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Consciousness | Neuroscience | Ethics | Philosophy | Debates | June 6, 2014

Clarifying the Moral Landscape

A Response to Ryan Born

(Photo via M.Richi)

I’d like to begin, once again, by congratulating Ryan Born for winning our essay contest. The points he raised certainly merit a response. Also, I should alert readers to a change in the expected format of this debate: Originally, I had planned to have an extended conversation with the winning author, with Russell Blackford serving as both moderator and commentator. In the end, this design proved unworkable—and it was not for want of trying on our parts. I know I speak for both Ryan and Russell when I say that our failure to produce an acceptable text was frustrating. However, rather than risk boring and confusing readers with our hairsplitting and backtracking, we’ve elected to simply publish Russell’s “Judge’s Report” and Ryan’s essay, followed by my response, given here.—SH

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The meaning of “science”
Most criticisms of The Moral Landscape seem to stumble over its subtitle, “How Science Can Determine Human Values,” and I admit that this wording has become an albatross. To my surprise, many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world. The point of my book was not to argue that “science” bureaucratically construed can subsume all talk about morality. My purpose was to show that moral truths exist and that they must fall (in principle, if not in practice) within some (perhaps never to be complete) understanding of the way conscious minds arise in this universe. For practical reasons, it is often necessary to draw boundaries between academic disciplines, but physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists rely on the same processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality. This larger domain of justified truth-claims is “science” in my sense.

For instance, what was the source of the Black Death that killed nearly half the population of Europe in the 14th century? It appears to have been Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that was delivered to unsuspecting people by fleabite. The fleas were transported to the Continent by rats, which were themselves carried by merchant ships. What kind of facts are these? Are they facts of nautical history, zoology, epidemiology, or medicine? Strange question. They belong to all these disciplines—and perhaps to several not yet invented. The only thing that matters is that this account of the Black Death appears to be true. (Note 6/9/14: Or perhaps it isn’t true.)

Another example, in case the point still isn’t clear:

You awaken to find water pouring through the ceiling of your bedroom. Imagining that you have a gaping hole in your roof, you immediately call the man who installed it. The roofer asks, “Is it raining where you live?” Good question. In fact, it hasn’t rained for months. Is this roofer a scientist? Not technically, but he was thinking just like one. Empiricism and logic reveal that your roof is not the problem.

So you call a plumber. Is a plumber a scientist? No more than a roofer is, but any competent plumber will generate hypotheses and test them—and his thinking will conform to the same principles of reasoning that every scientist uses. When he pressure tests a section of pipe, he is running an experiment. Would this experiment be more “scientific” if it were funded by the National Science Foundation? No. By contrast, when a world-famous geneticist like Francis Collins declares that the biblical God installed immortal souls, free will, and morality in one species of primate, he is repudiating the core values of science with every word. Drawing the line between science and non-science by reference to a person’s occupation is just too crude to be useful—but it is what many of my critics seem to do.

I am, in essence, defending the unity of knowledge—the idea that the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world. This remains a controversial thesis, and it is generally met with charges of “scientism.” Sometimes, the unity of knowledge is very easy to see: Is there really a boundary between the truths of physics and those of biology? No. And yet it is practical, even necessary, to treat these disciplines separately most of the time. In this sense, the boundaries between disciplines are analogous to political borders drawn on maps. Is there really a difference between California and Arizona at their shared border? No, but we divide this stretch of desert as a matter of convention. However, once we begin talking about non-contiguous disciplines—physics and sociology, say—people worry that a single, consilient idea of truth can’t span the distance. Suddenly, the different colors on the map look hugely significant. But I’m convinced that this is an illusion.

My interest is in the nature of reality—what is actual and possible—not in how we organize our talk about it in our universities. There is nothing wrong with a mathematician’s opening a door in physics, a physicist’s making a breakthrough in neuroscience, a neuroscientist’s settling a debate in the philosophy of mind, a philosopher’s overturning our understanding of history, a historian’s transforming the field of anthropology, an anthropologist’s revolutionizing linguistics, or a linguist’s discovering something foundational about our mathematical intuitions. The circle is complete, and it simply does not matter where these people keep their offices or which journals they publish in.

Ryan wrote that my “proposed science of morality cannot offer scientific answers to questions of morality and value, because it cannot derive moral judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world.” But no branch of science can derive its judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world. We have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Certain of these intuitions can be used to trump others: We may think, for instance, that our expectations of cause and effect could be routinely violated by reality at large, and that apes like ourselves may simply be unequipped to understand what is really going on in the universe. That is a perfectly cogent idea, even though it seems to make a mockery of most of our other ideas. But the fact is that all forms of scientific inquiry pull themselves up by some intuitive bootstraps. Gödel proved this for arithmetic, and it seems intuitively obvious for other forms of reasoning as well. I invite you to define the concept of “causality” in noncircular terms if you would test this claim. Some intuitions are truly basic to our thinking. I claim that the conviction that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and should be avoided is among them.

Contrary to what Ryan suggests, I don’t believe that the epistemic values of science are “self-justifying”—we just can’t get completely free of them. We can bracket certain of them in local cases, as we do in quantum mechanics, but these are instances in which we are then forced to admit that we don’t (yet) understand what is going on. Our knowledge of the world seems to require that it behave in certain ways (e.g. if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C, then A will be bigger than C). When these principles are violated, we are invariably confused.

So I think the distinction that Ryan draws between science in general and the science of medicine is unwarranted. He says, “Science cannot show empirically that health is good. But nor, I would add, can science appeal to health to defend health’s value, as it would appeal to logic to defend logic’s value.” But science can’t use logic to validate logic. It presupposes the value of logic from the start. Consequently, Ryan seems to be holding my claims about moral truth to a standard of self-justification that no branch of science can meet. Physics can’t justify the intellectual tools one needs to do physics. Does that make it unscientific?

He writes:

First, your analogy between epistemic axioms and moral axioms fails. The former merely motivate scientific inquiry and frame its development, whereas the latter predetermine your science of morality’s most basic findings. Epistemic axioms direct science to favor theories that are logically consistent, empirically supported, and so on, but they do not dictate which theories those will be.

I disagree. Epistemic axioms do more than motivate scientific inquiry. They determine what we find reasonable—or even intelligible—at every stage of that inquiry. And my notion of well-being wouldn’t “predetermine [the] science of morality’s most basic findings” because it allows for an uncountable number of peaks on the moral landscape. I trust that many of these peaks are not only stranger than I imagine but stranger than I can imagine. I am simply saying that certain of these conscious states will be better than others (by the only conception of “better” that makes any sense) and that the paths leading to them must arise out of the laws of nature. Ethics, in my view, is a navigation problem. 

Again, I admit that there may be something confusing about my use of the term “science”: I want it to mean, in its broadest sense, our best effort to understand reality at every level, but I also acknowledge that it is a specialized form of any such effort. The problem, however, is that there is no telling where and how the pursuits of journalists, historians, and plumbers will become entangled with the work of official “scientists.” To cite an example I’ve used elsewhere: Was the Shroud of Turin a medieval forgery? For centuries, this was a question for historians to answer—until we developed the technique of radiocarbon dating. Now it is a question of chemistry.

I’m concerned with truth-claims generally, and with conceptually and empirically valid ways of making them. The whole point of The Moral Landscape was to argue for the existence of moral truths—and to insist that they are every bit as real as the truths of physics. If readers want to concede that point without calling the acquisition of such truths a “science,” that’s a semantic choice that has no bearing on my argument. 

What we talk about when we talk about “ethics”
Ryan also seems to take for granted that the traditional categories of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics are conceptually valid and worth maintaining. However, I believe that partitioning moral philosophy in this way begs the very question at issue—and this is one reason I tend not to identify myself as a “consequentialist.” Everyone knows—or thinks he knows—that consequentialism fails to capture much of what we value. This is true almost by definition, because, as Ryan observes, “serious competing theories of value and morality exist.”

But if the categorical imperative (one of Kant’s foundational contributions to deontology, or rule-based ethics) reliably made everyone miserable, no one would defend it as an ethical principle. Similarly, if virtues such as generosity, wisdom, and honesty caused nothing but pain and chaos, no sane person could consider them good. In my view, deontologists and virtue ethicists smuggle the good consequences of their ethics into the conversation from the start.

It seems clear that a complete scientific understanding of mind would yield a complete understanding of all the ways in which conscious beings can thrive or suffer in this universe. What would such an account leave out that we (or any other conscious being) could conceivably care about? Gender equality? Respect for authority? Courage? Intellectual honesty? Either these have consequences for the minds involved, or they have no consequences. Ryan seems to believe that a person can coherently value something for reasons that have nothing to do with its actual or potential consequences. It is true that certain philosophers have claimed this. For instance, John Rawls said that he cared about fairness and justice independent of their effects on human life. But I don’t find this claim psychologically credible or conceptually coherent. After all, these concerns predate our humanity. Do you think that capuchin monkeys are worried about fairness as an abstract principle, or do you think they just don’t like the way it feels to be treated unfairly?

Traditional moral philosophy also tends to set arbitrary limits on what counts as a consequence. Imagine, for instance, that a reckless driver is about to run over a puppy, and I, at great risk to myself, kick the puppy out of the car’s path, thereby saving its life. The consequences of my actions seem unambiguously good, and I will be a hero to animal lovers everywhere. However, let’s say that I didn’t actually see the car approaching and simply kicked the puppy because I wanted to cause it pain. Are my actions still good? Students of philosophy have been led to imagine that scenarios of this kind pose serious challenges to consequentialism.

But why should we ignore the consequences of a person’s mental states? If I am the kind of man who prefers kicking puppies to petting them, I have a mind that will reliably produce negative experiences—for both myself and others. Whatever is bad about being an abuser of puppies can be explained in terms of the consequences of living as such a person in the world. Yes, being deranged, I might get a momentary thrill from being cruel to a defenseless animal, but at what price? Do my kids love me? Am I even capable of loving them? What rewarding experiences in life am I missing? Intentions matter because they color our minds in every moment. They also determine much of our behavior, and thereby affect the lives of other people. As our minds are, so our lives (largely) become.

Of course, intentions aren’t the only things that matter, as we can readily see in this case. It is quite possible for a bad person to inadvertently do some good in the world. But the inner and outer consequences of our thoughts and actions seem to account for everything of value here. If you disagree, the burden is on you to come up with an action that is obviously right or wrong for reasons that are not fully accounted for by its (actual or potential) consequences.

The spuriousness of our traditional categories in moral philosophy can be seen in how we teach our children to be good. Why do we want them to be good in the first place? Well, at a minimum, we’d rather they not wind up bludgeoned in a ditch. More generally, we want them to flourish—to live happy, creative, meaningful lives—and to help make the world a better place. All this entails talking about rules and heuristics (deontology), a person’s character (virtue ethics), and the good and bad consequences of certain actions (consequentialism). But it all reduces to a concern for the well-being of our children and (generally to a lesser extent) of the people with whom they will interact. I don’t believe that any sane person is concerned with abstract principles and virtues—such as justice and loyalty—independent of the ways they affect our lives.

What do we mean by “should” and “ought”?
I also disagree with the distinction Ryan draws between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” enterprises. Ethics is prescriptive only because we tend to talk about it that way—and I believe this emphasis comes, in large part, from the stultifying influence of Abrahamic religion. We could just as well think about ethics descriptively. Certain experiences, relationships, social institutions, and technological developments are possible—and there are more or less direct ways to arrive at them. Again, we have a navigation problem. To say we “should” follow some of these paths and avoid others is just a way of saying that some lead to happiness and others to misery. “You shouldn’t lie” (prescriptive) is synonymous with “Lying needlessly complicates people’s lives, destroys reputations, and undermines trust” (descriptive). “We should defend democracy from totalitarianism” (prescriptive) is another way of saying “Democracy is far more conducive to human flourishing than the alternatives are” (descriptive). In my view, moralizing notions like “should” and “ought” are just ways of indicating that certain experiences and states of being are better than others.

Many readers seem confused by the fact that my account of ethics isn’t overtly prescriptive. Russell raises this point in his Judge’s Report when he writes:

This argument relies on a claim that we must all accept that a situation of universal, unremitting, and extreme agony is bad. But if we do so, does that mean we’re committed to maximizing the aggregate (or perhaps average) well-being of all conscious creatures? What if that conflicts with other values that some of us hold dear?

There need be no imperative to be good—just as there’s no imperative to be smart or even sane. A person may be wrong about what’s good for him (and for everyone else), but he’s under no obligation to correct his error—any more than he is required to understand that π is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. A person may be mistaken about how to get what he wants out of life, and he may want the wrong things (i.e., things that will reliably make him miserable), just as he may fail to form true/useful beliefs in any other area. I am simply arguing that we live in a universe in which certain conscious states are possible, some better than others, and that movement in this space will depend on the laws of nature. Ryan, Russell, and many of my other critics think that I must add an extra term of obligation—a person should be committed to maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures. But I see no need for this.

Imagine that you could push a button that would make every person on earth a little more creative, compassionate, intelligent, and fulfilled—in such a way as to produce no negative effects, now or in the future. This would be “good” in the only moral sense of the word that I understand. However, to make this claim, one needs to posit a larger space of possible experiences (e.g. a moral landscape). What does it mean to say that a person should push this button? It means that making this choice would do a lot of good in the world without doing any harm. And a disposition to not push the button would say something very unflattering about him. After all, what possible motive could a person have for declining to increase everyone’s well-being (including his own) at no cost? I think our notions of “should” and “ought” can be derived from these facts and others like them. Pushing the button is better for everyone involved. What more do we need to motivate prescriptive judgments like “should” and “ought”?

Following Hume, many philosophers think that “should” and “ought” can only be derived from our existing desires and goals—otherwise, there simply isn’t any moral sense to be made of what “is.” But this skirts the essential point: Some people don’t know what they’re missing. Thus, their existing desires and goals are not necessarily a guide to the moral landscape. In fact, it is perfectly coherent to say that all of us live, to one or another degree, in ignorance of our deepest possible interests. I am sure that there are experiences and modes of living available to me that I really would value over all others if I were only wise enough to value them. It is only by reference to this larger space of possible experiences that my current priorities can be right or wrong. And unless one were to posit, against all evidence, that every person’s peak on this landscape is idiosyncratic and zero-sum (i.e., my greatest happiness will be unique to me and will come at the expense of everyone else’s), the best possible world for me seems very likely to be (nearly) the best possible world for everyone else. After all, do you think I’d be better off in a world filled with happy, peaceful, creative people, or one in which I drank the tears of the damned?

Part of the resistance I’ve encountered to the views presented in The Moral Landscape comes from readers who appear to want an ethical standard that gives clear guidance in every situation and doesn’t require too much of them. People want it to be easy to be good—and they don’t want to think that they are not living as good a life as they could be. This is especially true when balancing one’s personal well-being vs. the well-being of society. Most of us are profoundly selfish, and we don’t want to be told that being selfish is wrong. As I tried to make clear in the book, I don’t think it is wrong, up to a point. I suspect that an exclusive focus on the welfare of the group is not the best way to build a civilization that could secure it. Some form of enlightened selfishness seems the most reasonable approach—in which we are more concerned about ourselves and our children than about other people and their children, but not callously so.  However, the well-being of the whole group is the only global standard by which we can judge specific outcomes to be good.

The question of how to think about collective well-being is a difficult one, and Russell raises this concern in his Judge’s Report. However, I think the paradoxes that Derek Parfit famously constructed here (e.g. “The Repugnant Conclusion”) are similar to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. How do any of us get to the coffeepot in the morning if we must first travel half the distance to it, and then half again, ad infinitum? Apparently, this geometrical party trick enthralled philosophers for centuries—but I suspect that no one took Zeno so seriously as to doubt that motion was possible. Once mathematicians showed us how to sum an infinite series, the problem vanished. Whether or not we ever shake off Parfit’s paradoxes, there is no question that the limit cases exist: The worst possible misery for everyone really is worse than the greatest possible happiness. Between these two poles, it seems to me, we can talk about moral truth without hedging. We are still faced with a very real and all-too-consequential navigation problem. Where to go from here? Some experiences are sublime, and some are truly terrible—and all await discovery by the requisite minds. Certain states of pointless misery are possible—how can we avoid them? As far as I can see, saying that we “should” avoid them adds nothing to the import of the phrase “pointless misery.” Is pointless misery a bad thing? Well if it isn’t bad, what is? Even if you want to dispense with words like “bad” and “good” and remain entirely nonjudgmental, countless states of suffering and well-being are there to be realized—and we are moving toward some and away from others. 

And if we are going to worry about how our provincial human purposes frame our thinking about reality, let’s worry about this consistently. Ryan writes that “Science cannot show empirically that health is good,” but he admits that, without this assumption, “the science of medicine would seem to defy conception.” I believe morality is also inconceivable without a concern for well-being and that wherever people talk about “good” and “evil” in ways that clearly have nothing to do with well-being they are misusing these terms. In fact, people have been confused about medicine, nutrition, exercise, and related topics for millennia. Even now, many of us harbor beliefs about human health that have nothing to do with biological reality. In Africa, for instance, they can’t seem to divorce their understanding of medicine from a belief in the power of sympathetic magic. Are these signs that health falls outside the purview of science?

And if we are going to balk at axiomatically valuing health or well-being, why accept any values at all in our epistemology? For instance, how is a desire to understand the world any more refined? I would argue that satisfying our curiosity is a component of our well-being, and when it isn’t—for instance, when certain forms of knowledge seem guaranteed to cause great harm—it is perfectly rational for us to decline to seek such knowledge. It seems strange for me to end on so pragmatic a note (because, as a student of Richard Rorty’s, I drove the man crazy with my realism), but we engage with reality in many modes, and curiosity is just one of them. I’m not even sure that curiosity grounds most of our empirical truth-claims. Is my knowledge that fire is hot borne of curiosity, or of my memory of having once been burned and my inclination to avoid pain and injury in the future?

We have certain logical and moral intuitions that we cannot help but rely upon to understand and judge the desirability of various states of the world. The limitations of some of these intuitions can be transcended by recourse to others that seem more fundamental. In the end, however, we must work with intuitions that strike us as non-negotiable. To ask whether the moral landscape captures our sense of moral imperative is like asking whether the physical universe is logical. The universe is whatever it is. To ask whether it is logical is simply to wonder whether we can understand it. Perhaps knowing all the laws of physics would leave us feeling that certain laws are contradictory. This wouldn’t be a problem with the universe; it would be a problem with human reasoning. Are there peaks of well-being that might strike us as morally objectionable? This wouldn’t be a problem with the universe; it would be a problem with our moral cognition.

As I argue in my book, we may think merely about what is—specifically about the possibilities of experience in this universe—and realize that this set of facts captures all that can be valued, along with every form of consciousness that could possibly value it. Either a change in the universe can affect the experience of someone, somewhere, or it can’t. I claim that only those changes that can have such effects can be coherently cared about. And if there is a credible exception to this claim, I have yet to encounter it. There is only what IS (which includes all that is possible). If you can’t find your oughts here, I can’t see any other place to look for them.

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Once again, I’d like to thank Ryan and Russell for their hard work. I appreciated the chance to clarify my views, and I hope readers have found this exchange useful.


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