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Daily Maverick Morality

A science of morality #2

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Moral debate

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.

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Daily Maverick Morality Religion

A science of morality #1

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Moral debate

Originally published in The Daily Maverick

The previous instalments of this series on morality have argued that we are handicapped in our ability to engage in moral debate. This handicap exists because of our overconfidence and complacency with regard to our existing moral beliefs, as well as through the lack of guidance offered by the dominant moral theories. But a negative proof – showing what might be wrong with existing beliefs – is often an easier task than a positive argument for some viable alternative. The positive argument is the focus of the final two parts of this series.

A summary of these concluding instalments is perhaps the claim that moral knowledge is just like any other knowledge, and should therefore be understood and debated using the same tools and resources we deploy in trying to understand other areas of epistemological contestation. The most successful tools and resources we’ve found so far are those of the scientific method, and I will thus be arguing that what we need is a “science of morality”.

The idea of a science of morality has recently enjoyed increased public attention thanks to Sam Harris, and the recent publication of his book “The Moral Landscape”. Many columns and reviews – including some from prominent moral philosophers – have been quick to dismiss Harris as philosophically ignorant, mostly on the basis that he fails to take the concerns of Hume seriously. Hume, the critics say, told us that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” – in other words that empirical observations about what is the case cannot tell us how things ought to be.

But instead of being willing to contemplate the possibility that Hume was wrong, or that Hume can be misunderstood, these refutations of Harris’s arguments usually amount to the simple assertion that Hume’s Guillotine (as the argument is known) shows that he is wrong. It’s useful to remind ourselves that simple appeals to authority are a logical fallacy – it doesn’t matter who said what, but rather that what they say stands up to logical scrutiny. This is what Hume says, in a passage from “A Treatise of Human Nature” (1740):

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Read that last sentence again: Hume says that the derivation of “ought” from “is” needs to be explained, and that a reason should be given. He does not say that such explanations are impossible, or that no relevant reasons for such derivations exist. So here we have a clear example of how appeals to authority can appear convincing, even to many who regard themselves as being well acquainted with the relevant literature. Now, of course I’m simplifying – an opinion piece does not allow for excursions into subsequent work by Moore and others in which this is/ought (or fact/value) distinction is further explored and defended.

But Harris is not the first to think that this distinction is at best misleading, or even false. Those who think that empirical facts can tell us nothing about morality could spend some time reading the work of Railton, Jackson, Boyd, Binmore, Churchland and others who have presented strong cases for the possibility that facts about the world can indeed tell us something about morality. As I’ve previously argued, the idea that morality involves absolute principles has enjoyed the privilege of being grounded in dogmatic faith – whether religious or secular – and that faith doesn’t necessarily correspond to actual justification.

So if we are to entertain the notion that values can be derived from facts, how should we proceed in doing so? Applying the scientific method does not have to equal scientism. For some, it does, and this is indeed unfortunate. The more modest and useful perspective is to recognise what it is that we value about science, and why we find it so useful. We value it and find it useful because it provides us with the best possible answers to questions that potentially have answers, and allow us to make the sorts of predictions about the future that are most likely to be borne out by subsequent observations.

It does not offer us guarantees, and it never has. It’s important here to reflect on the difference between a lay understanding of science as offering absolute certainty, versus the actual products of scientific inquiry, which are always qualified by reference to statistical tools like margins of error and confidence levels. These things are usually not reported in the mainstream press, but are universally present in any respectable scientific publication.

To take an extreme example: It’s virtually certain that my habit of smoking cigarettes will lead to my suffering some unpleasant health consequences in the future. But when we say things like “smoking causes cancer”, that shorthand statement stands in for something far more complicated. A more accurate utterance would be something like “thanks to a vast body of empirical data, the most plausible hypothesis is that smoking has a positive causal relation to cancer, and we can confidently predict that Jacques is likely to develop cancer thanks to this behaviour”.

Many of our hypotheses and predictions do not allow for as much confidence as the example of smoking does. But as soon as there is any evidence – any evidence at all – the possibility exists for us to make better and worse predictions about the consequences of our actions. And we do have some evidence related to the sorts of things that allow for increases or decreases in the welfare of sentient creatures.

Following the advice offered by John Watson’s best-selling childcare book in 1928 – that you should not kiss your child more than once per year – will almost certainly have a negative effect on the welfare of that child, other things being equal. So, this fact about what conduces to your child’s welfare allows us to infer the moral principle that it is wrong to neglect your child’s emotional needs.

If you agree that there are some aspects of welfare that can be measured – and if you agree that morality has something to do with welfare – then it seems plain that facts about the world can tell us something about how we should live in that world and how we should treat not only each other, but also other sentient creatures. We have some data, and any amount of data allows for us to make better and worse predictions regarding the consequences of adopting one moral principle versus another.

Of course we don’t have certainty. But we don’t have it anywhere else, and it is unclear how this is a flaw for moral knowledge, yet not for any other kind of knowledge. This double-standard has no justification, and seems little more than an excuse to do less thinking.