Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs. Intuition

12 Mar


This post begins with, what I would call, an easy dilemma:

If God did not exist, and this was known, should a person still believe in God?

Most people would probably say ‘no’ (there are some who would say ‘yes’). But the answer to that question isn’t the whole story. I guarantee that there is a version of that question where you would be willing to lay on the side of anti-truth for the good of morality.

What is your threshold for anti-truth? Are there any facts that are too dangerous to know? Are there some other things besides god-belief where it is virtuous to believe in the belief?

One of the downsides of having a brain designed by a blind idiot [me: Yaldabaoth?] is that said idiot hasn’t done a terribly good job with limiting input or anything resembling “robust filtering”. Hence that whole bias thing. A consequence of this is that your brain is not a trusted system, which itself has consequences that go much, much deeper than a bunch of misapplied heuristics. (And those are bad enough on their own!)

This gets to my favorite posts that I’ve written about The Thief and the Wizard (intuition vs. rationality), and the unreliable feeling of certainty. One of my now go-to little cocktail party intuition games is a short scenario that goes like this:

There’s a really beautiful woman at a bar. She’s nursing her drink, talking to the bartender. A really handsome man walks in and whispers in her ear. She laughs.

That’s it. Simple, right? Well, as I explained in my post The Thief and the Wizard linked above, your intuition takes something like the above italicized scenario and creates an elaborate story from it. I use the above to gauge what people’s intuitive – or biases for – standards of beauty are. What did your “beautiful woman” look like? Was she white? Indian? Black? Long hair? Short hair? Wearing a dress? Jeans? What kind of bar did you place her in? An upscale lounge-like place? A seedy juke joint? What about the handsome man? Et cetera.

(The most amusing output a friend of mine gave for this game was me as the “handsome man” and another girl at the party as the beautiful woman. Talk about bias lol.)

Because it’s intuitive, because it’s a bias, it’s automatic and unconscious. The same bias/immediate response for standards of beauty apply to much wider range of topics than the simple beautiful woman/handsome man tidbit above. What’s your standard of X CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC? What you learn about said topic unconsciously dictates how you react when placed in that scenario or discussions about that scenario. So there really might be facts that are too dangerous for the average person to know; at least without knowing about — and actively trying to overcome — bias.

If free will did not exist, and this was known, should a person still believe in free will?

Intuition plays a huge role in morality. Most of our moral judgements are intuitive judgements:

Greene and Singer give other examples of things that have no inimical effect on society are nevertheless rejected via intuition as immoral. Three examples are a man who masturbates with a grocery-store chicken before cooking and eating it, a woman who cleans her toilet with an American flag, and a man who reneges on a promise to his dying mother to visit her grave every week. Such judgments are instinctive—deontological and not consequentialist. They stem from an innate outrage that something is wrong. Yet their consequences for society are nil.

Why do we make such moral judgments about situations that have no negative consequences, and which we’d probably retract were we to think about them? All the authors think that instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution. But of course these judgments must then be justified. When pressed, people who think about the chicken-masturbation or grave-visitation scenarios think up reasons—often not convincing—why these behaviors are immoral. All three authors suggest that these post facto rules are examples of confabulation: making up stuff post facto to rationalize your instinctive feelings.

That’s that feeling of certainty rearing its ugly head again!

And that’s the kinda scary part. If certain facts can change someone’s intuitive responses to things, and intuition plays a huge role in moral judgements… and we tend to rationalize what conclusions our intuition arrives at unconsciously like any good apologist does… then maybe there are actually some facts that are too dangerous to know. And if there are facts that are too dangerous to know, this necessarily creates a rift between ontologically true facts, and morally/ethically true facts.

Anecdotally, a lot of people have a hard time distinguishing between description and prescription. Maybe if our education system were better about teaching critical thinking and not so much about guessing the teacher’s password we could teach both ontologically true facts and (possibly eventually) morally/ethically true facts; teach the difference between descriptive facts and prescriptive facts.

If black people or women were intellectually inferior to white people or to men, and this was known, should a person still believe that the races/sexes were equal?

If an ontologically true fact being widely known conflicts with a morally true fact, that is, if knowing some fact about reality conflicts with promoting the good of a society, what should the ones in power do? Would be be back to Plato’s Noble Lie?

At a party I was at a few months ago, for some reason the topic of conversation navigated towards the shortage of women in STEM fields. A female friend overheard the conversation and interjected “That’s a stereotype!”. It’s factually true that men outnumber women in STEM fields, but that wasn’t what her concern was. Her concern was the explanation for that fact and thus any sort of negative prescription from that description. She rejected her own inferential leap from the description of women being underrepresented in STEM fields to the explanation for why that was so (e.g. women aren’t as smart as men). I rejoined that no, it was not a stereotype and that it was a fact, but she left in a huff before I could explain that she was confusing the data for the hypothesis.

Her even thinking that women aren’t smarter than men — her own inferential leap based on that STEM fact — would be its own bias, and would even become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts:

People are aware of the stereotype that females have less aptitude at math and spatial skills than men. In fact, almost half of females endorse this stereotype. This awareness matters. When asked to imagine themselves as a stereotypical male, females perform much better on a mental rotation task than when they are not given such an instruction. Additionally, when women are asked to report their gender before taking a mental rotation test, they perform much worse on the test than if they identify themselves as a “private college student”.

So it’s possible that even knowing that women are less represented in STEM fields than men would prompt the inferential leap of my female friend and produce that limiting bias.

This inferential leap, confusing data for hypothesis, or conflating description with prescription, brings me back to the first question: If god didn’t exist, and this was known, should one still believe in god? I think a lot of theists are conflating description with prescription when attacking atheist over their nonbelief. Some of their underlying critique is an air of “why don’t you want god to exist?“. Sometimes this is even made explicit in many evolution vs. Creationism debates; Creationists reject evolution because of the moral implications of evolution. The same could be true of all other controversial topics e.g. free will; black vs. white IQ. Someone who argues that free will doesn’t exist could possibly be attacked by a non-insignificant number of detractors for the inferential leap of arguing that free will shouldn’t exist.

So what truth are you sacrificing for the good of morality? Of course I don’t know what mine is; I think by definition I can’t be aware of something that I have belief in belief about. That level of self-deception for the good of ethics is at a level of introspection I don’t have access to. A secret that my own intuition guards jealously. But a good first step is realizing the distinction between description and prescription and should always be kept in mind in order to overcome bias.


6 responses to “Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs. Intuition

  1. mlagamolan

    March 12, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Reblogged this on mlagamolan.

  2. Brian M

    March 12, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    The biggest problem I have is not a somewhat generalized thought exercise like here but the specific god that theists demand we believe in and the specific behaviors and beliefs that are required.

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