Ailing Today

I’m afflicted today with what appears to be food poisoning, and have absolutely nothing to offer tonight — especially as I’ve used up any remaining fuel in the cogitative tank commenting on an interesting thread at philosopher Alan Rhoda’s website about the “problem of evil”, and whether our morality is based on any sort of objective foundation. Interested readers may find that post, and my long-winded opinion, here.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery.


    Posted February 19, 2007 at 11:39 pm | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm – Hope you’re in a bit better state than yesterday.

    re the discussion going on over at Alan Rhoda’s place…
    I think the connection between the problem of evil and the “foundations” of morality is a bit less direct than discussants are assuming. So I’ll set the PoE to one side, and question instead just what it is that people take ethics and morality to be.

    In particular, I think you are much too quick in settling for any of the evolutionary accounts of moral behaviors as a proper substitute for traditional approaches. I think there is very good reason to think that our evolutionary trajectory has equipped us with some key ingredients necessary to the emergence of morality. This would include at least a variety of emotional responses and some basic facility with patterns of reasoning. But beyond the presence of these ingredients is the peculiar way they combine and interact in what we usually take to be morality — and I don’t think there’s even a smidgen of evidence that the combination can be accounted for as a product of selective forces. And it is the combination that is, or should be, the focus of attention. People (or other life forms) showing sensitivity to the interests of others, for example, won’t count as moral behavior unless the actors conceive the behavior in certain ways. Behavior that conforms to a rule, after all, is distinct from rule-following behavior.

    I think morality is a product of how we have used what evolution bequeathed us, but not something evolutionary processes can account for on their own. (In this respect, I think morality is analogous to mathematics — evolution probably provided us with very basic “numericity” and some ability to play a game called “combinatorics.” But how we have combined these to create the edifice called mathematics probably requires a different storyline from “relative selective advantage of heritable traits.”

    Or so it seems to me.

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I’m sure you are right that layered on top of the dispositions toward “moral” behavior that we have inherited as a result of our evolutionary history, there are the complex narratives, cultural wrappings, and so forth that we bring also to every other aspect of our lives. And indeed, just as our ability to do, say, multivariate statistical analysis was not directly selected for in our hominid ancestors, but emerges as a collateral ability from the general cognitive complexity that was selected for, we undoubtedly do have moral sensibilities that are learned, cultural, and contextual. This makes sense, as there is obviously a good deal of cultural variety superimposed upon the moral universals shared by all human societies.

    But I would be careful not to underestimate the degree to which wired-in “rule-following” may have an emotional and intuitive component that appears to the “user” as something more lofty, and recently some very persuasive accounts have been offered — by Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, the Churchlands, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, among others — as to how and why these moral dispositions have arisen. What “traditional approaches” do you have in mind that you think I am not taking seriously enough?


    Thanks! I’m feeling much better today, though still quite foggy.

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Glad you’re feeling better.
    The “traditional” approaches I have in mind treat morality as a phenomenon that is intrinsically a matter of the sorts of _reasons_ one has for acting. That’s also crucial to understanding the distinction between conforming to a rule and following a rule. People (or others) who do the “right” thing without reference to _whether_ it’s the right thing are not behaving as moral agents as this has traditionally been understood. As for “wired-in rule-following,” this would require the rule in question to be explicitly represented somewhere in the wiring, and we have scant reason to suspect that’s how nature built us.

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob, and thanks – I am gradually reviving…

    You make an implicit appeal to moral objectivism when you talk about doing the right thing “because it’s the right thing”; the assumption there is that there is some underlying moral fact to which we may refer. But how do we access such facts, if not through our moral intuitions? All I am saying is that we can have the intuitions without having to insist on the extra layer of abstraction, without needing to postulate some unverifiable, transcendent “fact of the matter”. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasons that we have the moral intuitions we do — quite to the contrary, there are solid advantages to the sort of behavior to which our moral intuitions impel us, and this is why they would have been selected for in the first place.

    As for wired-in rule following, we have all sorts of such built-in dispositions: affection and protectiveness toward the young, male jealousy and aggressiveness, seeing certain landscapes and facial features as attractive, etc. Obviously the details of how such dispositions are “represented in the wiring” are still unknown, but that they are there is not controversial. I see no reason to think that moral dispositions are any different.

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I haven’t made any appeal to moral objectivism in mentioning the role of reasons in traditional moral thinking, and you can treat my reference to “right” actions as expressing nothing more than a passing whim. Even hard boiled moral relativists have traditionally insisted that it’s the reasons, the “ends in view” one has for acting that are relevant to moral analysis.

    Sure, moral behavior is probably (usually) selectively advantageous. But what about those relatively rare cases where somebody sacrifices all for a principle? Utilitarians and their evo-devo descendants speculate that “if only we knew all the relevant facts,” for example the probabilistic effects of symbolic gestures on an audience, we would see that principled behavior is adaptive. Maybe, but until we know all the relevant facts, this is mere speculation, not a persuasive argument.

    As for wired-in rule following, I think some of the most important developments in cognitive science over the past 40 years came about precisely because we’ve been able to show how much cognitive behavior that was thought to exemplify rule-following is nothing of the sort. In other words, congitive scientists figured out that the old model of cognizers applying explcit rules of inference was probably the wrong approach for much of what goes on in our heads. But that model can’t simply be tossed out, since it seems to be the right one to understand cases where we do, in fact, employ explicit rules. We’re only just beginning to develop empirical methods to distinguish the cases in experimental settings, but the distinction does seem to force itself on us.

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, as often happens in these discussions, we may find that terminology can get in the way of clarity and agreement.

    I’m not suggesting that we make moral decisions in blind accordance with hard-wired programming. You are quite right that we have reasons, “ends in view”, for the choices we make. Underlying that, though, is the emotional valuation we assign to those reasons, and I think it is that intuitive valuation that is what is built in by evolution (and then layered upon, by culture and experience, of course).

    You are quite right that cognitive decision-making is flexible, and that the mapping from abstractly defined “rules” to the actual causal processes that take place in our heads is imperfect. (This relates, I think, to what C.S. Lewis called “the Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”: if our cognition is purely a physically causal process, then how can it be relied upon to proceed strictly according to the rules of logic and reason? The answer, of course, is that it can’t, but that we fake it pretty well.)

    You are right also that we haven’t an adaptive, rigorous account in evolutionary terms for every radically altruistic act that we see, but then again, we have enough of an explanatory structure in place to see that altruism generally can indeed confer substantial adaptive benefit. Nobody will deny, however, that we are individuals, and that our personal histories and cognitive setups can trump any general-purpose dispositional tendencies we may have inherited.

    I would say that the recent work in evolutionary psychology is so strong that it rises far above “mere speculation” as regards understanding the source of our moral intuitions. But if you find it unsatisfying, what do you see as a better explanatory account?

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – this must, of necessity, be sketchy….

    I think reason enters into morality in a much more substantive way than is captured by models of reason “calculating” results from what you call emotional valuations. For example, I suspect that it is only because reason is impersonal, whereas all preferences, etc. are intrinsically personal, that people have the notion that moral principles must be universalizable. So, I imagine that, for each of us, somewhere in the vicinity of the beginning of ethical wisdom is the realization, perhaps only dimly grasped, that reason doesn’t favor my interests relative to the interests of others.

    BTW, while I’m on the topic of universality, it’s a safe bet that natural selection doesn’t favor universality when it comes to inter-organismic relations…. kith and kin are distinctly favored.

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I think we are talking past each other a bit here. When we make moral choices, we have “reasons” for those choices, but those reasons ultimately rest upon emotional valuations that are largely outside the scope of reason (I will do this or that difficult thing because it is best for my family, but why should “best for my family” matter to me? Why should I prefer that?).

    You are right that kith and kin are nearest the center of the charmed circle of those toward whom we feel moral obligations; certainly we can find ample evidence of those outside being conspicuously excluded. When I speak of universality, I am referring only to the similarity of many moral intuitions across all human groups and cultures — I’m not saying that in some way those moral intutitions are seen by all humans to apply to all other humans. Clearly they are not. But one mark of moral progress in human culture is the expansion of that circle (another reason why I think moral “facts” are not objective).

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    Malcom – Perhaps we are talking past each other. When I spoke of reason entering into morality, I was talking about the “faculty” of reason, the ability to analyze and synthesize, not just the interests, preferences, inclinations, etc. that colloquially are counted as “reasons for” acting. Morality is more than having a particular sort of preference, etc., and acting accordingly. Just how reason operates in this domain is unclear (at least to me), but that it does play an essential role is evidenced by the fact that (even cross-culturally) creatures deemed incapable of reason are ipso facto deemed not to be moral creatures.

    Also, when I speak of morality I intend to connote something like an idealized vision of reasoned behavior. And I confess to being sympathetic to the view that so long as the obligations one feels are preferentially directed toward kith and kin, those feelings are at most proto-moral. The notion of universality current in moral theory is, I think, a clear reflection of what I called the impersonal nature of reason.

    Of course, there are moral theorists who would disagree with my understanding of what morality involves.

    Posted February 20, 2007 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    You raise a very interesting point regarding creatures incapable of reason being universally deemed not to be morally accountable. Isn’t it, though, more that they are considered incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions — and even more importantly, the relationship between those consequences and the emotional valuation we attach to certain sorts of actions — than an assumption that reason must underpin those valuations themselves?

    But I do agree that as human beings, possessing the faculties of reason, we will modify our moral intuitions over time – for example, as we understand more deeply the connections that bind all humans into a single family, the “charmed circle” expands, and we see this as moral “progress”. This is another reason why I am skeptical about objective, immutable moral “facts”.

    By the way, I don’t know if you’ve been following the “debate” at Alan Rhoda’s, but the fellow I am going at it with certainly seems to have a fair-sized chip on his shoulder. I might have to walk away, as we are getting nowhere.

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  12. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    I think that in addition to understanding means-ends relations, reason contributes to morality by imposing certain formal requirments, such as the universality I’ve noted. Another feature I think it introduces into the mix is a sort of idealization that I don’t think can be plausibly sourced to emotions. One thing I think it doesn’t do is underpin valuations, though it probably demands that our valuations at least will be consistent.

    I still don’t get the connection to your concerns about objective, immutable moral facts but, as suggested in our earlier discussion of these things, we have very different understandings of what ‘objectivity’ is.

    I did check out the “progress” of the debate over at Rhoda’s place. I think the scare-quotes are appropriate in this instance.

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I’m inclined to disagree with you here:

    “I suspect that it is only because reason is impersonal, whereas all preferences, etc. are intrinsically personal, that people have the notion that moral principles must be universalizable.”

    I suspect, rather, that much of the universality of moral intuitions is due to an adaptive value that arises quite naturally out of a tendency in the natural world to reward certain sorts of non-zero-sum interactions to which humans are particularly well-suited.

    I also think that if you burrow down far enough, moral idealizations, even hyper-rational attempts such as utilitarianism, rest ultimately on intuitive, emotional valuations.

    The point I was trying to make about objective, immutable moral facts is that the observable mutability of our moral sensibilities — that what seems plainly “right or “wrong” can vary so from time to time and place to place — is hardly supporting evidence for their existence.

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  14. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Just a couple points.

    I don’t see how you make the move from non-zero sum games to universality. All it takes is one defector to wreck an empirically grounded universal rule.

    The sort of idealization that I think reason brings to the game of morality involves such things as the use of limiting cases to arrive at moral judgments. That’s a very different kettle of fish from what you’re calling moral idealizations (perhaps moral ideals would be a better moniker).

    As for the mutability of judgments, that’s no more an argument against objectivity in morals than is the mutability of scientific judgments an argument against the objectivity of the relevant bits of the world. Objectivists across the board treat mutable judgments as evidence of error. Objectivists, after all, typically don’t claim to be omniscient.

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I think that the adaptive value of favoring non-zero-sum interations is more robust than you think; we have evolved a tremendously sensitive suite of mechanisms for detecting and punishing defectors (Steve Pinker and Robert Wright have written extensively about this). Admittedly it’s a bit of an ongoing “arms race”, and some defectors will always do well, but all that has to happen for the tendency to be an honest player to spread is for the benefits of playing by the rules to outweigh the risks of breaking them.

    I think you are right about using reason, in the way you refer to as idealization, to tune our moral thinking. There is actually a lot of empirical work being done here as well, in which various hypothetical situations are given to subjects, and researchers try to analyze the underlying logic of their responses (diverting a train down a siding to kill one pedestrian rather than five vs. killing one person to give his organs to five others, etc.; you’ve heard of these projects, I’m sure). I do think that there is a good deal of inertia to overcome when reason struggles to modify our moral apparatus, but I do think it can and does happen, and it certainly happens as memetic and cultural influences change over time.

    I’m not sure that one can fairly extrapolate from changing scientific judgments, which correct themselves constantly against objectively checkable facts, to moral objectivism, in which the underlying “facts” are never actually brought forward at all, but merely alleged to exist. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever suggested any way in which we can test a moral hypothesis against the moral “facts”.

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  16. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    My problem with moving from non-zero sum games to claims about universality isn’t that I doubt the robustness of strategies like tit-for-tat. They are demonstrably robust. But that’s not the same as universality. Again, I think terminological differences might be interfering with clear communication — which is only to be expected when the topic of discussion requires nuance.

    Babel… Though it seems inevitable, there is honor in struggling against it.

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I’d like to understand what you mean, and we are both pretty good and patient communicators. No reason to let Babel beat us!

    Can you clarify how you are using “universality”?

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 6:26 pm | Permalink
  18. bob koepp says

    Well, I’ll try to provide a least some clarification about how I understand universalism in ethics.

    First, in ethics, universalism is usually contrasted with particularism. Now suppose we start with a very simple moral universe, and confine ourselves to consideration of “interests.” I value x. If my interest in x is morally considerable, then universalism requires that anybody else’s interest in x is morally considerable. In a slightly more complex world, perhaps moral considerability will be sensitive to the different degrees of interest. That’s OK by the universalist so long as there is consistency in how degrees of interest are considered. What wouldn’t be OK is for moral considerability to be sensitive to the _locus_ of interest, the particular individual who harbors the interest.

    I think this is somewhat analogous to how scientific “laws” are said to be universal insofar as they don’t make essential reference to locales or particulars. Of course, the “privileging” of a reference-frame is a different animal than the sort of “privileging” that offends ethical universalism, but it’s the formal similarity that I think is relevant here. This doesn’t mean that there are no morally relevant differences between particular individuals, but the morally relevant differences must be separable from particular individuals.

    Hope that helps.

    Posted February 21, 2007 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for that. I was certainly understanding you in an entirely different way. And yes, what you describe seems quite closely analogous, in particular, to the symmetry laws of physics.

    In this case I would say that what I am referring to as the expansion of the “charmed circle” corresponds to the expansion in each culture’s moral universe of the list of outsiders that are deemed morally considerable beings.

    So we have two types of moral “facts” we would seek to ground, namely the moral rules themselves – i.e., what is and isn’t a moral act when applied to a morally considerable being – and the actual choice of whom we deem morally considerable.

    It seems to me that neither of those groups of facts need be, nor can be convincingly demonstrated to be, rooted in any sort of metaphysical objectivity, and that both can be accounted for as the result of our natural and cultural evolution.

    Posted February 22, 2007 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  20. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I still don’t get your juxtaposition of what can be accommodated by an evolutionary account and metaphysical objectivity. It strikes me as apples and oranges.

    If I’ve criticized extant evolutionary accounts of morality it’s because I think they neglect important aspects of morality, as traditionally conceived, such as the role of reason. But I haven’t criticized the evolutionary accounts for failing to provide a transcendental grounding for moral judgments. I’m interested, of course, in arguments about the possibility of such grounding, and what can be inferred from the 2500 year history of failures to articulate such a ground — but I’ve not assumed that morality requires this sort of grounding.

    Posted February 22, 2007 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Do forgive me – this thread has traveled so far at this point that I have perhaps lost track a bit of who is arguing for what.

    The “debate” at I have been engaged in with the rather truculent presuppositionalist Paul, over at Alan Rhoda’s, has been very much a matter of making an alternate account to his insistence upon moral objectivism. In particular, I needed to defend the idea that even without such objective grounding, the existence of so much suffering in the world could still support “problem-of-evil” skepticism regarding the existence of God as traditionally described. So I had to first provide a nontheistic account for the existence of our moral intuitions — I think moral objectivism is a fantasy, so the only other sensible account is evolutionary, at least to get the ball rolling (culture and reason join in later) — and then defend their relevance in the absence of objective moral “facts”.

    But I seemed to have dragged too much of that conversation back into this one. I suppose I’m a bit like the pugilist who is still swinging after he’s been led back to his corner.

    And I entirely agree that, humans being what we are, evolutionary accounts of our moral framework don’t get the whole job done, because influences of culture and reason must be considered as well. It’s nature plus nurture, as is so often the case.

    Posted February 22, 2007 at 1:21 pm | Permalink