem of the possible inherent irrationality of moral behavior much more seriously.


Hannikainen IR, Machery E, Cushman FA. Is utilitarian sacrifice becoming more morally permissible? Cognition. 2018 Jan;170:95-101. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2017.09.013. Epub 2017 Sep 28.

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