Posts tagged moral philosophy

Posted 2 years ago
There is one common account which can perhaps be disposed of here; the view that other-regarding behavior is motivated by a desire to avoid the guilt feelings which would result from selfish behavior. Guilt cannot provide the basic reason, because guilt is precisely the pained recognition that one is acting or has acted contrary to a reason which the claims, rights, or interests of others provide- a reason which therefore must be antecedently acknowledged.
Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism, p. 80 (footnote #1).
Posted 3 years ago

A younger and dapper Derek Parfit, photographed by the late philosopher of mind Susan Hurley at Oxford in the 1980s.

Posted 3 years ago

Test Tube Truths

Harris is nothing if not self-confident. There is a voluminous philosophical literature that stretches back almost to the origins of the discipline on the relationship between facts and values. Harris chooses to ignore most of it. He does not wish to engage “more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy”, he explains in a footnote, because he did not develop his arguments “by reading the work of moral philosophers” and because he is “convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics’, ‘deontology’, ‘noncognitivism’, ‘antirealism’, ‘emotivism’, etc directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” 

Imagine a sociologist who wrote about evolutionary theory without discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, Mayr, Hamilton, Trivers or Dawkins on the grounds that he did not come to his conclusions by reading about biology and because discussing concepts such as “adaptation”, “speciation”, “homology”, “phylogenetics” or “kin selection” would “increase the amount of boredom in the universe”. How seriously would we, and should we, take his argument? It is one thing to want to “start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and can find helpful”, something that many of us, including many of those boring moral philosophers, seek to do. It is quite another to imagine that you can engage in any kind of conversation, with any kind of audience, by wilfully ignoring the relevant scholarship because it is “boring”.

It’s quite convenient for Harris that he has chosen to ignore the terms of moral philosophy, in particular because he explicitly endorses one of these obscure positions: analytical naturalism. Harris claims:

"Questions about values are really questions about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, the effects of specific laws on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc."

Here’s a helpful chart:

(Derek Parfit, On What Matters, p. 263)

Harris is claiming that when we talk about morality, our claims can be restated in purely non-normative terms: when we talk about the good, we are actually talking about features about the brains of conscious creatures. This has the effect of making moral claims completely trivial. For example, we could claim that some act is good just because it brings about these desirable mental states. But if Harris’ view is correct, then all we end up saying is: acts that bring about particular mental states bring about particular mental states. Moreover, who are we to identify which mental states are most desirable, or bring about the most benefit, short of doing moral philosophy? Had Harris consulted the literature at all, he would have uncovered these very straightforward, but very significant, difficulties. Harris did his undergraduate work in philosophy at Stanford, one of the top programs in the world; it just seems like a silly mistake to make. For someone ostensibly committed to careful thinking about important problems, Harris makes some incredibly massive oversights and jumps to dubious conclusions.

Posted 3 years ago
There are other ways in which, if people understand and think about object-given value-based reasons, things would go better. As Keynes remarked, many politicians act in ways that show them to be slaves of some dead economist. Many economists, we can add, think in ways that show them to be the slaves of some dead philosopher. Like most of the sciences, economics grew out of philosophy. When welfare economics began in the late nineteenth century, economists knew that wealth is only imperfectly correlated with happiness, and that, of these two, it is happiness that matters. For much of the twentieth century, economists forgot these truths. Many economists even believed that interpersonal comparisons of well-being make no sense. Many also believed that, in their professional work, they should be concerned only with facts, not values. Remember the remark: ‘That’s not a value judgment. Everyone accepts it.’ Economists are not chiefly to blame for having these beliefs, since it was philosophers who first claimed that reasons are given only by desires, that all rationality is instrumental, and that no values are facts, because there are no normative truths. Given our increasing powers to destroy or damage the conditions of life on earth, we need to lose these beliefs. It is not wealth that matters, or mere preference-fulfillment, but happiness, justice, and the other things that make our lives worth living.
Derek Parfit, On What Matters, p. 462-463
Posted 3 years ago
nosex:whiporwill:


Ewwwwwwwww! The surprising moral force of disgust
What if our moral judgments are driven instead by more visceral human considerations? And what if one of those is not divine commandment or inductive reasoning, but simply whether a situation, in some small way, makes us feel like throwing up?This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: that a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral judgments.  Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.  Today, psychologists and philosophers are piecing these findings together into a theory of disgust’s moral role and the evolutionary forces that determined it: Just as our teeth and tongue first evolved to process food, then were enlisted for complex communication, disgust first arose as an emotional response to ensure that our ancestors steered clear of rancid meat and contagion. But over time, that response was co-opted by the social brain to help police the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

i love it when science proves my moral presuppositions.

The claims of moral psychologists, however, are undermined by an excellent paper by G.A. Cohen called "Facts and Principles." He quite convincingly argues in the paper that the only way the status of normative claims can be affected by empirical data is if there is another normative principle that holds they are relevant. This very much limits the scope of the meta-ethical conclusions we can draw about morality from these kinds of experiments. 
There is obviously little doubt, of course, that the moral claims that people make can be and are causally affected by other non-relevant factors. However, that has no bearing on the truth of those claims. Morality consists in further facts about states of affairs that give us reasons to do or not to do certain things. Mere disgust is not the kind of decisive reason that can override the truth of moral claims. It seems clear from this article that disgust can quite often get in the way of effective moral evaluation, but that does not entail that morality is reducible to disgust or emotion. This is a problem for applied ethics, not normative ethics or meta-ethics.

nosex:whiporwill:

Ewwwwwwwww! The surprising moral force of disgust

What if our moral judgments are driven instead by more visceral human considerations? And what if one of those is not divine commandment or inductive reasoning, but simply whether a situation, in some small way, makes us feel like throwing up?This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: that a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral judgments.

Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.

Today, psychologists and philosophers are piecing these findings together into a theory of disgust’s moral role and the evolutionary forces that determined it: Just as our teeth and tongue first evolved to process food, then were enlisted for complex communication, disgust first arose as an emotional response to ensure that our ancestors steered clear of rancid meat and contagion. But over time, that response was co-opted by the social brain to help police the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

i love it when science proves my moral presuppositions.

The claims of moral psychologists, however, are undermined by an excellent paper by G.A. Cohen called "Facts and Principles." He quite convincingly argues in the paper that the only way the status of normative claims can be affected by empirical data is if there is another normative principle that holds they are relevant. This very much limits the scope of the meta-ethical conclusions we can draw about morality from these kinds of experiments. 

There is obviously little doubt, of course, that the moral claims that people make can be and are causally affected by other non-relevant factors. However, that has no bearing on the truth of those claims. Morality consists in further facts about states of affairs that give us reasons to do or not to do certain things. Mere disgust is not the kind of decisive reason that can override the truth of moral claims. It seems clear from this article that disgust can quite often get in the way of effective moral evaluation, but that does not entail that morality is reducible to disgust or emotion. This is a problem for applied ethics, not normative ethics or meta-ethics.

Posted 3 years ago
We may thus have no idea whether the existence of the Universe is on the whole good. This ignorance, however, would have little practical importance. Our practical question is:

What ought we to do?

To answer this question, we don’t need to know either whether the past was worth it, or whether the whole of history will have been worth it. Suppose that the past was in itself so bad that, even if the future will be very good, human history will not have been worth it. If that were true, it would have been better if human beings had never existed. But that truth would have no practical implications. If the future would be worth it, we should not give up now.

Derek Parfit, On What Matters, p. 613-614
Posted 3 years ago

All ethical systems are both deontological and consequentialist

dropouthangoutspaceout:

Deconstructing libertarian philosophy, one piece at a time. (via azspot

This ‘deconstruction’ of libertarian philosophy might come at too high a price. The author is clearly not nearly familiar enough with moral philosophy to be making claims about “all ethical systems.” He mentions only two philosophers by name, and then his knowledge seems to end at the 19th century. Normative ethics has come a long way since then, and not many ethicists would agree that the distinction between deontology and consequentialism is “faulty as logic gets.” Though Derek Parfit believes his ethical system to bring “Common-sense morality” (which he defines as largely deontological) and consequentialism closer together, the motivating principle for doing this remains a consequentialist one: he believes that Common-Sense Morality undermines the very aims it gives to people and must be revised with a view in mind that embraces consequentialism.

The motivating principle for consequentialism is not, as Noahpinion claims, “deontological.” This is because consequentialism focuses on ends. Consequentialism may be motivated by a desire or principle to promote the good, but this principle or “rule” is not motivated by the same reasons  as deontology, which claims that all the relevant moral facts about an act stem directly from the act itself. ”The good” is not an act, so therefore the standards deontologists use to morally evaluate things do not apply to it. Noahpinion is making an easy political point at the cost of conceptual clarity- exactly what he claims to want to avoid.

As for his mention of the is-ought problem, that is an important issue, but it has received plenty of treatment in 20th-century meta-ethics. See here. Again, I fear that his treatment of it- that it automatically entails no intrinsic value for ethical theories (a form of skepticism) is far too simplistic and undermines the claims to morality he is trying to make.

Another problem with Noahpinion’s view is that he doesn’t understand one of the principal distinctions between the two ethical systems. It’s not simply that one is about “rules” and the other about “outcomes,” it’s that deontology is agent-relative: it gives specific instructions to moral agents based on their identity and relation to others, and consequentialism is agent-neutral: it gives people reasons to act that hold independently of personal identity or relations. (see here for more) Thus, on the simplest form of the deontological view, you ought to save your own child rather than two others because of the special relation between you two, and on the simplest form of consequentialism you ought to save the two other children. As I mentioned, however, it becomes a little more complicated once we think about it more- it could be that the attitudes that promote the best consequences are deontological at first glance. “For most of us, the best dispositions would… roughly correspond to Common-Sense Morality” (Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 112). This might at first glance seem to point in the same direction as Noahpinion’s argument, but the justification for holding these dispositions is entirely consequentialist: if Common-Sense Morality did not promote the best ends in a consequentialist sense, it would not be advantageous to hold the dispositions it encourages you to hold. Parfit demonstrates that this is, in many instances, the case- and therefore we ought to be motivated by a moral theory that allows us to set aside Common-Sense Morality when it promotes bad outcomes.

Moral philosophy is a complicated business, and I think the ideas Noahpinion is presenting here do more harm than good in discussing the concepts involved, even if it does attempt to undermine a political philosophy with which I disagree.

Posted 3 years ago

As conditions change, we may need to make some changes in the way we think about morality. I have been arguing for one such change. Common-Sense Morality works best in small communities. When there are few of us, if we give to or impose on others great total benefits or harms, we must be affecting other people in significant ways, that would be grounds either for gratitude, or resentment. In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may either be trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. …For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on each of the others will be either trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be the only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great.

Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 85-86