Ethical Realism

July 9, 2010

Does Evolution Adequately Explain Morality?

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 7:11 am
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Many people are satisfied with the idea that morality comes from evolution. This is somehow supposed to satisfy the masses, but it seems to miss the point of morality. What does it mean to for morality to come from evolution? It means that somehow moral behavior was a reproductive advantage and that’s why we have moral behavior now. (Additionally, immoral behavior was a reproductive disadvantage.) So, we care for others and help other people because that’s natural behavior we inherited from our genes.

The appeal to evolution is often used in debates about God’s existence. Some theists argue that morality requires God, and some atheists will reply that moral behavior would indeed exist without God thanks to evolution.1 I agree that the evolution line of argument is unconvincing for the following reasons:

  1. It doesn’t tell me that intrinsic values exist.
  2. It commits the naturalistic fallacy.
  3. It doesn’t tell me that being moral is rational.

Update (7/18/2010): I admit that evolution can explain why behavior that looks moral exists, but evolution doesn’t itself explain why behavior that looks moral is really moral. We can agree that cooperation and caring for others evolved if it increased our reproductive advantage, but that doesn’t mean that cooperation and caring is always morally right or rational. Additionally, we might have evolved the ability to do moral philosophy and to discover that moral behavior is rational. That in and of itself doesn’t prove that moral behavior I really rational. We need a separate argument from evolution to know that it is truly rational to do the right thing and that morality itself really matters.

It doesn’t tell me that intrinsic values exist.

Many people want to know if anything really matters. If something really matters, then it has intrinsic value. For example, it seems to make sense to want to be happy because we think it’s intrinsically good to be happy. If happiness has intrinsic value, then we would have a reason to want to help other people be happy—it would really be a good thing to do.

However, if we evolved moral behavior, then we still don’t know if happiness really matters or not. If we evolved morality, then we would naturally care about people; but we might not know the best way to benefit people. If happiness has intrinsic value, then one legitimate way to benefit people is to help them attain happiness. If happiness doesn’t have intrinsic value, then it might not be entirely clear how we could best benefit others.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Update (7/16/2010): The naturalistic fallacy is a mistake in reasoning that occurs when we assume that something ought to be the case just because it is the case. The main argument that evolution explains morality is just that it describes why moral behavior exists. In other words:

  1. We care for others because of our genetics.
  2. Therefore, we ought to care for others.

This argument simply doesn’t work. Why? For one thing it also works for immoral behavior:

  1. We commit horrible crimes because of our genetics.
  2. Therefore, we ought to commit horrible crimes.

In conclusion, the fact that we can describe moral behavior as being caring for others and that caring for others happens thanks to evolution does not make caring for others rational (something you ought to do).

It doesn’t tell me that being moral is rational.

I would like to explore the issue of moral rationality further. Sure, it might be that evolution will explain why we care for people from their genetics, but evolution will also explain why we are so immoral. We often choose to harm other people when we expect to be benefited by doing so. What’s so much better about being moral than immoral? If we evolved to care for others, then we might still wonder—Is it rational to care for others? Why shouldn’t I choose to be immoral when doing so can benefit me? The simple answer is—if we evolved moral and immoral behavior, then morality wouldn’t be any more rational than immorality unless intrinsic values exist.

Some people want to argue that caring for others is rational insofar as it encourages cooperative behavior that would be justified from rational self interest. The problem here is that what is justified selfishly is not necessarily what is moral. It can be within our self interest to be cooperative with some people and to harm others. Many rich people enjoy exploiting the poor precisely because it is in their self interest—in the very least exploitation is sometimes in the interest of the rich.

Without intrinsic values, immoral behavior is irrational usually only when we fear that we could be punished. If fear of punishment is the cornerstone of morality, then Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan is correct that we need to submit ourselves to people who have a right to violence (such as the police) and adopting a totalitarian state could be the best way to prevent immoral behavior.

If intrinsic values exist, then we have a reason to want to be moral and care for others even when we don’t want to. If intrinsic values don’t exist, then evolution will not give anyone a reason to want to be moral or care for others except when doing so would be in one’s self-interest. Of course, doing what is in one’s self-interest is what we would expect people to do when morality has no significance. In a world without morality, people would still be rationally caring and cooperative to the extent that they think it will be mutually beneficial to do so.

Conclusion

Evolution alone is not a good explanation for morality because we want to know why it is rational to be moral, but evolution doesn’t answer that question. Evolution alone (without intrinsic values) would require us to admit that morality has no significance and we are rationally cooperative and caring only when we are personally benefited for doing so.

Finally, nothing I said about intrinsic value has anything to do with God. The atheistic defense of morality involving evolution is inappropriate, but there could be a better response. I have my own response in my free ebook, Does Morality Require God? I think the appropriate response to the assertion that morality requires God is that intrinsic values, if they exist, probably have nothing to do with God.

This post was updated 7/16/2010 and 7/18/2010. I made minor changes and added the section on the naturalistic fallacy.

Notes

1 This has been observed by “nonstampcollector” who seemed to take the evolutionary argument to be so obviously satisfying that it should never be allowed to be mentioned again. This position was presented in his video, “Christianity Debate.”

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14 Comments »

  1. With respect I still am lost at: “Evolution alone does tell us why morality could have no significance and we should rationally be cooperative and caring when it is sufficiently beneficial in a completely selfish way.”

    Evolution simply is a possible, and very likely, answer to the evolution of the species. Morality is a suppostition that rises from evolution, but evolution in itself never points to morality.

    Comment by ultimateserge — July 9, 2010 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

    • I guess that sentence was not well written. I changed it to, “Evolution alone (without intrinsic values) would require us to admit that morality has no significance and we are rationally cooperative and caring only when we are personally benefited for doing so.”

      I would like to hear more about what you mean by, “Morality is a suppostition that rises from evolution, but evolution in itself never points to morality.”

      Comment by James Gray — July 9, 2010 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

      • I believe that evolution is a theory on the continuation of all species, or reason for their discontinuation. Evolution in itself does not suggest any opinion on morality; rather it is some individuals who attempt to interpret evolution in terms of morality.

        For example, I could suppose that I do good deeds to please God; evolution proves there is no God; therefore why should I perform good deeds as I will gain no direct benefits from many of my good deeds.

        But that is just a supposition and interpretation of evolution in regards to morality. Evolution in general does not speak on the behalf of morality.

        Comment by ultimateserge — July 10, 2010 @ 12:05 am

  2. I don’t think I understand your title question, “Does Evolution Adequately Explain Morality?” Evolution explains how it is that humans, as social animals, have a moral sense and perhaps the rough parameters of that moral sense. Evolution does not tell us what is a morally correct or incorrect course of action. Evolution itself is an unthinking, indifferent, amoral process. We are beings imbued with a moral sense through evolution. We have to work out what is moral or immoral using that moral sense, which is refined within its rough parameters through culture. Right and wrong are not Platonic forms suspended in a celestial sphere. They are value decisions we have to work out using our culturally refined moral sense. Are some values demonstrably more harmful (to ourselves, other individuals, society at large) than others? No doubt. Game theory tells us that we can create “win-win” situations through cooperation. But it also tells us that where we cannot trust our fellow participants, we are personally better off to cheat first. So, behaving in a cooperative (i.e., moral) manner is only “rational” under conditions of trust. Cooperative behavior begets trust, fostering a positive feedback loop of increasing trust and cooperation. Conditions of distrust erode cooperation, creating a negative feedback loop of distrust and hostile self-interestedness, which after a certain tipping point leads to living dystopias. Think of the present day Congo.

    I have read your definition of “intrinsic value” and still don’t really know what “intrinsic” means. Is it objectively better to avoid living hells?* The question answers itself. Perhaps that is as close to “intrinsic” meaning as we can get.

    *put another way, would any person other than the warlords and their hangers-on actually choose a living hell?

    Comment by SAJohnson — July 10, 2010 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think I understand your title question, “Does Evolution Adequately Explain Morality?”

      I mentioned that it doesn’t adequately explain morality because being moral could be irrational even if evolution provides us with care and concern for others.

      Evolution explains how it is that humans, as social animals, have a moral sense and perhaps the rough parameters of that moral sense.

      Not sure what you mean by “moral sense.” It might be true that evolution provides us with certain assumptions about justice or something.

      Evolution does not tell us what is a morally correct or incorrect course of action. Evolution itself is an unthinking, indifferent, amoral process.

      I agree. The issue at hand is based on the idea that “God isn’t required for morality because moral behavior exists thanks to evolution.” However, the thought that God is necessary for morality is based on the idea that God somehow makes it rational to be moral and evolution can’t do that. Therefore, the evolution answer misses the point.

      We are beings imbued with a moral sense through evolution. We have to work out what is moral or immoral using that moral sense, which is refined within its rough parameters through culture. Right and wrong are not Platonic forms suspended in a celestial sphere. They are value decisions we have to work out using our culturally refined moral sense.

      This sounds like a false dichotomy:

      Either morality is objective, rational, and found in Platonic forms; or morality is subjective (or culturally/genetically defined).

      I think intrinsic value beliefs explain how morality can be objective and rational, but that has little to nothing to do with Platonic forms.

      To say that morality is merely subjective (or culturally/genetically defined) sounds like a way to explain moral beliefs, but such beliefs are all false. We believe that “torturing people willy nilly is wrong.” That sentence is said to be true. However, to say that morality is merely subjective or some sort of pro-attitude based on culture and genetics means that there are no moral facts as I understand them to exist. Something is true because it corresponds to reality. But there is no morality in reality according to your view (if I understand it correctly).

      If morality is merely subjective and based on our personal likes and dislikes or socially accepted rules, then it isn’t really true that “murder is wrong” and so on. Therefore, it’s not really rational to think that murder is wrong and it wouldn’t be irrational to think that murder is right. Some relativists redefine what is morally true to be what is believed or accepted, but that is merely to deny that morality can really be rational in the sense that most people believe it to be.

      Are some values demonstrably more harmful (to ourselves, other individuals, society at large) than others? No doubt.

      How do you define “harmful”? What damages the body?

      Game theory tells us that we can create “win-win” situations through cooperation.

      What counts as winning? Avoiding bodily harm?

      But it also tells us that where we cannot trust our fellow participants, we are personally better off to cheat first. So, behaving in a cooperative (i.e., moral) manner is only “rational” under conditions of trust.

      In game theory you can’t trust anyone unless you can expect that cheaters will be punished. But there are situations when cheaters won’t get caught. You can trust each other to a great extent even when you know that people cheat. People break the law all the time, but we still get along pretty well.

      Still, I think that there can be moral reasons to not break the law, even if it would benefit you to do so. Murdering someone to take their money might be something we could get away with if careful enough and done properly, but it is still “horrible” and irrational to the extent that it would do something so horrible.

      Cooperative behavior begets trust, fostering a positive feedback loop of increasing trust and cooperation. Conditions of distrust erode cooperation, creating a negative feedback loop of distrust and hostile self-interestedness, which after a certain tipping point leads to living dystopias. Think of the present day Congo.

      If morality is nothing but a game theoretic social contract, then only an idiot would get fooled into being “cooperative” when there will be no advantageous reason to do so. People aren’t always around to gain our trust. What we do alone or in private (or only in the company of the person to be murdered) can have nothing to do with trust. No one will be around to find out that we are untrustworthy.

      I have read your definition of “intrinsic value” and still don’t really know what “intrinsic” means. Is it objectively better to avoid living hells?* The question answers itself. Perhaps that is as close to “intrinsic” meaning as we can get.

      Did you read what I said here? http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/2009/12/29/is-there-a-meaning-of-life/

      If you don’t understand my definition, then I would like to know in what way the definition is confusing, incomplete, vague, etc. and I can try to improve it.

      Sometimes we value something “for its own sake” or “just for existing.” You might desire vanilla, but you would find out that you would enjoy the chocolate more if you gave it the chance. If pleasure has intrinsic value, then it can be a reason to do something other than desire, and we could end up desiring the wrong things. You might not value dogs if you don’t realize how similar they are to people. You might not desire pleasure if you’ve never experienced it. You might not desire to avoid pain if you’ve never experienced it. Still, the reality of the “value” these things have really seem to matter. They could have intrinsic value and it would make sense to make sure people learn about these values and make sure that we desire that which has real value.

      Comment by James Gray — July 11, 2010 @ 1:46 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for the detailed response, James. I think “being moral” can be irrational, depending on how you define “being moral.” There are circumstances in which adhering to principles against harm to others can result in self-destruction or the destruction of the community. An example might have been if the US were constituted of absolute pacifists who refused to prosecute a war against Hitler. The question of what is “moral” in any given circumstance is complex and reasonable minds can differ.

    What I mean by “moral sense” is that we are imbued with a capacity to ponder and attempt to answer and even enforce our answers to complex questions of morality.

    As a factual matter, morality is not objective. When you say that “we believe that torturing people willy nilly is wrong,” I don’t know who you mean by “we.” It is not true that everyone in the world presently believes that torturing people except in the rarest of circumstances is wrong, and it certainly is not true historically that everyone, or even most people, have believed this. Humans have often, and often gleefully, tortured other humans–see Roman gladiators, the bloody Catholic/Protestant conflicts, the Spanish Inquisition, American chattel slavery, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, etc. Also, if it were true that we all believe torturing except in the rarest of circumstances is wrong, we wouldn’t need human rights groups like Amnesty International today. You would be hard-pressed to find any universal moral consensus across time and culture. There are numerous examples of cultures that do not even have cannibalism or incest taboos. As a factual matter, the question of “what is moral” is one of the most contested questions there is, and examining this question is one of the richest subjects of art and literature.

    With respect to the idea of “murder” being wrong, our laws recognize that there are at least two good reasons to kill other people. War and self-defense. And there are other reasons or circumstances that mitigate the magnitude of the transgression–uncontrollable impulse and recklessness, for example. Gradations of the moral judgment passed on “murder” and other crimes are found in the numerous definitions of related crimes in the penal code and the varying sentences. Also, the determination of acceptable sentences varies across time and culture. In the past in the West and in parts of the Muslim world today, no problem executing people, even for interpersonal transgressions such as adultery.

    It is not true that in game theory you cannot trust others unless you know cheaters will be punished. Cheating is sub-optimal because it prevents a “win-win” situation. So, you can trust others when you know they know they can trust you and you both know that the only way to the best outcome for both of you is to hang together. When you cheat against someone who can be trusted, you rob yourself of the best outcome you could have achieved for yourself.

    The necessity for cooperation doesn’t come from a social contract. It comes from the inescapable fact of our social relationship to others and the provable dynamics built into those relationships.

    “Pleasure” is a subjective experience that may or may not have a positive value. Narcotics are addictive due to the intensely pleasurable state they induce. Sadists experience pleasure in harming others.

    Except for folks with impaired sensory perception, everyone experiences pain, and pain is for the most part something all sensing beings reflexively avoid. This reflexive pain avoidance is a fundamental evolutionary adaptation. Those people who can’t feel pain due to a neurological deficit tend to have shortened life spans because they can’t avoid catastrophic physical harm to themselves.

    With respect to something being valued “in itself,” I don’t see that anything even exists in itself. It would seem that everything exists in relation to everything else.

    Comment by SAJohnson — July 15, 2010 @ 4:49 am | Reply

    • Thanks for the detailed response, James. I think “being moral” can be irrational, depending on how you define “being moral.” There are circumstances in which adhering to principles against harm to others can result in self-destruction or the destruction of the community. An example might have been if the US were constituted of absolute pacifists who refused to prosecute a war against Hitler. The question of what is “moral” in any given circumstance is complex and reasonable minds can differ.

      Yes. My main point was that I don’t want to reduce “moral reason” to “practical/egoistic” reason. What is good for me can be morally wrong even if it helps me make lots of friends and gives me a good reputation.

      What I mean by “moral sense” is that we are imbued with a capacity to ponder and attempt to answer and even enforce our answers to complex questions of morality.

      That sounds like moral reason to me.

      As a factual matter, morality is not objective. When you say that “we believe that torturing people willy nilly is wrong,” I don’t know who you mean by “we.” It is not true that everyone in the world presently believes that torturing people except in the rarest of circumstances is wrong, and it certainly is not true historically that everyone, or even most people, have believed this.

      I disagree. “Torturing willy nilly” is wrong unless “torture is NEVER wrong.” Torturing people whenever you feel like it has never been acceptable.

      I didn’t say that everyone agrees that “torturing is ALWAYS wrong” or “only rarely not wrong.” “Willy nilly” implies that people can torture whenever they want and no one will think twice about it.

      Humans have often, and often gleefully, tortured other humans–see Roman gladiators, the bloody Catholic/Protestant conflicts, the Spanish Inquisition, American chattel slavery, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, etc.

      So what? That’s not doing it whenever they feel like it.

      Also, if it were true that we all believe torturing except in the rarest of circumstances is wrong, we wouldn’t need human rights groups like Amnesty International today. You would be hard-pressed to find any universal moral consensus across time and culture. There are numerous examples of cultures that do not even have cannibalism or incest taboos. As a factual matter, the question of “what is moral” is one of the most contested questions there is, and examining this question is one of the richest subjects of art and literature.

      I never said that torture is only “not wrong” in the rarest of circumstances. All things equal torture is wrong. There has to be a justification for it. There might be no good justification for it upon closer examination, but this is philosophically controversial. I am not making any controversial statements concerning the idea that torturing willy nilly is wrong.

      It is not true that in game theory you cannot trust others unless you know cheaters will be punished. Cheating is sub-optimal because it prevents a “win-win” situation.

      How does killing a stranger in the dead of night prevent a win win situation? They might be a drifter or homeless man who will probably never give you anything in return for your mercy.

      So, you can trust others when you know they know they can trust you and you both know that the only way to the best outcome for both of you is to hang together.

      You are right that this can happen in friendships and so on, but it doesn’t explain why I shouldn’t kill non-allies that I expect no benefit from in the future. It would be silly to say that a social contract requires everyone to be friends or allies. In fact, Aristotle said something to that effect at one point because it is an optimal situation given “game theory.”

      When you cheat against someone who can be trusted, you rob yourself of the best outcome you could have achieved for yourself.

      I agree that is true for friends and so on, but not everyone.

      The necessity for cooperation doesn’t come from a social contract. It comes from the inescapable fact of our social relationship to others and the provable dynamics built into those relationships.

      The game theoretic model of cooperation can lead to a sort of social contract political theory. I don’t want to say that social cooperation is impossible without a social contract.

      At the same time a social contract might be necessary to live in a cooperative society of strangers who don’t expect to be benefited from the people they help.

      “Pleasure” is a subjective experience that may or may not have a positive value. Narcotics are addictive due to the intensely pleasurable state they induce. Sadists experience pleasure in harming others.

      So, you still haven’t read what I said about intrinsic values? What you are saying is that a GOOD experience could lead to negative consequences such as pain (a bad experience). That is totally irrelevant.

      What do you mean by “subjective?” What is in the mind is just as real as rocks and trees. The fact that pain is in the mind does not make its negative value delusional.

      Except for folks with impaired sensory perception, everyone experiences pain, and pain is for the most part something all sensing beings reflexively avoid. This reflexive pain avoidance is a fundamental evolutionary adaptation. Those people who can’t feel pain due to a neurological deficit tend to have shortened life spans because they can’t avoid catastrophic physical harm to themselves.

      So we are avoiding pain like idiots just because of a biological mechanism? Sorry, but that’s not how I see it. I could use that mechanism without having to put up with horrible headaches.

      With respect to something being valued “in itself,” I don’t see that anything even exists in itself. It would seem that everything exists in relation to everything else.

      Did I say that anything exits in itself? I don’t know what you are talking about here. The idea is that you can value pleasure simply because pleasure seems good rather than because pleasure is useful. You can also value other peoples pleasure rather than just your own.

      You haven’t read what I actually say about intrinsic values. I used some simple terminology to try to get the idea across, but you don’t understand what I am trying to say. You are going to have to actually read the more detailed posts on intrinsic values or we aren’t going to get anywhere in this conversation:

      http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/2009/12/29/is-there-a-meaning-of-life/

      http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/mischaracterizations-of-intrinsic-value/

      You seem to have your own opinion that intrinsic values don’t exist despite lacking the terminology and understanding about why intrinsic values are common and ordinary assumptions people have about the world. Your opinion that they don’t exist is shared by some philosophers, but you can hardly dismiss such a position right off the bat.

      Intrinsic values are not only common assumptions but many philosophers agree they are part of the world. Your opinions are not going to convince anyone that they believe false things. However, you are welcome to present an informed argument for your case. You can study what philosophers actually think about intrinsic values and why they seem to be part of the world and you can present your own arguments against intrinsic values.

      Finally, you seem to think that morality is nothing other than rational self-interest. However, I want to stress that rational self-interest is not morality. What is best regarding rational self interest can be a morally wrong thing to do. If we only have rational self interest, then why talk about morality in the first place? People will act on rational self-interest whether or not they have any interest in doing the “morally right thing.”

      Of course, you might want to say that cooperative mutually beneficial action is ALL THERE IS. There is no reason to give a stranger an aspirin (who has a headache) when you will never see the stranger again. You could be right about this. In that case I would want to say that morality is simply unreal and there is no uniquely “moral” rationality. Instead of talking about morality, we can talk about game theory.

      You seem to think that cheating is always wrong considering rational self-interest. That is silly. A person can harm others and benefit. A powerful empire can exploit other countries and benefit from doing so. Absolutely no cooperation is expected or required for rational self interest in at least SOME circumstances. You are basically saying that rational self-interest is completely tied to game theoretical cooperation in every single situation, which is wrong.

      Comment by James Gray — July 15, 2010 @ 6:47 am | Reply

  4. James, I have reread the posts you directed me to, and I think that if there is some position between instrumentalism or utilitariansim and belief in intrinsic value, that’s where I am. With respect to my definition of “moral sense,” I agree that the definition I gave was really limited to “moral reason.” I think the science shows that evolution did imbue us with a “moral sense.” We are hard-wired to experience emotions like approval and disgust, pride and shame and appear to have a built-in intuition for fairness, wanting to reward behavior we feel is equitable and punish behavior that we feel is not. For a discussion of the latter, see The Moral Life of Babies article in my “Right and Wrong in a Godless World” post. Our hard-wired emotive and intuitive moral capacity is built upon by culture and moral reasoning.

    There are unfortunately societies today and certainly more in the past that did not have much difficulty at all with widespread, near “willy nilly” torture or slaughter. In general, as a factual matter, people have very different standards for behavior toward those they consider to be within their group than those they consider to be outside their group. Again, the research shows that our “moral sense” is decidedly within-group based. Within our own group, we don’t want people torturing willy nilly because we intuitively understand that would lead to distrust and disorder within the group. However, one need only look at the example of the French Revolution to see how changing definitions of the “group” can lead to willy nilly torture and murder that is generally approved of.

    With respect to subjectivity, one’s experience of what is in one’s mind is personal and not knowable to anyone else. One’s own experience of one’s self is not a material object like a rock or a tree or even one’s brain. One’s own experience of one’s self is not objectively measurable. A scientist can look at how your brain is functioning, your heart rate, and other physical indicators but she cannot measure how you yourself experience those functionings. Each of us experiences what we call pleasure but the feeling each has is personal and cannot be measured against the feeling that others describe as pleasure, except through self report. Also, what gives each of us pleasure is very individual.

    Is pleasure in itself good? No. Was the Marquis de Sade’s pleasure “good”? Decidedly not. It was good for (only in the sense of desired by–since it led to his imprisonment) him and terrible for his victims. Is hedonism, the singular pursuit of one’s own pleasure, “good”? Not necessarily, and quite often affirmatively not. It tends to lead to both self destruction and harm to others.

    It is true that people in general seek things that make them feel pleasure. It is also true that we are undoubtedly hard-wired to do this. We are also undoubtedly hard-wired to find certain things
    like food and sex pleasurable. But “pleasure” in itself is not good and the pursuit of pleasure can be affirmatively harmful to self and others.

    What do I mean by “good”? Well, I would say that “good” must encompass more than just consideration of one’s own desires and ends. Why? Because we live in social relationship with each other, not as a matter of contract, but as a matter of fact. There is no social contract. Instead, there is the fact of our social interrelationship. We are social animals. Our entire survival and reproductive scheme is based on belonging to a group. We have terms for inveterate “cheaters” against the group. We call them “outlaws” and they become “outcasts.”

    With respect to giving a stranger an aspirin, there is no moral requirement to give a stranger an aspirin and failing to do so would not be morally wrong. Indeed, doing so would in general be considered charitable or altruistic. These are superegotary. Being superegotary does not mean there is no “reason” to give a stranger an aspirin. You can choose to do it because it feels good to you to do so. You can choose to do it because you believe that society would be better off if people were more often willing to give without expectation of direct reciprocation and you want to behave in a way that fosters the behavior you would like to see in society.

    “Rational self interest” is not a concept I put much weight on. We are most often not even “rational actors” much less acting on our “rational self interest.” Indeed, life is so multi-variate, complex and contingent, we could not as a factual matter depend on reason alone to make decisions and judgments. The science of the key role of emotion in decisionmaking is pretty strong.

    Nevertheless, it is true that in the short-term “cheating” can absolutely be in one’s “rational self interest,” if one believes that one is not likely to get caught or if caught, the benefit of cheating outweighs the cost of its penalty. But chronic cheating is not a very good long-term strategy because the more one cheats, the more likely one is to get caught and the consequences of getting caught repeatedly can be exile from the group. This of course assumes some order.

    There are many places in the world today where chronic cheating is a common strategy because there are not sufficient resources/institutions for catching and punishing cheaters. The living conditions in these places are undesirable and we describe them with terms like “lawlessness” and “chaos.” The consequences for society of unimpeded chronic cheating and the terrible, disordered living conditions it fosters are a strong indicator that cheating as a general matter is not desirable and chronic cheating is “wrong”.

    The closest thing to having intrinsic value I can think of is joy. But, as with pleasure, the singular pursuit of even such a beautiful feeling as joy could lead to bad outcomes.

    Comment by SAJohnson — July 17, 2010 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  5. There are unfortunately societies today and certainly more in the past that did not have much difficulty at all with widespread, near “willy nilly” torture or slaughter. In general, as a factual matter, people have very different standards for behavior toward those they consider to be within their group than those they consider to be outside their group.

    If you are suggesting what I think, then the outside/inside group distinction is not morality. It is merely an attempt to legitimize immorality. People might think they can kill people from the outside group, but they are against the outside group killing. This is irrational hypocrisy.

    Again, the research shows that our “moral sense” is decidedly within-group based. Within our own group, we don’t want people torturing willy nilly because we intuitively understand that would lead to distrust and disorder within the group. However, one need only look at the example of the French Revolution to see how changing definitions of the “group” can lead to willy nilly torture and murder that is generally approved of.

    That can be understood by game theory, but it is contrary to moral reason. How people behave is not necessarily how they SHOULD behave. I added a section on the naturalistic fallacy in the above post to help clarify this distinction.

    With respect to subjectivity, one’s experience of what is in one’s mind is personal and not knowable to anyone else. One’s own experience of one’s self is not a material object like a rock or a tree or even one’s brain. One’s own experience of one’s self is not objectively measurable. A scientist can look at how your brain is functioning, your heart rate, and other physical indicators but she cannot measure how you yourself experience those functionings. Each of us experiences what we call pleasure but the feeling each has is personal and cannot be measured against the feeling that others describe as pleasure, except through self report. Also, what gives each of us pleasure is very individual.

    First, what is objectively measurable is irrelevant. Pleasure exists period. Mental states exist. We can even observe other people’s thoughts and experiences insofar as they are like our own.

    Second, the fact that what gives pleasure is somewhat irrelevant. Sure, not everyone likes chocolate. That just means not everyone should eat it.

    Third, what harms us the most is not very relative. Killing and torturing someone’s family and friends is a good way to make people unhappy.

    Is pleasure in itself good? No. Was the Marquis de Sade’s pleasure “good”? Decidedly not.

    Why not? Just because he hurt people? It sounds like hurting people is wrong, not pleasure in itself. Pleasure in itself is why eating chocolate can make sense.

    I think you are confusing “right” with “intrinsically good.” What is right might mean something like “leads to the most intrinsic goodness” and the superficial sexual pleasure the sadist got might be insignificant compared to the pain he caused.

    I already discussed masochism. You have offered no argument against what I said already on the topic.

    It was good for (only in the sense of desired by–since it led to his imprisonment) him and terrible for his victims. Is hedonism, the singular pursuit of one’s own pleasure, “good”? Not necessarily, and quite often affirmatively not. It tends to lead to both self destruction and harm to others.

    Hedonism is a moral theory or a psychological dysfunction. Such things are not intrinsically valuable in and of themselves. At the same time pleasure could be intrinsically good. Why? Because hedonists are dysfunctional insofar as they cause pain and damage themselves and others for the pursuit of pleasure.

    Are you confusing intrinsic value with usefulness? Yes. Intrinsic values are not useful. They don’t accomplish your life goals for you. They can be against your life goals if pursued incorrectly.

    Do intrinsic values have different implications depending on the situation? Yes. The situation of wanting to save starving children because they are valuable does not justify murdering people to raise money. We must assess the benefits AND harms of our actions. The intrinsic benefits and harms are worthy of pursuing (or avoiding) for their own sake, but doing what is best in terms of having the greatest good seems much more relevant to being “right” than merely identifying some goal as having some slight amount of intrinsically good consequences.

    It is true that people in general seek things that make them feel pleasure. It is also true that we are undoubtedly hard-wired to do this.

    Then why do we decide to do things to give other people pleasure instead of ourselves? It is because pleasure is experienced as good. Nothing needs to be “hard wired” about it. I’m not just being animalistic to read philosophy for enjoyment. I do it (in part) because it improves my state of mind and feel good.

    We are also undoubtedly hard-wired to find certain things
    like food and sex pleasurable. But “pleasure” in itself is not good and the pursuit of pleasure can be affirmatively harmful to self and others.

    Therefore I am right about intrinsic value? Because I never said otherwise. I already discussed this issue at length.

    What do I mean by “good”? Well, I would say that “good” must encompass more than just consideration of one’s own desires and ends. Why? Because we live in social relationship with each other, not as a matter of contract, but as a matter of fact. There is no social contract. Instead, there is the fact of our social interrelationship. We are social animals. Our entire survival and reproductive scheme is based on belonging to a group. We have terms for inveterate “cheaters” against the group. We call them “outlaws” and they become “outcasts.”

    What is good is good no matter who has it. People outside our “group” are people we care for. We care for animals. These are things we believe have value.

    With respect to giving a stranger an aspirin, there is no moral requirement to give a stranger an aspirin and failing to do so would not be morally wrong.

    But it would be IRRATIONAL from the perspective of rational self interest.

    Indeed, doing so would in general be considered charitable or altruistic. These are superegotary. Being superegotary does not mean there is no “reason” to give a stranger an aspirin. You can choose to do it because it feels good to you to do so.

    Then it’s irrational if it doesn’t make you feel good to do so. My scenario was meant to include the fact that you would get no benefit. I am not irrational to give strangers aspirin because I believe that the pain is bad rather than to get pleasure etc.

    You can choose to do it because you believe that society would be better off if people were more often willing to give without expectation of direct reciprocation and you want to behave in a way that fosters the behavior you would like to see in society.

    I don’t have to care about society either. What’s so great about society? If nothing really matters, then it’s just an arbitrary value. If it’s an instinct to care about society, then it is irrational whenever it leads to behavior that doesn’t benefit oneself selfishly.

    “Rational self interest” is not a concept I put much weight on. We are most often not even “rational actors” much less acting on our “rational self interest.” Indeed, life is so multi-variate, complex and contingent, we could not as a factual matter depend on reason alone to make decisions and judgments. The science of the key role of emotion in decisionmaking is pretty strong.

    There are different kinds of rationality. Practical rationality is means-end reasoning. How to best achieve goals.

    Logical reasoning has to do with formal reasoning.

    Moral reasoning has to do with what goals are worthy of being pursued. It is reasoning about ends (goals) rather than means (strategic reasoning). If nothing is really worthy of being pursued then moral rationality might be delusional.

    If giving the aspirin is rational, but not because of rational self interest, then what is rational about it?

    It might be that our instincts tell us to desire or “value” certain things despite nothing having intrinsic vale, but then morality could be delusional. It would seem to be ratinal to give up morality for pursuit of self interest.

    The closest thing to having intrinsic value I can think of is joy. But, as with pleasure, the singular pursuit of even such a beautiful feeling as joy could lead to bad outcomes.

    It sounds like you think that intrinsic values (if there are any) would determine what is right or wrong regardless of the situation, but this is false:

    To seek pain in some situations (such as mutual sexual acts involving masochism) is merely evidence that seeking pain isn’t always “wrong,” but that is only because the cost can be worth attaining certain benefits. All things equal, it is wrong to cause pain. We can only justify causing pain when we have a good reason for doing so.

    It sounds like you think “intrinsic values must be unconditional.” I already clarified this as a mischaracterization of intrinsic values:

    Many people assume that if something has intrinsic value, then it must be totally good or totally bad. If happiness has intrinsic value, then it will always be right to do whatever is necessary to be happy. If pain is bad, then it will be wrong to do anything that causes pain. But this is false.

    Why don’t intrinsic values have to be unconditional? We often assess the benefits and harms of each action we can take, and we want to choose the action that will produce the greatest benefit. We know that doing your homework can be painful at times, but it is still usually a good idea because of the positive consequences involved.

    If for some reason my discussion of intrinsic values is confusing or written poorly, you can let me know and I will try to fix it. You can also see what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, but I don’t think it defines or describes them very well: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-intrinsic-extrinsic/

    You said you identify yourself (somewhat) as a utilitarian. The idea of intrinsic values is traditionally a part of utilitarianism. I don’t know how you can understand utilitarianism without realizing that happiness can be intrinsically good despite certain actions that lead to some slight amount of happiness being wrong. One group could be quite happy at killing off another group, but that doesn’t make the action right or morally rational.

    Comment by James Gray — July 18, 2010 @ 6:14 am | Reply

  6. Not all utilitarians use the unit of “happiness” to measure the desirability of the overall outcome. I don’t identify as a utilitarian but I do think I am a consequentialist. When you say “happiness can be intrinsically good,” do you mean “happiness is instrinsically good” or “under certain circumstances, happiness is instrinsically good.” If the latter, under what circumstances? What do you mean by “good”? Desirable? And to whom? The individual alone, in connection with some other set of others, or only in relation to others?

    When you say that although homework can be painful, it is still a good idea because of positive consequences. That does not sound like an assertion that homework is intrinsically valuable, but a consequentialist assessment of homework, i.e., it is a good idea when it is more likely than not to have positive consequences.

    I do not think morality is a delusion. I do think morality is a human construct the purpose of which is to allow us to successfully live in social groups. It is not “rational” to exclusively pursue self interest. The exclusive pursuit of self interest will more likely than not have significant costs in the long-term, as it damages relationships with others–family, friends, business colleagues, society at large–and could ultimately result in expulsion from society (perhaps in the form of imprisonment–see Bernie Madoff). Arguably, it is not in one’s self interest to damage these relationships as they are generally, except for loners and recluses, a key to individual survival and flourishing. Further, if an individual looks beyond the short term, s/he will see that exclusive pursuit of self interest is not a sustainable, universalizable principle. If every individual exclusively pursues her self interest, the commons is tragically destroyed–to the detriment of all. What is rational is some combination of cooperation and selfishness. In the end, all of us have to “care about” (give some thought to) society because we exist in relation to it, even if we choose to leave it, in which case we exist in a state of exile from society.

    Giving a stranger an aspirin can be rational, i.e, the benefit to you exceeds the cost, for at least the two reasons I cited. If I need the aspirin myself or someone closer to me than the stranger needs it, the analysis would change. You can choose to give the stranger an aspirin when you need the aspirin, and you might only be committing a self sacrifice. Self sacrifice of even your life can be rational where committing the self sacrifice makes you feel so happy that its ultimate cost to you (your chance to have any happy experiences in the future) was less than the present benefit–an unsurpassable state of happiness. But giving the stranger an aspirin when your child needs the aspirin is arguably a moral violation. Altruism is a thorny, not a simple, concept.

    Are you saying that if one doesn’t accept the concept of “intrinsic value,” one necessarily believes that nothing is worth being pursued? Does that mean that “intrinsic value” is a stand in for “that which is worth being pursued”?

    With respect to animals, our approach to animals is quite instrumentalist. We do not tend to see them as ends in themselves, but means to our ends. If we valued animals qua animal, humane societies, activist vegetarians and animals rights folks wouldn’t even need to bother.

    With respect to the within/out group question, it can be similar to the issue of individual altruism. As I stated in my blog, there are very good evolutionary reasons for our within-group based morality. Having a definable group who you can rely on and can rely on you provides decided survival and reproductive advantages. If your group is in competition with another group, it could in fact be a moral violation to favor the other group over your group, similar to a mother’s violation by favoring a stranger over her child. What is moral or right or good or valuable is just not a simple question but is as complicated as the complex world we inhabit.

    Comment by SAJohnson — July 19, 2010 @ 4:15 am | Reply

    • Not all utilitarians use the unit of “happiness” to measure the desirability of the overall outcome.

      That’s right. Hume and R.M. Hare are two examples.

      I don’t identify as a utilitarian but I do think I am a consequentialist. When you say “happiness can be intrinsically good,” do you mean “happiness is instrinsically good” or “under certain circumstances, happiness is instrinsically good.”

      I meant that classic Utilitarians, such as Mill, want to promote happiness in a way that highly suggests that it has intrinsic value. This is part of the traditional understanding of utilitarianism that you should already understand if you know about consequentialism.

      If the latter, under what circumstances?

      Intrinsic value doesn’t arise out of circumstances. Either something has intrinsic value or it doesn’t.

      What do you mean by “good”? Desirable? And to whom? The individual alone, in connection with some other set of others, or only in relation to others?

      Intrinsic goodness is not merely desirable. Something can be desirable precisely because it has value. Classical utilitarians, such as Mill, make it clear that everyone’s happiness counts. That suggests it has intrinsic value. Happiness is good no matter who has it.

      When you say that although homework can be painful, it is still a good idea because of positive consequences. That does not sound like an assertion that homework is intrinsically valuable, but a consequentialist assessment of homework, i.e., it is a good idea when it is more likely than not to have positive consequences.

      A positive consequence can be assessed in terms of intrinsic value. A consequentialist assessment can be made in terms of intrinsic values. The more intrinsic value an action produces, the better. That was exactly why I brought up utilitarianism in the first place. You aren’t seeing how intimately connected the two ideas are.

      I do not think morality is a delusion. I do think morality is a human construct the purpose of which is to allow us to successfully live in social groups. It is not “rational” to exclusively pursue self interest. The exclusive pursuit of self interest will more likely than not have significant costs in the long-term, as it damages relationships with others–family, friends, business colleagues, society at large–and could ultimately result in expulsion from society (perhaps in the form of imprisonment–see Bernie Madoff).

      No, Aristotle was an ethical egoist and made it pretty clear that rational self-interest encourages friendships and good relationships. Such things are not mutually exclusive. You are saying, “rational self interest is irrational because it’s a good way to make yourself less happy, etc.!” The whole point of RATIONAL self interest is that you behave in a way that REALLY DOES benefit yourself. If benefiting yourself requires friendship, etc., then rational self interest will encourage such things and would not cause us to make ourselves miserable.

      Arguably, it is not in one’s self interest to damage these relationships as they are generally, except for loners and recluses, a key to individual survival and flourishing.

      So do you agree that rational self interest is all there is? Is “moral rationality” nothing but rational self interest?

      Further, if an individual looks beyond the short term, s/he will see that exclusive pursuit of self interest is not a sustainable, universalizable principle. If every individual exclusively pursues her self interest, the commons is tragically destroyed–to the detriment of all.

      I disagree. If everyone was self interested then they would be like corporations. They would sometimes harm people, but they would also benefit society in various ways.

      What is rational is some combination of cooperation and selfishness. In the end, all of us have to “care about” (give some thought to) society because we exist in relation to it, even if we choose to leave it, in which case we exist in a state of exile from society.

      That’s called rational self interest.

      Giving a stranger an aspirin can be rational, i.e, the benefit to you exceeds the cost, for at least the two reasons I cited. If I need the aspirin myself or someone closer to me than the stranger needs it, the analysis would change.

      I disagree. The whole point of the scenario was that it is an act of altruism with no expected reward. You are changing the thought experiment to suit your agenda.

      The point is simple: Are you really going to say that acts of altruistic charity are irrational when no reward or benefit can be expected?

      You can choose to give the stranger an aspirin when you need the aspirin, and you might only be committing a self sacrifice. Self sacrifice of even your life can be rational where committing the self sacrifice makes you feel so happy that its ultimate cost to you (your chance to have any happy experiences in the future) was less than the present benefit–an unsurpassable state of happiness.

      That’s not self-sacrifice. I already said that no benefit is expected. I said that you wouldn’t feel good about giving the aspirin.

      Are you saying that if one doesn’t accept the concept of “intrinsic value,” one necessarily believes that nothing is worth being pursued? Does that mean that “intrinsic value” is a stand in for “that which is worth being pursued”?

      It is an idea that something is worth being pursued beyond desire. It’s basically the Euthephero dilemma. Is something good because it is desired or is it desired because it is good? Intrinsic value says it’s good and (hopefully) that is why it is desired.

      With respect to animals, our approach to animals is quite instrumentalist. We do not tend to see them as ends in themselves, but means to our ends. If we valued animals qua animal, humane societies, activist vegetarians and animals rights folks wouldn’t even need to bother.

      I disagree. People don’t want animals to be abused. They don’t even want to use dog meat to feed starving people.

      Comment by James Gray — July 19, 2010 @ 5:04 am | Reply

  7. There is a real debate over whether pure altruism does exist. Personally, I think no one would give an aspirin to a stranger if to do so didn’t make them feel “good” or fulfill some duty they believed they had or further some principle they believe in.

    I don’t know which “people” you think don’t want animals abused but there are entire industries based on the slaughter of or experimentation on animals, including chimpanzees–one of our closest living relatives. Also, many people around the world eat dogs. We just happen to privilege dogs in this country, at the same time we eat cows, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, bison, ostrich, you name it–just not horses, dogs or cats, as a general matter. (Of course, there are communities here that do eat those animals as well.)

    You say, “Intrinsic value doesn’t arise out of circumstances. Either something has intrinsic value or it doesn’t.” Everything arises out of circumstance. That is the point I have been making from the beginning.

    Comment by SAJohnson — July 20, 2010 @ 3:52 am | Reply

    • There is a real debate over whether pure altruism does exist. Personally, I think no one would give an aspirin to a stranger if to do so didn’t make them feel “good” or fulfill some duty they believed they had or further some principle they believe in.

      Intrinsic value can be a “principle” one believes in. I’m not talking about irrational altruism.

      Additionally, this isn’t a typical debate about altruism. First you need to make sure that you differentiate between ethical egoism and psychological egoism. Ethical egoism is the idea that we should only do what benefits oneself. Psychological egoism is the idea that we have no choice but to try to do what benefits oneself.

      There is also an idea that we can only act on desires. That might be true.

      There is also an idea that only desires count as reasons. I disagree with that. That is what my debate is about. I think that I should want to give the aspirin and find out how to attain the right character to have the right desires. There are desire-independent reasons.

      I wrote about how intrinsic values (desire independent reasons) make sense even if only desires can motivate us here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/objections-to-moral-realism-part-4-beliefs-cant-motivate/

      I don’t know which “people” you think don’t want animals abused but there are entire industries based on the slaughter of or experimentation on animals, including chimpanzees–one of our closest living relatives. Also, many people around the world eat dogs. We just happen to privilege dogs in this country, at the same time we eat cows, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, bison, ostrich, you name it–just not horses, dogs or cats, as a general matter. (Of course, there are communities here that do eat those animals as well.)

      Corporate interests make immoral decisions that people know are wrong. People make decisions that they know are wrong. Just because someone does something doesn’t mean people think it is right.

      Even if people did always think that what they do is morally right, they wouldn’t necessarily think torturing animals willy nilly is justified. They probably would think you need a justification to harm animals.

      It might be that some cultures don’t have any empathy or care for animals whatsoever. If that is so, then they should learn more about how animals matter.

      You say, “Intrinsic value doesn’t arise out of circumstances. Either something has intrinsic value or it doesn’t.” Everything arises out of circumstance. That is the point I have been making from the beginning.

      If pain has intrinsic disvalue, then intrinsic disvalue might arise from whatever circumstance is required to produce pain. Intrinsic disvalue is part of our experience.

      It is false that everything comes from a circumstance or it is at least a controversial statement in philosophy to make. Mathematics and logic constrain reality, thought, and reason without necessarily arising from anything.

      It is possible that the universe didn’t arise out of anything either. It might have always existed.

      Nonetheless, intrinsic value seems to arise in a similar way that minds arise. It is hard to say that anything could have intrinsic value other than minds or mental states. For more information, you can go here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/searles-philosophy-of-the-mind/

      The point you were making from the beginning did not seem to be metaphysical in nature. You were merely arguing that what is right and wrong depends on the situation. That has nothing to do with the metaphysical nature of intrinsic values.

      I don’t even know if you want to know about the metaphysical nature of intrinsic value. Your question is a bit vague.

      Comment by James Gray — July 20, 2010 @ 6:56 am | Reply

  8. I think referencing evolution in debates about morality is for those who think that there are no moral facts and believe instead that morality is simply like government and laws, something that has been adopted and become custom. David Hume is a good example of a philosopher who believed such a concept about morality. It is fairly convincing, and thus the reason to be moral is not an appeal to moral facts, but rather an appeal to the social reality that certain actions will be looked down upon and are not acceptable by ones fellow man to commit.

    Comment by Evan — August 17, 2010 @ 6:40 pm | Reply


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