Thursday, April 16, 2009

‘Successful Disasters’ and the Vulnerability of the Moral Argument

At the End of Prof Wolfe’s MIT Psychology Class, he introduces Evolutionary Psychology, which hypothesizes that the key to understanding and managing contemporary behaviors is to uncover the evolutionary value of those behaviors, namely: how does this behavior help propagate my genetic material into future generations. Much of this material was pretty intuitive. Men like younger women because they have more years to produce babies. Women like older men because they are more likely to have means to provide for babies. Men are drawn to multiple sexual partners because making babies is a low cost endeavor for them compared to women. Etc…. But here is the thing with Evolutionary Psychology, it is descriptive…it can never be prescriptive.

In his final two lectures Prof Wolfe covers eating disorders and coercive sexual relationships from an evolutionary psychology perspective. He calls them ‘successful disasters.’ They are disasters because they intuitively[1] chafe our moral sensibilities. Yet he is forced to concede the adjective ‘successful’ because they are adaptive mechanisms that do the ‘evolutionary work’ of propagating genetic material into future generations. Prof Wolfe taught about how to treat these behaviors, but he couldn’t tell us why to treat these behaviors.

And that is the thing I find interesting. Like all secular systems that attempt to understand and shape the human moral apparatus, evolutionary psychology LACKS OUGHTNESS. It has no mechanism to go from, ‘this is the way things are’ to ‘this is the way things should be.’ It gives us categories with which we can label eating disorders and rape.[2] We can call them maladaptive or aberrant based on their relative infrequency. But since they are simply strategies to do what the rest of us are fundamentally trying to do…there is no moral force to label them ‘wrong’. In fact, it seems to me that if my primary existential agenda is to propagate my genetic material into future generations, rape and ethnic cleansing (the two worst atrocities I can imagine) are particularly successful ways to pull that off. It also makes no sense that I would have any interest in the plight of urban schools or AIDS in Africa, because sacrificing resources that could benefit my progeny in support of the members of another ethnicity does no real evolutionary work for me.

Recently, a young man I am mentoring facilitated the theistic side of a debate of the UCD philosophy club regarding the ‘moral argument’ for the existence of God. His argument (from Lane-Craig) went like this:

1. If objective moral oughtness exists, God exists
2. Objective moral oughtness exists
3. Therefore God exists

As we debriefed the discussion, something interesting emerged. His interlocutors had spent almost of their time and effort assailing his first premise, the necessary connection between the existence of an objective moral oughtness and a creator God. But here’s the thing; that is not where the argument is vulnerable. Objective oughtness simply requires a transcendent law giver. Otherwise, you are arbitrarily selecting between totally legitimate strategies of genetic propagation. I have heard a lot of creative attempts to get around that and am simply unmoved by all of them.[3]

(VERY Important Side Note: I am not arguing that you have to believe in God to be moral. In fact, I have argued passionately and repeatedly that, at least Christianity, tends to correlate with moral failure, rather than moral success. So by extension, I am arguing that morality tends to correlate with disbelief. What I AM arguing is that, while individual morality might be a pleasant coping mechanism or evolutionary strategy for the agnostic or atheist, it has no prescriptive power over any one else…and may, actually, be irrational.)


But there are no air tight arguments for or against the existence of God. As my favorite late agnostic/atheist Stephen J Gould used to say, (paraphrase) ‘if the determining existence of God was simply a matter of intelligence, than half my colleagues are morons.’[4] Therefore, the argument is vulnerable. Most people simply do not have the courage to face the vulnerability. That’s because, it is only really vulnerable under assertion #2 above.

There are reasons to believe objective moral oughtness exists (similar moral taboos and virtues across cultures, the testimony of conscience, etc…) but it is by no means assured, particularly with the unparalleled success of the evolutionary paradigm. All one has to do to shake free of the argument above is nut up and say, ‘Objective morals just do not exist. We, like all animals simply exist to propagate our genetic material into future generations. Having evolved a curiously large brain and opposable thumbs doesn’t somehow provide a transcendent moral code.’ Now Dawkins and I have our issues,[5] but we agree on this point.


When Terry Gross asked why we haven’t we evolved more morally…"The question is the other way around. If you look at the selfish gene view of life, the question is ‘why are we as moral as we are’. And we are surprisingly moral compared to what you might naively expect in a Darwinian- nature red in tooth and claw view…(Here he notes that there are good Darwinian explanations for why we are good t relatives or people who can reciprocate our helpful actions- groups we stand to benefit from being good to)...but we are faced with the problem of why were are as moral as we are towards non-relatives and perfect strangers, indeed members of other species whom we’re never going to meet again and who have no opportunity to reciprocate. And that I think is a kind of mistaken byproduct.”[6]

But why are we so hesitant to dismiss assertion # 2…because the intuitive, common sense argument is that objective moral values exist. As JP Moreland loves to say ‘It is simply wrong to torture babies for fun.’ So, while I solidly with Nietzsche in believing that if objective moral values do not exist, we should get on with living like they do not exist.[7] But I would make the empirical argument that they do exist…and if they do, so does God.

This post was prepared while listening to Flyleaf by Flyleaf

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[1] Prof Wolfe actually uses this word ‘intuitively’ as if he is trying to make an argument from ‘common sense.’
[2] Note, by putting these two behaviors in the same sentence I do not want to suggest even the hint of moral equvilency. It appears (from the evidence covered in the class) that the former is a complex phenomena in which the individual is largely a victum, where the latter is just the most morally repugnant human behavior possible.
[3] Here, of course, I am referring to pragmatism, utilitarianism, genetic determinism, objectivism (Rynd’s virtue of selfishness), Idealism…et al. None of these approaches has the analytical power to go from, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if the world was like this’ to ‘it is a necessary consequence of the evolutionary paradigm that we each behave like this.’
[4]Gould does not assert which half, just that whatever the wrong answer is, a lot of smart people believe it, so there must be something other than reason and syllogism at work. The argument that the believeing half Gould’s colleagues are the morons, was recently taken up by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, by resurrecting the idea of the ‘super scientist’ (using the NAS as the criteria). But he conveniently overlooked common sociological principles like ‘peer effects’ and the fact that the NAS is a self-selecting, self-propagating, self-referential data set. I think it is typical of Dawkins to employ sociology against belief (like, the very appropriate critique of ‘confirmation bias’ which, he seems to forget, applies to his hypothesis as well) but seems to think that if someone is smart enough to eschew belief they are smart enough to avoid sociological entanglements…which is, again, self referential. I miss Gould. And not, simply because he was a more measured rhetorician…but because I am a punk-eek (punctuated equilibrium) adherent and a fan of scientists who can actually write.
[5] Mainly that he is a excellent (if emotionally manipulative) rhetorician a very good scientist a bad philosopher and an abysmal theologian.
[6] I got this from Nic’s blog, but it was on NPR.
[7] I often hear what I would call the ‘weak’ form of this argument that goes something like ‘society would fall apart if everyone rejected the existence of an intrinsic or transcendent moral code so one must exist.’ I say if this is actually the case let it. Let’s have the courage to face a new reality where altruism is just a power play on the behalf of the recipient to swindle resources to propagate their genetic material at the expense of others. But if humanness is actually qualitatively different than ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ then it is important to get straight how it is different and, more importantly, why it is different.

5 comments:

Ian said...

What's interesting is that if God exists, premise 1 isn't all that interesting. Since God is a necessary being, provided God exists, any statement of the form "If p, then God exists" is going to be true (including "If God does not exist then God exists"!). But the same will go for "If p then 1+1=2". I take it, then, that someone asserting premise 1 is positing some very particular kind of dependence relation of morality on God. But that's where things get tricky.

Most people, I think, have in mind a legal analogy here where God is literally acting like a lawmaker, giving out commands (these commands thereby forming morality). This is the Divine Command view of morality, where something gets to be right by being (explicitly or implicitly) commanded by God or wrong by being forbidden. I find it interesting, though, that this is not a majority view in the Christian tradition, despite its current popularity (C. S. Lewis talks trash about it, for instance).

Personally, I tend to have grave doubts about the theory, for roughly the same reasons people for over 2000 years have had doubts about ideas like this. If, say, murder is wrong only because God forbade it then it seems morality is arbitrary, subject to God's whim. God could just as well have decided to command murder and rape and then it would have been wrong NOT to murder and rape - we just happened to luck out by living a world where God forbade instead of commanded those things.

Now, one could try to get out of this by saying that it's not arbitrary what God commands - that God has reasons for commanding the things he does. But then it looks like what's really doing the work here are the reasons for which murder and rape are forbidden by God, not God's act of forbidding or frowning on it. If that's true, it looks like it's those reasons that explain murder's wrongness, not God's forbidding it. But if that's right, then it could very well be that enough of those reasons are available to the atheist to appeal to in order to ground the wrongness of murder.

So, in other words, either morality is arbitrary, which seems wrong, or it isn't, in which case it looks like the atheist might not be in any trouble. Either way, the divine command person has a serious problem. There are ways you might try getting around this, but my suggestion would be that if you want to ground morality in God, don't do it by appealing to God as lawmaker. But doing it in some other, non-vacuous way is also difficult.

As for ethical theories that don't require God, I think there are a lot of options. The best, perhaps, if what you are interested in is rational ought-ness are kinds of egoism, contractualism, virtue theory, or deontology. Egoism can perhaps be grounded purely in instrumental rationality (the kind of rationality that tells you, for instance, that if you want to do X and doing Y is necessary for doing X, then you ought to do Y); virtue theory in normal human functions plus maybe some Aristotelian rationality (though this might be tricky). Contractualism might do it in a number of ways. Deontology can simply claim that ought-ness is primitive or it can go Kantian and say that the normativity of morality is grounded in something like rational consistency.

In any case, there are lots of ways to go - if I were an atheist I don't think I would find the combination of atheism and objective moral normativity any more troublesome than the combination of atheism and mathematics. It's hard to find good arguments that it is troublesome that don't already beg the question or include premises that are difficult to support (such as that morality requires an outside law-giver).

Ian said...

I should also note that I've had many students express the attitude at certain times that if something is in accordance with or furthers natural selection it is good, and otherwise it is bad. Quickly noting that rape is a good evolutionary strategy (a surprisingly high percentage of rapes result in pregnancies) seems to cure them of this thought!

stanford said...

Hey Ian, I appreciate your input and know you think about this far more clearly than I do. I am also uncomfortable with the implications of the legal analogy but think that less is more here...(e.g. 'tying oughtness to some non-vaucous attribute' - not being a philosopher, I can be happy with it not only being non-vacuous but also non-specified :) )

But as a scientist first, then after many other sub-speciatlties of various competence, a hack philosopher, Egoism and contractualism et al seem pretty weak in light of our status as propegating biomas. I don't refute that there are many 'good ways to go' for an athiest to ground their personal moral position, but contractualism (for example) does no prescriptive work. What if I find the contract hinders my ability to propegate my genes. It seems like the burden of proof is on the ethicist to explain to me why something other than propegating my genes (osteentiably, what got me here) constitutes my new marching orders. Before a philospher can convince me that I am bound by her ethical system, she must convince me that I am either not simply an animal or the system is in the best interest of my genes.

I am deffinately open to correction here, I just don't see it yet.

Ian said...

But why think something's being in the best interest of my genes is relevant to anything other than the survival of my genes? And why should I care about that? If I were an atheist, I would have no compelling reason to think that just because something furthers my evolutionary fitness that it thereby has gains some presumption as to what I ought to do. Most of these ethical theories ground morality in things which DO have such a presumption or which do directly relate to - or even are constituents of - rationality itself. So when concerned with whether I ought to do something that furthers my genes or do something that is rational, the atheist is going to say it's a no-brainer to do the thing connected with reason, not the thing that just so happens to accidentally propagate some pattern found in some carbon-based acid. We might be only animals, but we are animals that reason and are therefore subject to the norms of reason.

In sum, the atheist is going to find considerations from evolution and related sources simply irrelevant. Evolution on its own doesn't impose any kind of real normativity on anything at all, so there's no reason to think that we humans must somehow escape evolution's normativity so we get into a new one - there's only a single standard here, and evolution is not and never was constitutive of it. At least, that's what the atheist will have to say and it does seem pretty plausible.

Something's being natural, as I've argued before in the early days of my blog, doesn't in any way imply that it is good or even permissible. That's a substantial thesis that is in need of argument.

stanford said...

Hey Ian, Again, thanks for taking the time to discuss this. I really appreciate it.

This still simply seems like wishful thinking, though. Here are a couple more reasons why:

1. If reason is a unique evolutionary mistake developed in the process of genetic replication, why would it be the prescriptive criteria for normative behavior? (This is related to Plantiga argument - which Darwin acknoledged - that if reason is simply an advantageous adaptation for survival there is no reason to trust it as a fundamental window into reality - just as conferring a survival advantage?) It seems like reason would continue to be a subservient agenda to propagation. Choosing reason is entirely arbitrary. One could see it as a power grab.


2. Insisting on an oughtness is always an exertion of power, limiting the freedom of someone for the benefit of someone else. In many cases, it can be argued that even though the arrangement is better for one than the other, both are better off. But what if they aren't. What if the tails of the distributions (e.g. the least benefited 1%) find no benefit, only constraint. This is underlies the Marxist program of revolution, Islamic jihad and the premise of the 1993 Michael Douglas pic 'Falling Down.' The argument of morality for mutual benefit will always be derailed by the tails of the distributions. And on what grounds do we suppress the right of the statistical outliers from aberrant behavior to successfully and disproportionately propagate their genetic material, if that is how humans got to have things like reason, opposable thumbs and technology in the first place? It seems to me that the secularization of humanness requires the biologization of humanness. Aristotle and Kant were very smart, but neither of them knew what we know about who we are...and what we know about who we are has to matter regarding who we must be.

3. I enjoyed your post about the natural not equaling the good…and agreed with it completely...but only because I am a Christian (or at least because I am a Theist). Otherwise there is no other non-arbitrary criteria than the one that has been at work for 300 million years.