Here’s a reading assignment for those of you interested in morality. It consists of three papers, all of them free (download links at bottom), and a book. These papers, which form a natural unit, have had a strong impact on my thinking about not just morality, but theology as well.
All three papers are eminently accessible to the layperson: they are clear, very well written, and incisive. The Greene paper is a bit long (and includes rebuttals after it), but all are essential reading for those pondering the current arguments about the nature of morality, where it comes from (both cognitively and evolutionarily), and whether morality can in any sense be objective.
I still think that there is no way that morality, or moral laws, can be “truths” in any scientific sense, for from the outset they all presuppose some system of value. But putting that aside, the references below will at least make you think about whether we should trust or follow our moral instincts.
One thing I’d like to say first is that many accommodationists, most notably National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, have argued that the existence of a “moral law,” that is, the intuitive feelings we have about morality (such as those involving matters like “trolley and footbridge problems”), cannot be explained by evolution or social agreement, and thus must have been instilled in us by God. I disagree, of course, and think with Greene and others that intuitive morality is most likely a product of our evolution in small social groups. That is, to a large degree morality comprises hardwired feelings and behaviors that evolved via kin or individual selection to enable individuals to thrive in small ancestral groups. If you want to get an idea of how our instinctive morality leads us to pass very different judgments about scenarios that don’t differ much, read about those trolley and footbridge dilemmas in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s nice book.
But on to the papers.
Here are their main points:
- The Greene paper is mainly about the two great types of morality: deontology (“moral rules and rights” vis-à-vis Kant, which should be followed even if their net effect on “well being” is negative), and consequentialism (e.g., utilitarianism), in which something is “moral” if it has certain overall consequences for society. These usually include the maximization of things like well being or happiness.
- Greene makes the case that deontological feelings of morality embody our intuitive moral judgements, and are largely the product of evolution. The reason they are intuitive rather than reasoned is because we had to make such judgments quickly in the ancestral environment, and evolution would favor mental “rules of thumb”. We simply didn’t have time to weigh the consequences of our actions.
- Both Greene and Singer make the point that the ancestral environment is no longer the environment in which we live, and hence our intuitive judgments about what’s moral may no longer be optimal. (I’ve recently made this point as well, not realizing—since I’m a philosophical beginner—that others had dealt with this in extenso. One example cited by both Greene and Singer involves the trolley/footbridge problems. We intuitively feel that switching a runaway trolley about to kill five people onto another track on which one person stands is morally fine: it saves five lives at the expense of one. But throwing a fat man standing beside you on a footbridge onto the track to stop the train, which achieves the same end (the premise is that you’re too thin to stop the train by jumping onto the tracks yourself), is instinctively seen as immoral. Yet the consequences are the same in terms of any reasonable judgment. This is a difference between deontology and consequentialism.
Singer makes the point that while it may not be immoral to throw a fat guy down on the tracks, it may also be unwise to publicize that act: there is a difference between acting morally and making that public, for the latter may have consequences you don’t want. But why is there a difference between how we feel about the footbridge and trolley problems? Greene argues that our moral revulsion at deep-sixing the fat guy is because our moral sentiments evolved when we were close up to others: we lived in small social groups. Trolleys didn’t exist on the savanna, and in such cases, where the recipients of our actions are remote, we don’t have an instinctive reaction. And cases when we don’t act or feel instinctively, we can ponder the consequences—and that’s consequentialism. (Both Greene and Singer are, of course, consequentialists.)
In today’s society, Greene, Singer, and Haidt feel that consequentialism is a better foundation for morality than is deontology, since the former involves reasoned rather than instinctive judgments. (None of these men, at least when wrote their papers, argue that consequentialism is an objective system of morality—they simply claim it has better social results.)
- Haidt adduces a lot of evidence that, when making moral judgments, many people act deontologically. One sign is that they favor retributive punishment rather than punishment that deters others, rehabilitates the offender, or sequesters bad people from society. Greene, for example, gives this example:
“In one study Baron and Ritov (1993) presented people with hypothetical corporate liability cases in which corporations could be required to pay fines. In one set of cases a corporation that manufactures vaccines is being sued because a child died as a result of taking one of its flu vaccines. Subjects were given multiple versions of this case. In one version, it was stipulated that a fine would have a positive deterrent effect. That is, a fine would make the company produce a safer vaccine. In a different version, it was stipulated that a fine would have a “perverse” effect. Instead of causing the firm to make a safer vaccine available, a fine would cause the company to stop making this kind of vaccine altogether, a bad result given that the vaccine in question does more good than harm and that no other firm is capable of making such a vaccine. Subjects indicated whether they thought a punitive fine was appropriate in either of these cases and whether the fine should differ between these two cases. A majority of subjects said that the fine should not differ at all.”
Retributive punishment is deontological, not consequentialist. Those who favor retribution don’t care about its consequences for society: they have an innate feeling that punishing someone who did wrong is a rule that should be obeyed—regardless of the social consequences.
Greene and Singer give other examples of things that have no inimical effect on society are nevertheless rejected via intuition as immoral. Three examples are a man who masturbates with a grocery-store chicken before cooking and eating it, a woman who cleans her toilet with an American flag, and a man who reneges on a promise to his dying mother to visit her grave every week. Such judgments are instinctive—deontological and not consequentialist. They stem from an innate outrage that something is wrong. Yet their consequences for society are nil.
- Why do we make such moral judgments about situations that have no negative consequences, and which we’d probably retract were we to think about them? All the authors think that instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution. But of course these judgments must then be justified. When pressed, people who think about the chicken-masturbation or grave-visitation scenarios think up reasons—often not convincing—why these behaviors are immoral. All three authors suggest that these post facto rules are examples of confabulation: making up stuff post facto to rationalize your instinctive feelings. In this way, then, deontology can be seen as a poorly grounded form of morality—one that rests on instincts that evolved in situations that may no longer obtain. Far better, the authors agree, to be a consequentialist, for that involves some use of reason, reason that takes into account modern social conditions.
- Haidt’s paper, with its cute title, is about how many of our judgments are driven by emotion rather than reason, and he gives many examples from his own work. The point of the title is that in cases of moral judgment we are often making the emotional dog (instinctive morality) wag the rational tail (our reasoned judgment), and that is not good. Haidt has a nice analogy about confabulating reasons post facto for our instinctive judgments, and our inability to persuade people to abandon their confabulations:
“If moral reasoning is generally a post-hoc construction intended to justify automatic moral intuitions, then our moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the “wag-the-dog” illusion: we believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-other-dog’s- tail” illusion: in a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent’s arguments to change the opponent’s mind. Such a belief is like thinking that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy.”
I have to agree with these author’s analyses: I, too, am a consequentialist—largely along the lines of Sam Harris, though we differ in whether we think (as does Sam) that such morality is objective. I feel it’s simply the best way to behave if we want a harmonious society, and I favor abandoning—I’ll find no seconders here!—the term “moral action” altogether.
As for theology, well, I doubt that any of us think that instinctive moral judgments are evidence for God. Much recent work of anthropologists and primatologists, most famously Frans de Waal, shows that the rudiments of human moral behavior can be seen in our close primate relatives.
But I also realized that theologians engage in the same kind of confabulation that Greene and others impute to moral deontologists. Theologians often begin with an ingrained religious belief—ingrained not by evolution but by their parents and peers. They then engage in a kind of sophisticated confabulation—called theology—to justify their innate beliefs. That’s theological deontology, also called “apologetics.” The more theology I read, the more convinced I become that theologians are simply educated grown-ups engaged in rationalizing childish (or child-like) beliefs.
I really do recommend setting aside some time and reading the papers below, and at least the two “trolley problem” chapters in Thomson’s book. I hope I’ve represented them fairly. If you must read only one, it should be Greene’s, but they really form a triad that should be read together. Then read Thomson’s book to learn about the trolley problem, and many other interesting moral issues. I guarantee that a. you’ll enjoy them, and b. they’ll make you think, even if you wind up rejecting their premises.
Greene, J. D. 2007. The secret joke of Kant’s soul. pp. 35-79 in W. Sinnott-Armstrong, ed. Moral Psychology, Vol. 3: The Neuroscience of Morality: Emotion, Disease, and Development. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Haidt, J. 2001. The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psych. Rev. 108:814-834.
Singer, P. 2005. Ethics and intuitions. J. Ethics 9:331-352. (download here, using utilitarian.net site).
Thomson, J. J. 1986. Rights, Restitution, and Risk: Essays in Moral Theory. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA