The Magic Feather

In a comment to a recent post, reader David Brightly asked if I was worried that naturalistic accounts of morality “might lead to less good and more harm being done.” It’s a good question, and I am not sure about the answer.

Daniel Dennett, in his book Freedom Evolves, offers a characteristically excellent metaphor (p.14) for this kind of concern, taken from the old Disney movie Dumbo. In that story, Dumbo, a mutant elephant, is born with enormous floppy ears that enable him to fly — but he lacks the necessary belief in his ability to do so. A group of crows, noticing that he is the victim of nothing more than performance anxiety, give him a feather (plucked from one of their own kind), and tell him it has a magical power that will enable him to slip the surly bonds of earth (well, not in those words). His confidence braced by this plumarious placebo, Dumbo indeed manages to achieve liftoff.

Dennett raises the parallel concern that in matters of free will, our belief that we are free might be essential to our actually being free. He describes how a rogue crow could be in a position to cause some real trouble:

Imagine that one of the other crows, a village skeptic who is smart enough to see what trick is being played but not smart enough to see its virtue, starts trying to inform Dumbo of the truth as he perches on the cliff edge, feather held tightly. “Stop that crow!!” the children would shriek. Stifle that smarty-pants, quick, before he ruins it for Dumbo!

Dennett is talking about free will here, but the metaphor lends itself equally well to matters of morality. For a sturdy moral framework, is it necessary not only that we have moral intuitions as the basis for our moral judgments, but also that we believe that our moral axioms are, somehow, objectively true?

Let us assume, in harmony with the growing consensus among the boffins who study such things as evolutionary psychology, that our moral architecture is, in broad terms, an evolutionary adaptation that optimizes human behavior for the thriving of social groups. In other words, we consider lying, thievery, selfishness, and so on to be immoral because groups of humans who embody these attitudes fare better, and leave more offspring, than those who don’t. Assume further that that’s all there is to it; that there is no deeper source of our moral axioms, no other place for such “facts” to reside.

If it became overwhelmingly clear that this is in fact the way things are (as I believe it is), then might this have a corrosive effect on morality itself? As scientists of various sorts converge on this model (as they are), elucidating it with growing breadth and clarity, should we all be yelling “Stop that crow!!”?

One might argue that knowing these facts should make no difference. We know, for example, that the sweetness of sugar, the appeal of fatty foods, and the pleasure of sex are also selective adaptations: after all, had our ancestors been indifferent, in a harsh and competitive world, to opportunities to feed themselves and to mate, we wouldn’t be around at all. Indeed, so strong are these affinities that nowadays enormous industries exist for both their gratification and their suppression. But our knowing that they are nothing more than hard-wired adaptive responses does nothing to diminish our enjoyment of them; though we now realize that there is no sense in which sweets, or sex, are intrinsically, objectively “good”, we enjoy them immensely all the same. Perhaps morality is like that: it doesn’t really matter at all why we think selfishness and lying are wrong; they just feel wrong to us, and that’s all we need.

On the other hand, morality is somewhat different from eating or sex: unlike those, it is the sort of thing we tend to philosophize about. We examine and re-examine our ethical systems, and we have gone out of our way, in all human cultures, to tell stories to ourselves about where our moral codes come from. Obviously it matters to us that our morality be rooted in something. Will it be satisfactory to replace familiar tales of commandments handed down by God Almighty with hard-to-follow dissertations on Pleistocene group dynamics? Is this the path to moral nihilism?

On page 156 of Dennett’s book Elbow Room, there is a passage which I have quoted before:

I cannot say that it would be a great pity, a crying shame, an instance of “cosmic unfairness” if nihilism turned out to be true. For if nihilism were true, all value judgments would be illusory; the brute fact of anyone’s sorrow or pain wouldn’t mean a thing, and bemoaning our predicament would be as misguided as regretting that the square root of two isn’t one and a half. Nihilism might, I suppose, be true; it might even follow from determinism, as some suspect (though I have no reason to believe this). Nevertheless, we may assume that nihilism is false. How can I make that complacent (or cavalier) claim? Shouldn’t we even stop to consider carefully the prospect that it might be true? Well, if it were true that we ought to take the possibility of nihilism that seriously, then nihilism would be false, for if we ought to do anything then nihilism is false. But then we may as well assume it is false, because either it is false, or, if it isn’t, then nothing matters and we may do whatever we want. Nihilism is, quite literally, a negligible position.

From a philosophical viewpoint, this makes sense. But from an emotional prespective, might it undermine the bracing effect of our moral intuitions? Is there an important difference between doing something because we truly ought to, and doing it because nothing really matters anyway, so — what the hell — we might as well just act as if we truly ought to?

This is a hard question. What do you think?


  1. David Brightly says

    Hello Malcolm,

    Do we need to believe that our moral axioms are objectively true? Possibly not. Suppose that current ideas about the evolution of reciprocal altruism are indeed right. Then there is a sense in which the moral sentiments arising in our dealings with others are objectively ‘correct’. For they embody an objectively more successful strategy than pure selfishness, say. Genes which encourage our kind of moderated altruism have spread through the population after all. But coming to believe this has not I think changed my behaviour.

    On the other hand I can’t help but feel that if belief in God and in doing God’s will together with belief in rewards and punishments in the afterlife were to vanish then we would see rather less saintly behaviour and rather more selfish. At the margin, where moral sentiments are finely balanced, belief or lack of it may have a decisive effect.

    Furthermore, although our genetic makeup may give us the capacity for moral feeling it may be the case that we have to learn to attach this to certain kinds of situations and actions, just as baby monkeys have to learn to associate fear with snakes. So our moral judgements will depend on our upbringing and education. Without the stiffening of religious belief will we have the courage and confidence to propagate our own values? Unlike the Brights, I’m not too keen to rush into the experiment.

    Posted September 9, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    Slippery turf here. I do think that the fact that our moral faculty represents an optimization of survival strategies might be imagined to confer some sort of objective ‘correctness’, though we should bear in mind that this means that if baby-torturing were adaptive, then we’d find that morally correct too, by those lights. (But then, that would be OK!)

    I don’t believe in God or the afterlife myself, and still manage to be, if not saintly, at least not utterly selfish, I think. But I will say that I can imagine how these naturalistic ideas could, perhaps, have a corrosive effect, if one follows them to their conclusion (which most folks don’t). The vigor with which some resist them is telling, I think. For many, belief in the importance of holding certain beliefs is more important — and easier to maintain — than the beliefs themselves.

    As for the point you make in your last paragraph, I think it is useful to regard the moral faculty as being like our innate faculty for language. The language faculty is built in, and it has a structure that sharply constrains the space of possible human languages and grammars — but within that still-rather-large space, the particular language still must be learned.

    Posted September 9, 2008 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

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