The Edge Conference on the New Science of Morality, III

This post is a continuation of my comments on the talks of the nine keynote speakers at the Edge Conference on The New Science of Morality.  In the last episode, I discussed the first of the speakers, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, noting that, while he described morality as a “consensual illusion,” he nevertheless revealed a belief in an objective, transcendental good, legitimate in itself.  That belief was implicit in comments such as the suggestion that we should  

… study moralities that aren’t our own, to consider, to empathize, to think about them as possibly coherent systems of beliefs and values that could be related to coherent, and even humane, human ways of living and flourishing,

Haidt’s attachment to the “true good” of “human ways of living and flourishing” is entirely emotional, is reinforced by the assumption that his listeners feel the same way, and is left to float in logical thin air.  Indeed, of all the speakers, only neuroscientist Sam Harris seems to be aware that he has bought into the notion of “objective good.”  As we shall see, his attempts to establish a rational basis for his belief is itself based on emotional appeals.  However, before moving on to Harris, let’s consider how the same phenomenon manifests itself in the remarks of two of the other speakers, Joshua Greene and Marc Hauser.

Greene opens his comments with the intriguing comment that, “…my real, core interest is in this relationship between the ‘is’ of moral psychology, the ‘is’ of science, and the ‘ought’ of morality.”  Referring to Haidt’s theory of moral “taste receptors,” he remarks,

I think, really, the biggest question is, are we going to rely on our intuitions, on our instincts, on our taste receptors? Or are we going to do something else? Now, some people might deny that there really is a “something else” that we can do. I disagree. I think we can.

This begs the question of what goal, exactly, it is that we are pursuing that we are to rely on either our intuitions or “something else” to achieve, and why should we care to reach that goal.  In any case, Greene then develops his camera analogy of moral behavior, according to which we can sometimes operate in “automatic mode,” allowing our “taste receptors” to do the work, but must sometimes switch to “manual mode,” to achieve a “good” outcome.  Again, if Greene thinks there is any reason to establish exactly why it is that this “good” outcome is really good, he doesn’t reveal it in his talk.  According to Greene, “manual mode” will become increasingly necessary to achieve a “good” outcome.  By “manual mode,” he means “…careful, controlled, moral reasoning,” noting that, “…moving forward, and dealing with the unique modern problems that we face, I think moral reasoning is likely to be very important.” 

An obvious problem here is that “moral reasoning” is an oxymoron.  Morality is the expression of innate behavioral traits that evolved in times completely unlike the present.  Those traits are fundamentally emotional in nature.  As the Communists and many others have discovered to their cost, they can’t be “trained” with “reason” to reach some arbitrary goal.  Their expression can have a significant dependence on culture and experience, but the basic emotional substrate will not change, and is anything but infinitely malleable.  Rationally, there can be no justification for even dragging morality into the mix in solving complex problems regarding how to achieve commonly agreed on goals in the modern world.  The only explanation for the fact that we continue to do so is that we “feel” that we “should.”  Greene has no problem grasping the fact that, “…we’re too quick to use our point-and-shoot morality to deal with complicated problems that it wasn’t designed, in any sense, to handle.”  However, like all the others, he balks at the next logical step.  He can’t bear to detach himself from morality entirely, even to solve “unique modern problems.”  It would shake his entire world view, with its implicit assumption of moral superiority, to its foundations. 

He must hold on to “the good” at all odds.  We know that Greene has grasped some obvious truths about the relevance and legitimacy of morality in the modern world from comments such as,

I think that rights are actually just a cognitive, manual mode front for our automatic settings. And that they have no real independent reality. This is obviously a controversial claim


The way I like to put it is that, it would be a kind of cognitive miracle if our instincts were able to handle these problems.

No matter, in the end, “the good” still beckons.  His final sentence reads,

And a better future may lie in a kind of geeky, detached, non-intuitive moral thinking, that no one finds particularly comfortable, but that we’re all capable of doing, regardless of where we come from.

A “better future?”  By what standard is one future “better” than another?  Greene doesn’t explain.  He assumes his audience “feels” the same way he does about a “better future,” and he is probably right. 

We find the same artifacts of the “true good” in the remarks of evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser.  Like Greene, he cites the significance of the distinction between “is” and “ought”;

I think that a lot of us who have been working in this area are interested in the connection between the is and the ought.

That may be, but almost none of them, including Hauser, dare to touch the subject more than superficially.  Instead, like many of the others, he spends most of his time discussing examples of moral behavior, either anecdotal, or based on his own or others’ research results.  No matter, manifestations of his faith in the “true good” aren’t hard to find.  He tells us that, “Many of us do all sorts of things that are at least somewhat morally wrong.”  (by what standard?)  In a discussion of environmental manipulations for children he says,

But here again, we are uncovering these mechanisms which are, in many ways, pushing us towards very significant ethical/legal issues, where the findings are pushing up on the doorsteps of what we should do, what we ought to do, and how can the information discovered be integrated into these ethical issues?

If there is no “true good,” and no objectively legitimate morality, the above statement is meaningless, because there can be no standard upon which to base such decisions.  Hauser does not claim he knows what the standard is, but, to make such a statement, he must have faith that it exists.

So far, then, all the speakers have revealed an implicit faith in the “true good,” but none of them have seriously attempted to establish why the “true good” is valid and legitimate.  All of them suggest that we must construct some kind of a moral system for making complex decisions affecting large numbers of people, but none of them seriously attempts to explain why, given what we know about morality, it should play any role at all.  As we shall see in our next episode, Sam Harris is the only one who does, in a rather revealing way.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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