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A science of morality #2

Originally published in The Daily Maverick

Various metaphysical questions have enjoyed the attention of philosophers, whether amateur or professional, ever since we became able to articulate complex thought. From questions regarding the point of our existence to wondering about the nature and existence of a soul, we have spent much time pondering these and other questions that frequently seem insoluble, and for which it remains unclear what – if anything – should be taken as counting as evidence for or against any particular conclusion.

It’s certainly possible, even probable, that much of this has been wasted time, at least in the sense of its likelihood of resulting in answers that can assist us in dealing with practical problems that are (at least in principle) soluble. And we do have practical problems to address. The concept of moral luck highlights the fact that some of us are simply born on the back-foot, and that no matter how hard we work, or what our natural talents might be, we will always be less well-off than someone fortunate enough to be born in more fortuitous circumstances.

This is a moral issue. While libertarians are comfortable with the idea of desert, whereby your life choice to be slothful could rightly correlate with a lack of wealth and opportunity, it’s less easy to say that you get what you deserve if accidents of geography have resulted in your being born in a township with no access to quality schooling. And this is also a moral issue which is generated by entirely practical considerations, namely issues which include the proper allocation of state resources, and government policy with regard to class and race.

But when we think about morality, we often fall into a trap of subjectivity. Part of what makes H. Sapiens as interesting as it can be is our ability to engage in self-reflection, and to indulge ourselves through complex narratives that reinforce our specialness. The very activity of thinking about the metaphysical questions gestured at above is a privileged activity, in that it’s a luxury that those who are worried about where the next meal might come from would indulge in less frequently than the average reader of The Daily Maverick. It is however also an activity that is distinctly and definitively human, as we would most likely continue engaging in it even if there were no answers to be had.

As a starting point to resolving non-subjective moral dilemmas, we could usefully remind ourselves that there are a number of clear correlates between human flourishing on the one hand, and economic and social policy on the other. We should also remind ourselves that subjective welfare – my perceived happiness, and what I believe needs attention in terms of my welfare – is absolutely unreliable as a guide to what we should do, whether in a moral sense or any other. Perceptions of personal welfare are massively state-dependent, in that what I report today might be entirely different to what I report tomorrow, simply because of the cognitive biases that we are all victims of.

This means that morality should be informed by objective measures of welfare – if not completely, then at least substantially. On the macro-level of societal good, this means that where we can know that the provision of sanitation, water and electricity to a certain level results in a clear aggregate increase in health, it becomes a moral imperative to provide those goods. Where we can know that gender or racial equality, whether in terms of voting rights, access to education or any other measure results in social good in some measurable form, the provision of these rights also become a moral imperative.

Morality is therefore at least in part an issue of sound policy. Not only because we would see increases in economic and intellectual productivity if more South Africans had access to the relevant markets, but also because it seems plausible that many of our moral problems might be minimised through redress of these macro-level problems. It is no accident that violent crime, rape or spousal abuse simply doesn’t happen as often in places like Sweden. People are simply not incentivised to take what is not theirs in jurisdictions such as these, where basic needs are met. They have less reason to, and they also have more reason to work towards the common good.

This is because the relationship between self-interest and maximising the common good becomes clear in situations where you regularly experience evidence of your welfare being resolved by collective action, rather than by the experience of occasionally winning what you perceive as a zero-sum game involving a competition between yourself and a hostile other, whether the other is state or society.

To some extent, objective considerations such as these can also inform morality on a personal and subjective level. We can extrapolate various well-justified moral norms or rules applicable in personal environments from what we can know from our high-level conclusions regarding what is good for a society. If corruption, deceit and violence are negatively correlated with flourishing on a societal level, it’s certainly likely that the same relationship exists on a personal level, whether the tenderpreneur experiences it in this way or not. While free-riders can never be eliminated, they are no obstacle to our reaching agreement on calling certain actions “good” or “bad”, because we know them to be either conducive or not to objectively desirable states of the world.

Of course, some might object to any claim that there are objectively desirable states of the world. I struggle to make sense of this objection, in that it seems obvious that the vast majority of us prefer certain common goods, such as health, financial security and our preferred level of social engagement. If someone were to make the claim that the most desirable state of the world instead involves privation and violence, I see no reason not to simply exclude them from the conversation, in the same way that we can justifiably ignore the opinions of young-earth creationists when we talk about cosmology.

But if we are to take such objections seriously, it seems clear that they lead to an impasse of one sort or another. We could say something like “okay, I can’t prove that you are right, while I am wrong about what is good, but I can know that I don’t want to be part of a society in which you are well-represented”. In other words, even though our social contract might be entirely pragmatic, it will tend to exclude or discount these views, and it further seems to be the case that even on your standards, your own prospects of a good life will be compromised by your minority status, making your view somewhat self-defeating.

Or, one might object that morality is about something else entirely, and that these measures of objective welfare are not the issue at all. If this is the case, the task is then yours to explain what morality is for, if it is for anything at all. Certainly, moral debate could simply be one of the sorts of noises that humans make, and only that – it could perhaps just be one of the social and intellectual habits that we have developed for our own entertainment, or to buttress our narratives of self-identity, much like our desperation to believe in free will or souls despite there being no evidence for the existence of either.

But again, even if this is true, it remains rational for us to desire to live better lives as opposed to worse ones, and to seek out ways to make this the case. It also seems clear that most of us agree that measures such as our health and financial security are good proxies for knowing when lives are better or worse. And if there is any data about what makes a good life more rather than less likely, it makes sense to say that moral theory has to take that data into account, and that aggregating this data into “rules” is what morality is for.

The position sketched above is not relativistic, in that moral principles are derived from objectively measurable data. It is also not an absolutist position, because the preferences of individuals and societies are not necessarily immutable, and if different sorts of lives become desirable in the future, we should be ready to accommodate observations to this effect. Instead, what I’ve outlined is a position that is naturalistic, and for which we already have well-developed tools to separate sense from nonsense. If moral claims are not subject to the only successful tools we’ve ever developed for evaluating truth-claims – the tools of science – then there is truly nothing we can know in morality, and there seems little reason to discuss it any further.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

9 replies on “A science of morality #2”

i’m currently a consequentialist/utilitarian

i haven’t read harris’ work, but i did watch a ted talk which i fairly strongly disagreed with in terms of his approach to moral judgement of other cultures. for example, he holds female circumcision in africa to be a global evil, but says nothing of male circumcision in america. he seemed to have an agenda, and the audience seemed sympathetic to his cause. perhaps that was just an isolated view or some kind of ted-rhetoric…

i think that the murder scenario posed in one of the earlier articles to decry the golden rule isn’t applied fairly to the scenario and that the golden rule still remains, necessarily, the foundation for social justice and rule of law. although, i’d add the silver rule in a personal context, as the golden rule doesn’t necessarily provide much motive for positive action.

i’m also trying to see a way in which, essentially, moral action can be judged apart from its utility to the individual and society. perhaps you have some ideas…

nice posts, i’m enjoying the blog.

Harris does say lots of contentious things (not so much for me in morality, but more with regard to meditation and transcendentalism, etc.). But here I think you’re being a bit harsh on him – a short TED talk doesn’t allow for any detailed explication of views. The fact that male circumcision isn’t mentioned doesn’t allow for a conclusion to be reached one way or the other about how he views it – he might agree that it’s bad, but not think it’s as bad as female circumcision (and I’d agree). Anyway, read the book, it’s very interesting. You ask whether I have any ideas as to how to judge moral action besides utility – I do, but they would all be unsatisfactory ones. I’m also a utilitarian, as is Harris – what he’s added to the picture is an account of what utility is, and suggestions as to how to measure it. Glad you’re enjoying the posts – thanks!

This was an excellent read, as usual. Thanks. But this bit really surprised me:

> subjective welfare … is absolutely unreliable as a guide to what we should do…

I read on to the end, but felt I should return to this sentence. I must confess, I’m a little confused by it.

How do we know that humans are flourishing without recourse to their subjective welfare?

There is a bit of a micro-macro problem in here, I think. On the micro-level it’s easy (and I’d say morally crucial) to measure subjective welfare; on the macro level it’s almost impossible. So if you’re talking only about macro-level moral policy from a pragmatic point of view then no quibble. Are you?

I regard it as a moral good to spend half an hour meditating in the morning and evening. Objectively, this ‘action’ is almost totally neutral: I just sit there. I don’t kill things, so that’s good, but I don’t help people either. I use up oxygen, and sometimes I cultivate an altruistic state of mind. I can argue that I’m helping myself in order to help others (and the motivation to help others is the traditional one before starting) but really what makes me do it is subjective wellbeing. Afterwards, and especially if I keep it up for a while, I feel a lot better than I do if I don’t meditate. To me, this subjective welfare seems the only reliable guide as to what I should do!

On the macro level, it also seems to me that a policy of encouraging and teaching people to meditate would be a moral one (it would fall under health, in the same way that encouraging and teaching people to exercise and eat a balanced diet would be a moral). What objective measure could inform such a policy? If science discovered that meditation practice correlated significantly with increased subjective welfare, would that constitute an objective measure that could inform policy?

Glad you enjoyed the read, Patrick. Yes, I was only intending to address macro-level policy as related to morality. On a personal and subjective level, what you (or I) do is not a moral issue at all, except insofar as it effects others (where the extent of that effect can then hopefully be measured).

As for meditation as recommended by policy, sure, I can see how that might might be a moral issue. But if it were up to me, I’d start with negative rules (as in “don’t do X”) rather than positive rules (“you should meditate”), first because I’m a libertarian at heart, and second because I have a suspicion that their effects would be easier to measure. But if we could establish that meditation correlated with decreased road-rage (for example), and we could know that the time spent meditating didn’t result in other useful activities being postponed or abandoned, I could see the sense in endorsing it.

In terms of objective measures, some (like Harris) are confident that brain science will give us the information we need. Perhaps, but not in the near future in my opinion, if ever – in general, people seem to be unreasonably optimistic about what fMRI and other tools can tell us. But note if he’s right, that that would give us data about actual subjective welfare, whereas you’re talking about reported subjective welfare – it’s our own perceptions of our welfare that I was quibbling about, not that subjective welfare (if we could know it) is in itself useless. And my quibbles aren’t novel or original – Kahneman, Tversky and a bunch of others have conclusively showed us that we quite frequently have little idea of what’s actually going on in terms of our preferences and choices.

But I must concede a doubt here: I can see how – even though our subjective and self-reported welfare might be unreliable – an increase in everybody’s (or a majority’s) subjective reports of increased welfare could be a justified basis for action.

Thanks, Jacques.

For what it’s worth, I, too, doubt the explanatory value of fMRI and other brain-measurement technologies, except instrumentally for appealing to a dominant (if slightly misguided) paradigm of understanding.

That’s the first I’ve heard of Kahneman, Tversky, etc. Am I missing a subtle distinction, or are they really saying that we can’t observe or assess our own subjective wellbeing through introspection? You refer to choices, so perhaps they are saying that although at any moment we may be able to gauge our subjective wellbeing more or less accurately, we can’t accurately assess the best course of action in order to increase it. That seems easier to agree with.

The notion seems intuitively wrong that my own perception of my own happiness is unreliable, but other apparently intuitive truths have been proven wrong before.

Kahneman & Tversky are the authors of the authors of “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”, which one could argue was the start of behavioural economics. It’s well worth a read, and is basically an account of the most common cognitive biases we are prone to, and how these impact on reliable assessment of evidence, including what we perceive as evidence about ourselves. Check out this TED talk for a primer on the sort of things they address.

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