Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Social science & engineering

A recent featured two philosophers, and was titled “Explaining and Appraising Moral Intuition”. A considerable proportion of the discussion involved the utility of cognitive and evolutionary psychology in probing the reflexive roots of our moral intuitions, and how that might modify our moral reasoning. One of the interlocutors, Joshua Greene, suggests that exposing the proximate cognitive processes and the ultimate evolutionary rationales which set the framework for our reflexive moral judgments may allow us to reconsider their validity. What should be the criteria which we use? Greene alludes to utilitarianism. But that begs the question: what is this utility you speak of Dr. Greene?

Humans come to any conversation with presuppositions. From what I can tell both discussants are secular liberals. There is no shame is this, most of my friends and loved ones are after all secular liberals! But secular liberals, like religious conservatives, have common presuppositions which often lay implicit within any discussion which involves only one group. When people with radically different presuppositions engage in conversation there is often much confusion and exposition of first principles. Joshua Greene and Joshua Knobe, the other discussant, address the issue of retribution in the context of crime & punishment. Naturally Greene argues that revenge and retribution serve no greater utilitarian purpose, and rather simply satisfy first order proximate impulses which derive from our evolutionary history. What I wondered: does not retribution confer some psychic utility to those individuals who take comfort from “justice” done?” (I put justice in quotations because many would argue that by definition retributative punishment is not justice) This is why I ask what utility Joshua Greene alludes is exactly referring to? Secular liberals might disagree on the margins, but their utilitarian vision has emerged out of a particular cultural milieu and there are implicit understandings as to the exact nature of human flourishing, and the satisfaction of vengeance is not one of those.

At this point one might consider that liberals rely more on reasoning and reflection in their morality, while conservatives go with their “gut.” Jonathan Haidt comes close to saying this. Another way to think of it might be that liberals have a “thin” moral universe, populated by a few abstract principles, while conservatives have “thick” one, bubbling with specific customs, traditions and prejudices (I refer to prejudice in a neutral sense here). There may be something to this, but I also think this is too pat. There is for example one area where liberals seem very keen to rely on first-order more reflex: equality. The social science I have seen strongly suggests that humans have a natural sense of fairness and justice where extreme relative inequality causes them distress. No matter the absolute well-being, there is psychological distress at being the smallest fish in the pond. Naturally this leads to a preference for redistributive policies among many, and those of an economistic inclination might offer this as one of the major common sense blocks to non-zero-sum dynamics in human interaction. This is a case where in general the conservative will make more complex and reasoned arguments as to why in a broader utilitarian framework engaging in simplistic redistribution actually does more harm than good, even though it leads to immediate psychic satisfaction on the part of most humans. Of course intelligent liberals will have more reasoned rejoinders as to why egalitarianism is preferable or just beyond first-order impulses (e.g., see John Rawls). But initial conditions of the game are such that those who argue for egalitarianism can hook into reflexive notions of right & wrong, and I have witnessed many  liberal egalitarians leverage this maximally in their rhetorical arguments with conservatives, who often have to fall back on more abstract or academic arguments for why banishing inequality by any means possible has long term negative impact on median well being.

Cognitive and evolutionary psychology just kicks the ball down the field, but it doesn’t ultimately score a goal. For the record, I do not think gods or an ultimate principle (e.g., the dao or karma) score either. As the problems of human moral foundations are ultimately timeless, I would rather focus on another issue: what use is this science of human nature? In a practical sense, it is the same practial use as most science, aiding us in engineering. Though social engineering has Left and totalitarian connotations, more broadly I think human societies are always engineered, designed to maximize or enable the good as is agreed through consensus. Even libertarians with extremely thin models of morality have an ultimate principle of human autonomy and liberty. Understanding the human mind, and how humans have a propensity to behave given various considerations allow us to formulate practices which can aid flourishing on the margins. So a book like Nudge uses the latest behavioral science to service a moderate Left-liberal agenda. Obviously a social conservative would have different ends, but they too might realize that a moral order is best attained by nudging individual actors in a specific manner, as opposed to fiat injunctions.

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  • Ploni · June 18, 2009 at 1:06 am

    I didn’t know there were any utilitarians left, except for a few lunatics like Peter Singer. I thought utilitarianism’s been out of fashion for years.

    On to your bold – well, bold-faced – question, “what use is this science of human nature?” Sure, social engineering is good, as long as it’s good engineering put to a good use. Viewed from the right, though, there’s perhaps a more important use of science: the human sciences can tell us who’s causally responsible for things as they already are. Example: are white people responsible for current racial differences in [your favorite measure of success]? If science points towards causal responsibility, then moral philosophy can take us from responsibility to blame to obligation, and then the lawyers and lawmakers can take it from there. But if science points to a lack of causation, then the moral, legal, and political implications might be different.

    For more, check out Michael Levin’s excellent Why Race Matters.

  • B.B. · June 18, 2009 at 2:29 am

    Ploni says:
    I didn’t know there were any utilitarians left, except for a few lunatics like Peter Singer. I thought utilitarianism’s been out of fashion for years.

    Count me in as one of those lunatics. I don’t think there are many people that self-consciously adhere to any normative ethical system. You’ll get a blank look from most if you ask them whether they are deontologists or consequentialists. Amongst the academe that dabble in such subject matter, I am aware of no general trends, although it would interest me to know if there are any. Polling students or professors of ethical philosophy about their ethical affiliation would be interesting.

  • Ivan Karamazov · June 18, 2009 at 4:40 am

    I’ve always thought that revenge, retribution, and punishment all are just the other end of the stick that is the whole category of “prohibitions”.
    Certain things are prohibited ( from the point of view of the social contract, be it formal or implied ), though to various degrees. And the severity of the revenge, retribution, and punishment are then just those actions that are necessary to show that “yeah, we mean it”. Part of the incentive to comply with the prohibitions has to be concern over the consequences of not doing so. This would also argue that the more public the retributions, the better. Or so it seems to me.

  • Ivan Karamazov · June 18, 2009 at 4:55 am

    A comment on the “equality” instinct David mentions. I’ve come to find that viewing human actions from the aspect of “control”, is widely useful. Many things we do are an attempt to regain some sense of control, when we know we have lost it in some important area, either actually or relatively. And the control we seek to regain does not even have to be in the same area that we lost it. I think it was P.J. O’Rourke who said that the great thing about having a lot of money was NOT the things you can buy, but the fact that “You don’t have to take shit from anyone.”. In other words, you are firmly “in control” of your own destiny, vis a vie your fellow man’s influence on you. So obvious huge disparities in income hit directly at our loss of control instinct, and spawn all kinds of counter reactions.

  • John · June 18, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    “One of the interlocutors, Joshua Greene, suggests that exposing the proximate cognitive processes and the ultimate evolutionary rationales which set the framework for our reflexive moral judgments may allow us to reconsider their validity.”

    I hope so, but I don’t think it will cause most people to change their opinions about things. As B.B. points out, most people don’t even have a thought-out logically consistent set of moral beliefs, and don’t have much interest in developing one. If it arouses feeling of offense, it must be wrong, and if it doesn’t, then it must be OK. Learing why they feel this way will only confirm their beliefs. I am reminded of a TV show where a race of people were genetically engineered to believe that their creator race were gods. When a third party explained, “The only reason why you think they are gods is because you were built that way.”, the reply was, “Yes, isn’t that just what gods would do?”

    On the other hand, for people that do have such a set of well-thought beliefs, learning about evolutionary roots of moral belief will not change their minds either. “After all”, they will say, “my beliefs are based on reason. Telling me about how the world is doesn’t change the logical structure of morality. To say otherwise is committing the naturalistic fallacy.”



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