Social science & engineering

A recent Bloggingheads.tv 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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