Tuesday, 20 April 2010

WTF is Morality?


This is my first Letter to Tim McGregor and is in reply to his first letter to me WTF is desirism? I am keeping an updated index of our letters in Letters to a Lapsed Pagan – Index. I suggest you read his letter first so that I do not need to repeat what he has already said.

Hi Tim

You asked “WTF is desirism?” and how it compares to your tentative understanding of morality has led you to a form of utilitarianism.

First, there is no reference to desirism (actually it was over the entry “Desire Utilitarianism” – I had not baptised it with the new name then) in Wikipedia due to their policy on what can be regarded as entries in that encyclopaedia.

Still Desirism aka Desire Utilitarianism is a well known theory in online atheist circles.

Much of it was tested in the most popular rational and free thought forum of the recent past, the internet infidels forums. Alonzo Fyfe, the originator of this theory, then launched his own blog the Atheist Ethicist. This blog has been in and out of the top 20 atheists blogs over the last few years.

Luke at CommonsenseAtheism, a new entry into the top 20 atheist blogs, has also become an advocate of this theory.

And I have been writing about it the last two years, although have never consistently pushed this blog for high readerships (and if I had I doubt I would have reached the heights of either Alonzo’s or Luke’s blogs, not just because I don’t have time).

Many other bloggers and commenters have at one time or another endorsed this theory but only us three have been consistent advocates of it. In spite of its general awareness and references to it in online atheist circles this is not regarded as sufficient for a Wikipedia entry.

Now whilst there is considerable overlap in the online atheist and sceptical communities, there are quite significant differences too, so I am not surprised that you had not come across it before. And this leads into how I want to engage with you in these letters, as one sceptic to another.

As we both well know, the sceptical movement developed to fill a gap in two popular areas of human interest – paranormal phenomena and alternative medicine. There was no need to have a sceptical movement in other domains since it was already part and parcel of them, but in these areas it was absent (although, as we all know too well, it is also mostly absent in more areas than we realised, such as finance).

In these two areas, relevant past knowledge and discoveries and their implications were completely ignored, that is the rational and empirical standards that existed elsewhere, however provisional, progressive, dynamic and defeasible - let us call them for short “epistemic norms” - were absent. These epistemic norms were being ignored and broken in spite of the main and strong grounds to justify them and sceptics stepped in point this out.

There were three aspects to this.

The first was to reassert the epistemic norms that exist elsewhere and which, far more often that not, showed that the knowledge claims in these two areas were false. Some were satisfied merely to point out the intellectual negligence, recklessness and  irresponsibility that were required to believe in alternative medicine and the paranormal.

Others sought or answered the charge of “so what, what’s the harm?” by showing the harm, both direct and indirect, that could be caused by denigrating such hard won epistemic norms in other areas. They showed the dangers to physical, financial, emotional and mental health of the ill, the disturbed and the bereaved caused by Big Placebo and New Ageism.

Finally some seek to show how, in spite of there being not a jot of evidence for many of these claims, many still happily promote the bogus claims and other happily want them to be promoted. Why do people want to believe in the bogus, both producers and consumers, why and how are they willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of comfort? Why are rhetoric and sophistry promoted as virtues not vices? They showed all the ways that cognitive and affective biases and distortions of reality are taken advantage of, very often in an entirely self-deluded way, by the gullible.

For a long time sceptics did “not do god”. That was a long known bankrupt path to knowledge, discredited by philosophers and scientists over many centuries, popular only amongst the ignorant. Indeed the grandfather of modern scepticism, certainly of the sceptical movement, Martin Gardner, is a theist, specifically a fideist, which is quite compatible with being the great sceptic and debunker that he is. Still, I am sure he would agree, that over real-world claims, “we have no need of that hypothesis”.

Now other theisms have had much in common with the alternative medical practitioners and their patients, the psychic readers and their clients, but to the degree that those theists made empirical and disconfirmable claims, this was already covered by the sceptics movements in these aforesaid areas.

This all changed after September 11th 2001. This led, amongst other things, to the birth of the “New Atheists”, although there is nothing new in terms of content that I have read from them.  What is new is that now they are both atheists and sceptics and that sceptics now “do do god”. That the sceptical and atheist “movements” are far more aligned and have far more common cause than prior to the 21st century.

In particular, certain theists make many other claims that are not covered by the traditional areas of scepticism, particularly in the area of morality. Many sceptics take the more than reasonable approach that you do and I did, that if god does not exist – and the evidence for that is overwhelming - then any conclusions based on such a false belief fails because it is unsound.

Still some theists disregard such obvious truth and proceed as if god exists and their interpretation of what their god is can and should be imposed on the rest of us. They can make all sort of regressive moral claims than can and does have deleterious affects on our society. This brings up the second and third themes of the traditional sceptics movement. Over the harm these beliefs can cause and why people believe what they do.

Why do I not dismiss theistic-based morality as you do? Well actually I do but I also hold that this is not sufficient to deal with the issues at hand. This has led to another related problem, in that supposed  backwater of philosophy, ethics. This is well aware of the problems of the latter two just mentioned strands of scepticism in this area. You cannot answer the question of the harm that some moralities do, by coming up with a definition of harm which is not question begging. You cannot answer the question of why some believe what they do without seeing what the consequences of such beliefs are, but, again, one needs to determine those consequences without circular reasoning.

The issue is that there is a naivety that infects the New Atheists and 21st century sceptics, not remotely by any means fatally, but that the ethical issues are rarely well considered and very often quite out of date.

The problem is that many have an ill considered view of morality, thinking it is either subjective, relative, non-cognitive or evolved (or even all four) but these positions have been both defended and demolished just as effectively as any traditional moral objectivism, not just divine command theory which as ethicists well know, is actually a species of ethical subjectivism - despite the numerous, incoherent and plaintiff claims of theists to the contrary. And still many people falsely believe that without god there is morality, including many scientists! (Who obviously and mostly conclude that such morality does not exist).

For example, it was a mystery to me why there has been such stimulation as well as controversy over Sam Harris TED talk on science and morality. This is not to say he is correct in his approach, I do not think he is, neither are the Brights.

This is because in ethics all the action in the last 30 odd years, is in moral realism of many varieties, both reductive and non-reductive naturalisms, both desire-based and non-desire-based theories. Pretty much all the leading writers in this field are making arguments within this area not against it. Of course there are a  few subjectivists and non-cognitivists but even they end up arguing for a pragmatic moral realism, whether it is Mackie, who calls his approach Moral Subjectivism (with quite a number of reservations) and that right and wrong are invented or Hare who are argues that moral terms are not truth-apt but universal prescriptions. From multiple meta-ethical positions (where only rational and empirical inquiry are allowed on discussing what morality is) their approach and others all tend to towards a preference satisfaction type of utilitarianism. (In this sense, Tim, you are definitely in the right space).

This can also be seen in the largest ever survey of philosophers, where if you exclude philosophers of religion, there is still a majority of atheists philosophers who support moral realism.

The fact that Sam Harris’s talk has stirred such responses is indicative of how out of alignment and out of date many sceptics and scientists are as to where ethics now is and why it is now there. I suspect that many harbour a suspicion of science based morality dictating to everyone what is right and wrong. However, I will only assert for now, that anyone with a humanistic sensibility has nothing to fear from such results.

In future letters I will directly develop and defend desirism but for now I would say it can be considered a variant of preference satisfaction (note that desirism is only a consequentialist but not utilitarian theory, unlike both naive economic and sophisticated philosophical preference satisfaction) and within moral realism – that prescriptions are truth-apt and some are true.

However I want to finish this latter by answering the question I juxtaposed against your question. WTF is morality?

I am a sceptic about the whole enterprise we could call Moral Inquiry, as a distinct enterprise from Rational and Empirical Inquiry. As a sceptic I have found the idea of such a distinct domain with its own entities, rules of inference, special logic, grammars and psychologies all fail. There is no such thing as Moral Inquiry and even as many  are correctly sceptical of some of the claims of Moral Inquiry, they are not sceptical enough and retain unsound assumptions as they, say, reject (correctly) classical  moral realism, but (incorrectly) accept moral subjectivism, relativism or non-cognitivism. There are indeed truths in all these positions, and valid criticisms of the others, but they all fail due to the fallacy of hasty generalisation. They all fail because they think they are trying to explain something that does not exist, Moral Inquiry. The challenge in talking to anyone on this topic is over what hidden assumptions they presume is required.

The best way to approach this is to assume that there is only Rational and Empirical Inquiry and nothing else. This applies not just to meta-ethics but also descriptive, normative and applied ethics. Having just dismissed Moral Inquiry, what remains?

There is no domain called Morality with a capital “M”, but there is still topic of study called morality, amenable to rational and empirical inquiry. What is this morality with a lower case “m”, if you will? 

This is a common and near-universal feature of social reality – the institution of morality – an institution in the same sense that language, money, marriage and football are social institutions. This institution employs the social forces of praise and blame, reward and punishment, in promoting what is praiseworthy and inhibiting what is blameworthy. We can look to see how internally efficient (in the application of such forces) and externally effective (in the consequences of such forces) any such institution is. We can look to see how what is praiseworthy and blameworthy are determined and explained in such institutions and as to whether all or any are empirically adequately explained, and as to whether that makes any differences.

This is the topic that desirism provides, in my view, the most empirically adequate explanation for. Desirism is a theory based on the least controversial existing theories in related domains, specifically social, cognitive and philosophical psychologies and quite consistent with what we know from biology and society. Desirism is a provisional and defeasible explanation of morality with a lower case “m”, whilst also explaining why people are mistaken in thinking there is something called Moral Inquiry, distinct from rational and empirical inquiry. It better deals with all three features that any good sceptic would cover, over epistemic norms, over harm and over psychologically distorting  motivations than any other theory I have seen.

So, how do we proceed from here? Unfortunately Blogger has broken my indexing and search and there is no sign they are going to fix it. (That is the topic for another post,  for now, if one is starting a blog, do not use blogger). Instead here is Luke’s index into some of my writings relevant here. I have a post  Desire Utilitarianism Online Resources, (for which I need to add Luke’s index into my own posts!).

If you really want some guidance (and bearing in mind some these links might have content that has been revised in the light of criticism), then I suggest what really seeks to get a morality with a small “m” are my posts The Evolutionary Basis of Desire and Beliefs, The Cultural basis of Desires and Beliefs and The Unified Basis of Desires and Beliefs. (Note I called desirism then desire consequentialism). Interesting, Alonzo has just written a great and more compact single post that says very much the same The Emergence of Morality.

Finally there is more you say in your first post than I have addressed here. Specifically over the strengths and weaknesses of your utilitarianism but I see you are aware of the main issues. Whether these letters should be written in parallel or be responses to each other we can decide later. Either you can examine the posts I suggest and respond or I can directly address your utilitarianism in your first letter or give a direct answer as to what desirism is in the second letter. Either way, I hope this will be an interesting and fruitful discussion.