If you’re not familiar with the term not even wrong, go read that link and come back.
Back? Good. I think the concept of objective morality, in the Sam Harris sense that we can use science to determine moral values, is not even wrong. It fails at a fundamental level; that level being that it assumes moral reasoning that people do is the same as mathematical reasoning. Hell, it assumes moral reasoning follows the neatly logical “if-then-else” sort of reasoning.
It doesn’t. Rather, people don’t reason morally this way.
I wrote a post about this a while ago. Just look at the title of this blog post to see my point: intuition / morality changes by gender. Or, even take a look at this recent post at from Epiphenom:
Using an online questionnaire, they showed that people think that justice stems from at least 6 different sources: from ‘nature’ and from God, and also from other people and from yourself, as well as just plain chance. Using an online questionnaire, they showed that people think that justice stems from at least 6 different sources: from ‘nature’ and from God, and also from other people and from yourself, as well as just plain chance.
They were also interested in inaction. It probably won’t surprise you to know that the most common human response to minor criminal behaviour is inaction. So what the researchers wanted to know is whether the reasons given for inaction varied according to people’s beliefs about why the world was just.
Sure enough, people who believed in God gave God-related reasons for inaction (e.g. “There’s little we can do to help these people, as what happens to them is God’s will”). Similarly, people who believe in nature-related justice felt that we can’t help criminals because it’s in their nature, people who believe in self-related justice felt that it was up to the individuals concerned to help themselves, while those who believed in chance-related justice felt that it was just their dumb luck.
Once again, however, people who believe justice is down to other people were different. When offered an ‘other people’ related reason for inaction (“With society and the justice system the way it is, there’s nothing we can do”), they rejected it. And it’s not because only an idiot would agree with that statement – it was quite attractive to those who believed in nature- and self-related justice.
This study from Epiphenom is what made me think of Harris’ thesis of scientific morality. The people in this survey are rationalizing their morality by appeals to what they see is the source of justice in the world. In effect, Harris is forcing a certain type of moral thinking on people that doesn’t come naturally. Slate Star Codex put this more eloquently:
Democrats don’t really care about helping the poor, they only care about increasing government’s ability to take your money. We can prove this, because Republicans consistently give more to charity than Democrats – and because if Democrats really cared about the poor they would stop supporting a welfare system that discourages lifting yourself out of poverty. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd Democrats in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased labyrinthine bureaucracy as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry! That wasn’t it at all. They were saying that civil rights activists don’t really want to prevent hate crimes against Muslims, they only care about supporting terrorism. We can prove this because they seem pretty okay with the tens of thousands of Muslims who are being killed and maimed in wars abroad that they don’t promote any intervention in – and because they refuse to ban Muslim immigration to America, a policy which would decrease hate crimes against Muslims but also decrease the chance of terrorism. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd civil rights activists in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased terrorism as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry again! That wasn’t it either! They were saying that pro-lifers don’t really care about fetuses, they just support government coercion of women. We can prove this because they refuse to support contraception, which would decrease the need for fetus-murdering abortions – and because they seem pretty okay with abortion in cases of rape or incest. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd pro-lifers in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased oppression of women as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, still wrong! I’m totally breaking apart here! They were saying that atheists don’t really doubt the existence of God, but they are too proud to worship anything except themselves. We can prove this because atheists sometimes pray for help during extreme emergencies, – and…
No, wait! It turns out it was actually third one after all! The one with the pro-lifers and abortion. Oops. In my defense, I have trouble keeping essentially identical arguments separate from one another.
In saying pro-lifers should support contraception, Alas is making exactly the error that The Last Superstition warned against. Ze’s noticing that Christians do things that don’t agree with modern moral philosophy, and so assuming Christians are either stupid or evil, instead of that they have a weird moral philosophy ze’s never heard of.
So instead of excusing pro-lifers, start by tarring them further. They don’t hate women. They don’t love oppression. It’s much worse than that. Pro-lifers are not consequentialists.
Consequentialism is a moral philosophy that says it’s okay to do a lesser evil if it leads to a greater good. I have argued for it at length elsewhere, but one of the reasons I argue for it is that most people don’t believe it. Only about a quarter of philosophers are consequentialists, and all the evidence shows that even fewer ordinary people do. Studies of the famous fat man problem show only 10% of people are willing to kill one person in order to save five others, something a true consequentialist would do in a heartbeat.
One group particularly heinous in their rejection of consequentialism is Christians. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul argues that “One may not do evil that good may come”.
The Christians agree with me, against Alas, that their rejection of consequentialism is fundamental to their rejection of abortion.
Whenever we talk about moral reasoning, we have to take into account that not everyone reasons the same way morally. Moreover, that people aren’t even aware of how they reason, they just get a feeling of certainty (or disgust, or fear, or…). Most fatally, people think that their way of reasoning morally is how other people (should) reason morally. That’s just not gonna fly. You’re not going to convince a deontologist how they should act via consequentialist logic, and vice versa. It might help to try to convince said person of the consequentialist worldview via deontology (or vice versa) but you have to actually think of that meta step first.
What’s really jacked up is that even though most people aren’t consequentialists, many people use consequentialist reasoning to back up their moral reasoning after the fact. Think about something like gay marriage. The argument is that gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage. This is obviously nonsense, but this happens because the initial moral reasoning was something else (denotological, or maybe just disgust), but it’s rationalized with consequentialist reasoning.
Don’t think for a second that only conservatives do this. You, yes you, probably do this too. What’s the easiest way to prevent rape? Sex segregation; having women drink less around strange men; or any number of (consequentialist!) solutions that conservatives concoct. But those won’t work, because the initial moral impetus for equality wasn’t consequentialist, so we wind up with inefficient signaling that postures as consequentialist instead.
Where have we seen this rationalization behavior before? Oh yeah, the intuitionists and the rationalists. I love quoting myself:
There are a few experiments that show that when communication is physically severed between the two halves of the brain, each side of the brain gets different information. Yet, the part of the brain that does the speaking might not be the part of the brain that has the information. So you end up with rationalizations like split brain patients grabbing a shovel with their left hand (since their left eye was shown snow) while their right eye sees a chicken. When asked to explain why they grabbed the shovel, they — well, the side of their brain that only sees the chicken — make up an explanation, like the shovel is used to scoop up chicken poop! That press secretary, pretty quick on his feet.
But this doesn’t just happen with split brain patients. It seems to happen a lot more than we think, in our normal, everyday brains.
So for example, there was one experiment where people were asked to pick their favorite pair of jeans out of four (unbeknownst to them) identical pairs of jeans. A good portion of the people picked the jeans on the right, since they looked at the jeans from left to right. But they were unaware that that was their decision algorithm, and they rationalized their decision by saying they liked the fabric or the length or some other non-discriminating fact about the jeans. Liking the fabric of one pair of jeans more than the others was demonstrably false since the jeans were identical, yet that was the reason they gave. There’s still no persistent across the isle partisanship in your fully functioning brain, so the press secretary has to still come up with a good, socially acceptable story about Congress’ decision for the general public’s consumption.
This is one reason why it is inefficient to flat out ask someone something controversial. People make decisions based on information they don’t even know they’re using, and from there the entire existence of bias (the flip side of that is if you get someone to admit to some group identity or position publicly, they”ll be biased to act more in line with that group identity or proposition in the future without even realizing it). They’re not going to give you their “real” answer, they’re going to give you the socially acceptable answer since that is the entire job of the press secretary, and any psychological study that simply asks people questions has a fatal flaw.
We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…
Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.
Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.
In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…
Let me emphasis this last sentence: In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions. Moral reasoning is no different.
In principle, we might be able to discern objective moral values if we could get everyone to be a consequentialist. But… yeah, good luck with that. I’ll just say that I hate talking about how people should behave morally, mainly because of this wall of separation between how people actually reason morally and their rationalizations for it. It’s such a headache. I’d rather stick with the bird-watching view towards morality.