Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The danger—and necessity—of moral theorizing

(Originally posted by Pat in 4/2012)

“Lying is wrong in all circumstances, even to save someone's life.”
“We may eat retarded orphans.”
“The problem with Stalin was his inefficiency.”
“Taxation is slavery.”
“Anyone who doesn't give the majority of their income to UNICEF is a murderer.”
“Under patriarchy, all heterosexuality is tantamount to rape.”
“Accelerating the Singularity is far more important than saving lives today.”
These are just a sample of the weird, extremist, and even appalling conclusions that I have heard people draw as a result of moral theorizing. It's remarkably easy to start with premises that seem entirely plausible, carry them down a chain of reasoning that seems logically unassailable, and come out with something that is completely absurd and immoral. (Indeed, the real challenge seems to be carrying through a moral argument that doesn't come out absurd and immoral.) Additionally, we have the finding that ethics books are most likely to be stolen from libraries, and of course the various works of John Haidt suggesting that many of our moral attitudes are largely impervious to reason. (Haidt takes this so far as to say that all of our moral attitudes are completely impervious to reason, which is why he is wrong. But it's hard to listen to the rantings of a racist, a misogynist, or a global-warming denier and think, “Humans are so rational and sensitive to evidence!”)
It would be tempting, therefore, to abandon moral theorizing entirely. We could just rely on our intuitive judgments and never have to think about the underlying theory. Indeed, it could be argued that we already have done so, if whenever our arguments come out to something counter-intuitive we abandon those arguments. Doesn't that mean we are really slaves to our intuitions?
But no, we cannot afford to do this. We owe the greatest achievements in human history precisely to moral theorizing. It is because of moral theorizing that we now let women and racial minorities vote; it is because of moral theorizing that we abandoned theocratic monarchy and replaced it with representative democracy. (Saudi Arabia and Iran did not get the memo.) It is because of moral theorizing that gay rights is now becoming mainstream and we are on the verge of a new paradigm shift in animal rights—in a few generations it will be as unthinkable for most of us to eat meat as it is unthinkable to us now to sell Black people as property. Nothing could ever be more important than knowing and doing what is right.

Were these ideas counter-intuitive when they were first proposed? Yes, they were. And people made arguments to defend them—typically very bad arguments, but arguments nonetheless. In hindsight, many of these arguments feel more like excuses for what was already being done without any kind of rational justification. But at the time, people took them seriously as if they were real arguments. And even if they were excuses, people still bought into them. People today will present Pascal's Wager as if it's a brilliant argument for Christianity. There are still scientific racialists like Charles Murray trying to argue that the reason Blacks and Hispanics don't do as well in education is because they are genetically stupid. There are still people defending male circumcision on the grounds that it protects against diseases like AIDS (note that AIDS is 40 years old and circumcision is 3000 years old), and other people defending female circumcision on the grounds that we have no right to judge other cultures. There are people who think that “religious freedom” means the freedom not to cover contraception on health insurance because the Pope says contraception is bad. There are people who think that global warming isn't happening, or if it's happening it must not be bad, or if it's bad it must not be our fault, or if it's our fault there must not be anything we can do about it. (This slipperiness speaks volumes about what the real objective is: Not to understand the truth about global warming, but to make sure that no matter what, we never have to do anything, especially not anything involving government.) There are people who think that illegal immigrants are what causes economic problems, and other people who think that the only reason markets ever crash is that governments intervene too much.
Yet, there is something I notice about all these cases, something really quite important. Almost all of them (not quite all—and in a moment I'll get to the exceptions) are actually debates about facts. Global warming is an empirical hypothesis—it can be verified or falsified by scientific evidence, and has been strongly supported thus far. The claim that some races of people are genetically stupider than others is a scientifically testable one (and when tested it does not fare very well). If circumcision really does protect against disease, that needs to be factored into a cost-benefit analysis (and due to the high risk of complications, routine circumcision fails that test). The impact of immigration on an economy can be studied (and has been—it's almost always positive). The causes of market crashes are the subject of scientific research—in this one case, we don't have clear answers yet, though we do know certain things: It's not always the government's fault (though occasionally it is), the market is unstable far beyond our standard risk models, deregulation makes it worse, not better.
If we go back to the cases of slavery, monarchy, and theocracy, these too fail for largely factual reasons. We know that people from Africa aren't so stupid as to be mindless automatons, robots that may be used for whatever we wish. We know that there is no God directing the fates of states, there are only people making political decisions.
This means that moral progress can often be, and typically is, the result of scientific progress. The more we know about the world, the more we know about how to act in the world in order to achieve our goals, and since most of our goals are pretty much the same—happiness, peace, prosperity—that largely solves the problem.
But what about the cases where it doesn't? So for instance, what if some people really believe that deference to God is more important than the happiness of human beings on Earth? Then we can show them all the statistics we want about how religion is correlated with poverty rates and abortion rates an so on, and they won't care. They will dig in their heels and say that no matter how much suffering theocracy may cause, it is still right because it is what God wants and that's all that matters.
In fact, I think such people are rarer than we imagine. Why is it controversial (despite being scientifically almost unassailable) that poverty is correlated with religion? Because even religious people can see that's a mark against religion. This is why the controversy over the effect of religion on crime rates (which actually is somewhat unclear scientifically) is so fierce; if it does turn out that religion is overall bad for crime rates, that's another reason to be doubtful that God is watching over us. And if religion does reduce crime, that's to some extent an argument in its favor (though I must say there are far too many in the other direction for it to change my mind).
But there do seem to be some people who really have shielded their moral beliefs so carefully against evidence that they are unlikely to be persuaded by any sort of scientific data. Moral relativists come to mind; it's pretty obvious that some cultures do better than others, and it's pretty obvious that modern Western culture does better than everything else. It's only if you're a priori convinced that all cultures are equal that you would try to argue that, say, life expectancy, infant mortality, and median income are completely irrelevant to the welfare of a society. Some religious fundamentalists fall in this category as well (but clearly not all); there do seem to be folks who think that no matter what happens, we should always serve God.
What do we do with such people? We need moral theorizing. We need to better understand just what it is that makes some actions right and others wrong, some policies good and others bad. We need to root out the flaws in our intuitions, and as much as possible, repair them.
Indeed, there's one very obvious flaw in our intuitions: They often contradict themselves. By slightly reframing the exact same situation, you can make people's intuitive judgments change. A simple matter of “save 100 people or save 200 people” versus “let 100 people die or let 0 people die” can completely change the way people decide a moral dilemma. There are some interesting psychological questions here as to why this happens—but it clearly shows that we can't trust our unaided intuition in all situations.
Another very serious flaw in human intuition is the tendency to defer to authority and conform with the group. Most of the really horrible atrocities in human history were done not by malicious psychopaths, not by fanatical true believers, but by ordinary people going along with the crowd, doing what they were told (often orders given by malicious psychopaths or fanatical true believers). Milgram actually did much more careful study of this phenomenon than most people give him credit for; it's actually not the case that most people obey direct orders. Instead, they obey social pressures, and will obey orders if the orders are associated with goals and authorities believed to be legitimate.
But this does raise the very difficult problem of what we can trust—if both theorizing and intuition sometimes give wrong answers, what can we do? I rather like the proposal Rawls offers of “reflective equilibrium”—use whatever means we have, but use each means to check and challenge all the others. This clearly helps, but I must wonder if it actually gets us all the way. Many systems in nature have multiple stable equilibria; what if morality is like that too? Or worse, what if there is no stable equilibrium? What then?
One thing we cannot do—must not do—is give up on the project of making morality rational. We must not listen to the Haidts of the world who say that there is no way to persuade people; we must not listen to the subjectivists and the relativists who tell us there is no truth to be found. As hard as it may be to change people's minds, we have done it before, and we must do it again. As hard as it may be to come up with wise moral theories, we have no other choice.

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